When our launch arrived at the dock in Mombasa, we passed through immigration and then were met by Mr. Maciel, the agent that our employer had hired to get us on the train to Nairobi. As he told us very quickly, Mr. Maciel was Goan, of mixed Indian and Portuguese descent from the former Portuguese territory that India had retaken by force in 1961.
Since our crates would not go through customs until the Robin Grey docked, Mr. Maciel took us to the hotel he had arranged for us, where we would have to wait a day or two. Mary was very uncomfortable because of the heat. I was sweating profusely, but at least I wasn’t six months pregnant. Because of Mary’s condition we could not move around Mombasa very much so we spent hours under the ceiling fan in our hotel room, playing cards and board games. These were also our first nights under a mosquito net. Without air conditioning and just a desultory ceiling fan, we felt even hotter inside the net.
Because so much was happening, I don’t have journal entries for our entry into and stay in Mombasa. I reconstructed the end of our voyage on the Robin Grey from memory. On reflection, I’m not sure of the details of how Mary and I got down the stairs to the launch, particularly whether I was holding her hand on the way down. I think that descent was so traumatic for me I can’t remember how we did it very clearly. Of all the other details in that story, I am certain.
I can date our arrival in Mombasa, despite the lack of a diary entry, because we arrived the day that the Prime Minister of India Lal Bahudur Shastri died, January 11, 1966. Mr. Maciel triumphantly proclaimed that his death was God’s punishment for India’s seizure of Goa. As we drove from the docks to our hotel, more and more people were coming out on the streets in reaction to the news. When we went for a walk after getting settled in the hotel, the streets were filled with Indians dressed in white dhotis and saris. They were streaming to Hindu temples with large, colorful figures inside and at least one golden cow at the entrance to one temple.
We had had a taste of the Indian presence in Africa when we went to the large, covered market in Durban, South Africa. This market would remind you of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, but much larger, at least as big as the Eastern Market in Detroit. Most of the shops and stalls in the Durban market, and many of the shoppers were Indian. That sight helped me understand how Gandhi got his start in South Africa.
The scene in Mombasa was much more exotic to two twenty-somethings just arrived from Connecticut. The crowds in traditional clothes, the sights, sounds, and smells wafting from the temples were totally outside our previous experience. The farthest Mary and I had ventured before outside of our New England homes was a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, where we fumbled around to figure out what to do with the tortillas and the salsas.
Immigration into the United States from India, and from Africa for that matter, had not really begun before we left for Africa in 1965. The only South Asian we had met before Mr. Maciel was a Pakistani co-worker of a friend of Mary’s, who came with that friend to visit at my parents’ house before we left. The question one of my sisters asked him will give you an idea of how unusual this experience was for all of us. “If you’re Mohammedan, where’s your sword?” (That sister will remain nameless here, but her sibs know whom I’m talking about.)
Now we were walking through the middle of an outpouring of communal grief in a new land, among people who were from even another land. Having gone through the assassination of JFK a few years before, we could relate to the grief, but the forms it took seemed fantastical that evening.
Dinner back at the hotel became another experience broadening my cultural horizons. I ordered chicken curry, thinking of the dish my mother served back in Connecticut with curry from a McCormick’s tin. I had seen and smelled piles of differently colored curries in the Durban market, but I hadn’t tasted any of them. My eyes began to water with the first bite of the curry in Mombasa. By the time I had finished the meal, I had drunk about three liters of water. The Asian proprietor tried not to laugh too hard as he watched me struggle through my first real curry dish.
Ultimately we learned to enjoy Indian cuisine, eating with the Gujarati family who owned the main store in the market in Nkubu, the village where we went to live and teach. The British had brought South Asians to East Africa to help them build the railway from Mombasa to Kampala, Uganda. After the railway was finished, they stayed on to become tradespeople, teachers, and bureaucrats under colonial rule. Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda had become independent only a few years before Mary and I arrived. Having achieved political power, the Africans were now anxious to reclaim control of their economy and take the jobs and businesses held by South Asians. During the three years that we were in East Africa, the pressure for “Africanisation” took various forms and became increasingly strong in Kenya. Although these measures were never as brutal as Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, it was very clear to the Indians we knew that they were no longer welcome. Even those who really wanted to be seen as Kenyans anxiously had to be thinking about where they would go next. If I remember correctly, the movie Mississippi Masala concerns an Indian family who had emigrated from East Africa to the United States. When I was township manager in East Windsor, NJ, 30 years after we left Kenya, I met an Indian émigré who still spoke fluent Swahili.
YOU ARE READING
Not right, nor orderly.Non-Fiction
The phrase "not right, nor orderly" comes from John Donne's poem, "An Anatomie of the World," written on the first anniversary of "the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury," the 14 year old daughter of his patron, Sir Robert Drury. The poet u...