Sunday, October 14, 2018

Cyprian Fernandes: Pinto book editor: My escape from Kenya (2)

Pinto editor: “My escape from Kenya”

(Pio Gama Pinto Kenya’s Unsung Martyr, edited by Shiraz Durrani, will be launched in Nairobi, Kenya on October 16)

This story is based in some part to questions put to the author by Journalist and Author Cyprian Fernandes.

By SHIRAZ  DURRANI, Senior Lecturer, Information Management, Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University. He is also an avid writer the histories of Kenya’s armed struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism.

I had two interviews at the Kenya Special Branch Police in September 1984, following the publication in two parts of my articles on Pio Gama Pinto in a Nairobi newspaper. 

However, in the brief space of time between the publication of the articles and the Special Branch starting to take “special interest” in me, a large number of activists, including many from Mau Mau days, started sending messages of support. Their main message was that they wished to continue and consolidate the process of recording the true history of Kenya and to apply the lessons of history to current struggle. The questions that the Special Branch fired at me during interviews at the Nyayo House give an indication of how hurt the regime was at my research into the history of publishing and the anti-imperialist struggle in Kenya:

Why are you writing about Pinto and Kimaathi, and not about Kenyatta? Even historians are not allowed to do research into Mau Mau.

Why are you, a mere librarian, doing this research?

Do you not know that people at the highest level in the Government are offended by your article on Pinto?

Are you a communist?

Why do you write about workers and peasants?

What do you understand by workers - even Moi is a worker, why are you not writing about him?

Do you think that you will escape the wrath of the Government machinery just because you are “an Indian”? And on and on.

I gave factual information to the questions they asked.  But omitted to volunteer information that they were indirectly trying to get from me. For example, they asked me to make a list of everybody I knew at the University of Nairobi.  Well, I knew lots of people, but I focused on those who were more likely to be looked favourably by the government and omitted many people (in and out of university) who were my political colleagues. 

But overall, I gave truthful answers as the facts could easily be verified.  They asked what sources I had used the material for the Pinto articles.  I had this ready.  They asked me to go with the source material for the next interview - which I never attended.  But I had all the material ready as I was not making it up.  They asked me if I knew Odinga and if he had asked me to write the article.  I could answer truthfully that I knew Odinga (who didn’t in Kenya?) But that I had no contact with him and he had not asked me to write the articles (again truthfully).  I focussed on academic and professional reasons why I was writing on Pinto - correct again, but did not volunteer my political convictions behind these academic and professional writings.  They also asked me come the next time with copies of all the articles I had written which were all in public domain so I had no problems with these.

Their reaction was skeptical and implied that I was lying, that they did not believe me.  They kept saying that I should not think that I will escape their “treatment” just because I was Asian. There was a hidden threat of violence to me and my family behind all their questions. The interviews were highly intimidating and meant to instil fear.  My concern was not only for me and my family’s safety but also that through me they would get to know details of my underground connections and activities.

Following the second interview, I was asked to return to Nyayo House for a third interview in three weeks’ time.  People in the know advised that the third time would very likely be the last time as there is no way out of the Nyayo House syndrome.

So I decided to flee into exile.  But how and to where? I had not planned any such eventuality.  The first lesson was that Kenya really is a prison and it is not easy to escape the clutches of the ruling elite.  They had built political, social and legal borders around people so that no escape was possible without being detected and returned to the Nyayo chambers.  The first difficulty was that anybody working at the University needed the permission from the Vice Chancellor before leaving the country.  No prospects of getting this.  But that was not enough.  To travel overseas, one needs to buy tickets with foreign exchange and none was available without government authorisation.  A third hurdle was leaving from the Nairobi airport where the Special Branch kept a list of people required for special treatment.

It seemed hopeless.  Best to give up and face the Nyayo interview and its consequences. Without going into further details here, arrangements were made to get the foreign exchange and a “friendly” travel agency provided the tickets for the flight flight - but from Tanzania as flying out of Kenya was too dangerous.  Went to work in the morning then at lunch time taxis to cross boarder on foot to Tanzania.

The driving force for the books and articles on the history of Kenya was the anger from an awareness of neo-colonialism and capitalism that divided the country into 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars.  The injustice of stealing people’s land then treat them as thieves when they protested.  But one cannot fight neo-colonialism and capitalism without a strong organisation .  I was a member of December Twelve Movement  (DTM) - now Mwakenya-DTM - and saw socialism as the only way out for working people.  People’s theatre, underground leaflets and newspapers, documenting crimes of the comprador regimes, writing historical and other papers - all were part of the activities of DTM in which I was involved.  Involvement in this political movement gave me strength in Kenya as well as in London where I landed. 

Of course, there was huge sadness in having to leave Kenya. Sadness not only for what I had to endure but for my family.  Two young children and wife with a very bright future, all well settled.  All had to be uprooted.  But my case was not so bad as that of many others.  Both of us managed to get good jobs and would eventually live reasonably well in London.

Applying for asylum was another huge hurdle.  My first application was rejected.  My trade Union - Unison - supported my application by getting a brilliant immigration solicitor.  I wrote a long document challenging the British Home Office as to why they rejected my application.  It took six years for the appeal to be heard - a period when one did not know if the Home Office would turn up at dawn and put you on a flight to Nairobi.  In the end, the adjudicator asked the Home Office why my application had not been accepted as it was a very strong case for asylum.  The Home Office had to accept my case.  Thus I got asylum and with it a document which would allow me to travel overseas.

Housing in London is a nightmare.  Especially for families with children.  Having spent a bad winter in a flat offered by a newly-made friend, spent a fierce winter with storms and broken pipes and broken window panes, gas condemned as unsafe, yet re-connected by the landlord out of kindness.  Then Naila made contact with an African housing association which supported refugees with housing.  We found a home, at last.

The contrast of those willing to kill you for saying something they do not like - and friendly individuals, colleagues, trade unions, going out of their way to offer solidarity and support.  My first job in the London Borough of Hackney provided a sharp contrast of its own.  Highly friendly lower level staff but having to fight daily personal and institutionalised racism brought another struggle which went on for years.

The book on Pio started as part of the research on history of publishing.  That itself was a camouflage for writing a political history of Kenya which would not be tolerated by the ruling elite.  So the cover of my library profession to maintain that I was looking at history of publishing - not politics.  But that cover soon blew away as I started using bits of the work in small articles - on Maji Maji on Mau Mau, on Makhan Singh, on Pinto.  Politics is everywhere, you cannot hide it under librarianship and publishing.  Repression, looting, power games and resistance are all part the larger political life.

I set up, with others, Vita Books in London to publish books on subjects which many foreign publishers found non-profitable and which Kenyan publishers found too hot to handle.  Hence Vita Books.  First came Never Be Silent (2006) and many others followed, until the Pinto book in 2018.  The work on Pinto had continued after the articles on Pinto in 1984. But there was not much time left from political and survival work to devote more time to it.  Kept collecting small bits of information in a box file.  Then came material from Kenya National Archives with huge support from Vita Books now in Nairobi.  Several archives in UK.  But mostly desk research.  Saw the examples of many others who had started work on Pinto - and given up as it was too hot a subject.  But got support from others around the world.  And most important from Pinto’s family: wife and daughters and from Pinto’s brother’s family.  Other material came from Nairobi magazines.  People were generous in sharing ideas, experiences and photos.  Which have all gone in the book.  All acknowledged in the book.

I hear the first copies are coming off the press in Nairobi this week (October 6).  Will see a copy, probably next week.  Then off to Nairobi for the launch.

There will be a new vacuum once the book is out and launched.  But Pinto, Makhan Singh and others I have written about are always there with their watchful eyes, guiding, advising, suggesting new ways to struggle for justice, equality and socialism.  Wisdom from the previous generations for the battles of the new generation.

Shiraz Durrani

The impressions of Kenya once in London were captured in two poems: Prison without Walls and Sina Habari:

A prison without walls

There are no walls
in this prison
It is built on a foundation of
fear, intimidation, and threats.

            Keep the history book closed
            Keep the historian in prison
            The prison without walls
            Has room for many.

How to subdue
the anger of millions
who see their sweat and blood
enriching but a few?

Concentration camps and stone prisons
are never enough.
Gallows will not silence them
they are too many…far too many.

Quick, open the gates
Gates of the prison without walls.
Create a terror
worse than death.

No evidence of violence
No, not even a scratched forehead.
Yet opposition is silenced
millions are struck dumb.

            Blame the victim
            Make the innocent guilty
            for questioning their misery
            for … being.

Interrogations, threats, and insults.
Why think?   Why not be an animal?
Threaten by suggestions, intimidate by looks
will your child be safe?

The prison without walls
is never full
Bring in more…and still more           
            till the whole country becomes
a prison house…without a single wall.

And yet
Questions keep coming
voices of protest keep singing
minds keep working day and night

The prison without walls
will never solve the problem.
Only the united will
of the people

Shiraz Durrani
October 20, 1984
Sina Habari,  Mwanangu (1985)
Sina habari, mwanangu
Sina habari
habari ya taabu, mateso, na kifo.

Sina habari, mwananchi, sina habari.
Ukitaka aardhi, ukitaka chakula, sina habari
habari za risasi na vita.

Sina habari, mzalendo, sina habari
ukitaka shamba, ukitaka haki nyumnba na nguo
sina Habari, isipokuwa
habari ya mapambano

Sina habari, mwanangu
Sina habari.
Ukitaka maisha, lazima uwetayari kupambana
Na kupambana tena.

Sina habari, mwanangu sina habari
habari za taabu, mateso, na kifo.

Eh, mwanangu
kusikia habari?

Shiraz Durrani [February 15, 1985]

Sina habari, mwanangu: I have no news, my child (1985)1
I have no news, my child
No news at all
news of troubles, torture and death
I have no news, people of my land No news at all
If you want land, if you want food House and clothing
No news at all
News of bullets and wars
I have no news, patriot
No news at all
If you want freedom, liberation Self-government and liberty
I have no news
News of struggles
I have no news, my child No news at all
If you want life
Be prepared to struggle And to struggle again.
I have no news, my child
no news
News of struggles, torture and death.
Oh my child,
Are you ready
To hear the news?

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