27 February 2013

Kenyan Asians Shut Up Shop During Election Period

Kenya's South Asian community has been doing business in the country for over 100 years. Looking back to the violence that followed the country's last elections, they are pulling down the shutters for much of next week, just in case there's a repetition.

At the Shree Laxminarayan Hindu Temple in Kisumu, the South Asian business community has gathered to pray for a peaceful election.

After the last vote five years ago, looters and arsonists took to Kisumu's streets, devastating the local economy.

Dipak Upadhyay owns a stationery store on Kisumu's main drag.

"Up to 15 February it was bad, in fact," he remembers. "Nobody was opening the business because two or three ministers had been killed, so many riots around here."

Upadhyay says he and his fellow shopkeepers will again shut their doors on 4 March for at least three days.

Kenyans of South Asian origin, whose relatives came to Kisumu over 100 years, own most businesses here.

"We started also community policing here, Asian people," he says. "We are moving from 7-11 every night. We don't act like a police, we just gather information, if we see something suspect, a big group gathering, we just pass the message so that they're acting."

Last time, Upadhyay says, the police stood by and watched as looters broke windows and carried out a shop's entire stock.

Few had insurance to cover such loss but now many have acquired political-violence insurance. But the risk of unrest - and therefore the premiums - are high.

Most stores are located on Odinga Odinga Street, named after Kenya's first vice-president, whose son Raila is running for the presidency in this election. Residents here fear what may happen in Kisumu if he does not win the 4 March vote.

Pete Owiti opened a coffee shop just before the last elections.

"Kisumu received us very well," he says. "By that time there was no coffee shop in Kisumu, we were the only café there so we had a lot of local and expatriate market coming to our café everyday, so sales were growing."

When riots began in Kisumu, Owiti's clientele left.

"The business had barely been running for three months. The way things turned out, it forced us to shut the business."

He now owns several successful businesses in Nairobi but hopes for security in Kisumu, so his coffee shop can make a comeback and his clients return.

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