In many respects, it is a pity, that some of us, Goans, are not given to writing or even talking about our past. It is only in recent years, that there has been a growing interest among our younger generation in Oral history; and published reminiscences of our childhood/adult days are a rarity in many a Goan family 'collection'. Memories and verbal recollections there are a-plenty, but sadly precious little recorded.
An exception to all this was a real treasure trove I stumbled upon when I contacted the family of the late Mrs. Mascarenhas. They provided me with copious "Notes" this good lady had made, and these, in the main, form the basis of my story.
Marcilia Mascarenhas was born in Nigvaddo, Arrarim, Saligao (Goa) on 2nd June 1893. Having lost her parents at a very young age, she was brought up by her sister-in-law in the ancestral home. She attended the local parochial school where she was taught elementary Portuguese.
Arriving in Kenya as a young bride in 1912, she was not to find herself in towns like Nairobi or Mombasa which boasted a sizeable Goan population, but instead, to Riana, a remote village in the vast South Nyanza district of Kenya, inhabited mostly by the Luo and Abagussi (Kisii) tribes, where her husband, Thomas Joseph, ran a typical African-type duka (shop) dealing in
produce and also hides and skins.
For nine long years, they had no children, but the arrival of a son in 1921 was no doubt a joyous occasion in the Mascarenhas's small household which they shared with Thomas's brother, Joaquim. Sadly, this joy was short lived.
On 30th March 1922, a mere five days before his 35th birthday, Thomas Joseph
died at Riana of Blackwater fever (an epidemic not uncommon in those days, in the remoter regions of Kenya, where medical facilities were almost non-existent). How would she now cope running the shop in this remote corner of
Africa, with a year-old baby on her hands, was a thought that must often have crossed her mind. But this young lady was made of sterner stuff.
According to the "Notes" she kept, her late husband's assets totalled Shs 2012.50. Hardly any Asians were interested in his effects and the poor Africans could ill afford to buy any.
Undaunted by the awful blow destiny had dealt her, she was determined to carry on with her late husband's business, and set in motion, a course of action which I describe here in her own words.
"I sold four gold bangles to an Indian trader at Kisii, and obtained sufficient
money for a third class rail fare to Mombasa, and a deck passage to Bombay
for my son, Alex (18 months) and myself. My brother, Anthony D'Souza, accompanied
me, and we reached Bombay in October 1922. Through his help, I obtained the proceeds
of an insurance policy on Thomas's life, amounting to Rs. 8880, from the Karachi Life
Insurance Co Ltd. My brother-in-law, Joaquim, also let me draw Rs. 900 from his Post
Office Savings Bank account in Bombay. I thus deposited Rs. 9780 with the Mercantile
Bank of India and then left for Goa. Due to the Exposition of the body of St. Francis
Xavier that December, many people had come to Goa from abroad. I therefore managed to
sell all my personal effects and jewellery. This realised Rs. 3820. I also attended the pilgrimage, and earnestly prayed to St. Francis Xavier to give me courage and
assistance to bring up my only son. He answered my prayers over the years"
There is no doubt that her faith had sustained her. In March, 1923, she returned to Kisii before the first anniversary of her husband's death. Here again, in her own words, she goes on to say.....
"I bought and carried with me plenty of India cloth. With the help of my 'Singer'
hand-sewing machine (bought for my wedding in 1910), I started dress making for
the Kisii and Luo women. Until then, they did not wear any Western clothing. Men wore loin cloth or goatskin flaps in front and rear. Kisii women wore goat skins from the
hip downwards.Luo women wore a sort of skirt made of papyrus or other reeds grown
along the lakeshore. The Catholic Mission at Asumbi and Nyabururu helped me
tremendously by sending all the women to have them "dressed" by me. I worked round
the clock, and with God's inspiration and my husband's prayers, started saving money
each month. On occasions when a few women came to collect their frocks, they insisted
on wearing them and having their traditional dance (something like our Goan Mando)
in the verandah of our grass hut."
She goes on to say that as news of her dress making spread, so did the business boom. Her brother was very helpful in sending the materials she needed from his base in Mombasa. Later, with her brother-in-law Joaquim's
help, she expanded the business by selling many much sought after items
like sugar, salt, soap, kerosene oil, beads, cigarettes, matches and hoes.
She made frequent trips to Kisii, leaving very early in the morning, and travelling in a native chair (palanquin) borne by four porters. Her purchases
were made at Kisumu whence she travelled to Homa Bay by ox wagon, thence by one or other of the sailing boats owned by an Asian businessman
(Mr. Dhanji Manji). Much later, she observes, motor boats owned by Capt. Richard Gethin (Snr), and Mr. H. Lakhani started plying between Kendu Bay
It must not have been easy for her travelling by boat and sometimes road transport, with a young child, especially since road conditions could be quite treacherous in the rainy season.
In 1924, she bought a plot at Homa Bay where she erected a wood/iron building consisting of a shop and two living rooms. This cost her Shs. 4000/-, and she rented it for 80/- a month. A year later, she bought another plot, this
time at Sare-Sakwa-Awendo for the same price, and again rented it out at
80/- per month. The woman's business acumen was beginning to show!
In 1926, she went to Mombasa where her brother taught her simple
accounts, and also introduced her to Indian traders who were able to give
her useful advice on conducting retail African trade. Seeing what she had
already achieved, despite all the setbacks, I feel she could teach them a thing or two! Her brother also coached her in basic English, and with this:
"and my poor vocabulary and foreign accent, I managed my business and
also meetings with Government officials of all ranks, including Governors,
whom I had the honour to meet during their rare visits to our district."
Time was approaching for Alex's schooling and so, in 1926, Mrs. Mascarenhas moved to Kisii, leaving Alex at the Aga Khan School in Kisumu. While her brother-in-law (Joaquim) looked after the shop at Riana, Mrs Mascaren decided to start a small shop in Kisii, and later ventured into the garage business. The business prospered and she was encouraged to start
a grocery business with many agencies like petrol, oil, cigarettes etc... The enterprising spirit of this wonderful woman was evident once again.
Not content with the business she had, she ventured into the transport business where she had two trucks which carried produce from the various trading centres to the lake ports. She also ran a passenger bus service between Kisii and Kendu Bay. I wonder how many men in her situation could have attempted all that she successfully undertook and made a success of?
Wanting to give her son Alex the best of education, she moved to Kisumu in 1927 and got Alex admitted to the Govt. Indian Boys School. Initially renting two rooms in a wood and iron house owed by an Indian trader, she later bought a plot on De Boer Street where she put up permanent buildings consisting of two shops and four living rooms. She and Alex moved into the two rooms and rented the remaining two. Alex didn't keep good health and suffered from frequent bouts of malaria which interfered with his schooling.
On her occasional visits to Kisii she noticed that her business there was not doing well in her absence, but there was nothing she could do to remedy the situation. A self-made businesswoman that she was, she later bought a plot with a wood and iron house on it for Shs. 5,500 on Station Road, Kisumu, paying for it from money brought out from her savings in India.
In 1929, the Goan Community started a school in the Goan Institute with the Catholic mission providing some Franciscan nuns for the teaching staff. The Goans were keen that Alex be transferred to their new school, but since he was already well settled at his Indian school, Mrs. Mascarenhas saw no need to move him. Besides, she was giving him religious instruction at home and even preparing him for his First Holy Communion. The sad episode in this story is that some Goans complained to the then Parish Priest and the latter
threatened to excommunicate her on the grounds that she was not prepared to offer her son a sound Catholic education. I wonder how such a threat would stand today?! Reluctantly and under pressure, she moved Alex to the Goan School. After a short trip to Goa for the exposition of St. Francis Xavier in 1931, where she had hoped to leave Alex to continue his education - a plan that didn't work because of Alex's ill health- she returned to Kenya in 1932, and moved Alex, initially to Dr. Ribeiro's Goan School in Nairobi, and then to the Government Indian Boys School. However, Alex was not happy at his Nairobi lodgings, and so was brought back to Kisumu, back to the Indian Boys School where he once was. The Goan School, which had been temporarily closed down, was re-started, and the old problem with the Catholic clergy resurfaced. The Parish Priest, Fr. Rowland, in Mrs. Mascarenhas's own words:
"not only refused to bless my new house on Station Road, which I built in 1934, but even insulted me by slamming the door against me, and
telling me to go away. That was the first and last time I was insulted in this manner in my
lifetime, and of all people, by a Catholic priest! (Destiny made him bless my son's engagement ring some 16 years later in Kisumu)"
To me personally, this sounds like a disgraceful episode, and I only wish
Mrs. Mascarenhas had referred this incident to the relevant Bishop at the time.
The sheer determination and courage of this remarkable woman is evident in her next purchase - this time a 160 acre farm at Kibigori, which she bought from a lately deceased soldier-settler. Once again, in her own words, she goes on...
"I had no plans nor any experience of farming. Included in the Shs.6000/- price was a
fully furnished farm house, several head of cattle, farm implements and a small acreage under coffee. I employed a Sikh Manager and planted 50 acres of maize. I sold a lot of
wood fuel, extra cattle, some coffee and maize. Within two years, I recovered the purchase
price I had paid for the farm. However, with the depression at its height, and the prices of produce at rock bottom (a 200 lbs bag of maize for Shs 2/25), I started losing money; what I had gained in the first four years, I lost in the subsequent five years, and eventually sold
the farm in 1940 at a profit."
By now, Alex had successfully completed his Preliminary Cambridge exams, and was later moved to the Allidina Visram School at Mombasa to complete his higher education. Unlike his enterprising mother, Alex was not business-like, but continued to help his mother in many ways.
Driven by her enterprising spirit, Mrs. Mascarenhas continued to enjoy great success in all her later business ventures; of her, it could easily be said,
'everything she touched turned into gold!' But all through sweat and hard work.
In his memoirs, the late Capt Richard Gethin (Snr), who met Mrs. Mascarenhas at Riana in 1914, had this to say -
"...After covering some eight miles, we came across a trading centre with a few
Dukas, and as I was passing, a Goan woman came out of one of the shops and was
very interested to know where I was going. She struck me as being very poor, as she
was barefooted and badly dressed, but she very kindly asked me to come in and have a cup of tea, which I did. She was most interesting and gave me all the news about Kisii and the district, and was quite certain I wouldn't stick it out long, as the Kisii were the
biggest thieves on earth and would take everything off me, including the engine and
posho (maize meal) mill.....
The Goan lady I met at Riana Trading Centre is one of the wealthiest people in
Nyanza Province, with houses and property in Kisumu, Kisii and many other
Trading centres. This can be attributed to a good business head, a sharp tongue,
and a forward vision of events that might happen in 10 years time - she was nearly always right!"
A fitting tribute to a grand old lady.
Having sold her Riana business, Mrs. Mascarenhas retired and being the independent individual she was, moved to her own flat at Kisii.
My wife and I were privileged to meet her and enjoy her hospitality on many an occasion during my time in South Nyanza. She struck me as a very gracious and unassuming lady. She exuded warmth and was always interested
in other people, and rejoiced with them in their success stories.
She adored her son Alex, his wife Jessie and grandchildren, and they have all been a great credit to her.
I would like to end with some 'words of advice' she gave her son and
a) Keep your principles and honesty
b) Harm no one, even in error
c) See good in others, and never be envious of what others have or do.
d) Frankness is a good quality, but bluntness does not pay. Tact and
diplomacy is a better weapon.
e) Never do anything for which you may have to hang your head down in
Lastly, remember, our good deeds will be buried with us, but the bad
or evil we did or spoke will remain as history.
Words of a true Sage no doubt, and sound advice that we could all benefit from.
Sadly, the end came on 24th March 1963, when Mrs. Mascarenhas passed away in Victoria Hospital, Kisumu, of a diabetic coma, at a still young age of 69 years.
This remarkable woman has left behind a legacy which will benefit not just her immediate family, but Goans and others the world over, and I
feel truly privileged to have known such an amazing character.
I salute the memory of this great daughter of Saligao, Goa, and also
a pioneer Goan business woman of Kisii, whom the Mkisii affectionately called MOGINA (Mother).