The Washihiri Arabs from Yemen


When I worked for the National Bank of Kenya in Nairobi as a vocational employee in 1973 before proceeding to the University of Nairobi, I noticed that every 24th of the month (which was the traditional payday for bank employees) there were these Arab traders, known as Washihiri, hanging around the bank premises on their motorbikes (the Suzuki B 120 was the popular choice) and every so often a member of staff would dash outside and hold a short conversation with the traders and hand something over.

The same traders would be seen at other establishments at the end of the month and a similar exchange would take place.

I soon learned that these traders sold mostly household goods to members of staff on credit terms and the borrowers would repay over a period of time in monthly instalments. The bank took a dim view of staff borrowing from outside and therefore the Washihiri would stay out of sight of management.

Local banks were just coming out of the colonial environment where management was purely white, and Africans were relegated to clerical jobs.

Whereas there were attractive staff loan benefits for management, loans for junior staff were very limited, and many of the lower cadres resorted to credit from these Washihiri and others to shylocks to finance their consumer durable needs.

These were the days when in the words of Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice) “My word is my bond.” The rate of default was next to nil and those who did default were subjected to social stigma.

There has been a long association between the East African coast and Saudi Arabia. Traders visited the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the East African coast in search of trading commodities before the advent of Islam. With the subsequent settlement of Muslims on the East African coast, Islam was introduced into the region.

By the 14th Century, with the rapid growth of commercial, immigration, and cross-cultural activities, contact between the two regions intensified. A new civilisation was born where the Yemenis contributed significantly.

Although the Portuguese disrupted this development, Mombasa and Pate became new centres of trade, Swahili civilisation, coastal Islam, and resistance to the Portuguese.

As the Busaidi restored peace in the Indian Ocean, with the help of the British, the Yemeni Arab permanent settlement in East Africa continued to grow. They were employed in the Sultan’s services in commerce and manual labour, so that by the 19th Century, the Yemenis formed a significant portion of the Arab population along the coast.

Washihiri are people from Shihr, a coastal town in Hadhramaut, a region in South Arabia. The name Washihiri received a derogatory image because, as the Omani and “wangwana” (ruling class) claimed that the people were “low” and “dirty,” and therefore could have no claim to “ustarabu” (civilisation), “hishma” and “adabu” (respect), and they paid little attention to religious affairs.

The Hadhramis who came to Lamu were in sharp contrast to the Omani who came as rulers dressed in joho, turbans, carried swords and knives while the Hadhramis were migrant labourers, poor, and covered only the lower part of their body with a kikoi (rectangular piece of material), leaving the upper part uncovered.

Because of their low status, Hadhrami men were not permitted to marry “wangwana” women, so they had to travel back home or get wives sent from there.

The Hadhramis were indifferent to the social order in Lamu since it left them free to pursue their trading goals. They were not interested in establishing relationships with the “wangwana” and unlike the “wangwana,” treated all men as equal. The Hadhramis were the first to extend help to African slaves.

The Yemeni Arabs were generally not affected by the economic decline following the emergence of colonial rule. They were also not so hard hit by anti-slavery regulations since they did not own plantations which were worked by slaves, as the Omani did. They were resented by others for their ability to succeed in a period of economic decline.

The Swahili were heard to say “these immigrants slip in as they like and slip out again as they like. They are gradually taking our trade from us. They are not East Africans and have no loyalty to the Queen. The strictest immigration laws should be enforced against them….”

The Hadhramis had a tendency to keep to themselves in well-defined kinship relationships and they were not involved in political and social activities. Inspired by their economic goals, the Hadhramis were cautious with money, and regarded others as wasteful and extravagant.

They considered money to be “ni’ma” (blessing) that a person should accumulate and not spend on luxuries, practising the mantra “to eat and dress moderately and have little more than a shelter to sleep under at night.”

And so it goes. The days when business was run on the basis of trust alone are buried deep in the annals of history!