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Jotawa: Afro-Asians in East Africa

Indians have been visiting East Africa for centuries, though substantial immigration did not occur until modern times. Indian traders were operating in 18th century Mozambique.1 Wealthy Indians lived in Swahili coastal cities in the 19th century.2 During the same period, British colonialists brought laborers from India to East Africa to build the Uganda-Kenya railway. Indian immigration to South, Central and East Africa continued into the 20th century.

Today, many African Indians are businessmen. Some African countries with Indian populations are South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Zaire. Relations between the Asian immigrants and the locals were not always smooth. Swahilis opposed the movement of Indian merchants into the interior of Africa, but to no avail. The centuries-old monopoly held by Swahilis over the coastal-inland trade was eventually broken by Indian pioneer traders.3

For their part, many South Asian merchants held negative attitudes against Africans. Bharati, a professor of anthropology at Syracuse university, examines Asian/African race relations in his 1972 book The Asians in East Africa:

Some of the more liberal among the Asian educated readily admit the exploitation of native customers...the discourteous treatment given to them...but the majority of the Asians do not see it his way: "we Asians," so several small duka-owners told me, "do not care much for public relations with our customers; we do not treat them politely...whether they are Asian, African or white."4

Despite the friction between Indians and indigenous Africans, there were unions between Asians and Africans. In his work, Bharati interviewed many subjects on the topic of Afro-Asians and relations between Asian men and African women. He believed that there were about 5000 people of mixed African-Asian origin in East Africa, most of them along the coast and in Zanzibar.5

The Gujarati term for 'Afro-Asian' is jotawa, which carries a slightly derogatory connotation. Although many Afro-Asian relationships were informal liaisons, some Gujarati Muslims did marry native women.6 One of Bharati's interview subjects also reported that many Sikhs who trade in the bush "live just like the Masai, and Masai women like them. Their children are Masai."7

The trend in Afro-Asian intermingling is an unequal exchange, typically involving an Asian male and an African female, and almost never the converse. Bharati quotes one of his interviewees, a East African girl, as saying, "Asians...slept with our women for decades, and thought it perfectly in order to make passes at them. Then why should our men not make passes at Asian women?"

  1. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, p.19
  2. James de V. Allen, Swahili Origins, p.200
  3. de V. Allen, p.215
  4. Agehananda Bharati, The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru, p.159
  5. Agehananda Bharati, The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru, p.160
  6. Agehananda Bharati, The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru, p.161
  7. Agehananda Bharati, The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru, p.163