NAIROBI - Kenyans of South Asian descent, commonly referred to as "muindis" in Kenya, are now the country's 44th tribe.
Fred Matiang, Kenya's acting minister of interior, made the announcement July 21 on behalf of Kenya's president.
"Now you are part and parcel of us formally," Matiang said. "You are part and parcel of Kenya's great family, and we expect that we will continue this integration in all spheres of life, socially, culturally, economically, and actually even in terms of participation in government and government processes."
Indians started coming into East Africa in the 17th century. Colonial rule then expanded business and employment needs, including service in the British army in East Africa and construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.
Shakeel Shabbir's father was among the thousands of Indian laborers who built the railway more than a century ago. Shabbir's family remained in Kenya, and the Member of Parliament is now one of four elected officials of Asian descent in Kenya.
Shabbir told VOA that while Indians have enjoyed economic success in Kenya for generations, many have remained on the political sidelines. He hopes the tribal designation will change that.
"You feel more comfortable now than you did before," he said. "OK, maybe it's a cultural thing. You needed to be recognized. Now what? It's a two-way job. You have been recognized by the system, now we want you to take your role in society."
The tribal designation recognizes Kenyans of Asian descent who already have Kenyan nationality, meaning their parents were born in Kenya.
Farah Manzoor is a fifth-generation Kenyan of Indian descent. She is also an activist who spearheaded the quest for recognition, beginning in 2010.
"How it will help us? You know, like, in the parliament even," Manzoor said. "The 'muindis' have been there, but now [that] we are a minority, we are a tribe, we will be given allocations in parastatals. Not all of us, [I] am not saying it should be given to all of us, but you will see 'muindis' now in government institutions."
While the tribal designation may raise the community's profile, it does not confer specific rights and privileges.
However, not everyone backed the push for tribal designation.
"In terms of our rights and our participation, Kenyans as a whole have been marginalized," said Zahid Rajan, a writer and a member of the Kenya Asian Forum Steering Committee. "The outcry in the body politic is that we want inclusivity in governance and in the running of our own lives. That inclusivity right now does not exist because we got dominance of one or two ethnic groups. I think to push for the rights of a minority community to seek special status is what's wrong and divisive."
Critics see political calculation in the timing of the government's announcement, with hotly contested nationwide elections just weeks away. The community of Kenyans of Asian descent numbers in the tens of thousands; the latest census data from 2009 puts the total at just over 46,000.
Kenya's decision has revived activism in the Indian community in neighboring Uganda. Activists there are reiterating the call they made to President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 to amend the constitution to make them Uganda's 66th tribe.