I was asked to answer this on Quora. Mused about it and here are my musings…
I can only answer this from my travels and stay in the Horn and East of Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan). The experience is subtly different. I would put it in three categories.
- South Sudan: In rural areas kids run behind me calling me Khwaja which is a term they use in general for white people. They have had little interaction with Indians in their history. It is now that East Africans (mainly Kenyans) of Indian origin have started entering South Sudan for business purpose. I remember being dragged into an impromptu translation between a Kenyan who could speak a little Hindi and two Sudanese who were speaking in Arabic and English. Interesting dialogue going from Arabic – English – Hindi and back on the matter of drilling rigs! Same is the case with Rwanda. Indians are new here. They have come in to Rwanda only in the last decade or so. They have come as technocrats (Rwanda dreams of becoming an ICT hub) and educators (at least 7 Indian Universities have branches in Rwanda). Here I am treated just as any other foreigner would be.
- Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia: know all about Indians and recognise them as such. They have seen Indians come in as teachers, consultants to government (normally in agriculture and education). More recently they have seen Indian investments coming in and an increase in Indian people in their countries. A greeting is usually followed by questions on Bollywood film stars and music. People are remarkably aware and clued in – thanks to pirated DVDs. I had a wonderful experience in Asmara. An Eritrean bread seller on the street stopped and congratulated me (India) for winning the cricket world cup in April 2011. Apparently the Indian population there had rented a whole movie theatre and watched the match live. Students from the Horn of Africa have been coming to India for decades. India still remains a favoured place for medical care. I mostly get treated with great affection with people going out of their way to point me to restaurants and stores selling Indian food 😉
- Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda: are different, very different. The people here often mistake me for a native and start talking to me in Swahili (Kenya and Tanzania) or Luganda (Uganda). Not too difficult to see why. These countries have had Indians for over 4 generations. First as traders and then as labour who were imported by the British to build the Mombasa (Kenya)-Kampala (Uganda) railway. A number of books have been written about this construction and films made. The labourers primarily came from the Western Indian State of Gujarat. They stayed on and eventually captured the entire trading businesses in East Africa. I have also had street vendors greet me with Kem Cho (which is a greeting in Gujarati meaning “how are you”?). People of Indian origin are, in general, not liked by the residents. The reason is not too difficult to understand. East Africans (also seen in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa) of Indian origin are normally well off. They are also a close-knit community and do not easily allow native Africans to enter into businesses. I dare-say most of them, are incredibly racist. I have heard taunts in Gujarati that would have caused bloodshed if only the target of these understood. Politicians have often played the latent and not so latent anger for political gain with the most famous example being Idi Amin’s ouster of Indian businesses from Uganda and Banda Hasting’s similar action in Malawi. Some of this dislike rubs off on Indians as well. When in these countries there are occasions when I have had to say I am from India and am not an East African. I am not saying that this happens with all people, naturally not. The more privileged amongst the East Africans have links with India, and have fond memories of their time, often as students, there.
In spite of these differences there is one experience which runs across all countries. It is perhaps because of the profession I am in – social development. In all of these countries I have invariably been engaged (dragged?) into discussions on democracy, civil society, media freedom and corruption with admiring noises made in favour of India. This from journalists, government officials and NGO workers.
Overall it has been and is interesting living here. I never fail to be amused bu the fact that East African Indians are more ‘Indian’ than those back home, if you know what I mean.
An aside: This is the ONE place where I have never been mistaken for a Pakistani. This has happened to me in the UK (!) and Azerbaijan.