Saturday, January 23, 2021

In defence of Mervyn Maciel and Cyprian Fernandes


If the experience was allegedly so bad, why do most folks who were born there or have lived there or have holidayed there remember with hearts full of nostalgia and affection?

Why didn't the Goans fight for Kenya's freedom?

Why did Goans kowtow to the Europeans, colonials?

Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir, even when they were in the right at work?

Why didn't the Goans help the Africans?
Why didn't Goans stand up for themselves?
Why wasn't there a relationship on equal footing with Africans?
Why did the Goans turn a blind eye to Colonial cruelty to Africans?
Why did not the Goans fight the colonial colour bar?
Some of the answers below, a brilliant reply by F.

Mervyn Maciel: Goan History, Heritage and Culture Group Meeting 15 Jan 2021 by Zoom yesterday I was invited to give a brief presentation on my experiences working in colonial Kenya.

The interview was by my granddaughter (Yakira -who is here from Germany where she lives and works) – and contained many photos. It was a Q & A session which I hope Shirley Gonsalves who invited me, has recorded.

Unfortunately, Jason Keith Fernandes was unable to attend but has sent this critique of my book (below)



A couple of things strike me about this book. First, given that it is a book about his years as a member of the administrative services in Kenya, the book offers a number of observations that have to do with rank, about the perks and privileges one is entitled to, as well as with salaries and emoluments (p 284). One also sees, in this context, the nature of a hierarchical (and racialised) culture (p. 323). There is, at times, a somewhat ingratiating tone to the text, happy to be noticed for one's work, as well as pride in being included among the senior white officials (p.327, 343).

The second thing that I noticed was the acknowledgement to gratitude. This often comes up and is a very endearing feature of the book, and perhaps goes to fill in my estimation of the Goan culture of earlier years. This expression of gratitude is quite similar to that expressed by Bonaventure D'Pietro in his own autobiography. Maciel expressed gratitude to the "tribesmen of the various districts" he served in, to people who helped me in the course of those years, whether as an orphan (p. 26), or relatives, (p.195), (p. 236).

This gratitude is also accompanied by a certain modesty; of not wanting to ask for special treatment (p.32), or not wanting to offend hospitality extended (p.64), (p. 108). At time, however, I wonder how much of this modesty was also the function of his location in the racial and administrative hierarchy. There are many moments, when he revels in the fact that his actions were appreciated through notes from his superiors (pp.89-90, p.171, p. 291) and recognition from people associated with the important: "There were gifts from the simple folk and the well-to-do alike, among the latter was one from the then Secretary to the Duke of Manchester (Mr N.O.C. Marsh – an imposing figure of a man)." (p.185)

But the modesty is not always obsequious. For example, in one case (p.75) he is questioned by his Goan friends about addressing the DC as "Dear Mr Whitehouse" rather than Sir. He goes on to affirm "Privately, in letters, I have always addressed my DCs and other officers as ‘Dear Mr ...’, also in conversation and whenever we met socially. I felt that there was a place and time for the use of the word ‘Sir’, always intending no discourtesy or disrespect, and I am pleased to be able to record that I encountered no problems in
this respect." (p.75) On other occasions in the text, he highlights when the superior officers introduced themselves by name and maintained terms on a first name basis (p.328).

This modesty seems accompanied by an appreciation for honesty, and on more than one occasion Maciel refers to the honesty of the tribes and the fact that there was "never any deliberate tax evasion" (p.71), (p.130), (p.159).

What was also interesting was the manner in which he observed racial differences in colonial Kenya (p. 297). He does not ignore it, but is not particularly attentive to it, and it seems to surge to the forefront primarily when he feels the pinch of the racialised discriminations - in the case of allocation of housing and facilities within these houses (p. 292, p. 329), or when his wife could not use the best hospital (p.224). However, what is interesting is the mild manner in which these are raised. See, for example, the following:

p. 56 "I could never really understand the inequality of this [hardship] allowance especially since we endured the same hardships and inconveniences as our European colleagues. In some cases, I feel the Asian staff were at a greater disadvantage."

Note, that Goans were classed as Asians in the civil services, and that the grouse here is because it impacts on him. However, note the mild-mannered way in which it is raised.

p. 60 "After seeing the large farms that many of the European settlers owned [in the Rift Valley Province], the prize dairy herds they kept and the sheer richness of the land, I realized why they wanted to keep the Highlands all for themselves. Who wouldn’t, given the excellent climatic conditions?"

Here the racialised exclusion is almost justified.

p. 123 "neither of us [the Gabra Daniel Dabasso] liked the arrangement obtaining at the time, where a number of duties which I rightly considered to be that of a District Clerk, were being handled by a European Works Supervisor who, to my mind, had really nothing to do with the day to day running of the district office
anyway. The individual in question, who the locals referred to as “Maja Pota" (Major Porter) posed more like a D.O."

It is not that the racialised privileges are without critique. Take, for example he observation about the moodiness of the DC at the N.F. D. Mr. Whitehouse:

pp 80-1 "I always put his ‘moodiness’ down to the intol- [81]erable heat and general conditions prevailing in Lodwar. Mind you, we, the clerical staff also had the same fierce heat and conditions to endure!"

By not making a radical response to the racialised hierarchy, but in some manner accepting it, perhaps he is now able to be attentive to the kindness of Europeans (English) who tried to bend the rules for Asians, or for him personally.

p. 68 "The cold fruit juice was a real treat and here I feel the Goan staff can thank successive Provincial Commissioners – notably Sir Gerald Reece and latterly Sir Richard Turnbull, through whose efforts all Asian staff in the N.F.D. were provided with kerosene-powered refrigerators free of charge. It must surely have taken some convincing on their part to persuade the authorities in Nairobi to waive the rules in this case."

p. 78 "we were also given the bare minimum of furniture consisting of a bed and coir mattress, occasional table, dining table and chairs and a couple of un-cushioned lounge chairs; these were all supplied rent free. This was a special privilege afforded to the Asian staff in the N.F.D. since furniture was only supplied to European staff and that too on payment of the appropriate furniture rental. I feel sure that the various Provincial Commissioners must have made out a strong enough case to convince officials at the Treasury and Secretariat that the rules should be ‘bent’. As a general rule, Head office personnel were sticklers for abiding by the Code of Regulations."

p. "The European receptionist at the aerodrome, seeing Elsie in a state of panic, and realizing that Conrad was now gravely ill, immediately called for a taxi."

Because he is not obliged to toe a radical line as regards racialised discrimination, he is also able to demonstrate the various incidents when the European breaks protocols to create a common social platform.

p. 83 "On one evening during their [his prospective in-laws] stay at Lodwar, my guests were invited over to drinks by the DC. I had not expected such an invitation, neither had they. During the course of the conversation that evening, Mr Whitehouse must have read my thoughts as, to everyone’s surprise, he suggested that we make the trip to Lake Rudolf and Fergusson’s Gulf. The Asst. Superintendent of Police from neighbouring Lokitaung also happened to be at the party, and he readily undertook to provide the transport from his own fleet of vehicles. This was great. That night, we left the DC’s house having thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and full of appreciation for his kindness."

Also, given that he does not take a radical response to racial discrimination and privilege, he is able to offer slow changes in the system:

p.124 "Although not altogether happy with the limited responsibilities I now had, I decided not to pursue the matter any further – for the time being anyway. In many ways, I was relieved that I had brought the whole question out in the open."

He does not pursue the matter further, but rests satisfied that at the very least the question has now come out into the open.

He also looks for, or appreciates, superior support in changing the system:

p.125 "he [the new DC at Marsabit Mr. Wild] shared my feelings about the rather unfair distribution of the work at the office – a situation he was hell bent on changing as soon as possible."

p. 219 John Carson, at Kitale, "was also the first DC who, in those days, called me by my Christian name — not the done thing then. I very much appreciated this informality."

see also at p. 249,

Note, that this kind of politics relies on not casting the field on binary terms of "they" and "us". So, it allows one to not only be open to receive kindness, but also find non-confrontational ways to redress the challenges.

In the context of the manner in which he refers to racial discrimination I noted with some surprise that except for the reference to making provisions for political prisoners, including Kenyatta, there was almost no reference to the political climate of Kenya. Kenyan independence creeps up almost as a surprise towards the end of the book (p. 356). Nor is there a critique of the violence that creeped in subsequent to Kenyan independence. For example, the assassination of David Dabasso, then DC of Isiolo, after independence is merely a footnote (p.123).

I wonder though whether accepting kindness from the racial superior did not result in his antipathy to the South African - on various occasions he singles them out as the bad guys (pp. 222, 244).

There is almost no reference to sexuality in this book, except for a stray reference to "their bare, shiny and well-formed breasts openly displayed" (p.71) when referring to the Turkana women.



Jason Keith Fernandes Ph.D.


Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA),

ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon.


Dear Mervyn,


Re: Dr. Jason Keith Fernandes' critique of "Bwana Karani"



I have not weighed in on Dr. Fernandes' critique of your book earlier because I was otherwise occupied during the Christmas-New Year period. Dr. Fernandes has made some interesting points about the book and documented them well with references from the book. I think his criticisms are well founded and you have graciously accepted the main thrust of his criticism but defended yourself by stating that your book was meant to be a personal account and not a political memoir.

Although I have spoken to you on several occasions about "Bwana Karani", I don't think I have ever written about it because by the time I received a copy, several people of great literary and social stature had already written glowing reviews or commented on the historical value of the book. There was not much more that I could add apart from my personal awe at the incredible detail in the book and the archival value of your personal memoir from the viewpoint of the career of a Goan Civil servant in the British colonial service in Kenya. As a close friend of you and Elsie, I was proud of your achievement and anything I said would be repetitive of what others had said or seem to arise from my friendship and love for you and Elsie. In truth, I found it difficult to be objective about the book. Knowing you as I do, I was not at all surprised to find that the record of your service as Civil Servant was remarkably free of resentment, bitterness and rancour. As Dr. Fernandes has noted, it is not as if you were unaware of differences in the treatment of whites and non-whites even when they were doing the same job. I know that after "Bwana Karani" was published, you were invited to speak to former colonial administrators' organisations and you used the opportunity to address such issues head on with them. Your book, however, was not written to expose the injustices of the British rule or the inequalities of the Colonial Civil Service. It was, as you have said, a personal memoir, a diary of the day-to-day happenings in the life of a "Karani" - and I cannot imagine anyone writing a more detailed and factual account of his years in the service.

 Dr. Fenandes' remarks are recorded as observations with supporting quotations from the book. They are factual and nowhere do I detect any attempt to put down Mervyn as a writer or a person. I recall that in 2018, a mutual friend of Mervyn and me, Cyprian Fernandes, came in for contempt for his two books "Yesterday in Paradise" and "The Stars Next Door" from a critic, Ben Antao, in an article entitled "The Literary Maladies of Diaspora Goans" (printed in Joao-Roque Literary Journal, August 5, 2018). Antao found it "astonishing that Goans who immigrated to Canada from East Africa in the 1960's and 1970's still hearken back with nostalgia to the good times of the so-called paradise that they basked in under the British colonial sun." I think he expected Cyprian to take up the cause of African Nationalism and deliver a scathing indictment of British colonial rule in Kenya. "A writer, "Antao pontificated, "has to draw upon his lived experiences if he seeks to create literary fiction." What Antao failed to realise is that Cyprian had not set out to create literary fiction in either of his two books nor did he pretend to. And, neither has Mervyn.

By and large, we Goans in East Africa were an apolitical group. I state it not as an excuse but as a fact. We had good jobs, we enjoyed comfortable middle-class lives, had our clubs which provided us with sports and social activities. What more could we ask for? We looked a bit askance at Goans like Pio Gama Pinto, a true and committed African nationalist. While we secretly may have admired their courage, we wondered why they wanted to rock the boat. Our middle-class salaries and meagre savings would not give us a great start in any of the countries that we could flee to in case of trouble. We recognised that the three-tiered system in Kenya was very unfair to the Africans and, yes, it was their country. But, come on, we had our families to consider. We could not jeopardize their future, could we? We couldn't very well be expected to leave our comfortable nests and join the Mau Mau in the Aberdare forests, could we? Those of us who could see that our days in Paradise were numbered had enough to worry about as we cast about for a new home in distant lands that were not eagerly waiting to welcome a flood of Asians from East Africa.

Those were the circumstances that prevailed at the time that Mervyn set out to write "Bwana Karani". It would have been untruthful and hypocritical for him to have portrayed himself as a champion of African rights. The truth is that Goans as a group were grateful for the opportunities they had enjoyed in Kenya and were known to have served in their posts honestly and loyally. We loved the people and got on well with them but the political climate was such that most of us knew we had to emigrate and start life again in a new country. Our departure was not a political statement against our white masters but one of necessity.

Yes, "Bwana Karani" and "Yesterday in Paradise" may not go as far as some critics expect them to but Mervyn and Cyprian were true to their roots and have not from the safety of Britain and Australia posed as freedom fighters or political dissidents exposing the injustices of British rule in Kenya. Not everyone is born to be a Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela - or a martyr-like Pio Gama Pinto. Let us accept "Bwana Karani and "Yesterday in Paradise" for what they are, factual chronicles of the personal lives of two fine people whose books are already proving to be excellent resources for scholars and historians - and hosts of readers like myself who lived through those times in Kenya. Thank you, Mervyn and Cyprian.


Dear Mervyn


However well-intentioned, I think Jason Keith got it wrong in reviewing MM’s book:


Let me explain: It is difficult for an outsider looking in, or someone who was not there himself or herself, to understand the juxtapositions of Goans (who were considered a class above your average Asian) in their dealings with their colonial masters.


I don't know if we were conditioned into servitude, it just our humble nature, our respect for our seniors or a question of duty (Official Secrets Act, Civil Service Code of behaviour and ethics) or more a question of not jeopardising one's job that we were what we were: faithful civil servants, clerks in local government, in hospitals, teachers in education, banks, railways and harbours, hotels, restaurants, bars, many, many others and virtually every kind of work we put our hands and skills to... we were the humble servant, reliable, honest, trustworthy ... the colonial Goan civil servant that Churchill said the British could not have done without.


However, most white senior civil servants were trained to demand servitude, discipline and non-negotiable honesty. It was the British way. They treated their fellow Brits the same way in the United Kingdom.


Generally speaking, Goans were not racist towards Africans, Asians, Arabs, and other nationalities. It is just that historically Goans did not really engage anyone socially or otherwise who was not a Catholic. Even then, we did not engage each other if they were not of the same caste or station in life and then only if they could read and write English. In the Goan Institute

Nairobi this was designed to keep out the riff-raff from the Goan Tailors Society and their likes.


Goans did not go to war against the Mau Mau, (a) because it was not out war, it was the British colonial administration fight the landless Kikuyu, to wipe them, and maintain the colonial status quo. It was none of our business, but then again Goans are pretty good at fighting among themselves ... but frighted silly, often, to take on anyone else. But it was not our fight.


Most of the Goans remained true to their Portuguese heritage and the British, who had been "diplomatic friends of the Portuguese," respected this. Africa belonged to the Africans. There were many people who thought like me: Kenya is for Kenyans, black Kenyans. However, each night I say a prayer for the Goans who had the courage to remain in East Africa and made very good success of their decision.


The relationships between Goans and colonials is a complicated one. Goans did not care too much for their colonial masters because they usually had the last laugh: when the whites stuffed, it was the humble Goan clerk who bailed him out, even when it came to money.


I do not think any Goan anywhere in Africa has anything to answer for. Because we are who we are, we have been able to often seamlessly fashion in a new life in a new English-speaking country because our reputation as "good, honest and dedicated people" preceded us.



MM ADDS: White Administrative Officers had the luxury of attending Devonshire Courses in Oxford before taking up their appointments. We, Goans had no such training and were thrown in at the deep end, and yet expected to train these same White officers. Many, including Turnbull, have admitted that in their early careers, it was the Goans who helped them “learn the ropes”. We were always considered 'the backbone' of the Civil Service -one officer even admitting that without the Goans, the salt of the earth, the Administration could never have achieved the high standards it could boast of.


Despite our loyalty, we were let down by our White superiors at the eleventh hour when independence was looming. While the Europeans negotiated a very generous retirement package for themselves - we, Goans were left in the lurch, having to fight our own battles for compensation and loss of career. In the end, and through our efforts, we received a pittance in compensation compared to the very generous 'golden handshakes' approved for our European colleagues. Personally speaking, I feel let down especially since, in one district (South Nyanza), I replaced a White officer who was found unfit for the job, and yet, he went off

with a massive 'golden handshake' while I was left with the crumbs!


CRF: AWAY from the workplace there was no social interaction between the various races and certainly not with the Africans. Goans and Asians went about their lives blissfully and it is this bliss that is the making of the nostalgia so treasured by ex-East Africans who had to leave their birth country. It was not until the late 1950s (although there was some interaction in cricket and hockey) that the walls of separation slowly started crumbling. I think the Lions and Rotary clubs were among the first to have Asians in the company of Europeans.


I met my first Europeans when I went fishing just outside of Eastleigh and then when I started working in the National and Grindlays Bank in accounting room which employed 35 (thou shalt not touch) white-skinned bombshells every one of them. Barely spoke to any of them, I was 12 going on 13. Went out with the first white girl I knew when I was 15. It was an open market after that including my first African girlfriend.


And Sex? What the heck was Keith thinking about. Goan sex? There was very little or none as far as premarital was concerned. Prostitutes. There was some but in terms of social needs it met the needs of lonely men, of all colours. But no Goan would admit to that, and why should he … or she.


Best wishes




THIS NOTE from MM’s Oxford Uni based friend, Dr Christine Nicholls:

 Dear Mervyn,

 This is a typical response from someone who has no knowledge of the circumstances of the time. You were certainly not ‘obsequious’. Rather, you were quietly showing that you could do the job as well as, and probably better than, anyone, and that was the way forward for inter-racialism.


I’m afraid the belief is all too prevalent, these days, that loud (and sometimes violent) proclamations of racial injustice will cure it. They don’t – they simply exacerbate tensions. Your quiet wisdom was the way forward then and should be now.


Chin up!






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