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Fitz de Souza: Kenya Goans




Kenya Goans



An excerpt from Forward to Independence Fitz de Souza My Memoirs. Reproduced with the kind permission of the de Souza family. Available on Amazon Books.


From its inception, Nairobi and its new population were to be divided by the British along racial lines. Governor John Ainsworth, who had arrived as a young man in the early 1900s, split Nairobi into seven districts, making no provision at all for the indigenous Africans. To run the essential services, and for the maintenance of law and order, Indians prepared to stay on were recruited, and for those already in business or looking to start, Kenya was seen as a place of possibilities, somewhere in which despite the harsh landscape and economic uncertainties, one might perhaps settle and make a living, even prosper.

Among the Goans who arrived in Nairobi in the early 1900s was Joaquim Antonio Nazareth, from the village of Moira. Joachim’s brother Raphael had arrived a few years earlier and started his own bakery, obtaining a six-year contract from the British to supply bread and cakes to the Uganda Railway, for whom he had initially worked as a clerk. The Nazareth brothers worked together in the bakery, later branching out into other business ventures, including a soda water bottling factory and a store on Government Road.

By this time Joachim and his wife, living in a wood and iron house on River Road, had four children. The youngest, born in 1908, John Maximian Nazareth, fell ill one day with typhoid, his young life hanging in the balance. Tended by a European nurse, the child recovered and would go on to study in Bombay and then train as a lawyer at the Inns of Court in London, being Called to the Bar in 1933. This was the man I had already heard so much about and who, in 1952, I had been surprised at being introduced to him by Pio shortly after our first meeting: ‘not the J.M. Nazareth,’ as I put it that day in the Desai Memorial Library. A distinguished lawyer and Queen’s Counsel, as I recall Nazareth only took civil cases, often involving charges of defamation. He served as president of the East African Indian Congress from 1950 to 1952, was elected to the Kenya Legislative Council from 1956 to 1960, representing the Western Electoral Area, and was a puisne judge of the Supreme Court in 1953, becoming president of the Kenya Law Society in 1954. He also became President of the Gandhi Memorial Academy Society and Chairman of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi Trust at the University of Nairobi.

Certain individuals in the Indian business community, with the right connections, were given a head start and the chance to prosper on a larger scale. A.M. Jeevanjee, who had supplied the Imperial British East Africa Company with the thousands of railway workers from India, had made big profits from the contract. The story goes that after arriving at what would become Nairobi he received a further reward when Ainsworth told him he could have an area of land stretching as far as he could run, presumably within a certain time. In the event, Jeevanjee persuaded Ainsworth to let his Pathan servant run on his behalf, and thus gained all the land between what is now Biashara Street and the Jeevanjee Gardens, named after him. Jeevanjee was also given the opportunity to build much of the physical infrastructure of the city including government offices, railways stations, post offices and a wood and corrugated iron police station and jail.

While the British occupied the key positions in these institutions, the clerical and supporting staff continued to comprise mainly Indians, and in the early days all the records were kept in Urdu. In 1902, Jeevanjee started the first newspaper in Kenya, the African Standard, published weekly in Mombasa. When he sold it three years later to two British businessmen, it became the East African Standard, a daily paper, headquartered from 1910 in Nairobi, and at this time was staunchly pro-colonial in its editorial content. As for Jeevanjee, some people have estimated that at one time he owned half of Mombasa, and even more of Nairobi. In 1910 he was elected to Kenya’s Legislative Council, becoming the first non-white to do so.              

Kenya’s National Museum, then named the Coryndon after a former governor, had been somewhat ahead of the times when in 1941 it opened its doors to all races thanks to its new curator Canon Leakey. Others had objected to the move, claiming Africans were ‘smelly’ and Asians ‘over-scented’. Lady Delamere allegedly remarked that ‘to be within measurable distance of an Indian coolie is very disagreeable.’ Canon Leakey no doubt saw the irony of this, as the museum’s forerunner had been established in 1911 with a donation from an Ismaili from India, Alidina Visram, who in 1863 at the age of 12 had sailed to Zanzibar and thence to Africa.

Another Asian who had become a fixture in the community was Rosendo Ribeiro, a Goan who had initially practised medicine in Ponda, before sailing to Mombasa in 1898. The coastal region being plagued by malaria, Dr Ribeiro had followed the ‘iron snake’ of the railway to Nairobi and lived for two years in a tent, compounding medicines with his assistant C. Pinto and, rather like my father later on, settled for payment in kind, often in the form of chickens. Eventually the government gave him some land near the station and he built a dak bungalow, establishing his reputation as the first doctor in Nairobi. Alongside his medical practice he opened a pharmacy in Victoria Street called R.Ayres and Co., patenting his own anti-malaria tablets.

In 1908 Dr Ribeiro went to Goa for an extended holiday, where he married Margareta Lourenco, youngest daughter of a successful lawyer. Returning to Nairobi with his bride, Ribeiro had soon started a family. Elegantly attired in a three-piece suit with gold watch chain and homburg hat, the doctor cut a charismatic figure, not least for the zebra he had bought in 1907, tamed himself, and rode regularly around the streets of Nairobi making house calls to his patients. Despite some bizarre and highly apocryphal stories that the doctor displayed the removed parts of circumcised Kikuyu women in his surgery, and that he fed his rose bushes on human blood, he appeared to be prospering, engaging a live-in tailor and nannies to attend to the children and issuing invitations to dances at his home.

When I had first arrived in Kenya in my teens in the 1940s, Dr Ribeiro was in his seventies and still riding his zebra, well known and respected as a former diplomat as well as a doctor, having held the title of Portugal’s Vice-Consul in Nairobi from 1914 to 1922. Reputedly the first person to diagnose bubonic plague in Kenya, Rosendo Ribeiro was awarded the OBE. I recall when he invited our family to dinner one evening at his fine house in Victoria Street, he apologised discreetly to us for not using the best cutlery as his wife had locked it away. 




   Dr Ribeiro on his zebra

From the early 1900s, as Goans married and started families in and around Nairobi, their numbers swelled. With this expansion came the growth of civic institutions and a certain amount of rivalry between the various business and community leaders. Official political status for Goans was confined to representation on the town council, and support for popular local causes and good works could help a candidate gain the one seat available. The Nazareth brothers (father and uncle of J.M. Nazareth), who employed large numbers of people, paid for street lights and other neighbourhood improvements, and in 1911 sponsored a Silver Cup for the Asian football tournaments. One or both Nazareths, Dr Ribeiro and J.M. Campos became regular rivals in the town council elections.

Goan clubs, large and small, proliferated in the early days of Nairobi. These associations fostered communal spirit, but there was also dissent. Elements within the Goan Institute were unashamedly elitist, restricting membership to those in commercial and professional occupations, and in 1905 butlers, cooks and tailors were barred. In 1911 the Institute passed a resolution which declared that ‘In every part of the world, the direction of communal, social and political affairs of a nucleus of individuals, of a community, and of a nation is always entrusted to the upper class…’ The Goan Institute’s first president was the businessman J.M. Campos, but when a newspaper article referred to him as ‘President of the Goan community’, there were angry letters stating that the Institute represented barely one quarter of Nairobi’s 500 Goans.

Dr Rosendo Ribeiro had already been voted for as an alternative leader for the excluded majority, and to cater for their needs a broader-based movement, the Goan Union, already active in Bombay, opened a chapter in Nairobi, offering moral and practical support, including assistance with welfare, medical and legal matters. This organisation, open to all occupations, was looked down upon by some of the leading lights of the Goan Institute, notably P.X. de Gama Rose, who allegedly described the Goan Union as a lot of illiterate servants not equipped to engage socially or politically with the educated classes. I believe de Gama Rose had married a European, and talked a lot about his time at Oxford University. More generally, I do remember so-called lower-class Goans really being thought of as dirt, complete outcasts.


The rivalry between the two Goan associations led them in 1911 to clash over which should be the official organiser for the celebrations marking George V’s coronation. The eagerness on both sides to participate in the event indicated that East Africa’s Goans were in general pro-British and tended to run their clubs on the traditional European model. However, one key difference between the Goan Institute and the Goan Union was that while the former conducted its communications in English, the latter passed resolutions in the vernacular Goan language of Konkani. In the light of this choice of language, and reading their 1911 resolution further, it suggests the Goan Institute members automatically equated the use of English with being educated, and by virtue of identification with the British, with status, ‘…an educated man is better fitted to judge and appreciate the pros and contras of a question… affecting the interests of the community he belongs to, than an ignorant man.’

In terms of their leadership, the two groups were not completely separate, with Institute member Dr Ribeiro, for example, serving on the committee of the Union, and J.M. Campos, the Institute’s first president, working enthusiastically on behalf of the Union. Others were much more polarised in their allegiance, with some like F.X. de Gama Rose of the Institute set on denigrating the Goan Union. At one point J.A. Nazareth wrote a strong letter to the newspaper in Nairobi, objecting to the hostility on both sides and calling for a special conference to try to resolve it. To add to the mix, two more groups arose, the Railway Goan Sports Club, catering for railway employees, and the Nairobi Goan Tailors Society.

While the Goan Institute and the Railway Club interacted with joint events, the Tailors Society, for reasons of caste and class, remained apart. The Goan Institute continued to be exclusive, but at the same time its influence dwindled until the arrival in 1919 of Dr A.C.L de Souza, whom I have mentioned earlier. While the Goan Union all but disappeared from Kenya, Dr de Souza and his wife Mary reinvigorated the Institute to become the main focus of Goan civic affairs in Nairobi, popular with young and old alike, a welcoming club where children and young people could spend countless happy hours playing carom and table tennis, and learning to dance, as I had done in a similar club in Zanzibar.

For my mother, Goa was probably the place she felt most at home. My father too had often talked about returning there. I remember when we lived in Nairobi, how he would sometimes pace up and down at night, talking about going back and restoring the fortunes and proud reputation of the family liquor business, for which our ancestors had won medals and plaudits. I had said at one point that I did not think we should earn money from such a trade.

I had left Goa as a young child, but growing up I was aware of a rich heritage, the Indian and the European, the Hindu and the Christian. On returning to Goa for the first time in 1959, after 30 years, I was surprised at how many things I saw fitted with my memories. I found the caste system was very strong. I remember when I arrived all these fellows of the lower caste came to see me, about 30 or 40 of them. My mother said we were supposed to give them some food and liquor, so we made some toasted grams and they all ate and drank feni and sang praises to me. Hearing all this I decided to make a speech, which I had been thinking about for a long time. ‘Listen,’ I told them, ‘all this caste system is rubbish; we are no more bhatkars than you are mundkars.’ Bhatkar meant landlord, and mundkars were originally people with no property rights, whose houses could be pulled down and the materials taken by the landowner. After Indian independence the law had changed so that if you had lived somewhere for three years you could buy the land and house, which was right I think.

After I had made the speech, the fellows cheered me. Noticing they were all still standing, I said, ‘You must all sit down with us,’ and told my mother to have chairs brought out. Not one of them would sit. I said, ‘Look, I’m telling you, you’ve got to sit down we are all equal.’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ they replied, ‘but we cannot sit, our fathers would object.’ I said, ‘Your fathers are not here.’ But they told me it would also bring a curse: that I was after all more than a landlord and an employer – I was their bhatkar: their philosopher, their guide.      

What makes a Goan? Being born and bred in Goa was always the natural and obvious qualification. I mentioned earlier however that many, perhaps most Goans, considered themselves to be Portuguese rather than Indian, Christian rather than Hindu. I sometimes used to ask such people, ‘Who made you Portuguese?’ to which they replied, ‘The law.’ There was some truth in this, and it may have been Salazar that allowed the Christians access to better schools and other advantages, prompting Goan families to convert.

Further back in history, Christianity and the Portuguese identity was also spread by soldiers sent out to bolster Goa’s military strength. In the days before the Suez Canal, the voyage from Portugal might take several months via the Cape of Good Hope. When the young soldiers arrived and saw the young local girls swimming, friendships and often romance would blossom. When the Portuguese Governor of Goa got to hear of this, he decreed that any soldier seen talking to one of the girls be arrested and taken with her to the nearest church, where she would then have to convert to Christianity and the two of them be married.

The Governor further advised his superiors in Lisbon that over time this policy would swell the Goan population that was loyal to Portugal, and provide a stream of like-minded, willing administrators and civil servants. The Portuguese Government, in a quite Machiavellian way, urged him to continue winning over the indigenous population with similar enticements, such as land and other rewards. The impact on Goa was thus two-fold, expanding the influence of the Catholic Church and the imperial power of Portugal.   

Many Goans of course also went to Bombay to work for the British. Alongside them were locals referred to as East Indians, which for a long time I couldn’t understand, Bombay being on the west coast. The name in fact related to their employers, the British East India Company. These East Indians, who had been given chunks of land around Bombay by the British and were often quite rich, considered themselves very superior to Goans. We had this hierarchy in Bombay at that time: first were the British, who were considered aristocrats, regarding those who consorted too much with the locals as second-class citizens. The offspring of those who assimilated biologically were called Anglo-Indians, and in time this became more acceptable. Below the Anglos were the East Indians, then the Christian Indians such as Goans, and lastly the non-Christian Indians. 

With assimilation the number of Anglo-Indians grew. Having held steady jobs in administration or on the railways, when independence came in 1947, considering themselves British, they left in droves for Britain, expecting to find similar positions there. Few however were offered work, and many eventually found their way to Australia. It was very sad for them, because even if dark as charcoal they invariably talked of being British. They were also quite anti-Indian. An Anglo-Indian woman I met in London told me that when she fell in love with a Goan boy her mother threatened to disown her. As a result she had married a man 30 years older than herself and had a miserable life.

Like the majority of Indian couples, my parents too of course had entered an arranged marriage, but they had been of a more similar age and had enjoyed a happy relationship. As a young man, however, my father had been very much in love with another girl and they had meant a lot to each other and wanted to marry. It must have been very painful for both of them when he had to give her up because of social pressures.

Goans lived and settled in other parts of Africa too. One of my father’s brothers, my Uncle Joobhoi, became a Catholic priest and was sent by the church to Mozambique, which like Goa was a Portuguese colony in those days. Then, when he saw how unfairly the Portuguese authorities and the priesthood were treating the local population, especially the mixed-race people of Mozambique, he left the church and started a political newspaper, attacking Portuguese rule. It wasn’t long before they arrested him. He was obviously a very strong-willed man and he took a lot of risks, someone whom they would call today a freedom fighter. A lot of Goans, however, wanted to go and settle in Mozambique and they must have thought my uncle was mad for supporting these people as he did, and I believe he became something of an outcast among the Goan community because of it. There were to be similar attitudes towards myself among some of the Kenyan Asians during the independence struggle.

In October 2015, my wife Romola and I were invited to a very interesting talk at the Kenya High Commission in London. The speaker was Sharad Rao, born in Nairobi in 1936 and now Chairman of the Kenya Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board. The subject of the talk was ‘Kenya Then and Now – Asians’ Contribution to the Politics and Development of Kenya’. Sharad had been Called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn a few years after me, in 1959. Back in Kenya, still under British rule, as Sharad observed, ‘The big law firms were all European… and it was their stated policy not to accept Asian or African lawyers, even for articles.’ He also reminded us that racial segregation was enforced not only in transport, housing, jobs, public toilet facilities, etc. but also in vital services like hospitals. I was to experience this at first-hand in pre-independence days when I had an accident in my car.

In 2015, the number of Asians remaining in Kenya was I believe fewer than 80,000, under 0.2 percent of the country’s 47 million or so inhabitants. Furthermore, Kenya’s civil service, once an Indian preserve, is I understand now staffed almost entirely by Africans. Yet Asians, who opened up many of the most isolated parts of the country, bringing infrastructure, services and development, remain an indelible part of the country’s history, and despite the Africanisation programme, a number of those who took Kenyan citizenship after 1968 went on to high achievement in the law, police and civil service. The Asian community’s philanthropic work in Kenya, past and present, includes the Platinum Jubilee Hospital built in 1958, now known as the Aga Khan Hospital, the M.P. Shah Hospital in Nairobi, and in Mombasa the Pandya Memorial Hospital. In addition, Asian charitable foundations help with food and education for those in need. I feel proud to have been one of the many involved in these efforts. Sharad pointed out that the Kenyan Lions Club flourished among the Asian community, largely because the Rotary Clubs and Masonic Lodges had excluded them. The Lions have done good work for charity, notably the Eye Hospital treating cataracts, and the Jaipur Foot Hospital providing many thousands of free artificial limbs.  

Today, the numerous philanthropic programmes supported or set up by Kenyan Asians benefit largely the African population. Among the most prominent of such institutions is Nairobi University, and it is here that you can see a tribute to possibly the most important Asian contribution to the development of East Africa. Standing on the second floor of one of the campus buildings, it is a bronze statue of a man wearing a simple dhoti and walking with staff in hand. It is Mahatma Gandhi, whose political theories and example were the inspiration for so many who fought for a fairer world. In the days before television or computers, however, knowledge and ideas could only be spread by word of mouth, or for those fortunate enough to have learned to read – the ‘white man’s magic’ as Kenyatta described it – through books.

An Indian man, Ambu Patel, played a significant part in bringing important written works to the people of East Africa. Arriving first in 1955 aged 26, Ambu had trained in India and London as a bookbinder and later set up his own company in Nairobi producing and selling books, including titles on Gandhi. Fiercely critical of colonialism, he wrote articles for the press, formed the ‘Release Jomo’ committee, and employed and looked after Kenyatta’s daughter Margaret when her father was in detention. Ambu gave Kenyatta the leather jacket that became a trademark look for the leader, and I recall something else, a series of photographs he had taken of Kenyatta over some time, which he had compiled into an album as a tribute to his achievements and shown to him around the time of independence. One day, some friends and I found Ambu in a state of great agitation because he could not locate the photographs; it seemed they had either gone astray or there had been some misunderstanding and they had been assumed to be a gift. Ambu had probably planned to use the photographs in a biography of Kenyatta and had no negatives or copies. In 1963, Ambu did publish his book, entitled The Struggle for the Release of Jomo and his Colleagues. Ambu Patel was also a great devotee of Mahatma Gandhi, and thanks to publishers and booksellers, many more people were able to learn about Gandhi’s life and ideas and to pass that invaluable knowledge to their children, as my father did.


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