I was born and brought up in the East African country of Kenya, however, I am of Indian heritage. It was my ancestors who migrated from India to East Africa, travelling by sea in search of new opportunities, and decided to settle on the Kenyan coast of Mombasa. I often wonder what prompted them to leave everything behind and move to the African continent back in the 1900s and I really want to learn more about the significance of some of the Indian traditions that we still continue to hold in such high regard in our community in Kenya today.
The community my family belongs to is called the Oshwal community, and they proudly have a real sense of togetherness in the place they have now made their home. They are not the only Asian community in Kenya though, and there are so many different representations from the Indian continent in East Africa. We no longer consider ourselves to be migrants but natives.
Thanks to records and stories from relatives, I do have a bit of an understanding of what life was like when the Oshwals first arrived in Kenya. It was a time when they had absolutely no idea how life would pan out and it was a difficult time, trying to settle in to a brand new continent, new country, with little or no family around for support. At the time Kenya was under the rule of the British Empire and so it was a very complex,volatile and uncertain time.
As more and more people migrated over, their predecessors helped them settle in, many offering their homes as temporary residence till the newcomers had found a home of their own. What must have been really hard was that their home was miles away and at that time it wasn’t easy to get back to India and sea was the most viable option – a journey that took weeks or months. We take the speed of travel and ease of transport for granted in comparison! In the past it was very expensive and lengthy.
The Indians that settled in East Africa continued with the same celebrations that would be celebrated in India with so much love and excitement, such as Diwali and Navratri, just to name a few. The great thing about growing up in a different country is you learn to respect so many religions, cultures and have friends from many walks of life, that I pretty much have grown up celebrating everything.
The food I grew up with in Kenya is such a strong testimony to a dynamic co-existence of Indians, Arabs, Africans, Portuguese and the English in East Africa and I do believe that the food in a country and it’s history are intrinsically linked to economics, politics, knowledge, trade as well as the movement of people. It would be so interesting to see what adaptations have been made to traditional Indian dishes in Kenya based on seasonal and local produce as well as the influences of so many cultures.
When we were growing up the importance of retaining our customs was strongly emphasised and when I got married in 2010, it was a typical Indian wedding with every single tradition and ritual incorporated into the day. I even got married at the Oshwal community hall in Nairobi, where most of my family live, and wore traditional Indian bridal attire throughout my various functions.
One day, a few years later, I visited our community hall in London where they were holding a historical exhibition with records from some of the Oshwals who had chosen to settle in East Africa, and on display was a photograph of a lady called Paanchi Shetani, who really stood out to me as she was a strong woman not afraid to speak her voice in a male driven community, and was said to often hold meetings with the villagers in the Halar district. She was even feared and respected by the bandits, who would often confide in her about their plans!
It was her who encouraged her sons to make that journey by sea to Kenya with the aim of seeking better prospects as life and conditions in the village had been worsening. Her first son made the journey in 1899 followed by her second son in 1900 and by 1901 they had set up a business in Mombasa. This was my first inkling into a reason why they moved continent and the story was even more meaningful to me for she was my great great great grandmother and so a piece of the puzzle into how my family tree came to be in Kenya.
Since then I have been so fascinated and intrigued by my ancestral history and my ultimate dream trip of a lifetime would be to travel to India, starting my journey in central Rajasthan, where the origin of the name “Oshwal” actually originated in a small village in the Jodhpur District called Osianor Ossiya, founded in 457 B.C. It’s inhabitants had all converted to the Jain faith, which many Oshwals still practice today. I feel like this is the most appropriate place to start if I were to trace their history and footsteps in the right order.
While in the Jodhpur District, top on my list of places of interest is the Sachiya Mata Temple, a Jain temple where I want to admire all the intricate work on its exterior as well as go inside to pay my respects. I love Jain temples and I find them absolutely peaceful and stunning.
I would also absolutely love to travel around the colourful cities of Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, to see their impressive forts and stunning vibrant architecture. I have read so much about these cities and seen so many stunning photos on Instagram and I want to see it with my own eyes now and experience it for myself.
Having seen so many fantastic photos of the city palace in Jaipur, it is a place I am really longing to visit to marvel at, mostly for its stunning fusion of Mughal and Rajput architecture. It is actually still home to the last ruling royal family, who lives in a private section of the palace. What a beautiful home!
A visit to the Nakki Lake, at Mount Abu, which prides itself as being the only hill station in the state, and which has an incredible historical and religious significance, is next on the list to take in all the scenery, both in the day time and at night, with all its twinkling lights.
From here, my journey would transcend on to western India to the Halar District of Gujarat, where Oshwals settled in 52 villages close to Jamnagar and it is here that they became known as the Halari Visa Oshwals.
I would love to visit my own family’s respective villages, from both my mum and dad’s side, and see what remains of the older buildings as well as witness its present day life and conditions. What interests me most is what traditions they still regard highly as well as what their favourite meals are to make day to day, and whether those are similar meals I grew up in Kenya with.
My aunt kindly shared these photographs of her own family’s village taken 6 years ago and she said that the traditional village is still as is today. The first is of Chapa Beraja Farm where her uncle still lives, and the second of her mum in Vasai.
In addition my cousin Neeraj has visited our family village and shared the following photos with me of our ancestral home called Ravalsar, which is situated approximately 11km away from Jamnagar, which is both district & sub-district headquarter of the Ravalsar village. He visited a few years ago and I am so grateful to be able to see it through his lens.
This is the derasar (temple) in the village – ‘Shri Visa Oshwal Jain Upashray.’
The arch at the front of the village was built by my maternal grandad.
This has only further fuelled my desire to see my family’s own villages! As I continue on my journey to trace my ancestral steps, my journey will move on to Jamnagar, to get a feel of what it is like to live there as well as enjoy all the street food, especially popular dishes called Ghughara, which is similar to a Kachori and served with garlic and coriander chutney, as well as Bhel Puri.
Finally I would end my journey in India’s largest city, Mumbai. My paternal grandparents are currently living in a suburb outside of Mumbai called Mulund, and I would like to visit them here, as well as immerse myself into the street food scene in Mumbai itself. I have been to Mumbai before but on very quick trips where I haven’t had much time to really experience the heart and soul of the buzzing city or even taste everything on my food wish list!
Vada Pao is top on my list to eat, especially as its my husband’s favourite and I have recently been making it for him. I want to try the real deal so that I know how to improve mine and my mouth is watering just at the thought of biting into it! Food in India is always such a delight and it varies so much from region to region so it would really interest me to find out which regional specialities were adopted or adapted in Kenya.
Finally a steaming cup of saffron milk from a vendor in Mumbai would be the ideal drink for me to end my trip with as its a comforting drink I have grown up with, my mum regularly making it for me before bed with flaked almonds garnished on top. This drink is such a nostalgic memory of my childhood and I really want to have a cup in the buzzing streets of Mumbai just to re-live those moments as well as compare whether the Kenyan Indian version is vastly different or not.
Visiting all the places that are an essential piece to learning about my history is so important to me and I do hope that one day I can make this once in a lifetime journey to understand my roots and my culture that much more so I can share it with generations to come.
This post was written as my entry to the Post Office Travel Blogger Awards. If I was to win, I would spend the £5K prize money towards my dream trip to India. If you enjoyed reading this I would be so grateful if you could vote for me here from the 4th July to 17th July: https://www.postoffice.co.uk/travel-insurance/blogger-of-the-year
I have purchased the rights to use the Shutterstock images in this post.