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The in-between world of the African Goans

  • Ivo de Figueiredo’s memoir sheds light on the Afrikanders’ fantastic saga
  • A Stranger At My Table centres on de Figueiredo’s Kenyan-Goan father

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya, on the day Kenya gained independence in 1963.
Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya, on the day Kenya gained independence in 1963. (Getty Images)

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Why do you call me “guest”

When here I have my home,

When here my father lived and died,

My mother too, and a brother?

Their graves lie there within this City’s bounds,

Where I myself was born,

My children too—all three of them.

Must they and I leave this land,

Be strangers to it

Because your skin is black and mine and theirs is brown,

Your folk came here some scores of years ere ours?

To The African: No Guest Am I, by J.M. Nazareth (1975)

At the cusp of the 1990s, while pursuing graduate studies in London, my attentions swivelled to an alluring young woman who had been born in Kampala a quarter-century earlier, and our subsequent courtship drew me into the in-between world of the African Goans. It was my first extended encounter with these Indians twice removed, the first time voluntarily from our collective palm-shaded Konkan homeland, but then with haunting consequences from “good old days” in the British and Portuguese colonies in Africa. Double exile was the bedrock of their identity. I found myself surrounded by men and women utterly riven by melancholy, whose eyes brimmed with tears whenever the Swahili love song Malaika played (which was often). Home was liminal, the heart was elsewhere. Only loss was omnipresent.

It took some time to realize these collective doldrums were triggered by an exceptional history ground from geopolitical tectonics of three continents, and there really is nothing quite like the case of the “Afrikanders” in the annals of globalization. They had poured out from Goa in response to an urgent economic and social opportunity—which seems inconceivable from our 21st century vantage—to remake their lives, social standing and Africa itself in the grand colonial exercise that Sir Harry Johnston (special commissioner in Uganda from 1899-1901) enthusiastically referred to as “an America of the Hindu”. In her excellent Community, Memory, And Migration In A Globalizing World: The Goan Experiencec.1890-1980 (Oxford University Press), the historian Margaret Frenz says these “subaltern elites” became “an interstitial category, neither simply imperial handmaidens nor subordinates, neither solely exploiters nor exploited. This makes them a rather exceptional group…. Goans have played a remarkable role in the administration of both the British and Portuguese Empires, constituting the ‘backbone’ of local government structures”.

Aquino de Braganca campaigned extensively against colonialism in Mozambique.
Aquino de Braganca campaigned extensively against colonialism in Mozambique.

But just when the going became good came the fall. After the mother countries of the subcontinent wrenched freedom at midnight in 1947, decolonization loomed in the African colonies as well. Here too the colonizers manoeuvred cynically to divide and rule. As the advocate J.M. Nazareth summarized in his biting, mournful Brown Man Black Country: On The Foothills Of Uhuru (Tidings Publications, 1981), “When the drums of freedom sounded in India their echoes were heard in Africa. The British lost no time in planting a wedge between Indians and Africans. Suddenly they developed concern for the ‘native’.… The greatest triumph of European racism was the way it succeeded in deflecting African hostility from the European to a helpless scapegoat.”

The Goans of Africa were blindsided and betrayed. Their universe of meaning was calamitously disrupted. Even many decades later, the wary community I encountered in London was almost visibly cloaked in the bitter lessons of forfeiture, pulled tight against winds of change. As Ivo de Figueiredo writes in the wonderfully sensitive A Stranger At My Table (DoppelHouse Press, 2019), his new memoir centred on his Kenyan-Goan father: “The harsh truth was that now my family became redundant people, mere slag from the grinding wheel of history. They were a people with origins, history, but no territory of their own. The empires that had created them had gone and now they were left standing among the colonial ruins under the scorching sun.”

Yet there were fantastic twists to the Afrikander saga. While the majority fled westward in difficult circumstances—de Figueiredo’s father eventually settled in Norway—many stayed, to plunge directly into idealistic nation-building. One outstanding example is Mapusa-born Aquino de Bragança, who was a leading campaigner for the freedom of Mozambique, and was eventually killed in an unexplained plain crash while accompanying president Samora Machel in 1986. About de Bragança, the late South African leader Nelson Mandela famously said: “He was a great revolutionary. Aquino prepared the ground.”

But there were other outstanding Afrikander anti-colonialist freedom fighters. Two others—both died under similarly murky circumstances—are the subject of new books rekindling their memories.

The better known is the subject of Shiraz Durrani’s quirky, fascinating Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr 1927-1965 (Vita Books, 2018). This selfless, unrelenting Kenyan patriot was hailed by the Indian communist leader Romesh Chandra as “a bridge between India and Africa” who “demonstrated the oneness of the anti-imperialist battle, the solidarity of Asia and Africa, of India and Africa”. That transnational fluidity, an essential Afrikander characteristic, is nicely described in Rozario Gama Pinto’s contribution to Durrani’s book, which admits the family “produced a number of dedicated nationalists…our late uncle Mathias da Gama Pinto in Brazil and our sister, Mrs Sevigne Athaide (in India)”.

Pio had explicitly linked those worlds by participating in civil disobedience in Dharwad in the 1940s and fiercely abetting Goa’s liberation movement before dedicating himself to anti-imperialism in his beloved Kenya. His brother writes, “When the African-American leader Malcolm X visited…he found he had a lot in common with Pio. They planned a common strategy to deal with the daily humiliation and indignities suffered by both Africans and African-Americans. Malcolm X was assassinated on 21 February 1965, three days before Pio. Their murders are linked in that both were considered dangerous to vested interests.”

But there is another Afrikander revolutionary story more extraordinary still, available in English for the first time via Texas-based translator D.A. Smith’s deft rendering of the Portuguese journalist (no relation to her Norwegian namesake) Leonor Figueiredo’s Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death (Goa 1556, 2018).

Figueiredo’s memoir on his estranged father looks at the dislocation of Goan Africans; and biographies of Pio Gama Pinto and Sita Valles, who fought for freedom in Kenya and Angola, respectively.
Figueiredo’s memoir on his estranged father looks at the dislocation of Goan Africans; and biographies of Pio Gama Pinto and Sita Valles, who fought for freedom in Kenya and Angola, respectively.

If the Cuban revolution found its photogenic martyr in Che Guevara, his Goan counterpart was this glamorous “Passionária de Angola” who was “always at the centre of the whirlwind” in the communist student movement in Portugal and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Figueiredo writes, “The international backdrop was complex, polarized between the two great powers, each seeking spheres of influence.” Valles “was at the forefront of the action, taking pleasure in walking the razor’s edge”. In the end, the 26-year-old Goan was kidnapped by the forces she supported and executed in “a ceremony of catharsis”. Her contemporary is quoted, “There was a large dose of vengeance in her death.... She was an uncontrollable force”.

Via email, Smith shared some interesting insights: “I don’t think Sita Valles as a person, or the circumstances in which she lived, can be treated in simple, dichotomous terms. One of the strongest impressions I had while working on this translation was of the difficulty in making definitive statements about Sita’s life, and not only because there are gaps in her personal history. Her story gave me a greater appreciation of the necessity of context, not only as applied to translation, but to life in general. Without at least some understanding of the variables surrounding a situation, it is far too easy to jump to conclusions or make faulty judgements.”

“The black Indo-Portuguese is an utter radical, he has gained much from Constitution,” writes Richard Burton in Goa, And The Blue Mountains, Or Six Months Of Sick Leave (1851).

That is the great distinction that leaps out when you examine the comparative trajectories of British and Portuguese colonial history in India. It made all the difference. After an admittedly spectacular heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries, Portugal comprehensively lost its ability to project power and influence across the oceans, which marked the latter centuries of its 451-year hold on the Estado da India with painful compromise, replete with hugely significant political concessions.

Starting from the early 19th century onwards, the Goans seized and zealously defended effectively equal rights of citizenship to their Iberian counterparts, which conspicuously horrified the Raj’s racists. Within a couple of generations, these self-confident and assertive cosmopolitans were spanning the Indian Ocean, sparking resistance in their turbulent wake. In 1907, Armand de Souza founded The Morning Leader newspaper in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which he is credited with using to provoke “the awakening of the Singhalese” against the British.

A few years later in France, Tristão de Bragança Cunha set himself up as what the eminent historian K.M. Panikkar called “nationalist India’s first ambassador”, tirelessly advocating in the Paris newspapers for Mahatma Gandhi and an end to colonialism.

The same phenomenon played out among Afrikanders, with impressively lasting effects into our times. Mozambique-born anticolonial novelist Orlando da Costa’s son António is currently the socialist prime minister of Portugal. There are three current members of the UK parliament who share kindred roots: Labour’s Keith and Valerie Vaz were born in Aden (which is in Yemen, but administered alongside British East Africa) and across the aisle, at the forefront of the Brexiteers, is Suella Fernandes Braverman, whose Kenyan-Goan father made it to the UK in 1968. London’s deputy mayor Shirley Rodrigues was actually born in Nairobi.

But while politicians abound among the Afrikanders, it took an entire generation’s passing for significant art and literature to emerge from the community’s trauma. Next month, the Whitney Biennial 2019 in New York will feature the versatile 39-year-old Kenyan-Goan-Canadian artist, Brendan Fernandes, whose artworks often refer to his multilayered heritage. But the most significant turning point comes next week, when Ivo de Figueiredo’s unforgettable memoir is published in English for the first time on 23 April. There is delicious irony in the fantastic fact that the long-awaited “great Afrikander book” has emerged most unexpectedly in Scandinavia, first written in Norwegian by the biographer of Norway’s most cherished cultural icons: Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch.

En Fremmed Ved Mitt Bord was nominated for the 2016 Brage Prize, Norway’s most prestigious literary honour, which its author previously won in 2002 for his biography of Johan Bernhard Hjort, the reformed fascist who is yet another vital figure in the making of Norway’s much-envied social democracy. The accolades are deserved, because Ivo Figueiredo is an impressively sophisticated writer who has been especially acclaimed for his language skills (this new book won the 2016 Språakprisen for excellence in Norwegian). Born in 1966, he’s an crucial part of Norway’s stellar contemporary cohort of verfabula specialists, pushing narrative non-fiction into the high art category classically reserved for novels and poetry.

Notable contemporaries include Karl Ove Knausgåard, whose six-volume autobiography plumbs the extreme limits of verisimilitude, and Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller Of Kabul, a global best-seller.

That formidable pedigree shows itself in the literary chops exercised throughout A Stranger At My Table, which swoops meaningfully in, out and around Xavier Hugo Ian Peter de Figueiredo as he scatters far from his birthplace of Stone Town in Zanzibar to Langesund (literally “the long fjord”) on the Telemark coastline of Norway, in an ultimately doomed pursuit of permanent new life with the sparkling, adventuresome young woman he had met in London. Here he is in a black and white photograph on the book’s very first page, where his son tells us “I’ve come to think of him as a stranger, some guy who lived with us for a few years, and then disappeared…. An Indian in the Norwegian snow. Dressed for the city in a snowdrift in the middle of the forest. For years I’ve looked at this picture and felt it safest that he stays there, at a distance, frozen, tranquil, before the snow melts and stirs everything into motion.”

Sita Valles was at the forefront of the action in Angola in the mid-1970s.
Sita Valles was at the forefront of the action in Angola in the mid-1970s.

These are understandable sentiments when you take into account the intervening childhood traumas. Figueiredo writes, “Dad demanded that we speak English, demanded that we sing and sit in the park together, demanded we be a happy family. We never knew quite what to say, but defended ourselves as best we could. In Norwegian…. He was against us, and we were against him. We made detours around him to get peace”. Finally, “His need for control over the family was boundless, whether he was happy or angry. He began hitting her.” And most heartbreaking: “He had gotten everything he wanted. He had every reason to be optimistic. The future lay before him like a bright Norwegian summer’s day. But that was not enough. We were not enough.”

Painful experience has taught us alienation shadows migration, vesting multifold in successive generations. There is already vast literature in this vein: a million Naipauls now, and forever. But Figueiredo’s book is different, lifted by immensely moving feats of empathy in reaching across time and half the world to plunge towards his father’s long-abandoned Afrikander universe of meaning, as well as an uncommon willingness to lay bare the confusions and humiliations that plagued his quest.

A Stranger At My Table is packed with ultimately endearing embarrassments: the earnest Goan-Norwegian wimps out of visiting his grandmother’s Nairobi grave (in a now murderous neighbourhood), crashes fruitlessly throughjungle in inappropriate shorts, cringes uncomfortably with “shame burning in my cheeks” at his ancestral village, Saligao.

At no point does Figueiredo stop doubting himself: “The truth is I haven’t a clue; I am just clutching arbitrarily at the myriad threads that lead from me and Dad to the dead and long forgotten. In tearing at these threads, I tug at handfuls of stems and greenery…. This jungle is too vast, our family tree like a giant tangle of branches that fill the horizon, that stretches across oceans and continents, across centuries, so large that it spans the rise and fall of empires, the birth and death of nations, the release of slaves, the displacement of peoples. And if Dad is one thread in this vast tangle, then I am dangling at the end of it, over an empty void.”

When I emailed him at his home in Norway, Figueiredo said: “I did what I had postponed too long. I asked: What the hell happened with my dad? And as I started pulling that thread, all this other stuff came tumbling down…. During the writing process, it was as if the ongoing globalization outside me calibrated with the inherited globalization within me.” It’s a rather beguiling image, the writer coming into balance by acts of imagination.

A Stranger At My Table contains these lines: “Sometimes we open a door that ought to have remained closed. There are thresholds we ought never to step over, choices that are irrevocable. And we know that immediately the door is opened, the step taken, the decision made, nothing will ever be as it was before.”

The literature of India’s diaspora is greatly enriched by this acclaimed author’s leap of faith into his father’s lost history, the vivid lore of the African Goans.

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