Kisumu town is normally referred to as the Bombay of Kenya given the high number of Asians who reside there. According to those who have lived in the area for many years, their forefathers started streaming into the area as early as the 1890s before the railway line reached Port Florence, as it was referred to by the colonialists.
Many of them, like the late Rehmat Khan Kherdin, arrived in the country and ventured into active businesses. The second batch came into the country during the active building of the railway. The group included mostly Sikhs who were referred to as coolies. Many buildings in Kisumu town were put up by Asians and are named after them. They are found at Obote Road, Accra Street, Sabuni and most go-downs.
Almost all the fishing and hardware firms in Kisumu today are owned by Asians where the locals provide labour. Former Foreign Affairs minister the late Robert Ouko often locked horns with Asians over poor pay for the locals. According to Kisumu Town East MP Ahmed Shabbir, his father Shabir Ahmed, is among those who arrived in Kisumu in the 1950s. His father was a well-known doctor in Kisumu and its environs and was loved by many because of his compassion.
Whereas many Asians opted to venture into business, the Sikhs preferred taking engineering works and farming. Some of them, such as Chanan Birer and Sembi Sign, ventured into agribusiness in many parts of Western Kenya. Shabbir says his colleagues have invested in temples worth millions of shillings yet the facilities can accommodate very few people. He, however, commends others such as DP Mandavia, who has mixed freely with the residents through charity work.
Another Sikh, Charanjit Hayer, who has lived in Kisumu for more than 60 years, says they should be considered as locals, given that Kisumu is their place of birth. He says his engineering firm at Kisian area has employed many locals both directly and indirectly. The existence of Indo-Afro association in Kisumu several years back promoted cohesion among the Asians and residents.
Chaired by Nicholas Ombija, the association was considered elitists because it did not incorporate low and middle-class residents. Prime property within the CBD and at Millimani area are associated with Asians, with strong roots in India. Incidentally a majority of them travel to India to celebrate National Independence Day. Many prominent Asians from Kisumu include Dr C.S Patel, Jamal Sign, Dr P. Somaia and Justice Alnasir Visram who attended Kisumu Boys’ High School.
Many Asians who lived in Kisumu have also been knighted in the United Kingdom. Well-to-do Asians in Kisumu include Sadrudin Gilanni, Deepak Shah — who has business interests in other parts of the country — and Sunil Shah, who is a board member at the Kenya Commercial Bank. Others include Ketan Somaia and Kamlesh Pattni.