Memoirs of a Frontier Man

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

by Mervyn Maciel
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Mervyn Maciel
The Goan contribution to the development of the Kenya nation has been immense but scant, if any, written recognition has been given to this fact. I hope this short article will help set the record straight.

I am myself a Kenya-born Goan, and as the reader may be unaware of the early history of Goan migration into British East Africa, I should mention that this started in the late 19th century during the construction of the Uganda railway.

While many of the Indians (the Goans were regarded as a ‘separate race’ even in the official East African census reports published until the late 50s) were employed as labourers on construction work on the railways, the Goans, thanks to their Christian values, loyalty, integrity and fluency in the English language, were much sought after by the British Administration. Furthermore, because of the lack of educational facilities for the Africans during that period, educated Goans (who were recruited from British India or Portuguese Goa) encountered no difficulty in obtaining jobs within the civil service, where job security was guaranteed. Besides, while the other Asian communities moved into business, the Goans, always wary of taking risks, settled for the “safe and pensionable” jobs the Civil Service offered.

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
With Dubas (Frontier Tribal Police)
By this, I am not suggesting that there were no Goan businessmen; far from it! Indeed, among the early Goan pioneers, one can count wine merchants, general store owners, bakery proprietors and tailors of course. Nor must one forget those great Goan medical practitioners—Dr Rosendo Ribeiro (famous for his secret malaria cure, and often seen riding on a zebra in Nairobi) and Dr ACL D’Souza. Both were greatly interested in the education of Goans and did much for the community. Dr Ribeiro was honoured by having a Goan school named after him. Goans also made their mark in other fi elds such as the legal profession, journalism, music and politics. Here one name that stands out is that of independent Kenya’s first martyr, Pio da Gama Pinto.1 One also cannot overlook the invaluable service rendered by the many Goan female stenographers and secretaries.

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Pio da Gama Pinto
Being Roman Catholics, the Goans were regarded as pillars of the Church, and many of the Churches in Nairobi (including the Holy Family Basilica) and elsewhere in Kenya, owe their existence to the collective and financial efforts of our community.

While we Goans were much in demand and highly praised for our honesty and loyalty, being often referred to (verbally at least) as “the backbone of the Civil Service”, we were little more than a source of efficient and cheap labour. This is borne out by the fact that while many white settlers were unhappy about the predominance of Goans in the civil service, and even made representations to the then visiting Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, a later Commission (Mayor/Wade) decided against the employment of European clerks, concluding that in their opinion, “increased economy and efficiency could not be attained in this way”. They noted being favourably impressed by the “dedication with which the majority of Goan clerks do the work required of them”, and spoke highly of their loyalty. Sadly, largely because of the racial structure of the Civil Service, salaries were paid, to put it bluntly, on a racial basis and not on ability to do the job.

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
With Rendille warriors
This was the status quo obtaining at the time up until a few years before Kenya’s independence, when happily, merit and not race became the deciding factor. This was also a time when many Goans were appointed to senior positions, some on expatriate terms.

Since most of my service was with the Provincial Administration, I shall confine myself to talking about life and experience within that department (other Goans may now feel encouraged to record their own experiences).

Being posted to an outlying and remote part of the country was not always appealing to the younger members of the community, who preferred to work in the larger towns like Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru or Kisumu where there was a variety of social life. For me though, the pitiless deserts of Northern Kenya beckoned, and this is how I landed at Lodwar in the Turkana district at the early age of 19. Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta referred to Lodwar as “a hell on earth where you sweat from morning to night”.

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Kenyatta Imprisoned
Like our European colleagues, we Goans endured the intense heat and discomforts of life in Lodwar and other frontier stations, but found that the hardship and other allowances we received were far below those paid to the Europeans. This, despite the fact that we were mostly confined to our desks, while European officers enjoyed the luxury and variety of outdoor safaris with all their attendant perks of subsistence and travelling allowances etc.

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Archer's Post
As I’ve said earlier, we Goans were much in demand because of our honesty and integrity, and in speeches on various occasions, successive Governors and senior officials (including prominent African leaders), were known to remark that the keys of the Treasury were invariably held by Goans or Scots. In this particular respect, there is one aspect that has always concerned me. Here were we, mere clerks, but still expected to hold and be responsible for what in those days were large sums of money; the amounts being held in the safe often considerably exceeded our monthly salaries. Not infrequently, because of the DC’s absence on safari, and the need to pay traders’ and other bills, the Goan cashier would be left with a number of blank signed cheques (the cashier being the second signatory on cheques). Such was the trust placed in the Goans; but the salaries were hardly compatible with the responsibilities! It is no exaggeration to state that the Provincial Administration was predominantly a Goan preserve, since much to the annoyance of other Asians, the British administrators preferred Goan staff. This also applied “unofficially” at least to other departments such as the Government Coast Agency and Customs & Excise at Mombasa.
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
On Safari
In the smaller stations, and particularly in the Northern Frontier, Goan district clerks were more like personal secretaries to the DC. In later years, and especially during and after the Mau Mau Emergency, it became almost fashionable for most DCs (with the exception of Frontier stations) to have their own female European secretaries. This is no way diminished the workload of the district clerk since many of the secretaries were employ-ed on a part-time basis.

It is sad to have to record that the blinkered colour bar policy which operated at the time worked so much against us, hindering our job prospects and general advancement within the service. Furthermore, the segregated educational, medical and housing facilities added greatly to our frustration and disappointment during those early years.

All said and done though, I must confess that my days with the Provincial Administration were the best of my service career, and I feel truly proud to have worked in such an elite department, proud too in the certain knowledge that my Goan colleagues and I made some contribution, however insignificant, to the development of the Kenya nation.

An abortive plot to murder
When I first arrived in Marsabit in the 1950s, there was no European District Officer. Consequently, I found myself handling tasks which were, rightly speaking, within the DO’s portfolio.

On one occasion I had to commit a known Somali crook to prison for house breaking and stealing a bottle of gin in the bargain (this by an alcohol-prohibited Muslim!). The initial uproar among policemen of his tribe soon subsided when I got a Sudanese Kenya Police Sgt. Major to arrest and escort the man to the nearby prison. A scuffle broke out in the prison compound during which I narrowly escaped being assaulted (saved only by the able-bodied Kikuyu Prison Corporal’s quick action in locking the man up for the night).

On arrival home, I was surprised to be confronted by a delegation of local Somali worthies, who produced a letter from a European departmental officer asking me to release the prisoner. I politely told him to mind his own business since, in the DC’s absence, I took full responsibility for my action.

Later, while this individual was released on bail, a plot to murder me was hatched, an attempt to attack me even being made during one of my daily walks through the township. Fortunately, some of my loyal Somali friends (including the Govt Chief) ‘leaked’ the plot to me. This resulted in the accused being brought before the District Commissioner’s court, sentenced to a term of hard labour and transferred to Nairobi prison. His threat of “having me done” on his release never materialised since I had been transferred on promotion to South Nyanza in the interim. The prisoner’s father was so grateful that I had put his “black sheep of the family” away, that he even brought me a zawadi of a dozen eggs!

Scary though the whole episode was, it has not diminished my love for the people of Marsabit for whom I have great admiration and with whom I keep in touch to this day.

map of British Empire
1956 Map of Marsabit Region
Colony Profile
Books by the Author
Bwana Karani
From Mtoto to Mzee
Additional Articles
Wanderings Among Nomads
With The Pastoralists Of Kenya's Northern Desert Once More
To Lodwar I'm posted
Escape from Zanzibar
The Life And Times Of An Indomitable Goan Lady Mrs. Mascarenhas Of Kisii
"Uncle" Gerald Reece of Kenya's N.F.D.
The Unforgettable Dubas of Kenya's Northern Frontier
The Unforgettable Bwana Sasa Hivi of Marsabit


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