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Tongue Tied


Kutchi, Migration, and East African Asian Identity in the Indian Diaspora
By Omme-Salma Rahemtullah |
APRIL 20, 2021
Map illustrating the areas in Gujarat that Kutchi/Kachchhi is spoken (credit: Linguistic survey of India / [compiled and edited] by George Abraham Grierson. Calcutta : Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, India, 1903-1928)
Whenever I fill out a bureaucratic form asking for my mother tongue, I hesitate. What is an innocuous question for most immigrants to North America has always struck me as being deeply political and consequential. The answer is simple enough: I grew up speaking Kutchi at home, so that's my mother tongue. Except, Kutchi is not a written language1, it’s an oral one, and even the term itself has a variety of spellings.2 Spoken only by a minority of the Indian diaspora in the West, it belongs to a group so small that I wonder if it’s an invention of our community – sometimes I question if it’s even really a language at all. Of course, in theoretical interpretations all languages are inventions (this is what you come to think after reading too much Noam Chomsky and Stuart Hall), but the ways in which Kutchi seems to be malleable and unrecognized is in contrast to the stability and familiarity of languages such as Gujarati which are easily recognized in North America. So, the question always remains: do I even have a mother tongue?

Kutchi and its history has become central to my work as an Archival Creators Fellow at the South Asian American Digital Archive, for which I am documenting the settlement of Ugandan Asian3 refugees in South Carolina who were expelled from Uganda in 1972 by then-dictator Idi Amin. Asians have a long history of trade and settlement in East Africa and over generations have maintained their cultural Indian backgrounds, including language.4 There is a wider history of voluntary migration of East African Asians to North America – of which I am a part, having left Tanzania at a very early age and growing up in Toronto. Kutchi is an enduring legacy of these migrations and settlements, having followed migrants from India to East Africa to North America.

Kutchi originates in the region of Kutch (or what’s known as the Rann, or salt marsh, of Kutch), in the northwest part of the state of Gujarat, in the northwest part of India. To the north, Kutch shares a border with Pakistan; to the west it juts out into the Arabian Sea. The regions of Kutch and Kathiawar, where a sizable number of early Indian migrants to East Africa originated, were excluded from early histories of the state of Gujarat (due to their geographical isolation), only becoming discursively and socially a part of the state of Gujarat in the 1960’s.5 As a result, the language of Kutchi which developed and traveled to East Africa has distinctive characteristics that are not common in the Kutchi spoken in India today. Though the use of Kutchi among Asians in East Africa is widespread, especially among those who migrated from Kutch and Kathiawar in the late 1800s to early 1900s, there has been no systematic survey of the language and its use in East Africa. With one exception, a study conducted in Tanzania in 1971 as part of the Tanzanian National Survey which found that Asians spoke 5 languages: Kutchi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani and Urdu, using Kutchi in 52% of their daily interactions inside and outside the home (Gujarati in 14.5%, Swahili in 7.3% and English in 26%).6 This demonstrates the lasting legacy of Kutchi in East Africa and also to the educational systems of Asians in the region.7 There are no updated numbers regarding the use of Kutchi in East Africa, Europe or North America, but the language has endured – as evidenced by people still speaking it, myself and my interviewees for this project included.

There is a lack of information about Kutchi, I suspect, due in part to its diminishing use around the world, and in part because it is an oral language and often conflated with Gujarati - in a 1974 Kenyan survey of Asian languages, for example, Gujarati and Kutchi were lumped together.8 For my oral history project, I have chosen to conduct the interviews in Kutchi, because not only did I find it important for my interviewees to share their histories in the language most comfortable for them, but also because doing so is an act of language preservation. During these interviews, I realized two important things: the migratory route of the community is itself a route of changes in the Kutchi language and the use of Kutchi amongst East African Asians is a religious identifier.

Kutchi as a Map of Migration

As a Kutchi speaker from East Africa living in North America, I never thought too much about how the language and its use would have changed from the ways my great-great grandparents would have used it in India. In fact, for the longest time growing up, I didn’t even realize that some of the words I had always assumed were Kutchi were in fact Swahili.9 Even though I am a fluent Kutchi speaker, I know some common words only in Swahili: for example, in my mother’s kitchen, a cooking pot, was always called sufrio, which is Swahili. My English-to-Swahili dictionary reveals that the word for pot in ‘proper’ Swahili is sufuria, implying that sufrio is some sort of adapted Swahili used among East African Asians. I asked my family what the Kutchi word for sufrio is and was told that it was tapelo10 – so clearly the Kutchi o ending for tapelo was adapted to the a ending for sufuria by Asians in East Africa. Admittedly, this is anecdotal ‘evidence,’ but it does point to an important way in which language travels and adapts. Mahida Bachu, in one of the only community portraits of the East African Kutchi language11 I could find, also notes that Swahili words are modified by Asians to fit Kutchi pronunciation patterns, so that sahani (plate), mboga (vegetable) and ndizi (banana) are modified by Kutchi speakers as saani, boga and dizi.12 It is not lost on me that a lot of these mixed words are all kitchen related, which reveals a lot about how Swahili was used and passed down by Asians in East Africa: along gendered lines and in the context of “Asians” speaking and interacting with “African” domestic workers, alas an article for another day!
My father's side of the family, Tanzania, circa 1945
Ashraf, one of my interviewees whose father moved to Uganda from Kutch, told me a story about the loss of Kutchi words:

“Ghar mei kutchi bolnavas, asanji kutchi judi vi, khathavari mix na andhar.” “Hevar kutchi thorik change thavayai, parn munjo daddy etlo kutchi kerdhava. It’s like you know, like if you say excuse me or move a little further, my dad would say ‘paria hhat’; it means move forward. Ya we don’t say that now. So some of the words my dad used to use, he always used to say bhalah, which mean ‘hei boh saro thiyo’. So my brother in Romania munkeh message halaineh, tho iyh chondo ‘bhalah hiy vatu boh sarao thiyi’ au inkeh choise tun bhalah bhala kida kayiye mehdili, tun tho mun khada nindo ayien. Hi baba ke yaadh kharinti bhalah chondovo. Asan kutchi bolotha inmeh Swahili words boh ventha.”13

Since Ashraf’s father was the one who moved from India, she was able to trace the changes migration brought to the Kutchi language within one generation, in a way that was very noticeable and adaptive to the East African region.14

Kutchi as a Religious Signifier in East Africa

While the changes to the Kutchi language as it traveled from India to East Africa came as no surprise, I was shocked to learn that it is now a language spoken only by Muslims in East Africa. While I am well aware that the divisions between different Asian groups in East Africa are clearly demarcated by religion15 – as evidenced, for example, in the different places of worship in different Asian neighborhoods in the cities of East Africa, and given that marriages across religious lines in these communities are rare – it was interesting to learn how language was also religiously coded.

Ronikali, another of the interviewees, grew up in Uganda and visited his mother’s village in India in the Kutch region during his childhood. He was confused at hearing Hindus speaking Kutchi, he told me “all these Indians there, they were Hindus but they were talking Kutchi. I’m confused…In Uganda Biju Bhai or Dhyar Bhai [Hindu names] is not talking Kutchi, they’re talking Gujarati. When I went up there [to India] all these Champabhain [Hindu name] everybody talking Kutchi. I thought they were Muslims like us, but they’re not; it was kind of confusing, they were all talking Kutchi.” Similarly, in a 1972 study of Asians in East Africa, Agehananda Bharati16 divides Hindu Gujaratis (i.e., those from the state of Gujarat) between Gujarati-speaking Patels and Kutchi-speaking Lohanas (two Hindu castes), but points out that the younger generations of Lohanas in East Africa no longer speak Kutchi; they find it embarrassing and switched to Gujarati, which is seen as being more prestigious. A similar sentiment was felt by Gujarati Indian poet Manisha Joshi who in a 2016 interview17 said “I like Kutchi, as it represents the culture and simplicity of people speaking it and also the unpolished, rough intimacy that the language consists” and that, because as a writer thought of “Kutchi as a ‘regional language’ and Gujarati as a more outward, refined one.”

However, this doesn’t fully explain the religious differences among Kutchi speakers in East Africa. Muslims in the region are not unsophisticated, and Ismaili and Ithna-Asheri Muslims are very well settled and relatively wealthy. A more convincing argument is made by Bharati about language being used in East Africa to cement religious and ethnic divisions. Ismailis and Ithna-Asheri are historically Muslim converts from Lohana Hindus in the 14th century, and Bharati highlights this well-known part of the history of these groups in order to emphasize Kutchi’s role as a point of contention: “The fact that the Ismaili Muslims have been speaking Cutchi with no embarrassment or diffidence might have prompted the Lohanas not to perpetuate it (53).” Kutchi and Gujarati are not, however, the only language indicators of religion in East Africa. In Tanzania, for example, Sunni Asians increasingly use Swahili as their religious language, and Balochis, having lost the Balochi language, now only speak Swahili (and English). Additionally, Ithna-Asheri Muslims speak Swahili as their home language more than Ismaili Muslims, likely owing to the fact that, until the 1970s, Ithna-Asheris tended to be from Zanzibar, and were more likely to intermarry with Africans and Arabs because of their closer theological affinity to Sunni Islam.18 As I continue my oral history interviews with non-Ismaili Muslim Ugandan Asian refugees in South Carolina, I am curious to explore this aspect of Kutchi use.

What of Kutchi in South Carolina?

The five interviews I have conducted so far were with Ismaili Muslims from Uganda currently living in South Carolina. All identified Kutchi as their home language and mother tongue. In this way I relate to them very much: I grew up speaking Kutchi at home, and, as I grew older, spoke a mix of Kutchi and English. As long as I can remember, Swahili was the language my parents spoke to each other when they did not want us kids to understand. And in turn my sister and I spoke to each other in French which, being Canadian, we learned in school, when we didn’t want our parents to understand. My nephews, currently ranging in age from 3 to 10, do not speak Kutchi at all, but understand a few Gujarati words as well as a few Tamil words, as their father is Tamil. The Kutchi language, it seems, is dying with subsequent generations, but growing in its place is a unique mixture of all the languages that have defined our migrations. Like my family in Toronto, the families in South Carolina that I interviewed can fall in and out of several languages in one sentence, taking words from one, syntax from another and conjugation from yet another.

There is, though, something incredibly distinctive about Kutchi for me: the way it tells the history of the migration of my family, and the way it conjures a strong sense of African Asian identity. This identity is one of mixed migrations and imperial dislocations: from West India to East Africa to North America, from Kutchi to Swahili to English, each piece adding to the roadmaps of our lives, never fully leaving any one place or language behind.

My father almost never speaks Gujarati. In my family, my mother’s side speaks Gujarati, my maternal grandparents having migrated to East Africa from Rajkot, Gujarat, whereas my father’s side has been in East Africa for at least 4 generations, and speak Kutchi.19 (Though we have been able to trace one of my great-great grandparents to Kanalus, Gujarat, a Gujarati speaking part of the state, we know less about the others; we’ve decided, though, that we must have some family down the line from the Rann of Kutch – our only indication being the endurance of spoken Kutchi.) Rarely, my father will speak with my masi (mother's sister) in Gujarati, jumping in on a conversation already having started in Gujarati. When my dad says even one sentence in Gujarati, I am caught off guard, and, for a second it throws me off, I even kind of laugh at the strangeness of it. Speaking Gujarati makes him seem so Indian to me; when he switches back to Kutchi, I feel settled again, once more in the comfort of my Tanzanian Asian father. Maybe that’s the box I’m always looking for whenever I need to fill out a form: my father tongue.


1. Historically, Ismailis used the now extinct Khojki script for the language; today, if Kutchi needs to be written, it’s done in the Gujarati or Hindi scripts, and, in the diaspora, it’s transliterated into Roman/English script.
2. Kutchhi, Kachchi, Kachchhi, Kacci, and Cutchi, to name a few. There is no particular reason I use Kutchi, except that it was the first way I learnt how to spell it as a child and have used it ever since.
3. By “Asian” I mean what in American parlance is “South Asian,” but in East Africa Indians whose ancestors migrated to East Africa in the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s are simply known, after 1947, as “Asian.”
4. While historical trade links between the west coast of India and the east coast of Africa go back centuries, permanent settlement of Indians in East Africa commenced in the mid to late 1800’s to the mid 1900s, starting with the colonial construction of the railway from Uganda to the coast of Kenya in the 1890s. The Uganda Railway used Indian indentured labour – over 35,000 “coolies” – of which only 1/5 remained in the region after their contract; this was followed by a more sizable and substantial migration of voluntary economic migrants to the coast and interiors of East Africa, encouraged and facilitated by the structure of the British colonial empire. By the independence era of the 1960s there were 360,000 Asians living in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, many of whom were second or third generation East Africans.
5. Ibrahim, Farhana. “The Region and Its Margins: Re-Appropriations of the Border from 'Mahagujarat' to 'Swarnim Gujarat'.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 47, no. 32, 2012, pp. 66–72.
6. Kassam, A.O. (1980) 'The Linguistic System within the Asian Community in Tanzania (with particular reference to Dar Es Salaam)', in Polomé and Hill (1980: 135-136).
7. Up until independence, most East African education was segregated along racial lines, with Gujarati (because it was a written language) and English being a mode of instruction in Asian schools. Post-independence, Swahili became a mandatory language of instruction alongside English, and Gujarati faded away (Lodhi, Abdulaziz Y., “Convergence of Languages on the East African Coast,” in Isaksson, Bo, et al. Linguistic Convergence and Areal Diffusion: Case Studies from Iranian, Semitic and Turkic, Taylor & Francis Group, 2004).
8. Neal, B. (1974) “Language Use among the Asian Communities,” in W.H. Whiteley (ed.) Language in Kenya, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 263-317.
9. Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa.
10. There was heated debate in my family's WhatsApp group chat about whether the word tapelo is actually Kutchi or Gujarati, and we finally figured out (through Google translate and a friend from Gujarat) that the Gujarati word is tapeli.
11. “Heritage Voices: Language – Kutchi,” Center for Applied Linguistics, 2014 (https://www.cal.org/heritage/pdfs/heritage-voice-language-kutchi.pdf)
12. There is no extensive documentation of Swahili loan words in East African Kutchi, but there is some documentation and linguistic research into the opposite, that is, Kutchi loan words in Swahili. Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, in his 2008 presentation at the Workshop on Language Planning and Language Politics at the Central Institute of Indian Language in Mysore, India, shows that Indic loanwords in Swahili, often thought to have come from Gujarati, are more probably in fact Kutchi loan words. He proposes that this is due to early Indian settlers and traders in East Africa being from the Kutch coastal areas, whereas later settlements were Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speakers: “the influence of these later Indians on the Swahili language and culture is thus not as strong nor deeply rooted as those of the earlier settlers.” For example, in Swahili a bangle is called a bangili, in Kutchi bangli, and in Gujarati bangadi (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259982661_Indians_and_Indic_lan...).
13. Translated to: “In the home we spoke kutchi, our kutchi was different, it wasn’t mixed with khathawari [meaning Kutchi from the region of Kutch/Kathiawar]. Now kutchi has changed a bit, but my daddy was speaking lots of [pure] Kutchi. It’s like you know, like if you say excuse me or move a little further, my dad would say ‘paria hhat’, it means move forward. Ya we don’t say that now. So some of the words my dad used to use, he always use to say bhalah, which mean ‘that’s a good thing that happened’. So my brother in Romania when he sends me a message, he’ll say ‘bhalah that’s good news’ and I would say to him, when did you start saying ‘bhalah bhala’ you are younger than me even. When he remembers our father, he says ‘bhala’. The Kutchi that we speak has a lot of Swahili words in it.” Note that there is no standardized transliteration of Kutchi into English script, so I have used as much phonetic transliteration as I could hear. There is only one Kutchi language ‘dictionary’ that I was able to find, but it is a very informal project of the author and he provides the following ‘Accuracy Disclaimer’, which should also apply to any Kutchi I used here within: “Due to the cultural diversity of the Kutchi-speaking community, and the lack of formal information about the Kutchi language, the documentation posted on KLO is imperfect and should not be deemed 100% accurate. Instead, it should be used to aid the general understanding of the Kutchi language, enabling individuals to pair their backgrounds in the language with the documentation provided in order to synthesize theories that will be understood in their own respective communities.” (Accuracy Disclaimer, Kutchi Language Online, http://kutchilanguageonline.org/accuracy-disclaimer.html).
14. Of important note is that the mixing of Kutchi and Swahili goes back centuries – as far back as the trade between the two regions – and in the East African region there are many sub-dialects that have been identified, though not all are still present. Lodhi notes in particular “those of Sunni Muslims (heavily infused with Perso-Arabic and Swahili words and phrases), of Bhatia and Cutchi Banya/Wania Hindus (with much Gujarati intrusion) and of Shia Ismailis and Ithna Asheri (with Persian-Arabic, Swahili and Gujarati influence). Along the Kenya coast, one finds a less Swahili-influenced form of Cutchi called Kibadala in Kimvita (Mombasa Swahili). It was the language of Kalua, the Indian sailors (belonging to the Sunni Muslim Badala and Kharwa castes) coming to East Africa during the Omani period. Kikumbaro is a swahilized Cutchi form spoken as a mother tongue by Indian Sunni Muslims in Tanzania, with its base in Zanzibar Town and southern Unguja Island. The term Kikumbaro is derived from the Kumbar caste of potters of Cutch who beginning in the 1820s settled in the Ng’ambo area outside Zanzibar Town and the Hadimu/Shirazi villages of Makunduchi, Kizimkazi, Jambiani, Paje, Muyuni, Unguja Ukuu and Fumba in southern Zanzibar. They owned pottery workshops and limestone kilns and intermarried with the Hadimu/Shirazi.” These distinctions were not identified by my interviewees.
15. In East Africa the following tightly held religious divisions are maintained: Sunni Muslims, Shia Ismailis Muslims, Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslims, Shia Bohora Muslims, Hindu Batia, Hindu Wania, Hindu Patel, Jains, Sikhs, Goan Catholics and a small Parsee community from Zanzibar (Lodhi, 2008).
16. Bharati, Agehananda. 1972. The Asians in East Africa: Jayhind and Uhuru. Chicago: Nelson- Hall.
17. Jadeja, Gopika “Dislocation, Desire and Dissonance: Poetry from 21st Century Gujarat,” Indian Literature, 296 (2016).
18. Lodhi, 2008.
19. Different home languages is not a deciding factor in marriages within the same religion, and for Ismailis it is very common to have one parent’s family speak Gujarati at home and the other Kutchi; regardless of individual home languages, most family members speak both Kutchi and Gujarati fluently. Greg Thomson also found this to be the case in his study in Albuquerque, NM of Kutchi as a distinctively Ismaili ‘in-language’ (Thomson, Greg (2000) "Language and Ethnicity Among a Group of Pentalingual Albuquerqueans," Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session: Vol. 44 , Article 6).

Omme-Salma Rahemtullah is a recent transplant to the American South - Columbia, South Carolina. Born in Tanzania and raised in Toronto, Omme's work as a community programmer and academic has explored questions of identity, race and belonging. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.