Panic-gripped non-resident Gujaratis (NRGs) of Nairobi continued to fight the odds for the third straight day of the Westgate Mall siege on Monday. Many of them have been lending a helping hand to the survivors as well as the armed forces and journalists camping outside the Westgate Mall there. This, even as heavy smoke billowed from the top of the four-storey building on Monday.
Located 400 metres away from the mall, the Visa Oshwal Community Center has been converted into a make-shift infirmary by the Kenyan Red Cross. “It is housing nearly 200 people including victims injured in the attack, and the rescue personnel and journalists. They are also being served food and beverages by Paresh Maharaj and Ramesh Shah at the center,” said Nairobi-based NRG Jayanti Kerai in the city on Monday.
Kerai, whose family owns multiple businesses in Nairobi, said that he had landed in Ahmedabad just a few days before the mall attack. His son is currently studying mechanical engineering at a city institute.
The Kerais reside less than a kilometre away from the Westgate Mall. According to him, the terror attack by al Qaeda-linked al Shabab militants had claimed at least five victims are from his community, the Kutchi Leuva Patels. However, this has hardly deterred the Gujarati diaspora there from rushing to the aid of injured survivors and the Kenyan forces.
“The militants wanted to cause chaos, but here in Kenya our community as well as the rest of the country stands united. This can be seen in the fact that many including a Gujarati woman are at the spot serving water and tea to all those involved in the rescue operations and the journalists present there,” said Ekta Patel. Her mother was rescued a day earlier after a bullet grazed her head in the melee.
Among the rescuers is another NRG, Kurji Ashaani. He has been rushing around and coordinating volunteers from the Gujarati community. “It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of Gujaratis and Indians hurt or killed. That will only be known once the entire mall is secured by the armed forces,” Ashaani said.
As of Sunday, he had said that a dozen people from Gujarat were killed. On Monday, the Red Cross pegged the overall death toll at 62 for the siege that began on Saturday. The militants numbering 10-12 were still inside the mall at the time of reporting, while two of them had been shot dead when the armed forces moved to take control of the entire premises. The attackers had set fire to a home equipment and mattress store named Nakkumatt, leading to heavy smoke flowing out of the top of the building on Monday afternoon.
The Gujarat connection
The history of Gujaratis dates back to the 19th century
NRGs comprise nearly 1% of the population or 60,000 according to a recent Kenyan census
Britishers had taken Indians – especially Gujaratis and Punjabis – to its then east African colony as labourers in 1800s to build the Uganda-Kenya railway
Once the railway line was built, many of these labourers started bringing in their families from India.
Most of these migrants settled in the then new town of Nairobi, present-day capital and largest city of Kenya.
By the 1920s, there was sizeable population of Gujaratis who gained significant economic strength and were even offered seats on the legislative council of the Kenya colony.
After WWII, they diversified to various occupations such as business, police force, bureaucracy and other professions.
With years of tension and trade disagreements, the Gujarati community grew cautiously inward and became self-reliant.