The sweltering January sun rays bounce off the black cotton soil as clouds of dust billow around Kianjai market in Tigania West Sub-county, about 18 kilometres from Meru town.
Just a few metres from the town on the Meru-Maua road, a cluster of old, dusty buildings with corrugated iron roofs supported by metal poles that have been browned by age greet visitors.
Weather-beaten Land Rovers are a common sight here, as are Ford trucks. Some of them regularly coughed up the hills of Meru way before independence and are still serving their owners faithfully.
Welcome to Kathama Ka Aindi village, a name which loosely translates to The Indian Bazaar in the local Tigania dialect. It is here that Meru County’s half-cast community lives, a tribute to the Hindu-African marriages that have transformed culture in the area. The Indians here speak fluent Tigania, which is arguably Meru’s toughest dialect.
In the early 1950s, Asians of Hindu origin — mostly Sikhs — settled at Kathama Ka Aindi as entrepreneurs. They operated garages, shops and timber yards and sold construction materials.
Locals say the first Asian inhabitant of the historical village was simply known as Patel. He married a local girl known as Wanja and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nareng Singh Rehal was also among the first Asians to arrive and settle at Kianjai market in the early 1900s. He met and later married a local girl known as Harriet Kaliuntu who hailed from Antuankui in Miathene area. The couple had four children; three sons and a daughter.
Nareng Singh, as he was popularly known then, operated several retail shops at Kianjai, Laare and Mikinduri towns. Although he was uneducated, he was able to raise his family and easily integrated with the local community, becoming one of them.
But perhaps it is the name of Nareng’s son, the late Dalip Singh Totii, that most rings a bell among locals.
He was well known for his entrepreneurial prowess, his main business being transporting sand, murram and building stones from Karama and Kianjai areas to Isiolo, Nanyuki and Timau towns using his Land Rover.
During a recent visit to the family, I found Mr Totii’s widow, Jito Surjit Kuar, sitting outside her house, watching her daughter Ravinder Kaur and daughter-in-law Ruby Pritam as they threshed dried bean stalks with a large stick. A few metres from where she sat was her grandson, Ajit Singh, who works in a garage.
Dressed in a light blue sari with flowery patterns on it, the ageing Mrs Toti is somewhat a surprise in this rural Meru setting.
Surjit, or Mrs Totii as she prefers to be called, is herself a product of a union between an Asian man and an African woman.
Her late father, Arnjan Singh Nandra, was married to Esther Wanjiru, who died in 2005. She got married to Mr Totii in 1956 at the tender age of 16. Mr Totii was 19 years old then. Together they had three children; two daughters — Ravinder Kaur and Jasbir Kaur — and a son, Primat Singh, who has a Mmeru as his second wife.
The 75-year-old says one of the most significant phenomena about them is their fertility. “The family has been growing day in day out. We are grateful to the Almighty for keeping us strong throughout and we now have four generations, the youngest being one-year-old,” she said, smiling to reveal a set of strong teeth that have defied age.
According to Mrs Totii, her father-in-law, Nareng Singh, employed Banians, one of India’s castes, to run his businesses. However, they stole from him, forcing the old man to look for employment at the Wason Timber Yard in Meru town.
“It is at this juncture that my husband followed his father and took up the career as a carpenter as well,” she said.
“The old man later passed on and, together with my husband, we left for Tanzania. We came back to Kianjai in 1965, shortly after Kenya got independence,” she recalled.
The same year, the couple bought a piece of land at Kianjai, where her house now stands.
“He was a very popular carpenter then but later switched careers to become a driver, working for Wason Timber Yard. In 1957, we got our first born son, Pritam Singh,” she said.
Pritam married his first wife, Ruby, an Indian, and later married a second one, a Mmeru, and they now live at Muriri town centre in Tigania East sub-county.
“He still visits us and takes care of the family. But even if he married a second wife I am still the first lady,” said Ruby.
The family’s dual heritage, she said, has seen her appointed treasurer in one of the largest women groups in Kianjai market. The Mirintu Women Group has embraced the table banking model that enables members to save and borrow from their own collections.
“In fact, we just received our Uwezo Fund cheque from the County Women Representative, Florence Kajuju, and our area MP David Karithi. As the treasurer of the group, I am responsible for banking the money,” Ruby said.
Mrs Totii’s daughter, Ravinder, is a well known figure in Kianjai, especially on market days. She is famous for her potato chips, which she sells for Sh30 a plate. Outside her mother’s house, she has also put a stall, selling second-hand clothes.
“We have to make ends meet. The little we get we use to buy foodstuff and medicine for our mother,” said Ravinder.
However, not all Indians of mixed descent in this area are free to mingle. In one homestead, the gates remained locked, the only sign of life being old Ford trucks parked in the garage.
Efforts to get an interview with the recluse bore no fruits and he asked me to leave the premises.
“He likes keeping to himself. He believes he is a pure Asian and would not want to associate with Africans like his forefathers did,” a man who was walking past the gate said of the second-generation, half-cast recluse.
The issue of discrimination by both the Asian community and the Africans came up. Mrs Totti said racial discrimination was still rife within a section of the local community.
“We are still referred to as Wahindi despite living with the locals for many years. The name Kathama Ka Aindi attests to this. Our people still do not get formal employment easily as locals would do,” she said.
But a section of the locals said the Hindus still show signs of desiring to live in isolation.
“Nowadays it is hard for them to marry from outside their community. In fact if one of them does, he or she is treated as an outcast. Some claim they don’t want their status lowered,” said one of the neighbours who did not wish to be named as he is a close friend of the family.
However, some of those who have known the Hindu families for a long time describe them as friendly and respectful.
Lucy Kaburo Nciancebere, 88, who lives near Totti’s home, said they were very happy when a Meru woman was married to an Asian.
GOOD FOR BUSINESS
With the arrival of the Aindi, as she refers to them, infrastructural development and commercial activities sprung up.
“There were no vehicles then. No roads, electricity or water. The vast land where you see buildings today was just a wild vast jungle with wild animals freely roaming. We ululated the whole day when we got wind that Kaliuntu was to be married to an Asian,” said Nciancebere.
She said that during the late 1960s, some of the Asians left the country for India, but those who had intermarried with the locals opted to stay and continue running their businesses.
Asked how she has benefited from interacting with the Meru Hindus, she said two of her sons were sponsored to complete their education by her enterprising neighbours. Totii’s family has also employed Nciancebere’s grandson, Gitonga, as a labourer.
“They have no ill intentions. If we have any communal functions in the village, they are among the first people to arrive and help prepare food for guests,” she said.
“All their generations, since I knew them, have followed Kimeru traditions and now they are like us. We see nothing different about them. We still have that strong pact as neighbours.”
Timothy Laichena, a businessman at Kianjai market who attended Miathene Boys’ High School with one of the younger generation of the Totiis, said they are amiable people.
“We have co-existed with them for a long time since I was a young boy in the 1990s. The good neighbourliness still exists and the younger Tottis are good friends of mine,” Mr Laichena said.
Their religious influence, and the Punjabi who became a Njuri Ncheke elder
Some 15 kilometres from Kianjai at Mikinduri in Tigania East, 75-year-old Amina Mohammed sits inside a mabati structure that once served as a warehouse for the business that his father, the late AllayarManga Khan, used to run. Next to their house stands a magnificent stone mosque, which started as a mud structure in the early 1940s.
AllayarManga settled in Mikinduri in 1910 as a businessman and married Amina’s mother, Kauro Mariamu, who hailed from Anjilu area near Mikinduri. He bought the piece of land where Amina today lives with her grandchildren.
A few metres away from Mariamu’s home lives AllayarManga’s grandsons, 69-year-old Mohammed Hanif and 59-year-old Abdulaziz Bonzo. Apart from their oily greying hair, little sets them apart from the ordinary folk in Mikinduri.
“Our grandfather was a Punjabi from Pakistan and came to Kenya through Mombasa in those early years. Eventually, he moved to Kianjai and later settled at Mikinduri, where he bought a piece of land and donated it to the mosque. The initial mud structure was demolished and in its place was built a timber mosque. Due to the increasing number of converts, we constructed a stone block building which is bigger and stronger,” says Hinaf.
The two have lived their entire lives in Mikinduri and helped renovate the mosque, which hosts many Meru residents who have since converted to Islam.
In this part of the world, the Punjabi are not ostracised for marrying outside their race. In fact, many of their children have since intermarried with the locals and fully embraced Meru traditions.
Bonzo, for instance, is a Njuri Ncheke elder and regularly attends sittings to help solve disputes in and around Mikinduri.
“I am Meru, born and raised in Mikinduri, Tigania East. I was qualified to join the revered council and can confidently say I am proud to be half-cast, with Meru roots,” he said.
Several mosques have also been put up along the yet-to-be tarmacked Kianjai-Miathene-Mikinduri road, an indication of the influence the Afro-Asian community had on the locals.
Abdul Rahim Dawood, the civic leader who became Imenti MP
A Kenyan of Asian origin made history in Meru County by winning the North Imenti constituency seat during the 2013 General Election.
Mr Abdul Rahim Dawood, 49, trounced former MP Silas Muriuki after garnering 26,871 votes against Mr Muriuki’s 24,185 in a hotly contested race that attracted four other candidates.
The father of two was born in Maua and grew up in Meru town, where he has lived for the past 40 years.
The former Commercial Ward Councillor attended Meru Primary School, where he sat his Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) in 1973 before joining the Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi for his O and A levels.
He later went to Britain for mathematics, statistics and computer studies for a year before returning to Meru, where he took over his family’s business in 1986.
The last born in a family of three is a known philanthropist. During his tenure as a civic leader, he donated his entire salary to the needy and engaged in various community development projects which later buoyed his candidacy for the parliamentary seat during the 2013 elections.
He has received numerous awards, among them the Head of State Commendation (HSC) from President Mwai Kibaki in 2005, and the Distinguished Service Medal from President Daniel arap Moi in 1996.
His has built a renal unit and ward at the Meru Referral and Teaching Hospital, a kitchen at the Meru Women’s Prison, a dormitory at Kaaga School for the Mentally Handicapped, and watering points at Gakoromone and Shauri Yako slums. He owns several properties in Meru town.