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The Settled Strangers

April 21, 2016

21 April 2016: The leading international magazine ‘The Economist’ ran an exclusive article on the success stories of Asian businessmen in Africa. The article is in fact named after the book “Settled Strangers” (SAGE, 2013) penned by the Dutch Historian, Dr Gijsbert Oonk on a similar subject.

Explaining the title of the book, Dr Oonk says, ‘Settled strangers are migrants who have settled for three or more generations in their new locations. Many of them see themselves not as migrants, but as ‘settlers’. However, in the eyes of the locals or ‘natives’, they often remain ‘strangers’. Thus, they are both ‘insiders and ‘outsiders’ at the same time”.

The article in the Economist addresses the success of some diaspora in the field of business. As an example, the author refers to the large numbers of Indians who came to Kenya and Uganda in Victorian times, drawn by the new British-built Mombasa-Kampala railway. And to the Lebanese, who assumably got lost in Ivory Coast on their way to Brazil and decided to stay. To describe such groups of economically successful migrants, ‘The Economist’ refers to Gijsbert Oonk's concept of 'settled strangers', which he explores in-depth in his latest book “Settled Strangers: Asian Business Elites in East Africa 1800-2000” (SAGE, 2013).

Dr Oonk feels that the history of South Asians in East Africa is neither part of the mainstream national Indian history nor that of East African history writing, which is surprising because South Asians in East Africa outnumbered the Europeans ten-to-one. Moreover, their overall economic contribution and political significance may be more important than the history of the colonisers. Through the book, he attempts to provide some balance in the form of a history of the South Asians in East Africa through the lens of the actors themselves.

By using insights from the social sciences, including concepts like cultural capital, family firm, trans-nationality, middleman minorities and cultural change, this book aims to achieve a broader understanding of communities that do not belong to nations, yet are part of national states.

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