Kenya’s Indians can light fireworks on Diwali—as long as they make no noise

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A boy in downtown Nairobi watches Diwali fireworks in 2007—back when they made noise.
A boy in downtown Nairobi watches Diwali fireworks in 2007—back when they made noise.
Image: Reuters/Antony Njuguna

NAIROBI, Kenya—What is Diwali without fireworks?

Kenyans are about to find out for the third year in a row.

Terrorism fears here, a little more than a month after the Westgate mall attacks, have prompted a ban on fireworks during the Indian holiday, often celebrated with the eating of sweets, the exchange of gifts, the lighting of candles, and lots of fireworks.

Government officials say they fear that criminals and terrorists could use the cover of fireworks and festivities to infiltrate crowds and cause mayhem. This will be the third year the government is imposing a ban.

It’s putting a damper on some celebrations. Ansuya Patel, 55, says that usually Diwali means gathering at someone’s house, or at one of the gymkhanas, or community clubs. This year however, she says, the meals, parties, and even jewelry will be simple, mainly comprised of close family members gathering. She will be going to the temple that day. (Diwali falls on Nov. 3.)

Although the government has permitted the use of “noiseless” fireworks, several members of the Hindu community here say they won’t even bother and would prefer to keep revelry low key. Patel says: “This time there won’t even be the noiseless fireworks. We do not plan to visit this year, and we are not expecting visitors. We will celebrate simply.”

Celebrations have been muted since Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011. Now, fears of attacks by Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group behind the Westgate mall attack (along with a recent spike in violent crime) has snuffed out the remaining sparks.

In previous years, Diwali for Vikas Shah, 32, would have been synonymous with “cookouts, fireworks, huge family gatherings, and celebrations a week in advance.” This year however, he says that out of respect for what happened at Westgate, and due to security concerns, celebrations would be muted, and that “very few” would partake in noiseless fireworks. Shah adds: “The festive part of Diwali has all gone.”

It’s the prevailing mood in the country, says Swaran Verma, chairman of Kenya’s Hindu Council. The Indian community lost more than 20 of its own, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, in the Sept. 21 attacks. Verma said that the focus this year during Diwali would be on prayer and not entertainment. He added that the estimated Hindu community of 70,000 had received approval to use noiseless fireworks, which light up but make no sound.