Maria Lynch has written a fictional account of the life of a Goan emigre to British East Africa between 1916 and 1970. In many ways the hero of the book, Sabby Mendes, could be regarded as a prototypical example of one of the many thousands of Goans who made similar journeys during the twentieth century. There are advantages and disadvantages of using a fictional account to typify experiences which must have been familiar and yet be so individual and unique to all those who undertook such a life changing event. The advantages include being able to provide a complete story from beginning to end without the inconveniences of gaps in personal histories that might have been brought about by lack of documentary evidence through papers going missing, interruptions in diaries and letters or destruction of sources whether accidental or on purpose. Furthermore, even diligent diarists and letter writers can positively spin their own experiences in order to make their own lives look more successful, prosperous or their judgement more telling than they may well have been - often through the omission of more embarrassing or challenging comments made. A fictional account gives the author carte blanche to inhabit their subjects' lives from beginning to end but if the author is not careful this can lead to some of the disadvantages coming into play. The biggest problem of the fictional account is that it is tempting to make one's protagonists far more 'modern' and 'enlightened' than their contemporaries may well have been in actuality. As history has unfolded, it is all too easy to whitewash sentiments, prejudices and pronouncements that would grate on the modern ear or seem alien or challenging to modern sensibilities. Much as the diarist or letter writer might cringe about and self-censor their own writings, it is easy for an author to censor politically incorrect ideas that may well have been more representative of people in the era of which they are discussing. So there are dangers as well as opportunities in writing fictional accounts of actual events.
Sabby Mendes' journey begins in the Portuguese colony of Goa as an apprentice to a tailor. He debates the merits of travelling to Portuguese or to British East Africa. The former might be more familiar due to language, culture and religion, but the size and perceived economic opportunities of British East Africa helps make his choice for him. A precarious journey in 1916 aboard a dhow plying merchant shipping routes which had connected India to Africa via the Arabian Gulf illustrates the challenges of emigration in a world before air travel and modern telecommunications. This is a world where letters take weeks if not months to get to their destination and where people rarely travel home again. For many, this was always intended as a one way trip and a permanent separation from friends and family at home. Sabby is accompanied by other Goan emigres whose own experiences allow the reader to empathise with a wider cross-section of possible actors: Goans who worked on the railways, for Europeans or in the hospitality industry for instance. Curiously, Goan experience in government and administration, which was a very influential and successful aspect of Goan emigration, is somewhat omitted except in passing. The focus of the book is very much on Sabby's efforts to establish himself as a tailor and the journey that might have been undertaken by someone with his skills set; working for someone else to start off with, renting a room in the back of a shop, borrowing money to set himself up in his own shop, expanding his clientele and his product range. Basically, it is the story of an entrepreneur who may well be in an exotic and unfamiliar location who is motivated to establish himself in a society whose rules are dictated by others. The importance of the Goan diaspora as a community and as a network whose religion and culture bind them together in a stratified society where they are neither the rulers nor entirely the ruled. This is the era before passports, visas and work permits. Family and community connections are more valuable than documents in the early years of imperial rule in Africa. Sabby's story is still on the tougher side of the pioneering aspects of emigration, but those following would find it easier to slot into the culture through using contacts and family to smooth the way before them - at least for a while.
Sabby's connections back to Goa are never completely cut off and his parents help to find him a suitable wife who will join him in Kenya and be the mother to his children. These children, more so than Sabby, are the ones who will be caught between cultures - born in Africa but not African. Whilst Sabby has a lifetime to grow his business and establish himself, his children will be forced to make important questions on identity as those pesky aspects of modern life: passports, visas and work permits will later intrude.
The book is somewhat 'urban' in tone as the author arrives in Mombasa but settles in Nairobi, the capital of British Kenya. There is little discussion on the African 'bush', the wildlife or the various pastoralist tribes that provided the bulk of the population of Kenya. Africans are few and far between as the protagonist spends much of his life within the Indian community and with the occasional European customer. The stratification is clearly a concern for Sabby who frets about the treatment of Africans when he witnesses obvious injustices done to them. Africans however are almost never his customers and only occasionally his workers (and one of those employee relationships ends in an unfortunate manner). This is perhaps where the book strays more towards the hero being too much on the 'right side of history'. It is hard for the modern reader to accept and understand that many, but not all, of our forebears would have regarded a stratified society as being the norm and perfectly understandable. Indeed the caste system still enshrined within the Catholic Goan community hints at the acceptance of ideas that may well be regarded as anathema to a modern reader but would have been widespread at the time.
Historical events impinge on actual events, although World War One is only mentioned upon its conclusion. I would have expected some comment on the fighting that went on throughout the entire First World War in East and Central Africa, especially as Sabby arrives in 1916 into a war zone. If nothing else, the number of uniformed personnel and Indian Army personnel in particular would have been very conspicuous - especially in the capital of Nairobi. World War Two has a little more detail, but unfortunately, there are some errors in the chronology of fighting. In a section concerning December 1943, it refers to fighting taking place in nearby Ethiopia and Somalia. Fighting did indeed take place against the Italians in both those locations but the fighting was largely completed in the very early stages of the war and only minor guerilla actions persisted after that. By December 1943, Italy had actually been knocked out of the war entirely. The author rightly mention Italian prisoners of war being used to develop the infrastructure of the Kenya colony and alludes to the Africans being recruited into the King's African Rifles but does not expand on their contribution to the wider war effort nor there important contribution to the fighting in Burma. That is perhaps beyond the confines of the book, but developing the historical context would have provided a wider perspective to understand the events and characters within.
Reference is frequently made of Kenya being a white colony, or a colony for whites. Certainly in the early years this was indeed the intention of some of the original settlers. However, the Devonshire declaration of 1923 made it clear that African interests in the colony had to be considered as paramount. This somewhat killed off aspirations for white settlers that Kenya might become a dominion along the lines of Canada or New Zealand for instance. Segregation and political power still laid with the rulers but the issues were not as clear cut as Sabby's character insinuates. Likewise with the Mau Mau disturbances of the 1950s. Sabby seems very much sympathetic with the Africans attempting to seize back power of their own country, whilst still being concerned at the likely ramifications. However, once again it is simplified a little too much as the Kikuyu are rightly identified as being behind the Mau Mau but omitting to mention that many of Kenya's other 'African' tribes were as hostile to the thought of dominance by the Kikuyu tribe as they were of rule from Britain. Many non-Kikuyu, and even some Kikuyu, abhorred the violence and savagery unleashed by the Mau Mau Emergency and willingly sided with the British authorities as a result. Once again, Sabby's voice seems a little wise to events that will unfold in the near future. The unfortunate side effect of Sabby's 'modern thinking' is that he comes across as much more of a victim of circumstance - caught between British colonialism and rising African nationalism. He was drawn by the opportunities of one system but his family is being driven out by the aspirations of the other.
The debates between the father and his children and how to deal with the ebbing tide of British imperial control and the difficulties facing the Indian community in an Africanising Kenya are the most poignant of the book. Important decisions of identity, opportunity and roots come to the fore. Different actors react in differing ways as the undoubtedly successful Goan diaspora is scattered on the 'Wind of Change' blowing through the continent.
Maria Lynch is an undoubtedly elegant writer and her prose is crisp and clear. The book is highly accessible as a result. It will appeal very much to those who understand what it is like to live as part of a diaspora or whose family has at one time or another chosen to start a new life in foreign shores with better opportunities. It is a tale of powerful forces being experienced by ordinary people attempting to live ordinary lives if in an exotic and unfamiliar location. Historically, there are some issues of 'modernity' and 'liberal values' which perhaps understandably intrude. It would be hard for a modern audience to identify with statements that would now seem at odds with the world we now live in and might find patronising, unpleasant or difficult for us to comprehend. There is a place for a fictional account of real events and this book does give the reader a wider understanding of what it meant to be an economic migrant to an Africa that was at first British but which became decidedly African. At heart, it is the story of identity, culture and motivation; a migrant's story!
About the Author:
Maria Lynch is a Goan and was born and raised in post-WWII Nairobi. She studied in London, England, and after returning briefly to Kenya, emigrated to Canada in 1970. A teacher by profession, Maria is now retired and living in Toronto with her husband. Beneath the African Sun is her first novel.