Yesterday in Paradise
By Cyprian Fernandes
Reviewed by Stephen Luscombe (The British Empire)
(For friends who might not have seen this)
Cyprian Fernandes has written a heartfelt and engaging account of his life as a Goan born in British Kenya. He grew up in the tail end years of British colonial control in East Africa and went on to establish a career in journalism which allowed him a front-row seat to the birth pangs of independence for Kenya and its slide into cronyism and corruption that eventually forced him to leave and join the growing Goan diaspora increasingly scattered throughout the rest of the world. Indeed, this book morphs intriguingly into an account of life as part of the flotsam and jetsam of what had once been such a close-knit community that had played such a pivotal role in East African history.
I should say that the first part of the book is of the most direct relevance to the British Empire as the author gives an account of how the Goans came to play such an important part of the imperial story in East Africa. He explains the role of Sir Bartle Frere in championing Goans in the early administration as they provided affordable bureaucratic expertise, loyalty and culture (and religion) that was more familiar to British expectations than those of many Africans they came into contact with. Of course, the Portuguese connections across the Indian Ocean also helped to facilitate the migration and human relationships that helped sustain Goans as they came to rely on their own support systems throughout the region. The importance of Goan clubs, the Catholic church and extended families in providing the skeleton for Goan enterprise and diligence to thrive are constants throughout the book. It is clear that a wider concept of 'community' was key to their success.
The author is very fair in highlighting the benefits of imperialism whilst in no way shying away from its iniquities and failings. I would say that he gives a sweeping but very perceptive overview of the British relationship to Kenya. He understands the law and order that it brought for long periods of time, the expertise and infrastructure that they could share, the educational opportunities that followed in the wake of the imperialists (even if often provided by churches rather than the colonial government) and the administrative efficiency of British colonial government (especially compared to other colonial governments like the Portuguese and Germans). He also points out the problems of imperial rule such as land confiscations to the benefit of Europeans, separation of facilities and housing for the various races and the sense of entitlement by settlers in particular. In fact, he does make a distinction between the more overt racism of the Kenyan settlers as opposed to the views of those who had come recently from Britain or even from within the Colonial Government itself. As someone who grew up and lived in the 1950s and early 1960s Kenya it is clear that he judged people on their merits and not by their race. He met and worked with many Europeans who he obviously admired and worked perfectly at ease with. He also met Asians and Africans who fell below his expectations. In short, he treated everyone as individuals and was willing to give anyone the chance to prove themselves whatever the colour of their skin or the origins of their culture.
His childhood is particularly illuminating coinciding as it did with the Mau Mau Emergency. He witnessed the displacement of large numbers of Africans firsthand as an innocent child growing up a stone's throw from shantytowns. He saw for himself heavy-handed military clash with Kikuyu on the outskirts of Nairobi as they sought to rehouse and relocate large sections of the population that they were most concerned about. The author explains the finer complexities of the Mau Mau but with the benefit of hindsight as a journalist and someone who later understood its importance in the creation of an independent Kenya. As a child in the 1950s though, the author was unaware of the powerful forces moving so many people around his own little corner of Africa. One can't help wondering though if being a witness to these events was not a significant factor in his becoming a journalist and sustaining him in this career for the rest of his adult life. He was an eyewitness before he started recording what he was seeing.
The author did not have the happiest of school lives. He had no silver spoon nor any idyllic background to draw upon. He grew up in a split family (something of a rarity in the Goan community but certainly not unheard of). His strong will put him at odds with the Catholic educators in his school (and who held dark secrets of their own as the book later reveals). A showdown of wills saw the author leave school at the tender age of 13 much to the initial despair of his mother. A quick-witted mind and pushing his luck would eventually see the author enter the world of newspapers.
This next section of the book is equally interesting as you gain an insider's view of the world of journalism in Kenya in the dying days of Empire and into independence. Initially, he worked in the sports section, but politics was never far away, and the author seems to have been provided with front row tickets for many of East Africa's most important sporting and political events of the 1960s and early 1970s. It is somewhat poignant to read how many Asians welcomed coming independence but many of whom would ultimately be let down by what should have been such a positive force. The author makes it clear that many of these same Asians failed to fully commit to the new Kenya and clung on to their Portuguese, Indian or British passports as an insurance policy. Of course, this failing to invest in the new country helped fuel the distrust of many Africans who were suspicious of this failure to embrace the land of their birth. The high-profile murder of the Socialist (and committed) Pio Pinto helped confirm to many Asians that they were right to hold on to their passports. Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from neighbouring Uganda was the final confirmation for many more as the steady stream turned into an open flood. The author was unusual to stay as long as he did until the mid-1970s. His own 'sudden' departure was also a part of the sad decline of independent Kenya as cronyism, corruption and dictatorship made life too difficult for too many journalists. Eventually, it would claim the career of the author also - or at least the East African part of that career. His front row tickets meant that he had seen too much and knew too many secrets. He had to leave and take on the next stage of his life, the reluctant emigre.
The last part of the book is highly touching in places. It not only examines his own post-Kenya life, in Britain and in Australia but considers what happened to the Goan community at large and its dispersal throughout the wider Commonwealth and North America in particular. In many ways, it both laments and accepts what has happened to the successive generations of Goans whose parents and grandparents were already removed at least one step from the original Goa. This new generation was even further removed from Goa and also now the intervening Kenya which had so defined the East African Goan for so long! Furthermore, their families were often scattered across multiple countries and had to start afresh in new cultures. The Indian Ocean Goan community ties had held together in the era of the Portuguese and British Empires and when the trade routes from East Africa connected them to their native land. However, as planes took these emigres to ever further parts of the world, the Goan community's ability to help one another was dispersed often beyond breaking point. Friendships and families still gravitated towards one another when practicable, but too often the distances were too great and the realities of earning a living and dealing with life in a new corner of the world impinged. Successor generations found themselves growing up regarding themselves as British, Australian, Canadian before the birthplaces of their parents and certainly of their grandparents. In many ways, the post-imperial 'Commonwealth' did a much better job at integrating these migrants than the old British Empire was ever able to achieve.
I certainly recommend this book as an interesting journey from decolonisation to independence and seeing some of the ultimate consequences of moving people around the vast empire. You can tell that the book has been written by a journalist. It is short and snappy and does jump about a bit as different stories are developed, and interesting alleyways of history are perused. There are themes that keep tying these diverse stories back together; sport, the Goan community, corruption, journalism, etc... There are also fascinating pen portraits of some of the leading actors in East African history in the 1960s and early 1970s. The book holds your attention, but it is certainly not a conventional history or biography. It is a unique angle on a subject that sheds light in places that few other books on East Africa will ever reach. For this reason alone, it is worth reading. ==
Yesterday in Paradise is available on Amazon and as an ebook on Kobo