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.
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.