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A Kenyan Journey

Volume 12, Issue 3  | 
Published 01/03/2016
  |

Author: Pheroze Nowrojee

Publiser: Transafrica Press, 2014

ISBN 978-9966-081-62-9

Reviewer: Warris Vianni

A Kenyan Journey centres on the story of a Parsee railwayman from Billimora, Gujarat, who made this land his home when a new country was being imagined and its peoples went on to call themselves 'Kenyan'. The railwayman was Pheroze Nowrojee (1879-1936), the author's grandfather, after whom he is named. But Kenyan lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee is too sophisticated to inflict a self-indulgent family history on his readers. Journey is an ambitious work, not easy to categorise. It is a fascinating example of a subaltern study; it is a rumination on nation-building that is not about politicians but about the heroism of ordinary people quietly doing extraordinary things; in places it reads like an anguished love letter; its approach is that of a committed work, with the explicit agenda of asserting the right of a people to speak for themselves and to record their own histories. It is not, however, a study of a ghetto, and thankfully it avoids clichéd and embarrassing talk about ‘the Asian contribution'.

Written accounts by railway workers who gave this country its metal spine are almost non-existent, the Safarnama-e Uganda wa Mumbasa at the British Library in London a rare known exception, written possibly by somebody involved at an administrative level. Curiosity about their work amongst their descendants has been equally rare. M G Vassanji wrote with tender sensitivity about a railway family in The In-Between World of Vikram Lal, a work of imaginative fiction. We have, also, the work of Satya Sood, which has the merit of having the glorious title Victoria's Tin Dragon. A haunting addition to railway history is the recently completed film Jangbar by the artist Zarina Bhimji, a quietly powerful meditation on decay, memory and meaning. For a thought-provoking historical perspective on the building of ‘infrastructure’, the excitable builders of the new standard gauge railway would do well to watch Bhimji’s half-hour film - as they would to visit the ruins of the house (behind the Mvita Tennis Club, Mombasa) of the man who provisioned the construction of the 'Uganda Railway', Seth Alibhai Jeevanjee. They might also read Nowrojee’s Journey. But, it is unlikely that they will be roused from their labours to do any of the above.

Though not based on the testimony of the author’s grandfather, Journey is an imaginative work made also possible by the tidy record-keeping of driver Nowrojee, who proudly spent 30 years, including the years of the Great War, driving his spotless locomotives that helped transport men and materials, governors and remittance men, families in the Reserves and shopkeepers, soda ash, agricultural produce, game, cattle, sisal - all part of a story of work, duty and quietly doing one’s bit in the creation of a modern market economy. Through his eyes, we see a world revealed to him from his carriage, of a country being built around him. Interestingly, the abiding image a reader is left with of this stoic man's life on the lonely railroad is not of the sun-drenched resplendence of his new country, but of a quieter, intimate world: of the smell of the sweet, cool air as an overnight train rushes through the magic that is the African night, when we feel we are in driver Nowrojee's caboose, sharing his private thoughts, perhaps as he brings his train to halt with precision and professional pride at Miritini, or Maji Mazuri, or perhaps Darajani, there to hear the familiar sounds of cicadas, the hyrax and the nightjar, the greetings of the lone platform signalman with his hurricane lamp, and the clinking and groaning of a hissing metal beast brought to temporary rest, the passengers asleep in their coaches behind.

Like the many little railway stations that featured in Nowrojee senior's work, Journey is populated throughout with diversions germane to the larger story being told: the importance of mabati to colonial architecture; the evocation of design patterns in knitting journals that dressed a generation of Kenyan children; the legend of Pir Baghali; the Maasai understanding of the landscape and its sacredness; references to 'Kikuyu nationalism' and the silences over Mau Mau; the fascinating description of the 1895 ceremony at Fort Jesus declaring a protectorate over the Sultan's domains, a step leading to today's inheritance, the republic of Kenya.

Journey is unusually structured: it begins with the first chapter recounting the author's tense telephone conversations during the hours of the attempted coup in 1982; it ends, in the last chapter, with his memories of accompanying his father, the barrister Eruch Nowrojee, to a Mau Mau trial at Githunguri, recalling in his account the shoddiness of the proceedings and the colonial project also on trial on that remembered morning. Perhaps these are markers for what Nowrojee intends to explore further in a future work; in this work, they are part of a thoughtful and sometimes pained narrative that articulates a claim asserted by the people who came from India to what might be termed moral equity in Kenya. Nowrojee looks to the life of his grandfather - his arrival here, his enchantment and, finally, his adoption of the new home - as a metaphor for that claim.

It is not an easy claim, not because it is without basis or honour, but because there is much unhappy history that attends it: the tragedy of social relations between the races in Kenya. The tone in race relations in this country was set many decades ago, and, ever since, each race has had the unfortunate habit of dwelling on each other’s perceived shortcomings. But if only it were that simple.

The desire of the settlers from the Indian subcontinent to embrace and be embraced by their 'foster' country is understandable. At the same time, the imprint of an old civilisation that was left behind the kala pani cannot be casually discarded within a short century. In comprehending the liminal nature of the African embrace, it must surely help - at the risk of intolerable simplification - to look to the subcontinent itself and the structure of social relations there to explore an understanding of this unhappy subject in the African setting. Nowrojee’s work would have been the more nuanced in doing so.

An alert traveller to the subcontinent (India or Pakistan) cannot but find it sobering to observe and reflect upon the relationship between a rich man and his workers, or a woman of rank and another who serves her. Over the centuries, social relations in the Indian subcontinent have been suffused by a complex 'Hindu' cosmology that conditions an individual to be responsible for her own salvation. There is, for example, no equivalent to the Christian ideal of being your brother's keeper, and, nor do you need to worship together in a temple as a congregation. You have your dharma; I have mine. Your concern is turned intensely inward for the liberation of your soul through your own efforts, your own karma. Your civilizational outlook shies from universal truths: what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ action is context-specific. You have, also, a vocation, often inherited, that inflects your outlook and pervades your sense of dharma. The vocation of a merchant, as an example, is to trade; it is not to re-order the world, or to presume to 'civilise' others. The sense of the Other being always the Other could not but also be reinforced by subterranean notions of ritual purity and the profound Indian ethos of rank and status. Perhaps the most insightful exploration of the outlook that informs social relations is to be found in the seminal essay Is There an Indian Way of Thinking? by the late poet-scholar A K Ramanujan, as well as the more recent The Indians: Portrait of a People by the psychoanalysts and cultural commentators Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar.

When the migrants from the subcontinent disembarked from their dhows at Mombasa, they carried with them much more than their modest belongings; they carried within an intensely etched sense of self and the order of things. What came across to the indigenous Africans in the resulting cultural encounter was a sense of profound indifference on the part of the new settlers, which the Africans interpreted and understood through the different cosmic outlook of their civilisation. The legacy of the encounter has been a wounded relationship.

And yet, there is also need for some perspective. The relationship should not, perhaps, have mattered as much as, surprisingly, it did: even at its peak in the early 1960’s, the percentage of the population that traced its ancestry to the subcontinent was about 2% - about 180,000 people: the population of Naivasha today. This minority is now much reduced and numbers the population of Mariakani Township at the Coast. Many left, to be followed by an even larger number of indigenous Africans, all gone to live in the wicked white man’s country.

If ‘Kenya’ is a confection, imposed from above by an alien power, boundaries and all, then, to that extent, arguably all those who now call themselves ‘Kenyan’ might also be thought of as immigrants to the idea of Kenya. The settlers from the subcontinent arrived at this incremental idea of a new nation with two distinct advantages that contingency endowed them with: they did not come to exercise power (and the vast majority of the railway builders returned to what they called ‘home’), and, because they did not have attachment to particular corners of the land where the bones of ancestors might be interred, they had a more expansive idea of their new homeland and so were more readily able to be ‘Kenyan’ whether in Loiyangalani, Moyale or Namanga.

Another running thread in Journey is the author’s trenchant comment on the experience and legacy of the colonial occupation, and his charge against the colonial power for being cynical, and lacking in imagination in the exercise of tyranny. The idea of a coloniser being imaginative and idealistic is beguiling indeed - but the idea of self-idealisation was explored with extraordinary insights in Kathryn Tidrick’s Empire and the English Character: The Illusion of Authority. But, when - if - the passions are spent, and the risks of ending up in an intellectual cul-de-sac about the colonial episode hopefully avoided, it will be productive to look also at the longue durée of African history and evaluate the contextual significance of the colonial moment. Time in what is now Kenya did not start in 1895, or from the Berlin Conference, 1884-85. Once historians make progress in recovering and recording the histories of the small, intimate African societies that migrated into and inhabited this land over the centuries, we might better understand the inevitably larger impact of their outlook, their civilisational values on the post-colony that is now their proud inheritance.

Reviewing Journey has been challenging - not because the author is known to this reviewer - but because it is a complex, subtle work that covers much ground in a surprisingly slim volume. The lack of an index and comprehensive referencing is unfortunate, but Kenyan historiography is much enriched by the publication of this elegant work.