One Nation: Pio’s dream for Kenya

Volume 12, Issue 1  | 
Published 01/07/2015
Cyprian Fernandes

VETERAN Kenya-born journalist *Cyprian Fernandes celebrates the life of Pio Gama Pinto, Kenya’s fi rst political martyr who was assassinated 50 years ago on February 24, 1965. A front-line journalist, Fernandes has worked in Kenya, Europe and Australia, where he now lives. You can read more at his blog


IF THERE is a single beacon alight, many, many decades from now, to evoke the name of Pio Gama Pinto, it will be because of the saddest of irony: that Africa chose to murder the one man who had two important lessons that could have saved the continent hundreds and thousands of deaths and created nations in which all of their people shared in the fruits of independence from the various colonialists.

His foremost vision was that every single man, woman and child (of any colour, of any tribe, of any religion, of any language) should be completely free, not just the few that were opportunistically positioned to grab power and exploit it for the benefit of the few. He always professed to being a complete African socialist.

However, it would seem in hindsight, that his devotion and dedication to African socialism, particularly sharing everything he had or owned was ridiculous to say the least. At his death, he owned nothing, had less than a thousand shillings to his name in his bank account.

He fed and clothed anyone who needed his help including many who went on to high political office and were counted amongst Kenya’s first millionaires. Even his Kenyan socialist colleagues were clever enough to practise the cynical idiom: what is mine I keep, I share everything else. No so-called Kenyan socialist was the beggar that Pio was in the end.

Yet, he was able to beg from various friendly nations, including India, and more importantly, the Kenyan Indian merchant community in order to arm, clothe and provide for the Mau Mau rebellion. He also provided the Mau Mau movement with the strategic planning he later became famous for.

Almost a few days after marrying Emma Dias, he told her ‘intelligent women did not stay at home’ and promptly drafted her into a secretarial college. It was these skills that provided the bread-winning for the family, first with a private firm, then replacing one of the many British secretaries who were leaving Kenya after independence.

Like many prophets before him, Pio Gama Pinto was shunned his own community, the Goans in Kenya who were more aligned to their Portuguese masters and fought with words (amongst themselves in their clubs and through letters in the local media) to stop India from annexing their homeland of Goa. Pio and the Goans mutually divorced each other.

In October 1960, he led a campaign to disrupt the visit to Kenya of the Vice Premier of Portugal Pedro Teotinio Pereira, a sabotage mission that was opposed by the general Goan community.

Pereira was visiting at the invitation of the colonial government. His main aim was to renew links with the Goans in Nairobi and Mombasa. His program would see him officially open the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and visit the Vasco Da Gama (the first Portuguese to set foot in Kenya en route to his search for spices) memorial in Malindi.

Pereira’s visit was pure Portuguese propaganda. Britain and Portugal colluded to prop up each other’s claims to their respective patches in Africa. Pereira had arranged the financing of the Fort Jesus Museum through the Gulbenkian Foundation of which Pereira was the administrator. Some 30,000 pounds was made available. Fort Jesus was hijacked and forced into celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. At stake was Portugal’s colonial identity.

Pereira arrived in Kenya on a six-day visit (two in Nairobi and four at the coast) on October 27, 1960.

In the media, the war was fought by the Goan Voice on the side of the loyalists and the Goan Tribune for the East African Goan League. There was also strong opposition to the visit by the Colonial Times and the Daily Chronicle.

Pio’s links with the latter publication date back to 1953 when he became editor. Both the Chronicle and the Times were owned by Indian merchants. It was rich Indians who propped up Pio’s efforts, especially against the Portuguese. In the weeks before the opening of the Fort Jesus museum, Pio made clear his opposition to the visit. He challenged the contention by the Goan Overseas Association that ‘Goans look to Portugal as their Fatherland.’ Letters in the East African Standard (then strongly a paper supporting colonial rule) stomped on Pio’s East African Goan League as being unrepresentative. The letters were like a knee into Pio’s groin.

Catholic priests, perhaps putting an unofficial spin on the subject, had vilified socialists and communists as being akin to devil worshippers, and told the Goans that they should have nothing to do with them.

Pio had cut his political teeth agitating against the Portuguese in Goa and against the British in Mumbai. When Goa was freed, he was asked to come back and lead the new state. He declined, saying that there was enough talent in Goa to do the right thing by the people.

Instead, having been born in Nyeri, he decided he would dedicate his life to the country of his birth. Thus was born his second lesson for Africa: total commitment to the country. His vision was for one country: Kenya for Kenyans, tribe-neutral, religion-neutral, colour-neutral, one people living the one shared dream.

To achieve this, he first shed his Goan/Indian skin and grew a new one to his complete Kenyan persona, taking the first steps by learning the proper Coast-style Swahili, at a time when virtually all foreigners spoke the ugly kitchen version, pathetic.

It was not long before that Pio was the respected confidante of Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Harry Thuku, Njenga Karume, Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru, Dr Julius Kiano, Paul Ngei, and an army of Kenyan politicians marching towards Kenya’s freedom. Before that he had already won the respect of several Mau Mau leaders who quickly recognised in Pio a valuable ally.

His influence was such that he was able to convince the Mau Mau leadership to leave the rural South Asian shopkeeper community safe even though the urban Asians had set up two Indian units to fight the Mau Mau. One of the units actually killed two Mau Mau fighters. However, this incident was put down to misadventure by a few misguided Asians in Nairobi.

It wasn’t long before Pio was working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kenya African National Union elite, first through the trade unions with the enigmatic Tom Mboya, later with Jomo Kenyatta himself, Dr Julius Kiano, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru and others. However, his life-long friends were Joseph Murumbi, Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai who shared his vision of an African socialist Kenya. Soon after independence as Kenya was veering more and more towards a capitalist society under the guise of a non-existent African socialism, he found a kindred spirit in the Luo leader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

He brought to Kenya politics a single, uncompromising and nationalistic vision: that independence meant independence from ignorance, poverty and disease for all and not just for the few who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His war against the ravages of the early days of land-grabbing eventually cost him his life. Who is not to say that if the fruits of Uhuru had been shared equitably Kenya’s recent history would have been much less turbulent.

Successive Indian diplomats, beginning with the illustrious Apa Pant who captured the imagination of the Kenyan political leadership, had played a pivotal role in enhancing Pio’s political aspirations by providing him with the means, including money, to pursue his political dream. Pranlal Sheth, the outstanding Indian leader who was forced to leave Kenya after independence, remained a political partner until Pio’s death. He lit the pyre at Pio’s home to burn every scrap of paper Pio had ever written or any correspondence received by him. Sheth did this with the aid of another Pio disciple - the economist Surjeet Singh Heyer. They did it instinctively to protect Pio’s family and his allies.

That is indeed a tragedy because very little or none of Pio’s written material exists today.

One of his closest friends was Fitz de Souza, barrister and former Deputy Speaker of the Parliament. He was also a kindred spirit who was able to mask his socialist ideals. The trade union visionary Makhan Singh shared Pio’s vision. The academic and visionary, Pheroze Nowrojee, knew Pio from his earliest days, as a clerk, as a hockey correspondent, editing the Chronicle. Pheroze remains the single witness to the short life Pio lived.

There are many others who played a part in his life, too many to mention here. However, there are two outstanding people who helped make Pio who he was: his brother Rosario and his wife Emma. Rosario walked in the shadow of his illustrious sibling but he provided the support Pio needed every single step of his life. If Rosario was the silent martyr in the family, then Emma was the silent spirit. She provided him with unconditional love as a wife, partner and mother and, as was the way in those days, she went about supporting her husband without question, even though he did not provide her with even a single glimpse or the smallest whisper into his political life.

It is still possible for Kenyans to bring Pio Gama Pinto’s legacy to fruition for a better, more equitable and happier Kenya, but without the violence that cost him his life. It has to be done with the will of maturity, the wisdom of hindsight, the vision of foresight and the sheer, unadulterated love of Kenya, its flora, fauna, and every single man woman and child: gender –neutral, colour-neutral, tribe-neutral, class-neutral, religion-neutral, rich or not. A truly beautiful paradise deserves a beautiful dream. Pio had one.

The second important lesson Pio gave world was for immigrant communities throughout the world:
to belong to a country, you have to totally commit yourself with any reservation whatsoever. In various parts of Africa you have to become an African. The gods of Africa will not allow you to split your loyalties. The cynics will say: a fat lot of good that did him. Pio's total commitment was unquestionable; he said it with his life.

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