Dreaming Dar es Salaam: Forced Migration and the Impossibility of Return

Moving between memory and history, poetry and prose, Kerala and Tanzania, May Joseph reflects on her family’s experiences as Malayali migrants to Tanzania in the mid-twentieth century.

May Joseph

Kerala Ecumenism and Tanzanian Socialism

The world today is adrift with migrants walking across nations, taking precarious boats across tempestuous seas in search of hope, possibility, safety. Every time I see the disturbing images of migrants in makeshift sea vessels, in fetid refugee camps across Europe, an imperceptible shudder courses through me. I have flashbacks to the harassment and intimidation of my family in Dar es Salaam of the 1970s. Death threats to my father. Racist violence by African kids on my person, because it was tacitly acceptable to do so. Finally, the fearful, eventual departure of my family from Tanzania back to India.

This ricochet of memory has surfaced as the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda draws close, in 2022. It marks the high point of what was a regional wave of anti-Asian sentiment that gripped Kenya, Uganda, and eventually Tanzania. My family, like many others, were hasty transplants back to a provincial India of the 1970s. My parents were displaced peoples without a history. No one in Kerala really knew where Tanzania was at the time. Most Indians were unaware of the mass deportations of Asians from East Africa. The only sign of it was the noticeable Swahili-speaking diaspora of Malayalee returnees. They were really a generation of refugees that were not culturally understood to be as such, at the time. My Malayalee uncles, for instance, affectionately referred to us kids from Dar es Salaam as ‘junglee’. My parents, the generation who came of age in India in 1947, lived the rest of their lives in Kerala, in the India of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Now, as this first generation of these ‘invisible’ migrants begins to die, it is important that the history of connections between Kerala and Tanzania is documented.

Christmas with friends in Arusha, Tanzania, 1971. Photo: Lusiba

This large group of Malayalee migrants during the 1950s to Tanzania stand out as an interesting demographic in Tanzania for many reasons. They were educated and occupied the professional class in Tanzania, as opposed to the Gujarati merchants and other trader communities from the Indian diaspora. What made Malayalees good fits for Tanzania were a couple of cultural overlaps. Many migrants were Malayalee Christians and Malayalee Muslims, which meant they shared religious and cultural festivals with other Christian and Muslim Tanzanians. Their access to higher education because of progressive educational policies in Kerala distinguished their skill sets from other Indian migrants. Malayalee women, in particular, stood out for their education and confidence as professionals during the 1950s and 1960s. My mother, for instance, was one of the first physical education instructors in postcolonial Tanzania. She was a popular PE instructor, training African high school students in netball, basketball, and kabbadi. She got her Bachelors in Education and her Diploma in Physical Education from Kerala University in Trivandrum in the 1950s. This qualification was rare at the time, and really spoke to the successes of educational policies in Kerala. Malayalee women teachers, nurses, secretaries, and administrative workers were noticeable presences in my parents’ social circles in Dar es Salaam.

May Joseph’s family at a goat barbecue with friends in 1972. Author standing, with mother in center. Photo: V. L. Joseph

One little-understood but key component was that Malayalee migrants to Tanzania of the 1960s were already familiar with Marxist and communist rhetoric from Kerala, which made them assimilate easier into Tanzanian public life as accountants, educators, and nurses. Malayalees also tended to be meat eaters and hard drinkers, and therefore more likely to have African friends over for Western-style parties. Their active cultural life in Dar es Salaam, with its lively theater and dance festivals, made it easier for them to assimilate local Tanzanian cultural practices. In contrast, the wealthier Gujarati and Sikh business communities of Tanzania were inclined to live segregated social lives, being largely vegetarian and therefore less able to socialise in pork and beef-eating bars. Malayalees, importantly, were comfortable with co-educational cultures, spoke English fluently, and were sociable in ways that reflected Kerala’s syncretic coastal culture. Notably, it was always Malayalees who swam in the sea. Malayalee women were more at ease lounging at the beach or hotel swimming pools in their bathing suits. In contrast, north Indian women stayed within their social codes of churidars and salwar kameezs, wading into five-star hotel swimming pools in their full attire. This ease allowed many Malayalees to enter into the banking and shipping industries, the Tanzanian forestry business, the cashew industries as farmers, and to move up the corporate ladder, comfortably embracing both Swahili and socialist ethics as eager assimilationists. This little-known aspect of Kerala communities in Tanzania distinguishes their efforts at assimilation from other histories of Tanzanian Asians.

Dar es Salaam as a Site of Memory

Dar es Salaam is a place I dream about. Forced migration has made a return difficult. I was thirteen when my family left Tanzania under coercive circumstances that had to do with the expulsion of Asians from East Africa. There was very little one could do to respond to the racially-motivated verbal or physical onslaughts. But it had not always been this way in the Tanzania I was born and raised in. The story of Tanzania’s slide, from utopian imaginings of a multiracial society during the 1960s, to the ugly manifestation of anti-Asian sentiment that had crept into Tanzania from Kenya and Uganda in the early 1970s, remains a warning on how nation-states frequently scapegoat their immigrant or non-indigenous communities for short-term political gain.

May Joseph (right) and her family in Nairobi, 1975, at the time of leaving Africa.

Migrants in the 1950s like my father joined a moment full of transformative possibility during the crucial final years of Tanganyika’s 1 colonial rule and its radical decolonisation. The case of Tanzania is a fascinating story of societal engineering steered by one of the most charismatic African leaders, Julius Nyerere, the first President of independent Tanzania. What is distinguishing about this emergent nation-state is the powerful and undeniable optimism that lay behind Tanzanian socialism. It was a tangible experiment in selfhood and sovereignty that exceeded any narrow understanding of what a state ought to be, and who the citizen is. The extraordinary project of willing a whole people into history, and into agency, in the span of two decades, was an overpowering lesson in social experimentation that was not lost on my parents. They were willing participants in shaping a new, multicultural African modernity as immigrant professionals in the emergent postcolonial state.

The case of African citizenship in Tanzania, and the role Asians played in its unfolding, is a poignant history doubly bound by racial ideologies and racial capitalisms. Africans were not only excluded from the political narrative of humans as subjects of history as Europeans had produced it. Africans were also excluded from the economic possibilities of independence, as they inherited a site of pillage, theft, and dispossession. The utter precarity that the European colonisers left their African entrepôts in cannot be imagined, or entirely empathised with, if one was not part of that formative, delirious relearning of human possibility. Asians such as my father, who came from a formerly colonised country, understood the economic and political challenges that Tanzania was facing.

The singular, most powerful reason I believe my father loved Tanzania and wanted to remain Tanzanian was because I think he achieved an idea of political citizenship he could not have achieved as a lowered-caste, Christian Malayalee in post-Independence India of the 1950s. In Tanzania, he was an immigrant on equal footing with other Tanzanians, without the condescension and humiliation that the British and other Europeans had inflicted on Asians and Africans till the 1960s. An economically impoverished but culturally rich kid from Alleppey’s backwaters in the early 1950s, father thrived in the brutal free market of merit, competence, and hard work in Dar es Salaam, divorced from the crippling chains of caste that permeated Indian metropolitan life at the time.

The author’s parents, V.L. Joseph and Celine Netto, Daressalaam, 1969.

Father arrived in Dar es Salaam in 1955. This was the eve of Kerala’s founding as a linguistic state. It was also the beginning of the volatile policies of land reform in Kerala. The British had lost their prized possession of India, and were struggling to hang on to their dwindling grasp of African colonies. For Indian immigrants such as my father to Tanganyika, the possibilities of cosmopolitanism were in some ways far greater under colonialism in India than they would be in the caste-ridden, classist Indian society of the early postcolonial period. If you were poor and were not part of the landed gentry in early postcolonial India, your plight was worse than under the British, ironically. The new nation-state of India produced some of the most feudal and ethnocentric forms of social life in the absence of the colonial regime to rein in the crippling caste biases of Hindu life. Christians in the newly independent India had an uncertain future. My mother began hiding her Anglo-Indian identity. Her family shifted from frocks to saris.

Leaving India was your best bet if you were poor, a minority such as a Christian or a Muslim, or just not-Hindu. Dealing with the British in Dar es Salaam was a much better situation for Father, even with their racisms and their exclusions, than it was wading through the impenetrable muck of caste and bigotry in India. The British were a familiar and known oppressor. Father was always clear about this. White racism was pernicious, horrific, but formalised and standardised in some sense, unlike the unprocessed prejudice of the Indian caste system that forced my father to leave India. For non-Hindu Indian migrants like my parents, African socialist belonging and decolonial practices offered far greater empowerment than any chance of social mobility in an Indian system that was skewed towards the landed Hindu elite. This difference was always clear to me growing up. Father felt more Tanzanian than Indian, because in Tanzania, citizenship, with all its racial discourse, was still a real experiment in human futurity.

Asians like my father who arrived in East Africa right after Indian independence in 1947, but before Tanganyikan independence in 1961, thus became part of the organic transformation of political selfhood from subjugation to radical, emergent, and unprecedented notions of freedom and becoming. Tanzania was a multicultural society in the throes of being formed on new postcolonial terms; that of socialist belonging. This was a language that my father understood, coming from communist-controlled Kerala. This is the fascinating connection between Keralite communism and Tanzanian socialism.

Kochi was a serene and comforting haven for my father’s waning years. Africa, the Middle East and India merged in this port city with its own cosmopolitan history of global migrants, immigrants and tourists. Similar to Dar es salaam, you could buy fresh fish, smell the salty sea air, and imbibe the serenity of palm-thronged coastlines here. Enjoying the ocean breeze from his balcony facing the Indian Ocean, the sun on his face, Kochi was a sanctuary for my father’s final years.

I sit at my father’s grave

white Marble

with white stones

amidst the noise of cochin


its hot

and the cool sea air offers respite


I have travelled many oceans to sit here

 missing the tactility of a tangible emptiness


dad scorned death, dying, cemeteries 

he would never visit this place


gilt with flowers and candles 

photographs of the bereaved


it feels good

to sit by his grave

calm, assuring, even in death


Chathiath Cemetery, Pachalam, Cochin, Jan 7, 2018


About the Author: May Joseph is Professor of Social Science at Pratt Institute, New York. Joseph is the author of the ghosts of lumumba (Poetics Lab, 2020); Sealog: Indian Ocean to New York; Fluid New York: Cosmopolitan Urbanism and the Green Imagination (Duke University Press, 2013); and Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship (Minnesota, 1999). www.mayjoseph.com


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  1. I really enjoyed the article. I never drew the connection between the sense of empowerment a non-Hindu malayalee would feel in being a part of an emerging East Africa in the 1950-1960s as opposed to remaining in Kerala. Insightful and touching. Thank you.

  2. Hi May

    This is jyothi, ur junior, doing Bcom, while u were doing your MA. What struck me when reading this was how quintessentially u, this is!! Always I had such an admiration for the fluid grace and the powerful way in which u emoted, your quiet and reserved persona and your sweet smile. Nice to ” see” you again thru this evocative piece.

    Best regards

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