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Saturday, January 14, 2017
Braganca 7: Goan tailors before ready-made clothes
Ethelvina Cabral, a widow who lived in River Road, Nairobi, to feed her familyrented out rooms (including two or three or four beds per room for a family; otherwise she fitted two or three beds for bachelors who were long-staying customers which included full board and lodging). She also catered for overnight board and lodging. Ethelvina also had other regulars and visitors who popped in for meals and her culinary skills in traditional Goan cooking were known throughout Kenya. Anyone coming to Kenya from Goa had her address written on a page in their passport.
On the other hand, two, three or four bachelors got together rented a room or couple of rooms, did their own cooking, laundry and cleaning. Otherwise, they ordered food from Ethelvina. This type of accommodation was called “mess” or “messing” taken from the British army’s “officers’ mess”.
In their leisure time, the bachelors played cards (three card brag call flush, rummy, seven hands or an Indian board game called carom). At larger gatherings they played a rather boisterous and hotly contest game called trouk. Gilbert De Souza, Mario Antonio Goes, Raul Rodrigues were amongst the best known and most respected of the three card gamblers. At the weekend, their sessions often lasting the two days were legend. Equally, the rummy sessions also went their own marathon way.
Ethelvina’s menu which changed daily (it was a matter of what you see is what you get) included a fish curry, fried fish, dried fish cooked in the embers of charcoal or fried. It was then shredded and served as a sort of a salad with onions, tomatoes, coriander leaves, vinegar and finely sliced chillies. On other days, she would serve a chicken curry, a beef vindaloo, a goat or lamb curry or other dishes from the very large Goan cuisine. Some of the favourite starters included lamb samosas, beef croquettes, fish cutlets, potato chops (mash ball with mince at the centre and fried crisp) and lots more. The meat dishes were not as common as the staple “rice and fish curry). And, of course, there was an almost inexhaustible supply of Goan sweets, usually reserved for Christmas but Ethelvina made sure that her guests tasted one or two things after lunch or dinner. Her pancakes with a filling of desiccated coconut and dark coconut jaggery were also very popular. For breakfast, her guests loved her butter chappatis with a little scrambled eggs or eggs sunny side up. Or just with a cup of coffee or tea.
Fatty Francis Raposa was, of course, the Master Cutter in men’s clothing, especially suits, sports jackets, casual trousers and safari outfits. He was the boss and one of the most respected Goans in the colony. He was always impeccable fresh full white shirt- suit and tie every day.
Muljibhai Alibhai and Sons served an exclusive international clientele from far and wide around the world, consisting mainly of big game hunters, the occasional explorer, and the many clergy that appeared to proliferate darkest Africa. The bespoke tailors and outfitters also especially catered for the local hoi poloi in Kenya, particularly the rich farmers and their families.Successive governors, ministers and their wives were personally dressed by Fatty Francis. He did not actually do the sewing; he had his minions to do that. He did the supervising as well as the exclusive task of cutting-to-pattern the cloth for sewing. Naturally, his reputation as a Master Tailor continued to grow to such an extent requests from loyal overseas clients would come by mail order. At Muljibhai’s the highest ranking dressmakers, again under Fatty Francis’ supervision, were Robin Antao and Santan Pinto. Both were able to turn the most complicated of British and American designs into Kenyan Goan masterpieces. There was a chap called Joanes my father used to speak very highly of but I forget his first name. Another outstanding men’s tailor was a chap called Fernandes. His name began with A but I forget what it was. I remember it was really an uncommon name. Another name mentioned with honour was a chap called Costa Marie Carvalho.
There were several bespoke tailors in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and one or two other places in Kenya in those days. Muljibhai’s employed around 25 tailors, mostly Goans. Their main opposition Ahmed Bros employed just as many. There was also the more exclusive British settler owned Esquires and the Italian owned Gianni’s. They provided bespoke tailoring for men and women. They were also among the first to import off-the-rack finished suits, shirts (albeit in small numbers), and exquisite full leather shoes. This very fine shop was owned by the patriarch of the Gianni family, himself a former World War II prisoner of war. Esquires, on the hand, prided itself in dressing local farmers in the best traditions of tailoring for the landed gentry of mother England.
Virtually all the tailors catered for the white people. Most Asians were got their clothes made by tailors at their homes. There were also several women who sewed dresses for any occasion and often each dress was one to die for. The quality of embroidery and knitting produced by Asian women folk in Kenya was something to behold. Particularly stunning were the traditional Western wedding gowns, the exquisite saris and other traditional wedding clothes from India. In the Goan community, I always found the magnificent outfits worn by infants at their christenings or baptisms to be unforgettable, as were the white dresses worn by girls at their First Holy Communions. The boys’ all-white outfit were not to be sneered either.
Among the Goans, it seemed as if every Goan mother was a seamstress. Soon, it even seemed as if every daughter was a seamstress … because most girls appeared to wear a new dress at every dance or feast day. There was certainly a new dress for Christmas, New Year’s Eve and birthdays, of course. If they were not new, then they were “renovated” hand-me-downs.
Peter Santiago was daydreaming about his favourite Ethelvina dish, Spanish mackerel caldin (an exceptionally delicious coconut curry created with a variety of herbs) as sat at his bench finishing off button holes in a blue serge jacket. Like everyone else in the room, he too was ejaculated from his momentary dreaming. THE screaming phone appeared to wake everyone in the room out of their concentrated silence. Fatty Francis Raposa (as opposed to the other Francis, Skinny Francis Raposa) came to the phone and in his own quiet soft but uniquely authoritative voice, picked up the telephone phone receiver and said:
“Good morning, Francis Raposa, Muljibhai Alibhai and Sons, Nairobi, how can I help you?”
“Raposa, can I speak with Shorty Abbelino Gomes?” the caller asked rather arrogantly.
“Gomes is not allowed to use the phone. Give me a short message and I will pass it on to him.”
“Tell him that Ferdinando e Sousa Braganca is in Nairobi and would like to meet him. My telephone number is Nairobi 4451.”
“Abellino does not have a telephone number and may not be able to call you.”
“Do you have his address?”
“Yes. It is Ethelvina’s boarding and lodging River Road. It is top storey above Baboos General Grocery Store on the corner of River Road and Reata Road. He is usually home after 6 pm. Does he know you?
“Yes. My father informed him that I was going to be in Nairobi for a short time.”
“Tell him I shall send a driver to get him one of these days.”
“Yes. My driver.”
“Okay, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Abel,” Fatty Francis called out in a voice that was not exactly a shout but it was loud enough for the others in the room to hear. When Abel was almost nose-to-nose with him, he told him in Konkani: “Telephone came for you from someone called Ferdinando Braganza. Do you know him?”
“Yes. Yes. He is my patron’s son (patron someone who much more important than the humble landowner). What did he say?”
“He is going to send a driver to get you. I gave him Ethelvina’s address. Why is he going to send you a driver? He gave me his telephone number.”
“Senor Braganca is a very big man. We used to play as children but he has been to university in Lisbon and has held very big jobs in Europe. He has worked for Prime Minister Salazar. He must be a very important person. His father had told me Ferdinando might be coming to Nairobi.”
“Well be very careful,” Fatty Francis warned him.
Abel bowed his head in respect and as an acknowledgement of Fatty Francis concern for him.
He looked around at his dumbfounded fellow tailors. Every face, it seemed to Abel, had a hundred questions waiting to ask. Instead, Abel went back to his sewing machine and after he had placed the piece he was working on under the needle (so to speak), he wondered: ‘What is that Salazar spy up to now?’