Manilal Ambalal Desai was born in India in 1879. He came to Kenya in 1916 and worked as a clerk for a Nairobi firm of European solicitors. It was not long before he became aware of the conditions under which his fellow Indians had to work. He also saw the conditions under which the Africans labored in their motherland. He felt that the root cause of these inequalities was racial prejudice which troubled him greatly and exercised his mind at length.
Manilal Ambalal Desai
At one stage he set out to establish himself in business but found that this left him little time to give to the service of his fellow Indians, nor could he do much for the Africans who he considered had a claim on him. He therefore closed down his business, took up public life and became associated with the East African Indian National Congress. Initially he was not an official of that body and only set out to revitalize it after the 1914-1918 war years. Through the congress he sought equal rights for all.
In his fight for better conditions for Indians, he never forgot his duty to the African. Quite often this meant he put their cause first. He was always available to anyone who sought his guidance or advice. His services to his fellow Indians were many and varied. He convened and arranged a round table conference of European and Indian leaders to find an amicable answer to what had become known as the Indian Question. Sir Edward Northey, the then Governor of the colony, was invited to preside over the conference and be the principal speaker, while Mr. Desai presented the Indian case.
He was the chief spokesman for the Indians in East Africa at the Colonial office in London in 1923 whose officials were impressed by the fairness of their case and the manner in which it was presented. Before going to London he had been elected president of the East African Indian National Congress. After the presentation of the white paper in july 1923 he travelled to India and persuaded Shrimati Sarojini Naidu to come to East Africa and preside over the fifth session of the Congress the which was held in Mombasa in 1924. As a result of that Congress the Indian Question in Kenya obtained Empire-wide publicity and thereafter India started taking an increased interest in questions affecting Indians in those territories.
When the Indian community accepted nomination to the legislative council in Kenya , private elections were held in which Mr.Desai topped the poll. Right up until the time of his death his interest in his fellow Indians and Africans neither flagged nor did his popularity wane. He was respected by Indians and Africans alike and by Government.
His friends and fellow Indians have kept his memory green by erecting the public hall which bears his name – The Desai Memorial Hall- the foundation stone of which was laid by Shrimati Sarojini Naidu on 5th December 1929 when she was invited to Kenya to preside over the 9 th session of the East African Indian National Congress. The Opening ceremony was performed by Seth Nanji Kalidas Mehta of Uganda on 23rd May 1934.