SIKHS IN AFRICA
The Uganda Railway, once dubbed the “lunatic line” because of the high cost of building it, both in terms of money and human life, linked Uganda and Kenya to the Indian Ocean. Between 1895 and 1902, the British colonists recruited several thousand Indian indentured laborers from different parts of India to work on the railway line. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sailed in small dhows and ships from Bombay and Karachi to Mombasa. The railway ran 576 miles northwest from Mombasa, through a semi-desert to highlands rising up to 10,000 ft. on the equator and down to the bed of the Great Rift Valley, before reaching Lake Victoria.
The skilled carpenters, blacksmiths and masons were quick to adapt themselves to the specialized requirements of the railways and many became fitters, turners and boiler-makers. This enterprise was costly, as a large number of workers perished from malaria and other diseases and fell prey to the man-eating lions of Tsavo. A high percentage of the contracted laborers stayed on. Excluded from the British Colonial government and farming, they straddled the middle economy, prospering and succeeding in a multitude of professions and businesses and forming the backbone of modern East Africa.
The first police force was formed in the late 1880’s by the Imperial British East Africa Company to provide security for the Company’s premises and stores. The original force consisted of 300 men being recruited from the Punjab. Sikhs from regiments of The Punjab Rifles were sent to protect the railways as well as the caravan routes to the mainland. The Sikh military contact and presence intensified with Sikh soldiers being brought to deal with the Kabaka’s uprising in 1898 in Uganda and other similar excursions. The 1st Battalion of the Uganda Rifles was created with 400 Swahilis and Nubians, 400 Punjabis, 200 Sikhs and 200 Muslims, all of whom were enlisted in India.
In 1898, George Farquhar, Superintendent of Police, lent by the Government of India, reorganized the Police Department. He supervised a European Superintendent, an Indian Superintendent, an Indian-Punjabi Inspector, a European Inspector, 39 Punjabi Officers and 259 Punjabi Constables. Swahilis and Nubians were enlisted as “Askaris”. The men were provided with Indian designed khaki uniforms, including turbans or caps and boots.
With Colonial Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1914, India produced about 1.5 million troops for combat by 1919. Of these troops, the Sikhs, one of the two loyal “martial races” of the British Raj, rallied in enormous numbers for the King, Empire and its defense.
At the beginning of the war, Sikh military personnel numbered around 35,000 men of the 161,000 in the Indian Army. Though being paid a mere 11 rupees a month for his services to the Empire, the Sikh soldier took his duty as a soldier as an almost religious experience. He romanticized his role as that of a martyr and knight for the King. The idea of martyrdom and battlefield heroics proved to be a necessity for the British, as they were being pushed back by the Germans. It was not uncommon to see the Sri Guru Granth Sahib being carried before a marching Sikh battalion or even on the front lines among the courageous Sikh troops. The East African campaign against Germany was a series of battles and guerrilla actions which started in Tanganyika and ultimately affected portions of other surrounding countries before its demise.
As Sikhs began to settle in East Africa, they established a community rich with culture, and began building Gurdwaras in all areas of the country. As the community prospered, Sikhs built bigger Gurdwaras and turned their attention to the youth and several Khalsa schools. Of the many Gurdwaras built in East Africa, the following are the most prominent:
- Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Nairobi: The foundation stone of the Gurdwara was laid by Sardar Kishen Singh in the year 1909. There were only about one hundred Sikhs in Nairobi in those days, but they built a magnificent building with the glory of the Gurdwara being a huge bronze central dome which for many years was a Nairobi landmark.
- Makindu Sikh Temple, Makindu: Sikh Temple Makindu is located about 100 miles from Nairobi on the main Nairobi to Mombasa road and was built in 1926 by Sikhs who worked on the construction of the railway line. They built a beautiful edifice and campus where a person of any religion could withdraw from the mundane and reflect on the spiritual. Today, this large complex houses a huge dining facility which provides free Langar 24 hours a day and boarding facilities. The meals are prepared and served by the local Africans wearing turbans and some have beards.
Having worked with the Punjabi Sikhs in India and being impressed with their valor and loyalty, the British colonialists encouraged the recruitment and promotion of Sikhs in East Africa. Kapur Singh became the first Indian Inspector of Police in 1895. While he did not speak any English, he was a practical believer in intercommunal harmony. He led the way in establishing good relations between Asians and others. His sons, Lachhman Singh and Chief Inspector Satbachan Singh also distinguished themselves in the Kenya Police as officers. Satbachan Singh was posted in Kisumu and later became a founder of the Wildlife Society and was active in fighting poaching.
Harnam Singh had been a corporal in the 14th Sikhs, and served with them through the Boxer Rebellion in China. He was promoted to police sergeant in 1913 and was later posted in Kisumu.
The Police force grew in strength with a large number of Sikhs serving diligently and reaching top posts. Some of the notable personalities were:
- Channi Singh, a personal bodyguard to President Jomo Kenyatta from 1963 to 1969;
- Dharam Singh Sembi, the Chief Inspector of Kenya Police from 1950 to the 1970s;
- Assistant Commissioner Joginder Singh Sokhi, a prominent Police Officer responsible for the safety of the Presidential cavalcades;
- Chief Inspector Inderjit Giddy, a prominent member of the Criminal Investigations Division.
Kala Singh came from the State of Patiala to Kenya in 1896 and eventally cofounded the firm of Munshiram, Kala Singh and Company. At the time when roads and tracks were sketchy and scarce, Kala Singh penetrated into the most forbidding Maasai reserve along with a host of other Sikh traders based in Kijabe, notably Kehar Singh, and opened multiple trading posts. Kala Singh was known as "Kalasingha" to all the Africans and his name became attached to all the turbaned Sikhs.
Sikh entrepreneurs then established businesses across East Africa, including:
- Saw mills and cotton ginneries with Inder Singh Gill and Hakam Singh;
- Sugarcane farming with Gurdial Singh Pandhal;
- Animal drawn vehicles with Sardar Bhagat Singh;
- Furniture makers with Gurdit Singh Nayer;
- Bicycle shops with Sardara Singh Vohra;
- Multiple Sikh owned garages and workshops.
The small town of Kericho is home to Africa’s largest Gurdwara. It is a ‘living’ monument, lovingly dedicated to the memory of one of the greatest Sikh saints of the 20th century outside India, a saint who lived in Kenya for 57 years. Baba Puran Singh Ji, also affectionately called “Kericho Wala Babaji”, immigrated to Kenya in 1916. He soon set up ‘Kericho Wagon Works’ in the small town of Kericho and focused on earning a living, being a father to his family and helping others in the town, notably through municipal improvement schemes, such as the renovation of hospitals, schools and churches. His civic contributions were officially recognized by naming the town square “Sant Puran Singh Square.”
He also devoted himself to a private life of meditation and maintaining a Sikh way of life, demonstrating that modernity and spiritual growth need not be contradictory. In 1952, Baba Ji’s spirituality was given open recognition by a visiting saint, Sant Baba Mani Singh Ji, from India. Thereafter, his immense compassion and connection to God drew thousands to Kericho.
Feeling obligated to spread the message of Sikhism in the United Kingdom, Baba Ji moved there permanently in 1974. In 1982, Baba Ji endorsed a peaceful mass campaign in connection with the ‘Turban Case’, where a petition handed to Downing Street led to a ruling which would protect Sikh rights of identity under British Law.
Makhan Singh, a pioneer trade unionist, made huge personal sacrifices and contributions in the struggle for Kenyan independence. When Jomo Kenyatta was sentenced to jail at Kapenguria, he found Makhan Singh already in jail, imprisoned by the British. He refused to accept a trade union movement segregated by race and poisoned by the colonial apartheid that classified black Africans and Asians in a humiliating hierarchy. He demonstrated, for the first time in colonized Kenya, that Asians and black Africans were bound by the same fate and their liberation was inextricably linked. Though the British offered to release him on the condition that he left Kenya forever, he did not pay any heed and continued to fight for the struggle of Kenya and eventually spent more time in prison than Kenyatta.
The Hon. Nahar Singh Mangat Q.C, was a very prominent Sikh lawyer who was the first Asian to be appointed a Queens Council in East Africa. He was twice named the President of The Kenya Indian Congress. Further, as the specially elected member of the Legislative Council, he was one of the lawyers who represented Jomo Kenyatta in the trial against the British.
Some of the other key Sikh politicians include Hakam Singh, founder of The East African Indian National Congress, Jaswant Singh, gun making teacher of the Mau Mau freedom fighters, Sir Mota Singh, Council Member, judge, and eventually a knight, and Alderman Mohan Singh, successful business man who became the first non-British deputy mayor of Nairobi.
History was made at St. Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham when a Sikh leader was invested as a papal knight. Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh was recognized for his “dedicated work to Roman Catholic-Sikh relations and for his enthusiastic commitment to working for peace among people of all faiths.” Bhai Sahib spent most of his childhood in East Africa and is the mukhi-Sewadar of the Sikh organization called Guru Nanak Nishkan Sewak Jatha. Bhai Sahib was living in Zambia when he first met Baba Puran Singh Ji, Kericho-wale. As the head of the GNNSJ, Bhai Sahib with his energy and dedication has completed multiple projects of the Panth.
Gurinder Chadha, OBE, a British film director was born in Nairobi. Most of her films explore the lives of Indians living in the United Kingdom. She is best known for the hit films Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It like Bekham, Bride and Prejudice and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Her most recent project is the comedy film It’s a Wonderful Afterlife. She worked as a BBC Radio reporter before starting her career in television, and moved into film production in 1993.
Sir Mota Singh, the UK's first Sikh and Asian judge, received the highest civilian honor for his services to the administration of justice and community relations. His decision to wear a white turban in court, instead of a wig, came to be seen as a sign of a multicultural Britain. Mota Singh, born in Nairobi, moved to England to complete the remaining part of his study of law. He later practiced law in Kenya and England. He was appointed a member of the Race Relations Board by the Home Secretary, a position he held for twelve years. Within 11 years of coming to the Bar, Mota Singh was appointed a Deputy Judge, Queen’s Counsel, a Recorder of the Crown Courts and then a Circuit Judge. He is currently a judicial member of the Parole Board.
The Sikhs are the most sports minded people in East Africa, equally proficient in hockey, cricket, motor racing, volleyball, wrestling and golf.
Joginder Singh, the first Asian driver ever to win an international rally, and the first man to win the Safari Rally three times, was fondly known as the “Flying Sikh” for his exploits behind the wheel. In the art of wrestling, Thuman Singh and Swaran Singh remained as champions for a number of years. Another sport in which Sikhs excelled was volleyball. Names like Teja Singh, Mehar Singh, Kirpal Singh, and Raghbir Singh Rahi, stood out. Cricket, had excellent players going back to the 1930's with Waryam Singh, Gursaran Singh, Daljit Singh and Dr. Ranjit Singh being the notables.
Sikhs formed the bulk of the hockey contingents in the earlier Olympic Games - eight in 1956, nine in 1960 and six in 1964. The most outstanding player was Surjeet Singh Deol (Senior). He captained Kenya at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games and later played in the Rome Olympics at the age of 36 and was proclaimed the best center-half in the world. Other world class Kenyan Sikh players were Avtar Sohal, Surjeet (Junior), Kuldip Bhogal and Santokh Matharu.
Mahan Singh, one of the founders of the Kenya Hockey Union and Hardial Singh coached the Kenyan teams from 1952 to 1966. Hardial was also a vice-president of the International Hockey Federation. The Chef-de-Mission of Kenya in the 1964 Olympic was Harbans Singh Sehmi, an acknowledgement of the contribution of Sikhs in Kenyan sports.
To East African citizens of Asian heritage, the country they were born in was the only home they ever knew. Their ancestral families had started coming to East Africa in the 1880’s. The Younger generations of Hindus, Muslims, Goans, Gujaratis and Sikhs were unique in terms of how they grew up side by side without conflict relating to their religions or backgrounds. They prayed and played together and attended the same schools -- the common bond being their Indian sub-continental heritage.
There were Mosques, Gurdwaras, Temples and Churches all over East Africa and communities had distinct Sports Clubs such as Sir Ali Muslim Club, Patel Club, Sikh Union, Suleiman Virjee Indian Gymkhana, Goan Institute, Kenya Police and The Aga Khan Club.
The inter-club competitions amongst friends at these sports clubs were intense but fair and everyone observed, celebrated and participated in each other’s religious and holy days.
It was almost a perfect place to live.
Mohinder Singh Dhillon had been involved in photography since 1953. In 1961, he formed Africapix,a company that specialized in shooting both stills and TV pictures. His still pictures were circulated around the world to newspapers and magazines, including prestigious ones like Quick, Stern, Paris Match and a host of others. He loved nature and in particular shooting wild life with wide panoramic shots.He was the first photo and TV journalist to capture the flight of Iranian Kurds behind Khomeini’s lines and his extraordinary and shocking pictures generated worldwide sympathy for the Kurds.
In the world of Architecture, Tarlok Singh Nandhra remains a name of great distinction whose excellent work can be observed throughout East Africa.
Hari Singh Bansal’s excellence in dressing minarets in mosques and other notable buildings is still evident in landmarks such as the Landhies Mosque, Pangani Mosque and the Sikh Temple Makindu, among others throughout East Africa.
Sardar Ram Singh arrived with the British troops in 1904 and subsequently made Kenya his home. He opened his own photographic business, Ram Singh and Sons in 1928, and is survived by the 4th generation of his family,
Jagjit Reyatt, affectionately known as “Jag”, was born in Nakuru, Kenya and completed his education there. He had a passion for photography at a very early age and started learning photography in Kenya. He later moved to Arusha in Tanzania and worked in automotive maintenance of heavy machineries fleets of trucks, caterpillars and heavy earth removing equipment.
Jag moved to England in 1973 and worked at Fiat, British Leyland trucks and Mercedes Benz Truck division, the sister company of Daimler Benz Germany.
He moved to the United States in 1983 and started working with a Mercedes Benz dealership in Southern California.
His active interests are Photography and Field Hockey. Jag has been one of the key members who organized and promoted Field Hockey in Southern California. He has been playing, coaching and umpiring for the past fifteen years and has coached young players, a number of these representing the men’s national Field Hockey squads at various levels including the Pan American Games.
He has been the Official photographer for Sikh Lens since 2005 and has been the official photographer for The ASHT Heritage tour 2008, Library of Congress Kaur Foundation Event, New York Sikh Art Festival, Heritage tour of Scotland 2009, Saragarhi Polo Challenge in the company of H.R.H Prince Charles in the United Kingdom in 2010, Darbar-E-Khas Dinner at Elveden Hall estate in Suffolk, England, once owned by Maharaja Duleep Singh Jee. Jag specializes in Cinematic style videos.
Harjinder Kanwal is a Kenyan-born Sikh who has dedicated his life to researching Sikh history and heritage.
He was born in 1943 in Machakos, a small town about forty miles from Nairobi, in Kenya. His father, S. Phuman Singh Kanwal, made the move to East Africa from Punjab in 1938, and established a thriving business in Machakos. He dealt in a range of wares and services including bicycles, watches, gramophones and photography, the latter being his passion. In 1948, he shifted his family to Nairobi where he opened a photographic studio named ‘Partap Studios’. It was here that Harjinder began to develop his life-long passion for photography.
After completing his studies in Nairobi, Harjinder initially worked in the banking industry, but decided to switch careers. Armed with a diploma in Horology from Swiss Watches of Switzerland, he opened his first jewellery and watch business in 1970.
He left Kenya in 1975 with his wife and three children (one son and two daughters) for better prospects in the United Kingdom. The family settled in Coventry, where Harjinder’s career took several turns. A short stint at running his second jewellery and watch business was followed by several years as a financial advisor and then finally as a teacher in a private college.
Harjinder’s passion for Sikh cultural heritage received a boost when he met Dr. Chanan Singh Chan, a veteran collector of Sikh artefacts. As a result of their friendship and shared loved of history, Harjinder developed and designed www.sikh-heritage.co.uk, a major resource on Sikhism.
Harjinder’s passion for literature has seen him write, translate and edit more than ten books. His most recent work, Param Pratapi Pratimavli: A Photographic Portrait of Satguru Partap Singh Ji (1890-1959), is his magnum opus, taking 16 years to research, compile and write.
He has been honored by Thailand’s Sikh Community and the Namdhari Sangat UK, as well as the Sikh Union Club of Nairobi for his outstanding work on the history of the Sikhs and Sikh Union.
His vast collection of vintage photographs from Kenya inherited from his father and his own albums will form the subject of his next major work on the Sikhs’ heritage in East Africa.
He lives with his wife Tarseim in Coventry. He enjoys playing the occasional round of golf in between his childhood passion for reading and research.
Pally Dhillon, a computer professional who spends half the year in Florida and the other half in Ohio, is also an author and has written historical fictional books that are set in East Africa. His first book “Kijabe - An African Saga” was published in 2000. Kijabe is the author’s recollection of how his grandfather and other Sikh pioneers immigrated from India and settled in East Africa, and Kenya in particular. The novel’s main character, Mehar Singh, settled in the small town of Kijabe, and the story surrounds Singh’s hard work, determination and adventures. The book also features the experiences of entrepreneurial Sikh immigrants in a foreign and hostile land in the early twentieth century. Dhillon’s second book was the Kijabe manuscript translated to the Punjabi dialect and published in 2005 by Lahore Bookshop in India titled Surkh Haneri (Red Wind).
Pally’s third book Walk with Pride, published in 2008, is the engrossing story of three Indian patriarchs—Mehar Singh, Shahbaz Khan and Nanak Chand— childhood friends who immigrated to different countries in East Africa in the early 20th Century. The gentlemen’s lives are forever intertwined—and changed—through the vagaries of life. Walk with Pride is a well researched historical novel encompassing three generations and the unfolding of their lives in India, Iran, Canada, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The Sikh religion is depicted in terms of the historical sacrifices made by the Sikh Gurus. The theme of this publication is genocide and the storyline takes the main characters from the Indian subcontinent to Iran, Afghanistan, Rwanda and East Africa as they live through and experience the atrocities.
He is publishing his next manuscript, Whispers From the Heart, later this year.
Dhillon’s interests include reading, sports and technological innovations and trends. Involved in field hockey all his life, he has been active in USA field hockey on the west coast and served as the president of the hockey association, a player, coach and organizer. He has traveled all over the world to play hockey and to watch the Olympics, World Cups and other sporting events. He organized the medal ceremonies and announcements for hockey at the 1976 Montreal games and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. His new sporting passion is Golf.