Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"In More Than One Place: Goan Kenyans and the Crisis of Identity" - PARMAL (Goa - December 2008)

In a Mombasa cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass, we looked for a grave that
held the remains of my grandmother. My uncles, aunts, and cousins tried to make sense of the graveyard’s organization while its caretakers followed closely, their voices low as they informed us that they looked after this site and that perhaps they could assist us. We had, of course, been warned that any African who offered us assistance must want money for services they would be hard pushed to render in the first place. So, we ignored them until it became clearer after a while that we were getting nowhere in our attempts to find our matriarch’s resting place.

Euthimio de Souza
 In December 2006/January 2007, over forty of us had come to Kenya to celebrate a family reunion. We had arrived from different points on the globe, some of us in Kenya after many years (for my mother this had been the first trip in forty years) and many of us here for the first time ever. As we drew up our family tree, three generations of sons and daughters, grandchildren, and great grandchildren marvelled at how from two had come one hundred, my deceased grandparents the point of origination of this journey. We celebrated our happiness at having finally come together, yet mourned the loss of those we had known and loved. But the greatest loss of all grieved by this large family of Goans was that of Kenya itself. Particularly for those of us who had never been here before, the constant refrain heard was of how Kenya was no longer the place it once was; how once the Africans had regained their independence they had run the country into the ground; how Nairobi was no longer safe and overtaken by “too many Blacks” (a relative I pointed out the obvious to was not amused). Therein, though, lies the unseen pain of nostalgia – beguiling in memory but embittering in its post-dated influence. For the Goans of East Africa, particularly those of my mother’s generation and before, their edenic memories marked with the sweetness of childhood, young courtships, and sepia tinted photos, this millennium’s Africa is another place – one that changed forever when they left. While that is indisputable, the firm belief that it was their presence and the colonial era which made Kenya, and their departure with the end of colonization that led to its decay, bears scrutiny.

The provenance of Goans from East Africa throws up several questions about their postcolonial identities, not least of all to Asian East Africans themselves. In Kenya, this community would have held passports that nominally made them British citizens of Kenya. Because Kenya was considered a colonial protectorate, it meant that British passports held by Goans, others of Indian subcontinental origins, and Black Africans as well, rendered their ability to travel to England impossible. One need not dwell too long on the reasons why such an artifice was employed to come to the conclusion that it was simply to restrict the flow of labour within a specific, and secure, gamut. Many Goans either directly made their way to British East Africa or by way of British India, to which they travelled because of the few educational and economic opportunities in Estado da India Portuguesa. When Goans left Goa to provide service and to live in colonial Africa, they were indeed Portuguese citizens, but not in a majority of cases were they of mixed-race origins, which is a commonly held, but erroneous, view of the extraction of Goans. Unlike in Brazil, the colonizer and the colonized seldom mixed, both sides looking down upon the practice. This, of course, does not mean that there were not some intermarriages, rapes, affairs, and elopements. In early colonial times, interracial marriages were the product of strategic alliances between upper-caste Indians and their aristocratic Portuguese equivalents, meant to cement business and power relations. Evidently, the reason for such partnerships being to limit the exercise of power, their own numbers were limited and the practice did not filter down into the socio-religious ranks. While it might be true that there was little inter-raciality, there is no doubt that Goan culture in the process of 450 years of colonization had been Lusitanized, in much the same way that the cultures of the Philippines and parts of Latin America had been Hispanicized.

Fast-forward to the present era. In 1961, Goa received its independence from the Portuguese and was absorbed into the Indian union. It was a tumultuous time for Goans as identity politics took over and the little enclave faced losing autonomy with its potential assimilation into the adjoining state of Maharashtra. The event was marked with the use of religio-cultural and elitist caste politics to sway opinion towards the merger. Despite this, an ensuing referendum in 1967 made clear the view that Goans, of Hindu and Catholic faiths, wished to be Goans and that Goa should be its own political entity within the union of India. It thus became a Union Territory and then, later, a fully fledged state. Previous calls for Goa to be an independent country had by this time fizzled out and Goans themselves were not immediately given the option when the Indian government wrested it from its European colonizer. The loss of that prospect is interesting less for its nationalism, but more for providing yet another example of how hegemonic Indian politics function to reduce minority voices. How else would one account for the fact that Indian history books recall Goa’s liberation not as a struggle by Goans themselves, but as an Indian-orchestrated event? Undeniably, Goa had a lot to offer India, because of its tactical coastal location. For the same reasons that the Portuguese had made Goa the capital of their Asian empire, newly independent India saw the geopolitical necessity of removing the natural harbour from the hands of a foreign power. And so was rid the last European colonial power within the contiguous Indian land mass, only to have the Indian navy set up shop there instead.

Meanwhile, Goans in East Africa and other parts of the diaspora were in an interesting moment of historical suspension: While their homeland had during the two short days of the Goan liberation struggle gone from being Portuguese to Indian, they were in a kind of ethno-national limbo. They were “British” by supposed virtue of their colonial status, but were restricted in travelling to Britain; they were African because they resided on that continent, but were indigenously not so; but were they then Indian, or were they still Portuguese? This quandary was made possible by the fact that this community had left Goa while it was still Portuguese and their birth certificates would have laid testament to this fact even if their native land had now become part of India. Their relatives in the homeland might not have had a choice when India took over, but for Goans in East Africa, their divergent history still left their choices open. In time to come, this dilemma would prove very useful. To make things even more complicated, in 1963 Kenya threw off its own British colonial shackles.

It might be argued that colonization brought together various communities and that in the struggle for independence these heretofore disconnected groups bonded to oust their common oppressor. The problem with that analysis is that it belies the history of trade and cultural exchange that characterized the Indian subcontinent even before colonial times. More to the point, while ousting the British may have led to the creation of the modern nation states in South Asia, what was left behind was the legacy of divide and conquer commonly used by the departing Raj as a means of control. Just as this is the case in the sub-continent, so too has Africa continued to struggle with the cartographies of violence that have overlaid older tribal histories. Within this, the major Indian diasporic communities of Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Goans, displaced and generally little known to each other, given the circumstances of geographic distance and lack of cultural commonality in the Indian context, had little reason to commingle in East Africa. Over time, while community and religious ties may have kept individuals close to their respective groups, the employment of particularly the middle classes in colonial administration would have put them in a position to rub shoulders with each other and, to a limited extent, with their European employers. Social interactions between Asians and Blacks in the East African racialized political economy would have been restricted, as a result of deliberate and sometimes unconscious segregation. It is no surprise that Indians already educated in colonial ways in British India could avail themselves of various opportunities not afforded to Blacks in European Africa once imported there, leading to superiority complexes that further separated them from Blacks. They often conveniently fell into the hierarchical, racialized system of colonial subjugation of native Africans – a much more subtle yet refined form of divide and rule. With the departure of the British in East Africa, the Indian communities were left behind to live in countries soon to be led by their own indigenous sons and daughters. What was seen as collaboration with the former colonizer led, in some cases, to a high price to be paid by the immigrant communities, as in Uganda.

Where they could, several Goans and members of other Indian communities departed for Western shores. Some found that after years of service to Britain they were not seen as equals there and were barred entry. Several went to India, and in the case of Asian Ugandans were forced there and elsewhere as refugees. Yet, many others stayed back in East Africa, which was the only home they had known. As immigration laws changed in countries like England, the United States, and Australia, Asian East Africans made their way there, creating a doubly displaced diaspora. Portugal became a very attractive option for Goans both in Goa and the diaspora with the genesis of the European Union, causing a scramble to reclaim Portuguese identity vis a vis their colonial birthright (and certification) as explained earlier. Many successfully migrated using the historical anomaly to their advantage; others found that in their attempts to rehistoricize themselves, they were instead taken for a ride by shysters who promised them a Portuguese passport only to disappear, once paid, into thin air.

Clearly, these post-independence migrations from East Africa indicate the destabilization felt by diasporic Goan communities, but what was the source of these insecurities? More obviously, there was Idi Amin, the political and economic instability of these newly formed countries, and a general anxiety of having to deal with change. But within all of this was also the sense of fear that these communities felt at having lost what they saw as a colonial protector with the departure of the managing classes of Europeans who provided the divisions between Blacks and Asians. Class, colonial legacies, and history continue to impinge upon inter-raciality in Kenya. This is not to suggest that interracial relationships would necessarily be indicative of communal harmony, but their dearth is also suggestive in its own way. Given all this, what future do Goans and other South Asians in Kenya envision in what is largely viewed as a Black run country?

Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi
 The dramatic suggestion hovering here is that, postcolonially, Goans may feel they have no political future in Kenya because their agency was created and made manifest through the colonial structure and ended in its demise. This is simply not true. There is, if anything, an impressive legacy of the involvement of Goans in the nationalist anti-colonial movement. Take Fitz R. de Souza, a lawyer instrumental in defending Kenyans accused of Mau Mau activities and a parliamentarian in free Kenya, or Pio Gama Pinto, a freedom fighter who was assassinated post-independence in 1965, and not to forget Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi, Kenya’s second Vice President (1965-66), who was half Goan and half Maasai. Sadly, there is little to suggest that the legacy exemplified by these figures continues. Goans in Kenya recently celebrated the hundredth anniversary of a popular social club, but what marks their political history in that country seems to have stopped in the build-up to and then just after independence.

My younger cousins are proud to call themselves Goans and so I asked them what this meant to them. Often, their response was that this was a statement of their difference from “other Indians,” because they were “part Portuguese.” I pushed the question further to get at whether this was a product of wilful confusion, communally upheld in the desire to hang on to colonial legacies of difference and thus superiority, or unwitting ignorance. The answer I came closest to was that it was a combination of those and other factors.
Goan Catholics form 1/3 of the state’s population and while as a whole Goan identity crosses religious difference, it is also coloured by it. The Goan diaspora in Kenya is largely Catholic and in addition to the nostalgia for the Kenya that once was, there is also the prevalent idea that Goans are becoming a minority in their own state. While this might be an overstatement, Goans, regardless of religious affiliation, are a cultural minority, but are not recognized as such by the Indian nation. Goan Kenyans continue to have ties with their families in Goa and their identitarian feelings are perhaps an extension of the minoritization Goans of Catholic backgrounds feel in a state and a country that, while it is important to point out is secular, is predominantly Hindu in its population. This transposition is indicative of a cultural dialogue between homeland and diaspora which at once attempts to disrupt dominant and monolithic ideas of what it means to be Indian in both locations and also intensifies the existing feelings of displacement and identity crisis in diaspora communities. Goans in the diaspora thus seem to feel the loss of more than one “home” land.

Simultaneously, in the African context, feelings of minoritization take on an air of victimization at the hands of a state that is seen as having failed its constituents. While there might be corruption in Kenya, its victims are not just Goans and other immigrant communities, but also indigenous groups, and class privilege still affords advantages despite racial background. A year after my visit, Kenya experienced post-election violence in December 2007 and January 2008, which resulted in the deaths of many Kikuyu and Luo – the tribes most affected by the events due to political allegiances. The Western media summarily reported on these events as the outbreak of inter-ethnic violence, conflating tribalism with barbarism, rather than examining such causes as area-specific poverty, joblessness, and other endemic issues. A cousin emailed me from Nairobi in fear of her life following riots in the city. I met her husband and children who were vacationing in Goa at the time, and shared their concern for the family and over what was to become of the places we had not so long ago all enjoyed together. Soon to leave Goa, they expected to petition the British Embassy in Bombay to allow them refuge in England where they would meet the rest of their family from Kenya. They confirmed that several other Goan Kenyans sought to leave, even as reports in the Indian media made it clear that South Asians had largely been left unharmed. Some Indian shops, though, had not fared as well, falling victim to the looting that had ensued.  My younger cousins, the same ones who think of themselves as part Portuguese, commented that the recent events could only occur in a place like Kenya. Their father countered this, reminding them that despite other issues, the country had not seen political disruptions of this nature in a long time. Kenya’s recent violence parallels several global events where the politically and economically dispossessed have felt pushed beyond their limits. I was reminded of the so-called race riots in Los Angeles, following the 1992 acquittal of the white policemen involved in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, or the 2005 civil unrest in Paris sparked by the electrocution deaths of two teenagers from a working class commune who were chased into a power station by policemen. All this notwithstanding, my cousins’ views remind me that Goans in Kenya continue to see their lives as unfolding against a political backdrop that impacts them but does not involve them, for at any moment the choice to leave exists and political instability provides not only the opportunity but also the mechanism.

In writing this piece, I must point out some biases. Knowing that my own thoughts are underpinned by Western education, as well as Asian American and Asian British ideas of diversity, my limited knowledge of Asian African multiculturality leaves me with the hope that, despite what was visible, there exist positive interactions. It is not my intention to undermine the historical difficulties faced by Asian East Africans, particularly victims of political displacement. Yet, if Goan and other Asian East Africans really feel that the countries they call or called home are in crisis, then the onus is upon them to interrogate the causative forces, their collusion, and what they can do to affect change.


Felicidade de Souza
The African caretakers of the cemetery in Mombasa cleared patches of grass as we walked through the graveyard. They indicated where Goans were usually buried and politely asked us when my grandmother died. Without the help of these caretakers, we would never have found her last resting place. She had left Goa as a young woman, courted by my grandfather who brought her to Kenya. It was here that she died prematurely after bearing her children. I never knew her. To be able to pay my respects at her grave was to also do so to our history in the land that adopted my family.

Versions of this article appear in Parmal Magazine (Goa) and AwaaZ Magazine (Kenya).

No comments:

Post a Comment