Punjabi by nature: The Sikhs who made Africa their home
Africa bound A 2013 calendar on the Sikhs of Africa illustrates the successes of the industrious community in the terrains of East Africa. Khushwant Singh leafs through...chandigarh Updated: Mar 24, 2013 09:48 IST
Recently, someone gifted me with a unique present – a 2013 calendar on the Sikhs of Africa.
Published by Sikhlens, a cluster of global Sikh creative bodies, the calendar’s 12 leaves offer an interesting visual and print journey of the Sikhs in Africa, a story that has largely remained untold.
The month of January commemorates the earliest Sikh emigration to East Africa, which approximately began between the years 1895-1902, when they were taken as labourers to lay connections for the Ugandan Railways. Called the ‘Lunatic Line’, the British had recruited several thousands of Indians including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to lay a 576 kilometre treacherous track from North-west Mombasa – which passed through a semi-desert region – to the highlands rising up to 10,000 ft on the equator and down to the bed of the Great Rift Valley, before reaching Victoria.
Flipping the calendar to the next page takes you to February, where one gets informed about the Sikhs joining the police. Comprising Askaris or soldiers, the first police force was formed in the late 19th century by the British East-African Company, with men from Punjab being the original recruits. Sikhs from regiments of the Punjab Rifles were sent to protect the railways and the caravan routes.
March draws your attention to the role of the Sikhs in East Africa during World War I. After the declaration of the war in 1914, about 1.5 million troops from India were raised for combat by 1919, out of which many were Sikhs. The Sikhs were used extensively by the British in their East African campaign against Germany, which started in Tanganyika and spread to surrounding countries.
Once the Sikhs had reached Africa, it was obvious that progress would be followed by the establishment of Gurdwaras, which became centres of learning and culture other than being religious places.
The month of April highlights the advent of the Sikh temples, the first being set up in Nairobi, the foundation of which was laid by one Sardar Kishen Singh in 1909. The second Gurdwara to be built was the Makindu Sikh Temple in 1926, about 100 km from Nairobi on the Nairobi-Mombasa road.
The fifth month highlights the evolution of the Sikhs in the mainstream, when the British started recruiting and promoting them for higher jobs. As a result, Kapur Singh became the first Indian Inspector of police in 1895.
The leaf marked June has an interesting anecdote about how the Sikhs got the tag of the KalaSinghas - which they are called until now.
As per the folklore, one Kala Singh who had come from Patiala to Kenya had co-founded a company by the name Munshiram, Kala Singh and Company. In spite of non-prevalence of roads at that time, Kala Singh managed to penetrate the most forbidden areas of the Maasai reserve through sheer determination and courage. And so, Kala Singh came to be known as Kala Singha to all Africans and the name became attached with all turbaned Sikhs.
The next six months of the calendar delve into the role of the Sikhs and their further rise in East Africa in terms of number and confidence. The period marks their ascent as philanthropists, politicians, sportsmen and artists.
The most respected philanthropist mentioned in the calendar is one Baba Puran Singh, also affectionately called ‘Kericho waley babaji’ who immigrated to Kenya in 1916. Story goes that so momentous was his civic contribution that authorities named the Kericho town square after him and called it Sant Puran Singh Square.
Some of the important politicians to emerge in this time span were Makahan Singh — a trade unionist, Nahar Singh Manga — a lawyer and the first Asian to be appointed a Queen’s Council in East Asia, Sir Mota Singh — council member, judge and eventually a knight and Alderman Mohan Singh — a businessman who became the first non-British deputy mayor of Nairobi.
Sikhs also made their presence felt in the field of sports and are considered the most ‘sports-minded’ people in East Africa till date. Joginder Singh, the first Asian driver to win the Safari Rally thrice, was fondly known as the ‘Flying Sikh’.
The Sikhs also excelled in wrestling, volleyball and formed the bulk in hockey contingents in the earlier Olympics – comprising eight in 1956, nine in 1960 and six in 1964. The most outstanding player was Surjeet Singh Deol (senior), who captained Kenya during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The calendar which hangs in my study has been authored by three very passionate Sikhs who were born and raised in East Africa – Jagjit Reyat, whose passion remains photography, was born in Nakru and presently lives is USA; Harjinder Kanwal, a passionate writer who has keen interest in Sikh cultural heritage, was born in Machakos, a small town near Nairobi and presently resides in Coventry, and Pally Dhillon, a computer professional in the US who has written historical fictional books that are set in East Africa. Kijabe — an African Saga was published in 2000.
The columnist is a Punjab-based author and journalist.
You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.