Anti-imperialist Resistance by Progressive South Asian Kenyans, 1884-1965



ISBN 9789966097415 – Published in Kenya by Vita Books 2017


The message of this book is that against colonial oppression there was resistance, and `Liberating Minds` were the voices of activists and others who opposed British rule in Kenya. This represented a strand of history that has been selectively pieced together and documented here. The raison d'être of the work however is Nazmi Durrani, and it is his considered writings about them that form the main thrust of the narrative, supplemented with biographical notes about his own background and trajectory.  These point to his `transition from a left-leaning intellectual to a political activist` within a relatively short timescale from the end of the 1970s to his untimely death on July 1, 1990 at the age of 48.  It was during this period that he wrote purposefully in original Gujarati, and some in Kiswahili.  Readers of Opinion may recall the series of his Biographies of Progressive South Asian Kenyans which appeared on this forum last year (2016).  These are now republished yet again, with English translations.

What we learn is that Nazmi chose to write in Gujarati and publish his articles in a non-mainstream magazine, Alakmalak (અલકમલક), to escape Kenya`s post-colonial state censorship, a fate that had befallen his brother [Shiraz] who “had been hounded out” of there by government agents for writing about one of those (progressive) heroes that he, Nazmi, had been researching and recording, namely Pio Gama Pinto.  Alakmalak was a minority outlet and so he also wrote poems and other material in Kiswahili in order “to reach the majority of the working classes in Kenya.”

In the first part of the book are set out Nazmi`s Biographies of Progressive South Asian Kenyans: Manilal A Desai (1878-1926), Makhan Singh (1913-1973), Ambubhai Patel (1919-1977), Pio Gama Pinto (1927-1965) et al; a chapter on Patriotic Kenyans: Journalists, Editors, Publishers, Printers (in three parts); and a review of the 1977 film Moolu Manek (મુલુમાણેક) – all in Gujarati followed by English translations. Next is a five-page section entitled `Remembering Heroes and their Achievements` with pictorial graphics, reprinted from a previous book by Shiraz Durrani.

Then, under the rubric `South Asian Kenyan Resistance in Historical Context`, comes the longest single piece, spread over 27 pages: Naila Durrani`s 1987 paper `South Asian Kenya Participation in People`s Resistance`, originally prepared for presentation to a conference of Kenyan overseas political organisations which came together in London to form a united front aligned to the underground Mwakenya-December Twelve Movement dedicated to fight the authoritarian regime of President Moi.  This was a wide-ranging discourse in which, among other things, she traced the evolution of the Kenya Asian working class in conflict with the exploitative powerhouses of the big British financiers and industrialists of the  early colonial period into a successful and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie of petty traders, merchants, technicians and professionals who, though in the past had played a pivotal role in the fight against imperial rule, aiding and joining hands with their indigenous African counterparts, nevertheless have at different points since during the journey “been exposed to double oppression as a class and as a minority nationality far removed from their land of origin” and who “often seek protection by looking up to the few, very rich members of the upper and the middle petty bourgeois Asian Kenyans.”  Her focus however was on the historical class basis of the conflict between ruler and subject, going back to the building of the railway and the influence of the worldwide anticolonial Ghadar movement that had spurred its followers in Kenya to resort to revolutionary activity during WWI resulting in imprisonment and death sentences for some of them.  She also discussed the rise and role of the progressive Asian stalwarts mentioned above.

Other chapters follow in a similar vein, with a mix of articles by Nazmi extracted from Alakmalak with English translations and what appears to be an original piece in English, `Background to Class Formation and Class Struggle`, followed by `An Introductory Reader` on `Kenya`s Fight for Freedom`, also by him.

The next item featured in this section of the book is a most fascinating and revelatory contribution by Benegal Pereira about the `Life and Times of Eddie H Pereira (1915-1995)`, his father, whom he justly and proudly describes in the title as `Indian Nationalist Extraordinaire in Kenya`.  Eddie was a fiercely anti-colonial Kenya Indian Goan patriot, who was born in Mombasa in 1915, in the middle of WWI.  As Benegal writes: “He lived through a still greater war, and more significantly, witnessed the end of colonialism in both India and Kenya and the rise of these new nations from their more or less bloody births and their memories of ancient splendours”.  His passion to fight for freedom and equality was inspired by his time in India as a student during the 1930s at the height of the nationalist movement, and so when he returned to Kenya, fired up by Gandhian ideals, he began to make his opposition to colonial rule vocal in whatever way he could.  He became famous for his feisty and fearlessly expressed letters to newspapers in which he castigated not only the white ruling class and structure of government but also his fellow Goans for siding with the imperialists and for their Portuguese-Indian split psyche and pretensions.  He always boldly signed off these letters with `Jai Hind`.  He wore traditional Indian clothes made of khadi and sported a white Gandhi cap, and his profile in that attire adorns the chapter and makes a stunning impression. He had attained such notoriety and so offended the authorities as to be hauled before a court on a trumped up charge (which was more in the nature of a civil wrong than a criminal act) and sentenced to a term of six months` imprisonment.   A number of these letters have been reproduced in the book. These, under such headings as `These Whites`, `Equality for Goans`, `Goans` Unity` and his contemptuous dismissal of `Portuguese Metroplitan Status for Goa`, stand as proof of the ferocity of his views.  He was, alas, murdered in Nairobi on January 25, 1995, and the case has remained unsolved to date.  As Benegal informs us, he left behind the manuscripts of three unfinished books: one was to be his autobiography, while the other two were entitled `A Trail Blazer Century: The History of Indians in Kenya` and `Goans in Kenya: A New Breed.` These he is hoping to publish in due course.

The next section, headed `Nazmi Durrani: Biographical Notes`, contains a mixture of reflections on Nazmi`s life and career by several of his friends and (again) his brother Shiraz, together with a poem by and other literary references to Nazmi`s work. The book concludes with an explanatory introduction to the Index, pointing to the rationale for identification of the key figures listed in there.   

But despite the fact that the book bears the imprimatur of a Foreword by our own Vipoolbhai Kalyani, and that it has been well received at public launches in Nairobi, I am afraid a few words of friendly criticism are in order and hopefully will be taken in that spirit.

First, the book`s fourfold long title lacks any reference to it having been edited by anyone. It is implicit in the very nature of the collection and its presentation that the work is the product of an editorial enterprise and the person responsible for it appears to be Shiraz Durrani, perhaps with the assistance of a or more than one member of the Durrani clan! Why not therefore say so?  There are also, alas, several editorial flaws in the book.  The significance of the dates 1884-1965 in the subtitle is not readily apparent.  Admittedly Pio Pinto was assassinated in 1965, but the addition of Eddie Pereira prolongs the time span to 1995.  More importantly, the listing in the Index of many names (some of which are misspelt, as is Makhan Singh`s name in Gujarati at page 35) does not correspond with the actual pagination, and the same applies to items under Contents – no doubt this could be due to a failure of coordination at the print stage!  There is also much repetitive retracing of Nazmi`s life and career in Shiraz`s Preface and Highlights of an Activist`s Life, and some chapter classifications could have been better arranged or signposted. That said, other aspects – details of publication, acknowledgements etc – and the Gujarati/English content and format generally do give a wholesome and professional touch to the book.

The life-stories of the progressive anti-imperialists of the main title have been the subject of countless articles, books and other literature and are familiar to the older breed of Kenya Asians, whether resident or in diaspora.  To that extent, there is nothing new in the restatement of their respective contributions to the struggle for freedom and equality in Kenya (and the inclusion of Eddie Pereira is a welcome addition).  The value of the book is really as a record of one man`s valiant attempt to put or interpret that history in the wider context of class politics - namely that of Nazmi Durrani, to whom it also partly serves as a biographical tribute, buttressed by his like-minded friends and family - and as an educational tool for the present younger and future generations of all Kenyans worldwide.

Ramnik Shah © 2017

e.mail : [email protected]

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews


Ramnik Shah

Home Between Crossings by Sultan Somjee

ISBN 10: 1508586373

CreateSpace, Charleston SC 29418 USA 

(c) Sultan Somjee 2016 - 629 pp

The `Home` of the title is Kenya, a longish stop-gap in the even longer journey of the Ismaili Khoja community from its origins in India to East Africa and then from there across to Europe and America, during which it has transformed itself into a very modern social species. In this sequel to Bead Bai (ખોટા-મોતી-ના-સાચા-વેપારી--by-Sultan-Somjee), which was about the original migration and settlement (the first crossing), the focus is on the Devji family`s locally born off-spring.  Here, their story spans virtually the whole of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of the country`s immense political and other fundamental changes as they were taking shape.  It is a fascinating and absorbing narrative, told most imaginatively and with great flair and fluency by an accomplished author.

The book is a work of fiction, but one that is best described as creative fiction, founded on historical fact and grounded in family and folk lore. And so we again meet Sakina, born in Nairobi`s Indian Bazaar in 1922 on the day Harry Thuku was arrested by the colonial government for leading an anti-pass protest, and are drawn into her life as it unfolds in bits and pieces, some of which would be familiar to readers of Bead Bai.

Njugu Lane, the Merali Bus Stop on River Road, the Kenya Broadcasting Station`s Hindustani Service, the overflowing flooded Nairobi River - the signposting of these long-forgotten names and places certainly resonates with this reviewer, who lived through most of the period in question as a second generation Indo-Kenyan. These early references morph into other later landmarks as Nairobi developed while at the same time Sakina`s family grew and her community`s tentacles spread further.

Woven through the book`s complex structure of her family`s trajectory is a veritable history lesson, of its Ismaili and Indian cultural heritage and of the making of Kenya as a nation out of its colonial past.  The chapter headings are grouped in sixteen parts, and under each of which we get a measure of what they contain. In Part Two: The Keeper of Stories, for instance, we have `My photo album` and `What love? What India?` where, while looking at some of the pictures, Zera Bai exclaims: “I wish my Rhemu would take me to the Taj Mahal for a picture.  I want to see India. Kacch and Gujarat”.  On this our narrator ruminates:

What Kacch? What Gujarat? What India?  … distant pictures … not even mine.  Vicarious pictures that stir my heart yet I have not been there.  Pictures like some witch`s crafted tales imagined from an ancient land.  Nor are they tales in my father`s head.  Hazy, frightful tales in Dadabapa`s malaria nightmares. Dark pictures in memory`s pulses of the orphaned child in him.  They live in pain of yearning, sighs of loss, and far away words of an immigrant. Words like dhow, Bombay, Saurashtra, Haripur, raj, Kala Pani, des, avatar and Taj Mahal.  They come from the motherland of Indian Khoja recalled in dying memories two generations gone by.  Yet the emotions live in the mist-like nostalgia.  Now the ancient is resurrected, made new and modern.  Beauty portrayed in love photos before the Taj Mahal, and in the cinema, the hideout of Indians of Africa to bond with the origins in half-hearted thoughts.

This neatly encapsulates the pre-history of the first migration, but Somjee gives us much more in terms of the detail and of the  emotions and practicalities involved in everyday living, such as in Part Three, under `Freda and Kamau`: 

I hear Kabir`s whispered voice from the washroom teasing Freda, calling her Farida, lovingly mimicking Ma who could not remember the name of our house help even after constant right name lessons from him.  During the day, I see how sixteen year old Freda, the Kamba girl from the Catholic Mission of Nairowua, plays with my children.  How happy they are when she sings to them while [giving] them a bath and then Looking at Freda, passing barefoot on the powdery red earth, I would often think of Hawa, our maidservant in Nairobi when I was little.  How she used to take me around Jugu Bazaar, sometimes on her back in a kanga wrap, sometimes, I walked by her side with her little finger hooked into my big finger.

So reminiscent of one`s own childhood!  In Part Four (Land is a broken string of beads), there are close-ups on a fast changing Nairobi: how it `grew bigger and bigger with increasing railway and road traffic`, stone buildings replacing wooden ones, `as was the trend in the new elegantly planned capital of British East African Empire`, `Nairobi`s classic Victorian and Edwardian architecture, brought to perfection by fine Indian masonry in sand and grey granite stone`: `Law courts, railway headquarters, financial houses, the city hall, cathedrals, the European market and the post office … on garden avenues.` And then there was `the imposing Khoja Mosque, the jamat khana, the heart of Satpanth Khoja life where Government Road, Victoria Street and the India Bazaar come together … the hub of Indian commerce and fashion`.

But the tri-partite racial hierarchy was an embedded reality, with `cinemas, play houses and international hotels plainly marked EUROPEANS ONLY at the entrances [while] Oriental temples, mosques, with tall minarets [and] Churches with bell towers stand in assigned denominational spaces for Roman Catholics and Anglicans [and the] Europeans only live on high ridges, the browns in-between like at the malarious swampland of Ngara and not-to-be-seen blacks in the new stone built kiosk type housing estates on the dry barren plains at outskirts of Shauri Moyo, Kariobangi and Mbotela`.

Then in `Who are they, the Mau Mau?` and `Man called Kenyatta, Father of the Nation`:

Every day we listen to the radio and want to know more about the Mau Mau, the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country.  It is not because we just want to understand that we ask each other … but because the tone of the newsman on the radio puts so much alarm in us that we seek comfort speaking out our nervousness to each other. 

While their menfolk talk of and parrot the negative things they hear the Europeans say about Kenyatta, the Khoja women react with cries of `kisirani` and `Misfortune coming`.  Sakina is conflicted: `Where do I belong?  Whose side am I on? A brown person, not white, not black.  Not a man`, either.   `Something is changing in Kenya` indeed. And `When elephants fight` (in Part Five) `Africa is Black and White  Brown is invisible`!

She recalls how the partition of India caused a rift between the Hindus and Muslims of Kenya, during which her own community became the butt of mockery as `Khoja Khoja centi moja` - reduced to being only one cent`s worth!  But she always remained steadfast in her reverential regard for Gandhi, even to the point of arguing with Haiderali her husband about Gandhi`s fight against British rule.

Somjee quotes the African saying `Tembo wavili wapiganapo burusha fumbi`, translated into English as `When two elephants fight they raise dust`, with its Gujarati equivalent as જયારે બે હાથી લટે તયારે કીડી કચરાય whose English translation is given as `When two elephants fight ants get trampled`.  The correct Gujarati version however should surely read as જયારે બે હાથી લડે તયારે કીળી કચરાય? (Incidentally, in the Gujarati/English lullaby at page 29, the second line should really be પાટલે બેસીને નાય, the third line પાટલો ખસી જાય and the fourth  be હીરો મારો પળે હસી).

But as for `On whose side shall we be?  White or Black to escape the fate of ants?` the author is all seeing and objective.  He is meticulous and fair in his overview and deeper analysis of the dynamics of African nationalism. He remembers the part played by such stalwarts as Ambu Bhai and Makhan Singh, Isher Dass and Jaswant Singh, and `printer scholar Vidyarthi and grunting journalist Ahmed` in the struggle for Kenya`s independence. 

And yet of course there is suspicion, fear and hate all around them.  These are tricky times.  Independence is on the horizon.  Kenyatta is all sweetness and welcoming.  The chapter `Cowboys and Indians` begins with `True democracy has no colour.  It does not choose between black and white …`, says he on the radio.  He urges his Kikuyu menfolk not to drink if they want to increase their population and preaches `equal pay for equal work for all`!

But it is not all politics that is driving the Devji family. Sakina`s inner musings are a constant reminder of much else that was going on in their lives.  The children`s education, livelihood and marriage prospects occupy the elders as much as daily business and domestic concerns. On the cultural front, Gujarati gives way to English (`Losing Gujarati`): `Look forward.  Get educated`, but Sakina wonders :

… if English would be better than Gujarati for our sacred texts … what I know is that Gujarati gives Vedanta a memory … Satpanth the wisdom I need to live through these times of changes when African voices and violence put fear in the heart [and most] of all, Gujarati gives ginan the melody … (t)he language that has preserved Saheb for six hundred years in the hearts of the Satpanthis? 

Gujarati is the very essence of her identity, as well as being the home language.  She struggles with its changing profile. Under `Gujarati rhymes and rhythms` we read about her anguish:

As the gap between my children and me widens … I become … assertive about speaking in Gujarati with the children  … [they] would listen to me speaking in Gujarati but their answers would be in English  … I feel frustrated and rebuke the children … [but] what can the children do?  Everyone else speak[s] to [them] in English, but to each other they speak in Gujarati with some Swahili.

And the unmentionables also get an airing: for example, Riziki, Shamshu`s `kept` Swahili  woman in Mombasa with whom he has a son, Issa, and the resulting social complications are explored in `Of Cross Eyed and Sheep Headed Khojas of Mombasa`!     

But change is everywhere and relentless. Part Ten is devoted to the `Era of Great Propaganda Betrayal of Hate and Humiliation`, with the `Tyranny of Nationalism` as its centrepiece. It took many shapes and turns :

In Kenya, interestingly, integration was reasoned as possible only through blood mixing. But that was one sided … marriages of Asian girls to African men … the trump card of male dominated African nationalism that primarily targeted robbing the Asians of their marriages.

`Asian two-facedness` became the mantra of political discourse, fuelling popular anger and resentment, most vocally expressed by Kenyatta himself at his public rallies, denouncing the Asians as `thieves, looters and whores` – blood sucking bedbugs!  So it was hardly surprising to be called `You Indian … Paper Citizens`, with threats of Africanisation and worse. The Asians developed strategies of survival, as do all minorities everywhere. Some of them worked, while others were denounced as mere `window dressing`. There was the notorious case of the young son of a petrol station owner who after personally filling up a minister`s Mercedes Benz to the full politely asked him for payment, the reaction to which was a slap on the face and a volley of insults (“You Asian exploiter!  Mhindi.  Out of Kenya, you Asian whore.  And leave this petrol station to me”!) as the MP drover off without paying, leaving him to nurse his cheek and feeling utterly humiliated before all his staff and others who witnessed the incident.  In reality, this was something that most of Nairobi`s Asians got to hear of on the grapevine within days and caused the Khojas talk of migration to Canada :

In Canada, you can keep your culture and religion. You do not have to [intermarry] with the white people or the Aboriginals.  Saheb [the Aga Khan] is a friend of the Prime Minister and visits Canada.  They both like multiculuralism.

Kenyatta`s time passes, but not before the Asian emigration fever reaches `Exodus` proportions.  He is succeeded by Moi.  A more favourable climate in terms of business partnerships and economic expansion ensues and fosters a sense of complacency until an attempted coup brings back violent outbursts against the Asians seen by the Kikuyu elite previously powerful as his cronies and so there is renewed pressure to leave. For Sakina too, Canada beckons and, after getting immigration clearance and completing all the formalities, the book ends as she contemplates her departure from the land of her birth, on the second crossing to her new home.  

These are only some of the highlights of narrative.  There is a great deal more packed into it in graphic detail, weaving a complex web of relationships, interactions and historical happenings as they impacted upon the lives of the characters and their community at the centre of the tale – all of which extended to and embraced outsiders as well. The native African presence is just as strong as in Bead Bai. The legendary Ole Lekakeny crops up here and there, but then we also get a glimpse of the Kenyan TV`s top comedian Mzee Tembe`s satirical caricature of the proverbial Indian shopkeeper!

Home Between Crossings however is more than just a family saga in the classic tradition of, say, The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), One Hundred Years of Solitude  (Gabriel García Márquez) or The Immigrants (Howard Fast).  It is also an epic, albeit a fictional, account of a people`s passage across the oceans through time and space – that of the Khojas.  But although it presents their perspective – and Somjee writes as an Ismaili insider - it is also representative of other Asians in Kenya (and East Africa generally) during the time-scale in question. The people in the other communities could relate to everything that happened to the Devji family because they too went through parallel experiences at all levels and in more or less the same way. 

Above all, Home Between Crossings is not just a work of fiction, it is a personification of Kenya`s history of the twentieth century. Somjee has undoubtedly used his first-hand lived experience to chart every significant turning point in the march of the country from colony to republic.  Nothing remains untouched.  Together with Bead Bai, he has created a literary masterpiece that will also serve as a historical record of our time, of particular interest to those of us in the diaspora who share his Kenyan background, and one that will benefit future generations of scholars as well.  I was privileged to read the manuscript online and must say the published version is an impressive document.

RAMNIK SHAH (c) 2017

Category :- Diaspora / Reviews