Beyond the Cape: Sin, Saints, Slaves, and Settlers
by Braz Menezes
More Matata: Love After the Mau Mau
by Braz Menezes
Review of Volume 1: Beyond the Cape: Sin, Saints, Slaves, and Settlers
Beyond the Cape is Braz Menezes' first book in his Matata Trilogy. The three books are historical fiction but they very much set in a believable world telling the story of a Goan family's experience spanning both sides of the Indian Ocean from the 1920s until decolonisation and beyond. Ostensibly it tells the story of Lando, who in this book is a young boy growing up in Kenya. In reality, the story uses Lando's life very much as a microcosm of a typical experience that any number of Goans might have lived through at the tail end of empires (as both the Portuguese and and the British Empire have a role to play in this story). It also follows various branches of Lando's family tree to allow the story to move back in time or across the vast geographical spaces inhabited by the diffuse Goan diaspora. The title of 'Beyond the Cape' is chosen well as the fictional account is also book-ended by an introduction and a concluding author's note that puts a historical context to the story contained within these chapters. The historical explanation helps explain why the front cover sports a painting of a fifteenth century Portuguese Caravel plunging through dangerous seas. It also explains the role of Catholicism to the story and the reasons why certain parts of the world were more familiar to the Goan community than others. This historical context is by no means exhaustive and the fictional account itself reveals far more history than you might expect from a book with a historical fiction label. I know that the vast majority of the events described in this book are taken very much from actual events and often including the real names of the people involved and described in the places that they actually took place. The device of using a fictional family to thread these historical events together is one that has to be used with care but in the right hands it can allow an author the ability to impart more than just bare facts and information. It can also give the author the ability to give texture to what might otherwise be an all too dry or all too familiar account. A skilled author can allow the reader to feel what it might have been like to have lived this particular life, in this particular place, within a particular community and in a particular era. He might allow the reader to sense the smells, sights, sounds and experience or empathise with what life might have been like for these people at this point in time. He can introduce subtleties, emotions and nuances that a work of non-fiction would be unable to convey. However, the author must also be careful not to romanticise, embellish or glorify his account. An author of historical fiction gives himself some freedom and latitude to explain certain events but he also gains responsibilities to ensure that he stays faithful to events as they occurred and not to how he thinks that they should have occurred. Fortunately, in this case, the author passes the test with flying colours. He gives a wonderfully rich account of all sorts of facets of the life of the Goan community in East Africa whilst not shying away or ignoring some of the more difficult issues that confronted the community or the life that they led in Africa. He explores a multitude of themes and raises difficult issues and questions of morality in a believable but accessible manner. Issues of hierarchy, race, religion, morality all find themselves worked into the wider themes of family, community, education, economic opportunities and bureaucratic realities all within the wider imperial framework.
I would say that it is a delight to read an imperial story from the perspective of those who are most certainly not the rulers or the privileged. Braz Menezes presents the story of an average family attempting to make the best of the opportunities of the world that they find themselves in. They are not the great and the good. They are very much buffetted by forces beyond their control but equally they find opportunities in the colonial system that would not exist without these empires. They are the kind of people whose story is very often forgotten but whose story was oh so typical for so many people.
The Goan community found an unlikely niche within the British Empire despite being from a Portuguese colony dating back some four centuries and having undergone a completely different imperial experience to most people from the Indian sub-continent. The Portuguese Empire had been around longer than the British one and its colonies stretched back towards Africa and on to Europe via Mozambique, Angola and Brazil amongst other colonies. Many Goans had also embraced Catholicism over these intervening centuries - although as this book makes clear in a defiantly Goan manner. The combination of Christianity, a industrious work ethic and strong familial and commercial links across the Portuguese Empire meant that Goans were more at ease than most Indians in crossing the Indian ocean in search of new opportunities whilst still keeping fierce links to their land of their birth and their distinctive Goan culture. This book clearly explains that cultural diaspora effect. For instance, it explains why Lando's father crosses to Africa en route to Mozambique in 1928 but also why he stops off in British administered Kenya - whose administrative efficiency immediately strikes him favourably compared to the Portuguese one he is familiar with. It explains how the network of Goans in British Kenya helped newcomers to find positions, accommodation and helped them settle in to their new home. It also explains how the British authorities soon found these Goans indispensible in so many levels of middle management from banks to government to the railways to commerce to pretty much every facet of the economy. The sympatico arrangement largely suited both sides whilst still presenting difficulties and issues as the book makes clear.
Although Lando is the focus of this book, it brings in other friends and relatives to build up an ever more complex set of characters and situations which allows the author to bring in more and more snippets of information about the Goan experience. This could be the means of travel from Goa to East Africa, the foods eaten, the educational opportunities for the children, the racial difficulties encountered and the complex stratification of a colonial society with its unwritten but somehow rigid pecking orders that everyone seems to implicitly understand. Luckily, having a child as a protagonist for much of the book, there are plenty of opportunities to explain these finer subtleties to the youngster's enquiring mind as new situations arise and present themselves.
In fact, the structure of the book really does have to be commended. Each of the chapters is short enough to allow a particular focus, character or event to be explained or to unfold within a largely, but not completely, chronological narrative framework. However, there is wonderful, if subtle, signposting and referencing going on throughout these chapters. You are frequently reminded of half forgotten events or characters or have had the ground prepared before new events unfold or bit characters push themselves to the forefront of a particular chapter. This delicate stitching together of the complex web of characters, locations and events really has to be read in its entirity in order to fully appreciate. The author also has a very clear way of expressing himself and so the complexity of his structure is beautifully hidden and you can read through the book at a good clip whilst only later appreciating just how well integrated the story as a whole has been achieved. It should also be pointed out that there is an undercurrent of humour throughout these pages. Some of the chapters really do have laugh out loud moments for the reader to enjoy. For example, Lando and his friend are not allowed to enter the kitchen where his mother is preparing for Christmas as they are treated "like predators: vultures that circle above a carcass, waiting for the right moment to strike." or at another party where they young Lando sees "friends of our parents, who we assumed were year-round cripples, jump and jitterbug in gay abandon". This infusion of humour adds to the ease of accessibility whilst never detracting from the more serious points raised.
I would hate for someone not to read this book as they thought that it might be too specific an account of just one community in one part of the Empire. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the focus is on the Goan community in East Africa there are a number of reasons why this book transcends any danger of parochialism. Firstly, and as already mentioned, the Goan diaspora was very widely geographically dispersed and this book certainly goes beyond the confines of East Africa with references and characters connected to Brazil, Angola, the Seychelles, Aden, India and many more places besides. Secondly, the nuanced account of life for this one Goan family has a universality that should appeal to any reader. The themes of childhood, pets, family gatherings, special occasions, marriage, work are not specific to any one community. The characters in this book may be Goan and they are experiencing the world through their own cultural perspective, but anyone should be able to relate to the basic emotions, desires and dreams of the characters portrayed. And nearly anyone can imagine how these themes and their consequent difficulties would be amplified by living away from home in a different environment and culture. Thirdly, the characters themselves are very interesting and generally sympathetic. They are fun and interesting to be with. They delicately impart wider information and knowledge about life in East Africa in a non-lecturing and almost accidental manner. Any reader is learning more in their company than they might realise. Lastly, the book deals with important issues of identity and especially for a migrant culture. For example, at what point does one stop identifying with the culture of one's parents and identify with the culture of the land you grew up in instead? How do you deal with the intermediary of a colonial culture with its own rules and values which are different from both your own culture and the host culture you are growing up in? In essence, this book reveals the subtleties of life in a hierarchical colonial system responsible for allowing people from one part of the world to live and work in another part of the world. Many of today's migrants might find powerful parallels whatever their own cultures and the destinations that they have found themselves in. And even if you are not a migrant, you can certainly empathise with the difficulties and issues that migrants have to contend with and as this book relates and explains.
To tell the truth, I am not generally a fan of historical fiction. Too often I feel that the author has taken too many liberties to dramatise events or bring in some un-required sexual tension or adds some violence or shocking event to make it more exciting for the reader. I often feel that historical fiction is written as a screenplay for a not particularly great Hollywood film. However, this book does not fall into that category at all. I would say that this is a beautifully nuanced account that holds your attention and interest throughout without resorting to cheap tricks to hold your attention. It is just good, old-fashioned story-telling at its best. Its characters, subject matter, authority, organisational structure all come together to reveal the subtleties of life for the Goan community within one corner of the British Empire seen through the prism of one young boy and his wider family's experiences. I am so thankful that this is just the first of a trilogy and that there is more of the story to unfold yet. This may be labelled historical fiction, but I have a feeling that many readers would learn more from this fictional account than many would from a traditional non-fiction history book. I sincerely hope that there are many other authors out there from other communities who can write equally authoritative and convincing stories on behalf of other peoples of whom they know as intimately as Braz Menezes knows of the Goans in East Africa. I would love to similarly read about Pacific Islanders dealing with life in Australia or New Zealand, or Indians in Fiji, or the Cornish in South Africa, or.... the list is endless on the permutations and combinations of migrant groups within the British Empire and every one of these communities has a tale to tell to the rest of the world. Thankfully, the Goan community of East Africa has found one author who has articulated their experiences so thoughtfully and so accessibly. He also provides a blueprint for other historical fiction authors on how to use this format to add to historical knowledge and understanding. 'Beyond the Cape' will start you on a voyage of learning that you may not even have realised you had embarked upon.
Review of Volume Two: More Matata: Love After the Mau Mau
Braz Menezes' second volume continues the story of Lando and the Goan community in East Africa after the young man returns from his unhappy time in a boarding school back in Goa. It follows him through the upheavals of the Mau Mau rebellion and towards independence for Kenya in 1963. The book actually connects the reader to even more modern events on the eve of the election of Barack Obama (with his own Kenyan connections) to the presidency of the United States and to the backdrop of Kenyan political upheavals following their own 2007 elections. The author cleverly links these two events to the final days of empire in East Africa and gives some insight into how the seeds for future disruption and discord were sown in the last days of British rule.
It would certainly be best for any reader to have already read the first book before embarking on this one. There is a great deal of continuity in the storyline. Besides, much of the character development had reached an advanced stage by the end of the first book. The author also cleverly reminds the reader of events from the first book, so if there has been a gap between reading the first and the second book, your memory is gently and helpfully jogged for you on a number of occasions.
Lando has to survive an education system in flux during this book as the evolving political climate puts new demands on the British authorities in East Africa. The differing syllabus from the education system back in Goa is also highlighted. The study of Sir Francis Drake rather than Vasco de Gama or subjects like the Hundred Years War help highlight how competing colonial cultures promoted their own heroes and events and as Lando is back in the British Empire, he has to return to learning about British priorities if he is to get ahead in this particular colonial society. Indeed, a new educational opportunity presents itself to Lando in the form of a Technical College opening up. Again there is a good explanation for the underlying trends of modernising education in Kenya in this critical period and how these reforms played out institutionally. It might also be pointed that Britain itself was also revolutionising its own education system, but it is interesting to see how the trends in the mother country played out in the wider Empire and especially at a time when the government was under pressure to highlight the developmental aspects of colonial rule. In Lando's case, he finds the non-Catholic school far more racially diverse than anything he had hitherto been used to in Kenya. However, the differing speeds of modernisation and attitudes are highlighted when he goes to buy his uniform and still has to enter the premises by an 'Asians Only' door on the side of the building. Although, Lando increasingly discovers for himself that attitudes to race may be more complex than he realised when he finds that the teachers hired directly from Britain treat the students far more equitably than any white Kenyan settlers would ever have treated them. The subtle differences in attitudes towards race and identity from a whole variety of communities and individuals are one of the really interesting aspects of this trilogy as a whole. The story reveals that there is both an element of individual choice in attitudes to race whilst still having to work within constraints or expectations from a surrounding culture or group of people. So, soldiers, settlers, British, Goans, Africans, tribes, rich, poor... might all have an umbrella starting point to racial attitudes, but each individual can select for themselves whether to embrace those group norms or forge ideas and concepts of their own. These ideas on race also develop and change over time and through experience - this is certainly evident from one generation to the next, but it also might change and develop within a single person's life time. None of this is stated outright in the book, but careful reading allows you to follow a multiplicity of attitudes towards race in a part of the Empire that had very much been defined by racial differences and found itself catapulted towards having to address these issues sooner than it had anticipated.
The first over manifestation at having to confront issues of race, tribal identity and raw power politics was in the form of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Of course, this coincides very much with Lando's formative years in the 1950s and his years of education. Once again, the book does a good job at explaining how the realities of this emergency seeped into the everyday lives of all concerned - even the liberal British teachers who found themselves uncomfortably carrying around pistols to defend themselves from unknown Africans - the very people some of them presumably were keen to come to Kenya to help in the first place. The difficulties of drawing simple lines to cast various groups into categories of oppressor or troublemaker afflicted all sides in the Mau Mau rebellion and many innocent people from all sorts of communities found themselves victims of powerful forces beyond anyone's control for much of the decade. The conflicting views of Goans themselves towards independence and the Mau Mau form a powerful thread through this second book. There are those who sympathise with the aspirations of Africans but appreciate that their own community had been some of the biggest beneficiaries of European rule with their relatively privileged positions in government and leading industries and businesses at least vis a vis the Africans. Idealism conflicts with realism for all too many and the steady stream of Goans heading for the exit through the 1950s and early 1960s help illustrate that the fears of many overcame their hopes. Although we see that Lando himself, despite being buffetted by the 'Winds of Change', still remains optimistic that Asians can find a place in the new Kenya after 'Uhuru' in 1963. Indeed, he himself wins a coveted prize to design some of the Independence Day decorations and enthusiastically takes part in the celebrations as the infectious enthusiasm obscures some of the nagging fears in the back of people's minds. Although when he attempts to gain a passport, he notices the low issue number for an Asian applicant such as himself and realises that the majority of Goans are seeking British or Indian passports rather than Kenyan ones and voting with their feet before various bureaucratic barriers fall in their wake. Idealism for many Goans might have serious consequences although that is a subject for the third book perhaps.
The book also introduces Lando to the difficulties and realities of love with the enigmatic Saboti being the object of his affections. The love story is also an opportunity to examine the difficulties and issues of mixed race births and inter-racial relationships in what can make for uncomfortable but important reading. Of course, even the Goan community's own, often close-minded, attitudes towards mixed relationships enters the fray and the way that even though they are predominantly Catholic in culture, many of their attitudes towards race and caste at times appear not to veer that far from Hindu Indian attitudes or at least might be characterised as deeply conservative in origin. Again, it would be all to easy for an author to brush over difficult and embarrassing issues and tell a hagiographic story of progress and virtue. Hats off to Braz Menezes for not shying away from difficult issues and addressing them in a highly believable and informative manner.
Once again, the author manages to continue to weave the compelling story of the Goan community through the very last years of imperial British rule and takes Lando's story through to the new dawn of an independent Kenya. I look forward to reading how Lando's dreams, aspirations, hopes and fears all unfold in the final part of the Matata Trilogy in a post-colonial world - although the Trilogy's title of 'Matata' may give an important clue to how Lando's story plays itself out.