Belonging to a tribe means sharing a culture or ideology or history with the others in that social organisation.

In India, Visa Oshwals from Gujarat would never be bundled up in the same “tribe” as Sikh Punjabis.

Yet Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta on Saturday declared Kenyans of South Asian descent as the country’s 44th tribe with unusual speed, from petition to gazetting in two months. In a statement last week, the country’s Acting Interior Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiang’i, explained that the decision had been taken because “the government is committed to promoting national cohesion and integration”. He added: “Now we don’t have to treat you as foreigners. We embrace you as our brothers and sisters. We will include you in all our country’s procession.”

When I ask Kenyan-born relatives what difference this will make, they shrug dismissively. Like others, they believe nerves ahead of what is likely to be a closely-fought general election on August 8 prompted the decision.

It will take more than a veneer of inclusivity to create a sense of civic responsibility, a feeling of being a thread in a nation’s fabric.

Playing behind the scenes

According to Kenya’s last census in 2009, there were 46,782 Kenyan Asians and 35,009 Asians without Kenyan citizenship. Kenya’s population now stands at 48.5 million. It’s clear that Asians are under-represented in the nation’s politics, with only a smattering of members of parliament. This despite the role some of their forefathers played in the struggle for independence in the 1950s and in subsequently building the nation after it became free in 1963. Activism is out of the question. They prefer to influence behind the scenes.

Socially, they often stay away from most of the rest of the population, living in homogeneous residential colonies and attending private schools. They raise funds, donate food and organise eye camps for their compatriots. Charity may help them feel they are contributing, but it reinforces the barrier.

Universities and armies should be the ultimate melting pot. However, family businesses or perhaps professional careers bank-roll Kenyan Asians to pursue tertiary education overseas, partly because the local system is antiquated and prone to strikes, partly as it allows them to gain experience in the so-called developed world, even if they eventually return home. I have yet to hear of a Kenyan Asian soldier.

By being classified as a tribe in a country where tribalism is about power, not diversity, Asians will be buttressing the worst of Kenya’s identity crisis. In contrast, in neighbouring Tanzania, its first president Julius Nyerere dismantled tribal identities, instituting Kiswahili as the national – and administrative – language. Importantly, you could not work as a civil servant in the part of the country you were from. However, Tanzania is no racial or economic melting pot either.

Dual citizenship

The more significant attempt – still work in progress – at bringing South Asians into the socio-political mainstream in Kenya was the 2010 Constitution, which allowed dual citizenship.

Prior to this, many Kenyan Asians (or Asian Kenyans) I know had never had – or had given up – Kenyan citizenship, preferring to take on British or some other nationality in case they ever had to leave. It has led to many a marriage, and births abroad to secure the child’s foreign citizenship.

The fear of what would happen after independence, reinforced by the abrupt decision of Idi Amin, then Uganda’s military head of state, to evict Asians in the early 1970s, meant that many nervous Asians in East Africa have constantly kept a foot outside the country – and generally not in the subcontinent of their roots. Crimes, typically financial, at times violent, fuel the mutual suspicion. I know of three people in my own community who have been murdered in the last decade.

So what impact has the new constitution had? Following its promulgation, it took my 84 year-old uncle, a son of economic migrants born in Kenya while it was still a colony, four years to get citizenship. At his interview, he was asked questions in English, including how he intended to keep contributing to the country. He insisted on responding in Kiswahili.

Like many other Asians born in this country, he will never voluntarily choose to live elsewhere, even if three of his four children have settled in the UK.

While not politically active, for decades he owned a well-known shoe shop (for the wananchi, or general public) in central Nairobi, and is a member of the Theosophical Society. Theosophy, and events such as the annual off-road Rhino Charge race, attract people from all races and colours.

Sharing the burden

Are they enough? With apologies to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kenyans of South Asian descent may not be able to compete with certain compatriots in long-distance running, but they must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the long and difficult road to development.

Going to each other’s homes, shedding one’s prejudices, sharing a meal, studying together and leveraging the country’s many positive attributes to build a sustainable economy with meaningful jobs are what will bind Kenyans. Curiosity builds nations. Respect strengthens it. Opportunism does not have a place.

Aarti Shah, whose family has lived in Kenya since the 1920s, is a consultant with The Cobalt Partners, a business and technology advisory firm.