Scripting success, Punjab to Kenya : The Tribune India

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Scripting success, Punjab to Kenya

Many Indians, particularly Sikhs, were sent to Africa by British rulers to build a railway line. Generations later, they are scripting success stories there while keeping Punjabiyat alive

Scripting success, Punjab to Kenya

(From right) Kenyan Minister Ababu Namwamba signs the visitors' book at the Sikh Union Club, as Baljit Singh Virdi, Avtar Singh Sohal, Sunjeev Kaur Birdi and Nanak Singh Bansal look on.

Prabhjot Singh

The beautiful country of Kenya has a sizeable population of Indian expatriates, especially Sikhs. The natives adoringly call them simbas (lions), while others acknowledge them as ‘kalasinghas’. It is not without reason that Sikhs hold a special place in the hearts of Kenyans. Many of them have scripted success stories in the land which they made their home more than 125 years back when the British brought them here as labourers to build the Mombasa-Nairobi African rail line in 1896. For these early arrivers from India, it was tough working in difficult terrains. Many became victims of attacks by ferocious animals, besides falling prey to illnesses like malaria.

Today, these expatriates are playing a major role in every field, be it business, trade, medicine, politics, academics, entertainment or sports. The longest political prisoner in the history of Kenya, Makhan Singh, was a part of the freedom movement in India when he was brought here. He continued his struggle, later dedicating his life to the natives.

“We are Kenyans and owe everything we have to this country. We are also proud of our identity as Indians as well as of our Sikh heritage,” says 70-year-old Gurdeep Singh Phlora, a businessman who lives with his family in Karen, a posh area of Nairobi. “Our roots are in India and we often visit the country. But we do not miss India much as we celebrate all our social and family functions, including weddings, in desi style,” says Phlora, who was born in Nairobi. “Kenya is blessed with nice weather, amazing flora and fauna and endless natural resources.”

Says his cousin Jasbir Singh Phlora, “We have beautiful gurdwaras and temples, and, above all, freedom to follow our religion. We have been equal partners in the progress of our nation. The country’s population has swelled from seven million in 1960 to nearly 55 million now.”

Avtar Singh Sohal, popularly known as ‘Tari’, has taken part in six Olympic Games — four times as a hockey player, once as a coach and once as a judge on the technical committee. Even at 85, he works six days a week to promote the sport at the grassroots. Interestingly, 26 Punjabis have represented Kenya in hockey in the Olympic Games between 1956 and 1976. Another 13 have played in the World Cup.

Among other well-known Punjabis here include Mahan Singh, founder of the Kenyan Hockey Union, and Tiger Joginder Singh, who has been one of the most daring motor racists in African history. He has been conferred with the title of ‘Flying Sikh’.

Avtar Singh Sohal, Manjinder “Muna” Singh Bansal, Harpal Singh Sehmi, Del Mudher, Manminder Singh Jhandu, Baljit Singh Virdi, Gurdeep Singh Phlora, Swaran Singh and Nanak Singh Bansal are the backbone of the Sikh Union Club.

One of the oldest clubs of Indian expatriates in the world, it enjoys a prestigious place in Kenya. Started as Khalsa Club in the early 1920s, it moved to its own club house in 1932. Today, it is the first private club to have an astroturf with artificial lights, besides a cricket ground of international standards, a swimming pool, a banquet hall, snooker and billiards rooms.

In April this year, Vaisakhi Cup was organised in which hockey teams comprising Punjabis from the UK and Malaysia participated. Teams from Punjab (India), Punjab (Pakistan) and Canada, however, could not participate.

Often referred to as the “Mohammed Rafi of Africa”, Deedar Singh Pardesi is a legend. He was recently felicitated at Batala during events commemorating the death anniversary of “Birha da Sultan” Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

A number of Sikhs have been elected to public offices. Among them is Sunjeev “Sonia” Kaur Birdi, the first woman of Asian origin to be nominated as a Member of Parliament in 2013. She currently serves in the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development.

When Sikhs moved to Kenya in the late 19th century as part of the British workforce, they carried with them Guru Granth Sahib. Here they got permission to set up a gurdwara. A temporary structure made of tin sheets at Makindu, halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa, the route on which the famous rail line was built, was where the first gurdwara, now known as Gurdwara Makindu Sahib, was set up. Said to be ‘Sachkhand asthan’ of Sikhs in Africa, today beautiful darbar halls adorn it along with a kitchen and langar hall. There are 92 well-furnished rooms for visitors, besides a museum and library. Another old gurdwara is the Railways Landhis in Nairobi. Built in 1902, it has been granted heritage status. It has a kitchen and langar hall, besides a residential wing.

Sikhs are playing their role in keeping Punjabiyat alive in this land.

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