Sikhs against their own good


When Sarabjit Singh Dhunda, who is growing in popularity (and selective controversy), flew into Kenya for the first time on invitation of a local Nairobi Gurudwara in November 2013, not many knew about his powerful discourses or just what baggage he came with. His tour was not widely advertised but when I received a poster on WhatsApp announcing his visit, I immediately initiated a debate on social media to get input from the global sangat on what we need to be aware of in case we get to witness issues that may mislead or disillusion the still very naive and uninformed sangat of Kenya. The post attracted a flurry of comments – most of them against him, warning the sangat to be wary of his unfortunate utterances as he has been reprimanded earlier by the Akaal Takht, and even courted discontent amongst sangat of other countries, especially that of the UK. While I appealed for a neutral approach by way of at least being in the know of what he is known be controversial on, and at least focus on what we do agree on, much of these calls for reason did not go down well with those taking sides for or against him. The situation soon turned into something never witnessed in Kenya before, where a visiting preacher ended up being made to feel unwelcome and informed that he could be ‘sent packing home’ in case he spoke against certain issues that would lead the sangat ‘astray’.

All said and done, I opened a forum on the facebook post that would invite people to pose their questions and apprehensions against Dhunda who I planned to privately interview so I could at least be the voice of reason between the two differing sides. Questions came in, and I noted them down as I prepared to come face-to-face with such a powerful name in the Sikh community around the world today.

When I met him following 4 days into his visit, and after having attended his sittings, I made my intentions clear to him on the purpose of the interview – which was to understand his perspectives and also to table concerns that some sangat have against him. I had him know that I would be video-recording the interview which he agreed to.

We spent over 90 minutes of cross-discussions on the questions I had brought along – most of them touching on general Sikhi, but as soon as we got into come touchy topics, he answered all my questions, but became edgy and within a minute or two, declared the interview done with. He probably began to sense the questions pertaining to the controversial issues may lead to further discontent and misunderstanding in the sangat – which he had faced enough of already so far in his preaching years. Despite having assured him that the intention was merely to bridge the divides through honest vichaar, he pulled away into mere one word responses by which time I lost the interest of the whole exercise altogether, for we were getting nowhere. My own learning aside from the questions asked, my bigger idea was to get both sides of the divide to tackle the issues more maturely and in humility. But that was not forthcoming from either side. And as I wrapped and packed up, he insisted that we make public only the generic questions and filter out the ones that he was not comfortable with being posted. He wanted to ‘approve’ the final cut before we could put it up on YouTube. For reasons I understand, or best known to him, he chose to censor his own views. This left me disheartened that the purpose of the interview failed to materialise with all the trust and humility I had assured Dhunda of.

Having left the interview, I came back to the office ever so convinced how Sikhs have become their own worst enemies, and against their own good. The ones against the view of the likes of Dhunda (who I personally respect for his vast knowledge in Sikhi) have no idea of how to conduct themselves through civil and humble vichaar in Gurmat, Gurbani and Rehat and choose to retort through harsh words, anger and ego. It is easier to reject someone just on the basis of disagreeing with a few issues than to counter-defend them through knowledge and wisdom of Sikhi. I found Dhunda equally hard to reason with because the one thing I look for in a Sikh is humility and I found it lacking in him. Both sides are filled with ego, no one even gives a thought to the humble ways of Nanak, but ready to draw daggers at a mere difference of opinion. This is what we have come down to – we have gathered knowledge but wisdom has lingered. We have studied books and Gurbani, but not understood their depths and failed to apply to our own selves before going out in public to speak on behalf of sangat.

Following the ordeal of the Dhunda interview, I decided to scrap the whole idea of even publishing the interview – for I did not want to post what pleases either side, but rather what benefits we can draw as a Panth. We claim to be be brave – but one side refuses to face the other (on the pretext of being busy with better things) and the other chooses to censor his own self (on the pretext of not wanting to stir matters even further). Neither side is brave enough for the panth, but hiding behind their own egos. That is the observation – not judgement – of what I have made of trying to reason between the two sides of a community that has yet to learn how to sit together in humility and accept the good in each other and help reason out the differences.

This one issue is a true reflection of our state as a Panth. We at war with each other – we all consider ourselves lions but none wants to battle out through reason and humility to reduce the discontent within the Sikhs themselves so that we may shine as Guru Nanak originally intended us to. We are the biggest losers here and if this is our take on Panthic issues, we might as well ask the outside enemy to down their weapons against us for we are perfectly capable of bringing our own selves down better without their help because we doubt each other and trust not even the self, let alone another.

Our differences aside, I have otherwise witnessed for myself how his 10-day tour immensely benefited the general sangat. He spoke on various issues that Sikhs are entangled in due to ignorance, arrogance and apathy and much of the sangat has probably become more aware of Sikhi than they had ever been before. And for that, I must offer my gratitude to Bhai Sarabjit Singh Dhunda on enlightening Kenya’s sangat on matters of Sikhi that we all need to be aware of to help make our lives worthy and usefulness of the human birth. His recorded discourses in Nairobi will be made available on YouTube in days to come.

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

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 . . .