kenya, sikhs

The Kalasingha Tribe of Kenya

The Sikhs of Kenya have a very unique place in the heart and history of Africa because they are the only non-indegenous community to be called by a name that is not given to Sikhs anywhere else in Africa, or beyond. When I was younger, and still fresh from high-school, my interest and passion for history, particularly for Sikh and Kenyan history, had only just begun.

 Until then I used to think that our African brothers and sisters called Asians by racist and derogatory terms – like muhindi and banyani, and I thought being called a kalasingha was one of those names that the Sikhs in particular were called by. To my pleasant surprise, I was made aware of the true meaning of the word by a fellow African who said that they call the Sikhs of Kenya by that name in honour, not in disrespect or disdain, unlike the other communities being called banyanis and muhindis.

Back in 1999, I was entrusted to compiling some articles related to Sikhs and Kenya, to be run in a press supplement by a Nairobi Gurudwara and we met an Editor of a local daily with whom we began to discuss the subject of Kenya’s history, in particular reference to Sikhs. It was he who corrected my thinking when he called me by the appellation kalasingha, and he could see the frown on my face for being called that. Having read my mind, he sat me down and explained to me exactly why the local Africans call Sikhs by that name.

The kalasingha name originated from a pioneer Sikh called Kala Singh who came to Africa from undivided Punjab (India) in the late 1890s to start a construction and hardware business in British East Africa. His distinct and strange appearance curiously impressed the local tribals of the time with whom he came in contact with in the course of his work, and brave travels into far-off and remote lands – especially into Masailand where even the White man dared not venture. Kala Singh always wore a turban around his head and sported a long flowing beard – a common trait of true Sikhs around the world – and his sturdy, tough and adventurous personality left everyone in awe of him. When asked who he was, he introduced himself by his name, and because language then was a challenge between two different alien cultures, the locals misunderstood his name as signifying his ‘tribe’, and because saying the name correctly could also have been uneasy for the locals, they started calling him, and all other Sikhs who looked like him (turban and long beard) thereafter by the appellation kalasingha – verily a ‘new tribe’ in the land! His demeanour, looks and way of interacting with the locals made them accept him and his like as one of their own. As the decades followed, every turbaned and bearded Sikh began to be called kalasingha.

When it finally dawned upon me about the legacy of the name, I was left in as much awe as Kala Singh may have drawn on the faces of the locals he met over a century back. Truly, our unique identity as Sikhs brought us honour in a land that was still alien to us then, but because of the history behind it, we did not remain alien to it but rather made part of it the day Kala Singh embraced his first African companions. The Sikhs of Kenya, the Kalasinghas, are a unique brand of Sikhs anywhere in the world, and no matter where else Sikhs have made a home for themselves – USA, Canada, UK, Australia or beyond – none of them can lay claim to being a tribe of that country. We remain indebted to Kala Singh and to our local Africans in making us one of their own in a land which the Kalasinghas have long become a permanent part of.

kenya, sikhs

sikhing to learn


this morning, a gurudwara in nairobi invited students of arya high school as part of their school curriculum to do a field trip and learn about the sikh faith. these students are studying the sikh faith as part of an examinable gcse exam. we were approached by the gurudwara to assist in making a presentation to the students and since i have conducted past tours as well, i was ever ready to grab the opportunity to play a little role in presenting our faith to the students.

about 100 students, most of them hindus and a few sikhs and christians were taken through an interactive talk, questions and answers and in the end, a quiz to test their general knowledge on the sikh faith. i usually do not have any idea how to go about these presntations, but i believe that if you are representing your guru, he leads you through and you don’t even feel it.

i was particularly surprised about the way the presentation went because in the end, the students felt charged up, the teachers were impressed and it turned out to be a successful one. while keeping the focus on the sikh faith, i added in alot of inter-faith elements, to encourage the students to feel proud of their faiths and not to give them the impression that ‘singh is king’ – everyone was special and that was supported by the sikh beliefs and practices.

as they were being introduced to kirtan, i invited them to exhibit their knowledge of the musical instruments. one hindu student played the tune of a hindu bhajan to show everyone how the harmonium. two others also played the tabla for the others.

one particular incident that caught everyone by surprise was when the sikh students were asked to explain the meaning and significance of the kesh. one turbaned sikh, however, said he only wore the turban but had cut his kesh. calling him forward, i ecnouraged him to tell everyone the reason behind this and explained that he had no particular reason. he then said that he would keep his kesh back again after having learned that the sikh and his/her kesh are an integral part of their faith.

one singh also did not know the meaning of ‘kaur’ and he was lovingly taken to task. i asked him if he had a sister and he replied in the affirmative. i then told him to treat his sister like a princess because thatis what a ‘kaur’ is.

as much as these kind of interactive learning seasons are eye-openers for the non-sikhs, i have realised that such one-to-one talks are much needed with our own, too, because they are losing out to liberal parents and inappropriate examples within the community.

overall, the teachers were happy and the students left better informed and more aware about the sikh next door.


kenya, politics, sikhs

one indian’s kenyan nationalism


if you are looking for an alternative take on kenya’s indian community, speak to zahid rajan, editor of awaaz, a magazine focusing on historical, political, and cultural issues in the south asian community in east africa. the local indian community traces its roots to the late nineteenth century laborers imported by the british to build the uganda railway and grow sugarcane and to the generations of traders who settled along the indian ocean coast in mombasa, dar es salaam, and other port towns. the indian community quickly prospered and became managers instead of laborers. in short order, indians built businesses, hired black kenyans to do the work, and banked their considerable profits.

today, the community in kenya is perceived, not without justification, as wealthy and aloof. rajan is critical of what he sees as the community’s lack of engagement with kenya’s many challenges. ““the south asian diaspora in kenya is completely nonpolitical,”” he says. ““it stays behind its security fences in [the nairobi suburb of] parklands.”” Continue reading

kenya, politics

kenya – a love letter


by mukoma wa ngugi

inside looking out, snow is falling and i am thinking  |  how happy we once were, when promises and dreams  |  came easy and how when we, lovers covered onlyby a warm eldoret night, you waved a prophecy  |  at a shooting star and said, “when the time comes  |  we shall name our first child, kenya” and how i

laughed and said “yes our child then shall be country  |  and human” and we held hands, rough and toughened  |  by shelling castor seeds. my dear, when did our

clasped hands become heavy chains and anchors holding  |  us to the mines and diamond and oil fields? our hands  |  calloused by love and play, these same hands – when

did they learn to grip a machete or a gun to spit hate?  |  and this earth that drinks our blood like a hungry child  |  this earth that we have scorched to cinders – when we

are done eating it, how much of it will be left for kenya?  |  my dear, our child is born, is dying. tomorrow the child  |  will be dead.

mukoma wa ngugi, a kenyan poet, author of hurling words at consciousness and co-editor of pambazuka news, shares with us a poem commissioned by the bbc world service on the ongoing crisis in kenya.

kenya, sikhs, website

kenyankalasingha – raising curiosity already


having posted on a few discussion boards about the kenyankalasingha website, we were pleasantly surprised to get responses from ex-kenyans who now reside in other countries. it is heartening to notice that despite their absence from kenya for many decades, they still hold a soft spot of their former country of birth / residence. even as we try to weather the current political storm sweeping through kenya, many of us still love the country just as much. there is something magical about this place that makes us adore this land so much. only got holds the mystery of that secret, because as far as we are concerned, we simply have no clue why!

check out of the comments made on the kenyankalasingha project across various discussion boards:

lakhvinder singh writes: many years back i was in mombasa, kenya. while walking on the road i was also called kalasingha by africans. i enquired about it and was informed by local sikhs that in early 1900s there was a sikh called kala singh who came to kenya. he was a merchant and in the beginning used to peddle his goods in remote areas of kenya. while on tour he used to take life saving drugs for first aid in treating some illnesses such as malaria, diarrhea etc. he used to distribute these drugs free to the needy persons. in other words, he was a moving red cross for those who had no access to medicines in those parts. he became a sviour for them. africans started loving him. that is the reason he is still adored. all sikhs in kenya are called by that name. Continue reading

kenya, sikhs, website

letter from switzerland


jambo! jambo, sana!
sat sri akal

congratulations from me, a kala simba, a swahili-speaking sikh living in switzerland. i have just logged in onto your website and wish you all the very best and chardikala.

kama una taka, unaweza kuandika jibu lako kwa kiswahili, kwa sababu (mimi) nasema kiswahili, kijerumani, kizungu, panjabi, hindi na urdu. mimi ni mwalimu ya kizungu hapa switzerland. na vaa kilemba na ndevu mrefu pia! haya
kwaheri ya kuonana.

will continue to surf your website for further information about sikhs (simbas) in kenya and the rest of east africa. you brought old memories of my times there 44 years ago! i’m in touch with a few dozen wananchis [citizens] here. keep up your excellent work.

siku njema.


gurbani, kenya, politics, sikhs, website

sanjhi ardas – a rare event in kenya’s sikh history


the sanjhi ardas smagam pulled in the sangat in the numbers rarely witnessed in modern kenya. with over 26 different gurudwaras in the country, for the first time ever, everyone got together and offered a single petition to Waheguru – please, Lord, save our beloved kenya! the sight was one to behold – with over a thousand devotees filling the darbar, the sukhmani sahib recited in unison was powerful. during the ardas, the image of ragis and gyanis from nairobi’s gurudwaras, joining hands together as the sangat stood in reverence, was one we have never seen before. what a humbling ocassion . . .


the full official report, pictures, kirtan tracks and some videos are now being prepared for upload on the kenyankalasinga website. what a day it was . . . truly blessed . . .