Authors and Book Reviews  

February 06 - 13, 1998


 Coastweek   Kenya

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'Two Indian Travellers' - East Africa
[edited by Cynthia Salvadori]

A look at Contemporary History through different Eyes

Coastweek - -  For those who feel that the teaching of Colonial history in Kenya relies too much on a European outlook, here is a book to redress the bias, writes JUDY ALDRICK.

The recent publication of 'Two Indian Travellers - East Africa 1902-5' provides a glimpse of the early pioneering days in Kenya as seen through different eyes.

There are shelves and shelves of books about the early Colonial period in Kenya, written by Europeans - but very few by Indians.

A few Indians subsequently wrote or had written accounts of their lives, with passages about the early days, but their retrospective accounts were clouded by time - and more significantly distorted by political caution.

Writing travel books and memoirs did not seem to be part of Indian culture and consequently a whole facet of East Africa's history was missing.

That was indeed until these two accounts came to light.

Both are first hand descriptions of trips made by Indians from Mombasa to Uganda at the beginning of the century, and were originally written in Gujerati.

The first was a hand-written manuscript by a young Bohora businessman, Ebrahimji Noorbhai Adamji, who recorded the account of his travels in his ledger.

His family based in Mombasa were in the ivory trade and had gone into partnership with two 'Baluchis' (emigrants, originally from Baluchistan).

Unfortunately the business arrangement did not flourish and the ivory exchanged for piece goods bought on credit was not forthcoming as expected.

The family firm experienced severe financial difficulties and in a last ditch attempt to save their reputation the youngest brother Ebrahimji, aged just 17, decided to chase up the Baluchis and collect the ivory owing to his family.

The description of the various journeys he made and his efforts to recoup the family losses makes fascinating reading.

It provides an insight into how the ivory trade worked in those days and how indeed Indian business men conducted their affairs and made good use of their community network.

Ebrahimji writes in a delightfully direct and unselfconscious manner, which is very revealing of the man and the age into which he was born.

Although he is not primarily interested in reporting on the people and places he visits, nevertheless a picture emerges.

Meticulously translated and edited, nothing was altered or omitted from his account and the flavour of the original was kept as far as possible.

The extensively researched footnotes also add greatly to the value of this exercise in historical documentation for serious students of the period.

The second account was written by a middle aged Parsee, Sorabji Manekji Darookhanawala, who was an engineer who worked for the Ministry of Health in Zanzibar.

It is a more sophisticated document intended to encourage Indian settlement in East Africa and was originally printed as a 'Limited Edition' in Bombay.

The translation needed considerable reorganisation and editing in order to make it easily readable and certainly the editor is to be praised for the job she has done.

Darookhanawalla gives lively descriptions of the people he sees and the places he visits and grumbles about the trials and tribulations of travel, which in the early 1900s seem to have been not dissimilar to those hazards experienced by the modern day traveller.

Much to his annoyance his luggage was lost at one point and on Lake Victoria he quarrelled with the ferry boat captain, who he suspected of deliberately delaying the crossing.

He had trouble with his transport in Uganda as the sedan chair in which he was carried to Kampala by porters, was assembled incorrectly.

In the end he had to walk most of the way as it was so unsteady he was afraid of falling out.

But the most interesting part is the criticism he makes of the British Colonial officials he meets and British Colonial policies.

He also comments pertinently on the subject of Racism and Slavery as seen from an Indian standpoint.

The footnotes for the names, many of them former Parsee residents of Zanzibar, are an added bonus to the account.

The two travellers are perfectly paired as they describe almost identical journeys but taken for very different reasons.

They also incidentally pay homage to the two great Indian merchant princes of the area, A. M. Jeevanjee and Alidina Visram.

Darookhanawala dedicates his book to Alidina Visram who he says gave helpful advice, was clever, modern and supported education wholeheartedly.

Ebrahimji was on several occasions grateful for the assistance he was given by the firm of A. M. Jeevanjee, a fellow Bohora.

This is not just a book for East African Asians who wish to trace their family history, nor is it only for the narrow academic or travel buff, it is for anyone who likes to read a first hand account of history and learn how others thought and behaved in a bygone age.

There is a wealth of interesting general information.

At the back is a 'gazetteer' of place names in Kenya, a glossary of local terminology and a bibliography; while after each account there is a separate index of names.

It is contemporary records such as these which add new dimensions to our understanding of the personalities and events that shaped the history of East Africa and help dispel the mistaken opinion held until recently that the Asians of East Africa have a history which as never been explored and would be hard to trace.

The families who allowed these two invaluable accounts to be brought to the general readership deserve praise, also thanks must be given to the individuals and foundations whose generous sponsorship enabled translation and printing.

It is tempting to think that more documents of this nature may be hiding somewhere in East Africa, perhaps belonging to other communities which would give further perspective and balance to our knowledge of East African history.

'Two Indian Travellers', edited by Cynthia Salvadori and published by Friends of Fort Jesus, retails at K. shs. 1,200/= and can be bought from Fort Jesus Museum or most book shops in Mombasa and Nairobi.





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