Indians are the Jews of East Africa

In Dark Star Safari, his extraordinary account of a trip he made by boat, bus, and train from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux returns to Malawi, a country in which he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He finds the country, as he finds much of the eastern portion of Africa through which he travels, ill used by the passing decades. Throughout the course of the book, he develops a compelling condemnation of the developed nations’ treatment of Africa, which I won’t try to describe here. But in the portion of the book describing his travels in Malawi, he sketches the outlines of an odd theme: the persecution of the Indian immigrants to east Africa. He first touches on this theme when he travels through Karonga, the town he enters after crossing the border from Tanzania.

Indians had been officially hectored in the sixties. The first president, Hastings Banda, had come to Karonga in 1965 and singled them out, berated them, accusing Indian traders of taking advantage of Africans. “Africans should be running these businesses,” he howled. But many of the Indians stayed. In the 1970s the president returned to Karonga and denounced the Indians again. This time the Indians got the message: nearly all left, and those few that hesitated saw their shops burned down by Banda’s Israeli-trained Young Pioneers. Eventually, the remaining Indians either left Karonga for cities in the south or emigrated. Banda had gone to other rural towns and given the same speech, provoking the same result.

The shock to me was not that all the Indians were gone but that no one had come to take their place; that the shops were in ruins, still with the names of Ismailis and Gujaratis on them…

Reading that, I thought vaguely, “Kristallnacht…”

Later, after a thoroughly disheartening visit to the school at which he had taught, Theroux visits a friend from those days in Zomba. At a dinner party at that friend’s house, Theroux is asked about what he has seen during his visit by a former Malawi ambassador in Europe. He returns to the theme of the immigrant Indians and mentions the pointlessness of the abandoned shops in Karonga. The ambassador attempts to excuse the situation.

“We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself.”

“With what result?”

“Ha-ha! Not much! It didn’t work. They all got finished!”…

“Well, as you know, Indians are good at business,” he said. Then, laughing in dismay as if he had just dropped a slice of bread butter-side down, “What do we know about these things? We had no capital. The shops failed–almost all of them. Ha! They were abandoned, as you saw. And the rest were turned into chibuku bars.” Beer bars…

“[The Indians] sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers.” He spoke pompously about the Indians as though describing demented obsessive children with broken toys. “And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One two three. One two three.”…

I said, “But that’s how a shop is run. That’s normal business. You make a list of what you’ve sold, so you know what stuff to reorder.”

“Indians know no other life!” he said. “Just this rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves. One two three.”

“Recordkeeping is the nature of small business, isn’t it?” I resented his belittling the shopkeeper, yet I kept calm so as to draw him out. “The profit margins are so small.”

“But we Africans are not raised in this way,” he said, nodding to the others for approval. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this–shops are not our strong point.”

“Why close the shops, then?”

Here I found myself thinking of The Merchant of Venice

Later still in his southward progress through Malawi, Theroux travelled in a dugout canoe down the Shire River to the Zambezi River and Mozambique with two native guides, Karsten and Wilson, and the theme of the immigrant Indians in east Africa makes its final, most uncanny return.

I caught a few words of a story that Karsten was telling Wilson–“Indian” and “fish” and “money”–and as we paddled across the Zambezi, our dugout pulled sideways by the power of the stream, he told me the story.

Farther up the Zambezi, on the Zambian side, he said, lived Indian traders who made a practice of abducting very young African girls from villages. The Indians killed the girls and cut out their hearts. Using the fresh hearts of these African virgins as bait on large hooks, they were able to catch certain Zambezi fish that were stuffed full of diamonds.

“That is why the Indians have so much money,” Karsten said.

And so finally, we have tales reminiscent of anti-Semitic blood libel myths

Though Theroux clearly lays out the ways in which the persecution of Indians in east Africa parallels the persecution of Jews in Europe, he never actually mentions it (unless the ironic detail that Banda’s Young Pioneers were trained in Israel is meant to be a hint). I find that puzzling. It seems impossible that he wouldn’t have recognized the parallel. Did he perhaps think it too obvious to warrant mentioning? But regardless of Theroux’s purposes, I find it surprising that the same idiosyncratic collection of slurs and calumnies directed at Jews in Europe were elsewhere attached to another ethnic group. Is there some universal subconscious cultural association between commerce and child sacrifice, and if so, why? Are still other ethnic groups thought of in this same way in other cultures?

7 Replies to “Indians are the Jews of East Africa”

  1. What an interesting post. The cultural association you query might not be between commerce and child sacrifice, but between perceived outsider minority groups and child sacrifice. There are other historical precedents e.g., early Christian communities in the Roman empire were accused of ritual child sacrifice/cannibalism. Ironic that Christians would later use the same libel against Jewish communities in Europe.


  2. Sure, I can see the fear of perceived outsider minority groups expressing itself as blood libel, to which many groups have been subjected throughout history. Separately, I can also see fear of perceived outsider minority groups expressing itself as caricatures of members of that group as dour and greedy. I think both of these are ignorant and indefensible expressions of fears that haven’t been otherwise articulated, but I’ve seen enough bigotry to understand that this happens. What I don’t understand is why these two particular (and seemingly wholly unrelated) versions of bigotry have occurred together in at least two independent social and cultural contexts. I was being a little flip in asking about a subconscious connection between commerce and child sacrifice, but I really am curious about about the coincidence of these two forms of persecution.


  3. Well, let’s see. Maybe the Africans actually modeled their stereotype of the Indians unconsciously on the European stereotype of the Jews. After all, the European stereotype was pretty durable, it lasted centuries, down through Hitler’s time. Perhaps it spread. Perhaps a “pure” African civilization that had had no contact with Europe at all would have cast Indians very differently.


  4. Perhaps. But I’d like to better understand the mechanisms by which this happens. There’s a great master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation here for someone who’s interested.


  5. While it is true that Indians in Uganda (and marginally in the rest of Eastern Africa) were treated poorly, equating their situation to that of the Jews is highly erroneous. In 21st century Uganda, the Indian community highly privileged – sometimes to their own detriment.

    Regardless of the status, wealth or background of Indians, they are granted entrance into Uganda as businessmen and traders. They are granted large tax holidays and provided immediate hearings for the reclamation of their family properties by the Commerical Court. For some reason, the authorities are too afraid to touch the Indian community, leaving them up to their own devices, especially in terms of law and order.

    Until recently Ugandans were unaware of honor killings, bride burnings and forced child marriages among the Indian community in Uganda. When these problems have come to light, the tightly knit Indian community declines to pursue the matters before the common courts of law, defending their right to handle their traditional issues their own way – and remarkably this request is granted to them!

    Using Paul Theroux as the main reference for your argument is sad. I have read that horribly inaccurate book from cover-to-cover, even travelling through part of his tour from Cairo to Kampala. Names are misspelt, titles are wrong and publicly known facts are very inaccurate.

    I think you should come to Eastern Africa to see the experience of the Indian community for yourself in order for you to make a meaningful analysis of the situation.


    Rachel (Ugandan woman married to Indian man)


  6. Thanks for your comment. When moderating, I almost missed it in the deluge of spam posing as incoming comments that I’ve had to moderate.

    I, of course, cannot speak to the veracity of Theroux’s claims, but I think it’s unfair to call my reliance on Theroux’s account “sad.” He went there, and I’m not going to. I have no basis of my own to disbelieve him, and in the reviews of the book that I have read, I haven’t seen any contradictions of his story or its facts (though I have seen issue taken with his conclusions). You say it’s inaccurate, but you don’t offer any specific examples of errors he’s made (not that I’m asking you to), so I don’t have any reason to believe you over him or him over you. He’s been there, and so have you. I haven’t, and I can’t really say any more than that.

    And in a way, I’m not primarily interested in the facts of the matter–that wasn’t really the focus of my post. To be clear, I’m not equating the treatment of Indians in east Africa with the treatment of Jews in Europe (or anywhere else). I’m only noting the similarity in the images Theroux lists to those I’ve heard in descriptions of various persecutions of Jews in Europe. Even if he made his stories up completely, I find the imagery striking. Whomever’s imagination they spring from, I find the parallel between the images from Jewish persecution in Europe and Theroux’s uncanny. (And as an aside, it should be noted that in many of the European countries in which they were persecuted, Jews were also often highly privileged, sometimes “to their own detriment.”)


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