Dr Abdulaziz Y Lodhi

South Asians and their descendants, generally known as ‘Indians’ or ‘Asians’ in East, Central and Southern Africa, form less than 1% of the total population of this vast region. Their exodus beginning 1960 mainly to the West, India and Pakistan resulted in the bottom figures in 1986 giving an estimate of about 265 000 in East, Central and Southern Africa (excluding the Republic of South Africa which had about 2 million Asians at that time). Their number in tropical Africa has been reduced and it increases very slowly due to constant emigration in spite of new immigrants from India and Pakistan.

Asians in Eastern Africa are commonly called Wahindi in Swahili and the other local languages, and they regard themselves as North (west) Indians. Monolingualism is generally unknown among them. This phenomenon has two linguistic aspects, viz. multilingualism and diversity, and their various subgroups however are not based on their community language, but rather on their religious and denominational differences and affinities.

General language typology of Asians in Eastern Africa:

a. regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili in many cases

b. classical languages (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit) as liturgical languages

c. standard languages (Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi), limited use for nursery/primary instruction, private correspondence, etc.

A case study of language use among Tanzania’s 85 000 Asians speaking five different Indic languages - Cutchi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani and Urdu in descending order of numbers: This linguistic data collected in Dares salaam by Kassam (1971) indicated that about 40% of the Cutchi Sunnis, and almost all other Cutchi speakers (Shia Imami, Ismaili, Hindu and Jain), were literate in Gujarati, due to their Gujarati medium primary schools. Most Asian Muslims of all denominations could read Koranic Arabic. They used Cutchi in 52%, Gujarati 14.5%, Swahili 7.3% and English 26% of their working situations. Some price tags, lists and shop notices were in Gujarati, while both Gujarati and Hindi were used as written and printed languages. 13% of the Asians (all of them Muslim) claimed they spoke Swahili at home; and the Tanzania Library Survey (Hill 1969) showed that every tenth borrower in all the libraries of the country put together was Asian. The Dar es salaam survey may be taken as representative of the whole country, but certainly not for the rest of the region in which Swahili and English are the dominant languages among the Asians today.

Historical background

When Ibn Batuta visited East Africa in 1331, he met an Afro-Oriental Islamic culture there. Regrettably he does not mention any specific Indian presence; but he does mention a couple of  Indian linguistic and cultural elements still found among the Swahili coastal peoples, i.e. tambuu (betel leaves), katu (catechu) and popoo (areca nuts). Al Idrisi reports of some Indian settlement at the mouth of the Zambezi River around AD 1150. However, when Vasco da Gama arrived in East Africa in 1498, there was a notable presence of Indians there, and a Muslim Indian pilot Ahmad ibne Majid (with the Cutchi title Mālam < Arabic ‘mualim’, ‘maalim’, and in modern Swahili Mwalimu) led the Portuguese from Malindi in Kenya to the western Indian port of Kalikat/Calicut. According to Freeman-Grenville (1962), the Portuguese mention some permanent Indian settlement on the Kenya coast and regular visits from India. Cooper (1977) also mentions existence of title deeds by Shia Muslim Indians on the Kenya coast in the 1500s. Atkins Hammerton, the first British Consul and Political Agent sent to Zanzibar in 1841, reported that the “Indian merchant class was indigenised” (Sheriff 1987:203, and Note 5 Ch. 6). This merchant class was an offshoot of the Indian merchants of Muscat who started arriving in Zanzibar in 1804, and by 1819 as noted by Captain Smee, there were 214 Indian merchant houses in Zanzibar Town alone (Sheriff 1987:84). Almost all of these were from the kingdom of Cutch in northwest India. Still in the 1830s the port city of Mandvi/Maddai in Cutch “before being superseded by Bombay, was the Indian port with the largest trade with East Africa” (Sheriff 1987:40 and Note 16 Ch. 3.).

Many Indian elements must have been borrowed into Swahili long before the Portuguese arrival in East Africa in 1498 when there was a notable presence of Indians on the Kenya coast, and some elements must have been borrowed during the Portuguese period up to the middle of the 1700s when there were many Indians in the Portuguese service. The Indian cultural influence in East Africa is later than the Iranian one, and Muslim India itself was under great Iranian impact with Farsi/Persian as the court language from the tenth century AD until the imposition of English after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-9 when the rest of the Moghul Empire was brought under the British flag.

After the Omani invasion and occupation of the East African coast beginning 1821, making Zanzibar Town the political and commercial capital of the whole region, Indian presence there increased tremendously and became extremely important. Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, because of his military, commercial and matrimonial ties with India, and close cooperation with the British in Bombay, encouraged Indian immigration to Oman and his possessions in East and Central Africa to finance the caravan trade with the interior and administration of the ports. By 1886 there were 6000 Indians in British East Africa, i.e. Kenya Colony and Uganda Protectorate (Were and Wilson 1996:89). Indian pioneers were in the interior of Tanganyika and Uganda long before the Europeans, e.g. Musa Mzuri was in Tabora in 1825 (before Speke and Burton in 1860), and Alidina Visram established his business in Kampala in 1896, before British settlement there.

In Kenya and Uganda, the British railway building brought thousands of Indian workers, e.g. in 1895 there were 13, 000 Indians in Kenya (mostly Hindus and Sikhs); in 1891 there were 9000 Indians settled in Zanzibar, who were mostly Cutchi and Gujarati Muslim and linguistically swahilized (Bennett 1978:172). Most of the indentured Indians in Kenya and Uganda returned to India at the completion of their contracts.

World War I brought the British India Army to Tanganyika to fight the Germans, and in its aftermath, several thousand Indians were brought to join the expanding British administration in East Africa. Most Indian merchants in Tanzania Mainland (Tanganyika) were, and still are, of Zanzibari origin, or they moved to the mainland areas after first settling in Zanzibar for a few years. Many of them from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have later settled in Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other parts of central and southern Africa, and a few in the islands of the Comoros, Madagascar, Reunion, Seychelles and Mauritius. Many more have also emigrated to Europe, North America and Australia. It is common even today that they have relatives spread in several of these countries since they continue to prefer to marry within their original castes and clans of loose affiliation across international borders.

After World War II, Asian population in East Africa doubled reaching the highest figures in 1961/62, around the Independence of Tanganyika: Kenya 177 000, Uganda 77 000, Tanganyika 88 000 and Zanzibar 20 000 (Census reports of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar). In November 1986, the Asian population in East (and Central) Africa was at its lowest, an estimated fall by half compared to the figures of 1961/62 (Africa South of the Sahara 1986). The latest figures published in 1998 were as follows: Kenya 89 185 (August 1989), Tanzania 75 015 (August 1967), and Malawi 5 682 (1977); no such figures are available for Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Occupations of Asians

The Asians in East and Central Africa came as sailors, traders, financiers, soldiers, railway workers, technicians, administrators and also professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and skilled and semi-skilled craftsmen, and some even as farmers (cattle keepers, milkmen and market gardeners). At Independence in each country in East Africa, about a third of the officers in the armed forces were Asians. During the 1960s, the policies of Africanization of the civil service, the uniformed professions and the state-owned businesses, reduced the gross over-representation of the Asians in these areas of occupation, e.g. in Kenya from 12% in 1961 to 8% in 1968; in Uganda from 2% in 1961 to 1.3% in 1968. Most Asians in East Africa are today involved in the private or public sectors justifying the misconceived reference ‘the Jews of East Africa’.

Since Independence, Asians have become more urbanised, particularly in Tanzania, thereby making way for the African indigenous petty bourgeoisie to develop in the rural areas; but this caused serious problems in Tanzania where state involvement in replacing the Asian dominance led to the collapse of retail trade, distribution of consumer goods and the local transport systems. In Uganda, the summary expulsion of Asians led to a near-total collapse of the commercial and industrial infra-structure in the country.

Political involvement and treatment of Asians

A myth prevails that Asians in East Africa were politically docile, or unconscious, or uninvolved. Since about half of the Asians were not citizens of their country of residence, or even birth, they were legally barred from actively participating in local and party politics. Many Asian individuals and interest groups everywhere supported the freedom movements, at times very strongly, e.g. Mak[k]han Singh, the pioneer anti-colonialist agitator and trade unionist in Kenya, and Pio Gama Pinto who was with the Mau Mau freedom-fighters in Kenya, the Madhwani group in Uganda, the Karimjee merchant houses in Tanganyika and Zanzibar, and the Aga Khan Ismaili community in general in all the territories; there were several Asian MPs, ministers and high state officials in each country, and it is even so today in Tanzania where, because of different historical and political developments, Asians are much more politically, culturally and linguistically integrated than it is generally assumed.

Asians have been treated differently in the different countries of the region in the post-Independence period. In the extreme case of Uganda, both citizens and non-citizens of Asian origin were expelled from the country. In Kenya, with its history of racial and ethnic tension and conflicts, there was much coercion of non-citizens with Africanization applied throughout the 1960s. In liberal Tanganyika there were active campaigns for national integration with Africanization applied only for a few years to achieve racial parity in the civil service, the Police and the armed forces. In Zanzibar there was no definite policy for Asians though there were cases of persecution of Asian individual political opponents and sub-groups during the dictatorial rule of Sheikh Abeid Aman Karume in 1964-72. In comparison, in central and southern Africa (except for in apartheid South Africa), Asians have generally experienced a tolerant attitude of the regimes.

The British encouraged the Asians to have their own separate ‘community’ schools, hospitals, dispensaries, cemeteries, sports clubs and scout troups, etc. This was partly to follow their language and religious needs, but it was also an integral part of the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’. The White minority in Kenya constantly tried with some success to turn the Asians into a buffer between themselves and the Africans, as in South Africa, where apartheid was a unique suppressive system that separated Asians from the others but gave them some rights which were denied the African indigenous majority.

About the Uganda Asians, Kuper (1979:243-259) says: “The point has frequently been made that the Asian population of Uganda in no sense represented a community. ‘Asian’ was merely a racial category imposed upon several communities originating from the Indian subcontinent and broadly differentiated from one another by language, religion, and area of origin in India and Pakistan, with still further divisions according to caste or sect.” And specifically on the Goans who were predominantly in government service, Kuper concludes: “From the point of view of class analysis, it can be argued that after independence they had more in common with African white-collar workers than with Asian traders.”

Asians form less than 1% of the total population of the region, in spite of continued immigration from India and Pakistan, and Uganda returnees from the West, but they are an easily noticeable minority since they are concentrated in urban centres which after the exodus of Asians and Europeans in the 1960s no longer have non-African majority.

In the post-Uhuru societies of East Africa, many forces and undercurrents are at work, which have broken the communal, tribal and racial barriers, for Asians and Muslims in general in Eastern Africa. Ghai & Ghai (1970:103-6) wondered if this in the long run would lead to genuine social integration of the Asians. Certainly, today there is greater linguistic integration of both the Asians and Africans who increasingly use Swahili. Extensive and intensive linguistic integration of the Africans, linguistic nationalization or Swahilization, has taken place in East Africa. A similar development has been noted for the Asians, showing that knowledge of Swahili has improved tremendously, and cases of Swahili “as a mixed language of Kuchi Cutchi verbal stems with Swahili morphemes (Polome 1980:135)” have become uncommon.

The Swahili forms of the Indic loans in the following list, for example, show that the source of the Indic loans here are most probably Cutchi, which also establishes Cutchi as an Indic contributor.

The foregoing short list includes also a few indirect Persian loans (nanga and ndimu) borrowed via Cutchi.

Indic loans in Swahili

Indian influences in East Africa are complex and their history goes back probably to the middle of the first millenium of our time. Below is a phonological analysis of the Indic loans in Swahili, which shows how their pronunciation or meaning has changed, and to what extent one can distinguish the various Indic languages as specific contributors.

Furthermore, it is not only purely Indic words that were brought to East Africa, but also Arabic, Persian, Portuguese and English words borrowed first in India were introduced in Swahili by Indians as indirect loans. Consequently, in this section we also give the distinguishing features of some of these indirect loans.

The South Asian linguistic elements in Swahili are of three types, viz.

1. Purely Indic elements found in Indo-Aryan languages spoken by Indians in East Africa (Cutchi/Sindhi, Gujarati, Hindustani, Konkani, Punjabi, Urdu); for these specific Indic etymologies are suggested.

2. Iranian elements found in Indo-Aryan languages and Iranian languages (including Persian, Baluchi, Pashtu) spoken by Iranic speaking immigrants to the East African coast a) already in pre-Islamic times, b) after the Shirazi invasion of the middle of the tenth century from Persia, and c) after the Omani invasion of East Africa and settlement in the 1820s.

3. Indirect loans via Indic of English, Portuguese and other non-Indo-Iranian origins such as English meli, skrubu, and English-Arabic (Anglo-Indian) mamsab/memsab.

Transmission of non-Indic words in East Africa through Indian languages

The peoples of the coastlands of present-day Pakistan and its hinterland of the Sindh area together with the Cutch peninsula east of the river Indus embraced Islam during the period AD 711-713 before the spread of Islam on the East African coast. Hence deeply rooted Islamic and Arabic cultural influences have a longer history in western India than in East Africa. Probably, Arabic items such as duka (shop) came into Swahili via Indian shopkeepers, as almost all the early shopkeepers, and most of the later ones, were Indians. Also Arabic items such as ‘kitāb’ (book) and ‘kalam’ (pen) which replaced Indo-Aryan usage in Muslim India, though introduced there by Arabs as direct Arabic loans, were probably spread in East Africa by Indians who imported and sold these items (including Islamic literature in Arabic).

Similarly, it could be argued that some Portuguese items were borrowed by the Swahili after they had been incorporated in the Indic languages in contact with the Portuguese. Because of greater cultural contact and physical presence of the Portuguese in India than in East Africa, it is more probable that loans such as kaptani and meza may have been indianised first before being taken into Swahili, e.g.

English also has a longer tradition in India than in East Africa as a colonial language with all its importance in administration, education, commerce and journalism. The Swahili forms of some of the English loans clearly reflect the phonetic changes these words have gone through on the Indian lips ─ the Swahili versions differ from the Indian versions mostly as far as the addition of the final vowel is concerned. In the direct English loans in Swahili, which are later, one can clearly see the influence of the native English pronunciation:

The above are extracts from Prof Abdulaziz Lodhi’s paper on ‘South Asians and  their Languages in Eastern Africa’. The full version can be read on the web site:

The following testimonial for Dr Lodhi’s latest book, ORIENTAL – Loanwords in Kiswahili by Hon Salim Himid Al-Hajj, former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Comoros aptly describes the gravity of this work:

The strength of this study is not as much in systematic, careful and meticulous treatment of the subject, as in the abundance of detail from an area where one has to consult a very large number of sources and carry out fieldwork in several places, in different countries,in four continents. In that sense it is a great scholarly achievement and a lasting contribution to the science of Swahilistics. I highly recommend this book for all teachers and students of Swahili, and East African Coastal history.

Dr Abdulaziz Y Lodhi is Prof. Emeritus in Swahili and Bantu linguistics with East African Social Studies at the Dept of Linguistics and Philology,   Uppsala University, Sweden. He is also Guest Prof. of Swahili and Linguistics at State University of Zanzibar (SUZA), and a Member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project, UNESCO.

courtesy : "The AWAAZ", Volume 13, Issue 01, 2016; pages - 06-13 

Category :- Diaspora / Language