Yesterday in Paradise:
Goa'n to Kenya: stories of another era
Goan migrants to Bombay might be the most numerous, those to the Gulf probably saw the biggest changes happen in their lifestyles, while recent migrants to Britain have undeniably taken their Konkani culture to places like Swindon in rather unique ways.
Yet, for some reason, the Goan expatriate in Africa has been often discussed, written about and focussed on. Among the Goan 'Africander' in ex-British East Africa, those from Kenya seem to retain the highest profile.
Along comes a new book by former journalist Cyprian Fernandes, on the Goan experience in Nairobi and other aspects of life in that country. It's called 'Yesterday in Paradise: 1950-1974' and promises "a memoir filled with prejudice, murder, conflict and more". So, does Sydney-based Fernandes achieve his goal?
If you dive in to Chapter 14, you encounter "Idi Amin, Milton Obote". Which Africander Goan would not have their lives touched by these names? This chapter starts off with Obote calling Fernandes a "colonial stooge", apparently for asking inconvenient questions while both were in Singapore. Soon, a drunk South African seaman tells Fernandes sneeringly that "another black gorilla has come to power in Africa". In no time, Milton Obote (who has just lost power) and Cyprian Fernandes are back, on the same plane mind you, headed for Africa.
Without visas, Fernandes says, he crosses the Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania borders. He is apparently having one hell of an adventurous time when four armed soldiers rush in, and tell him: "You must come with us."
For a while, Fernandes lets us think that he is about to meet his maker. But, of course, he didn't, otherwise we wouldn't have got this far with his story. What comes out next is an amazing mix of bravado, bluster and .... I won't say bull, because to verify his story all one needs to do is to somehow access the newspapers of those times in some dusty library, and you'll get to know.
In Cyprian's life, incidents are invariably king sized. Here's another description of his encounter with that Ugandan military dictator who would soon hound off an estimated 50,000 South Asians from his country: "I sat there for nearly two and half hours and listened to a pack of lies.... I liked the guy. He was simple but sincere, and he appeared genuine about cleaning up Uganda."
In case you were wondering about his own link with journalism, Fernandes gives the background. The oldest frontline newspaper in Kenya, the East African Standard, was an out and out White British settler newspaper. Once the Aga Khan launched the Daily and Sunday newspapers, some space opened up. The Daily Nation gave Kenyans "a taste of what real press freedom was about" (p.107) he writes.
This is the kind of book that you can read at a stretch, or just dive in, whichever part catches your fancy. On nights when my 13-year-old was in a rebellious mood and keen to avoid his reading quota, I'd pluck out a chapter from here, and chances are he'd be quickly drawn in to the story from another continent, another culture and another century.
In 22 short chapters, Fernandes tells the story of the situations he encountered. In the media world, the Goans of Kenya, and amidst dramatic times overall. The first few chapters have titles such as Goan Migration, Nairobi -- the Early Days, Eastleigh -- Unforgettable, and St Teresa's.
Never a dull moment here. On Page 8, we come across a poltergeist wrecking violent havoc on the home of Fernandes' young schoolmate. As if that's not enough, this is the home of someone "with blue eyes, honey blonde locks and long sexy legs; she was, to me, the most beautiful girl in the world".
Fernandes, like any good journalist, quotes writers whose words then give a background into people, places and situations. He gives a hint to what happened to some of the peaceful Goan preserves of the yesteryears. ("Today, in 2016, Eastleigh and its surroundings are called Little Mogadishu where it is rumoured Somali Al-Shabaab terrorists come for R&R...")
Fernandes takes up the story, warts and all. He is critical of some aspects of the Goan society -- mostly glossed over otherwise. He talks about the struggle of deprived families (like his) to make it, and the geographical (yes, Bardez versus Salcete) bias carried over to the Africa of those times. Contrary to Goan public opinion of the era, he attempts to understand what the Kikuyu were really fighting for, and de-mythify the rebels' oathing ceremonies. Fernandes' encounter with British colonialism is one you don't normally hear of. His own story of his humble mother struggling to make it (p.12) is amazing.
Fernandes -- Skip to his friends, after an American film character -- comes across as a young lad who lived an adventurous life. He apparently kept on in that trajectory, if you buy his narration, and lived to tell the story! His friends come from diverse backgrounds, and his involvement with the African world does appear untypical compared to the Goan experiences of the times.
His stories are one more incredible than the other -- how he got thrown out (in some way) of home and school, how he talked himself into a bank job at 13 (and lost it), how he fibbed his way to his first newspaper jobs... and lot more. It's hard to make up your mind on whether Fernandes is terribly unlucky, or just the opposite, managing to bounce back from almost any tough situation. There are lessons to be learnt from his chance entry into journalism; likewise from the fact that he was a 'bookaholic'.
Expect to hear some insider's stories into the life and times of The Nation newspaper, and the men (only men) who made it. In 1972, Fernandes was in Munich, where else, when Palestinian militants struck the Olympics contestants there. His encounters with politicians are unbelievable, and so is his story of why he left Africa.
His profiles of some prominent persons are touching and lively. Among these are Joe Rodrigues "the finest South Asian journalist in Kenya" and brother of Gen. Sunith Rodrigues; the part-Goan Vice President Joe Zuzarte Murumbi; the Black Liberation supporter and Kenyan nationalist Pio Gama Pinto; and even an allegedly paedophile priest. His writing style tends to create characters we feel we somehow know.
Chatting about this book via cyberspace, my co-villager Tony, also ex-Kenya but now based in London, called it "unputdownable". Fernandes himself claims his first boss in journalism give him a sports copy to rewrite saying: "Make it bright and interesting, use a little fiction if you need to, just this once." Before recommending this book, let's hear what the others who know the Kenyan reality well say.... Just this once.
Yesterday in Paradise: 1950-1974
Balboa Press, 2016