Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cyprian Fernandes: An academic's view of Goans in East Africa

Goans history: facts, East African figures and more!

Community, Memory and Migration

In a globalising world

The Goan experience c. 1890-1980

Oxford University Press 2014

Margret Frenz


On the face of it, it would appear to the seasoned Kenyan Goan that Margret Frenz, in her new tome, has little or nothing to offer about their saga in Africa. While the focus is on East African Goans, Kenyan Goans take the larger share of the book.


If you have a really good read of this book, it will surprise you pleasantly, only if you have an orgasm of the mind reading reams and reams of soulless statistics. There is a tiny saving grace: the early history of travel from Goa to Zanzibar sparks a tiny bit of interest but is of little or no relevance to the young, uninitiated reader. Younger East African Goans do not have this aspect of their early history on easy recall.

I have always found it hard to find credibility with the so called professional authors who have written about Goans in East Africa without having lived there, without the Eastern African DNA in their blood, or the pain, suffering, tears, heartbreak, prejudice, the adoration of the Portuguese, the humility, the pride, the fault-lines in Goan heritage, as well as the joy, the laughter, the love, the carefree, wind-in-your hair, genes in your soul. You have to have experience the spirituality deformity from cow-towing to the British settle and officer class, or any white person for that matter. However, come what may, you have to have been able to put everything out of your mind and camouflaged both your mind and face with that hmmm! of the heart and made the best of a bad situation without even once thinking about it. If you are not a East African born full blood, you bring nothing to their anthology or their history. These writers are better off writing about what they have lived. There are exceptions to this rule, I am sure but that is the realm of genius.


Frenz also has great attention to detail, stats and facts and figures lots of trivia: The first preserved volume of passports in Goa State Archives contains the years 1768-9 but is hardly legible. The next lot in 1817 were handwritten pieces of paper giving the first and last name of the person who wanted to travel, their birth date and their destination.


Did you know, for example, this edict from the Portuguese consulate in Nairobi?

“Goan is an Overseas Province of Portugal and not a Colony or Dominion.

“Consequently, the word GOAN does not indicate nationality but solely that one is a native from a Portuguese Province as the words Welsh and Scotch mean that persons so indicated are natives from such and such British Provinces.



My experience of academic writing is that it rarely captures the romance, the spirit or the soul of their subject matter. In Frenz’s case she relies on her interviewees to transfer the magic of illustrious writing in their own words to the reader. In that she fails pretty miserably. It may have been her intention to capture the authenticity of the time and place by using people who still speak in that kind of Goan English with all its idiosyncrasies. This I suspect would give some readers a real dose of the cultural cringe since it is these types of specks of dust from the Goan past most of them would rather forget.


For example: “We had caste – means – we had caste among ourselves in Goan this thing. But tailors were kept separate – you know tailors – you know tailors – know? – Only the  tailors were kept separate – others we have – know – Brahmins – Sudhras – and what not. We have – but those people – tailors – tailors – I did not know – they were kept separate – that had their own institute – they used to call – tailor club – tailors’ club – they had separate. We Goans had ours – means other Goans – had separate – but of course they were (Brahmin) caste there. They were not all Brahmins there – but we had this caste –Brahmins and all of them. But ahh – somehow – they had – they used to say –we have – white collar – we are doing white collar jobs. So whatever – mostly those people were that side and tailors were on this side – we were doing only tailoring – taking orders for clothes – where – get a lot. But I think now everything is quite different that side – yah – by those days it was like that – separate.”


Their ire would be quite understandable for an immigrant tribe which was lauded by the colonials for their English, their manners, their etiquette, and all the trimmings that made them “brown skin Englanders” and in a privileged class in the Colonial Civil Service, some wearing hats, but all resplendent in white shirt and tie or those jazzy double-breasted hot threads, shoes polished to the point they were a mirror for your face when you looked down. Yet, not everyone spoke Queen’s English especially not most of the tailors, carpenters, shoemakers and others of their ilk.


If the reader is bombarded with much more of this direct translation into word from the tape recorder, I am sure they would feel the same way as I did …. UUUUhhhh!!: Why?

The Goan story is a fairly straight-forward one:

Goans left a mainly subsistence economy in search of work and a new life. They were encouraged by Portuguese to do so, secretly hoping some of them would land on African colonies, Mozambique or Angola.

Some of them were fairly well educated by standards at the time; others spoke just about enough English to get by. Yet others did not and created a Konglish or sorts.

They were Catholic; they were pious churchgoers and had a lot of faith in their religion.

They were diligent. They were loyal. They were trustworthy. They were reliable. And they were subservient. They bowed their heads to the white man.

Next to church, they loved their social clubs. The men like a beer or two or more, cards and everyone loved dances, parties, bingo and lots of sport.

Most of all they focussed on giving their children everything they never had.

They gave alms, kept the Sabbath at the club (everyday nearly, for that matter).

The wife and mother was the greatest heroine. Though she walked in the shadow of her husband, she was still empress of her domain until Dad came home. As a home maker, as an unstinting support for her husband who got on with the job of earning for the family, he got to go about his business without a care or thought for home. By the time he got back from work or the club, everything was cooked, clean and ready.

And they enjoyed a privileged position in the British colony. One interview:  ... In Bombay, when I first came, it came as a shock when I heard people saying "Goans are ABC"; and I said, "what is ABC?" -- it is Ayays, Butlers and Cooks. Right, ok, I found it tremendously insulting, right, because in East Africa we were placed on a level which was higher than other Indians -- ahh -- this came as a shock to my system.

Few will remember that East Africa was serviced by three civil services: The British Civil Service (expatriates and settlers), the African Civil Service, and the Asian Civil Service (just as their brothers were masters of the sea in the dining halls, the cabins, bars, of passenger ships, the Goans were the masters of the civil service, a peg or two just below the British masters.

If they loved God with all their hearts, they were equally forceful in ensuring their caste, class and people of a particular ilk and rank were kept as pure as Hitler’s Aryans. The three clubs in Kenya: The Goan Institute, The Railway Goan Institute and the Goan Gymhana kept each other’s member out and all three kept out the riff-raff: tailors, carpenters, shoe makers, mechanics and the like… until it was politically incorrect to do so.

They were always loyal citizens of Portugal, but always torn between the devil they knew and the British they didn’t. I worked in the Colonial Civil Service for a couple of years. While I was there, I met a very gentle and docile man. He was generally quiet and rarely spoke. He spoke only in the softest of tones, constantly nodding his head and each line of the spoken word punctuated by “yes sir, yes sir.” I once asked him if he ever had to say “no sir, no sir”.

Never, he said. Why? Why do you always bow when you talk him? That is the way I was taught. Anyway, it is out of respect for his position. Not his colour? You are a stupid boy. Don’t talk like that. Your father did not teach you? How to behave?

I have never forgotten the look of horror on his face. Needless to say, even though the job was exciting, the subservience was not and I went walkabout and straight into journalism late in 1960. I was of a different generation and a different time.

It wasn't before I calling most white folk by their first names. And if someone said "you mean Mr XYZ" I would retort "You mean Mr Fernandes". There was none of this crap when I joined the Nation and fell in love with everyone there. Everyone, including our beloved drivers, the tea boys, the cleaners, were all equal. For that time in history, the Nation came close to some sort of a people's paradise.


If Frenz lacks soul then she more than makes it up with portraiture and her gallery is well worth a visit.

The portrait of Goan Education is straightforward yet concise. There is plenty of recognition for Goan educators, not by individual name, but as a teaching body. Even the Dr Ribeiro Goan School reunions get a mention.


A few Goans went into business, real estate, a little farming and not much more. They were not considered they had what it takes in business. And of course, there was always the Colonial Civil Service of which they were the real masters (or should I say the Clayton’s masters).

And of course, they were all Portuguese. And the Portuguese were good friends of the British.



Then, of course, it was time to leave for Goa, Portugal, the UK, US, Canada and other foreign parts. Africa’s version of the wandering Jews. And in most cases, a blessing in disguise -- I am loving it.


·         Cyprian Fernandes was a Kenyan-born investigative journalist, now living in Sydney, Australia.

·        Margret Frenz is a Lecturer in Global and Imperial History at the History Faculty and St Cross College, University of Oxford.  



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