Gujarat to Africa

My Dearest Komal, Anjli and Amar,

Try and imagine yourself in Lalitaba’s shoes as this is her memory of her travels to Africa:

The year was 1952 and a favourable marriage had been arranged for her. The groom’s relatives had already done their homework and vetted her! Eldest of six female siblings, it seemed like the turning point in her family’s fortune.  There was just a small hitch. She needed to travel to the ‘Dark Continent’ of Africa where the groom lived.

Lucky that her parents were already out in the ‘jungles’ but she was saddened to be leaving her grandmother and sisters behind. Accompanied by friends of the family, the train journey from Nar to the port of Mumbai was bearable. What she wasn’t prepared for, was the 10-day-journey on the steamer, across the Indian Ocean.

Passenger Ship
Passenger Ship

Travelling frugally as third class passengers, not only were they ‘housed’ in the dark dungeons of the ship but there were also no beds. She had to bring her own rolled-up mattress for sleeping. The first half of the journey was spent throwing-up and feeling very unwell. “Wish I could have stayed and got married in India” were her desperate thoughts. The huge Kitchen in the ship made Gujarati food but she was in no state to eat. Once the sea-sickness abetted, the journey became more pleasant. She got off in Mombasa, Kenya where she was met by friends of her father. Her month in Mombasa gave her an insight into her new life:

Walking on the Beach
Walking on the Beach

The temperate weather, the pleasant walks on the beach, fresh abundant vegetables and many servants in the house.

She eventually got to her parents in the small village of Kapenguria, in the heart of the Kenyan jungle. Again like in Nar, there was no running water or electricity, but she soon got used to her new life. This was August, and by December she was duly married and had moved further into the ‘Dark Continent’ and living in Jinja, Uganda in Gangaba’s extended family.

Remember this happened in 1952, imagine  my grandfather’s journey from India to Mombasa in a dhow in 1910!

I always talk about heritage and to this effect I would like to show you a small window of how Gujaratis, and therefore your forefathers,  came to be settled in E.Africa.   Centuries before the arrival of the British, Portugese, French or Belgians; the Indians had traded with the Africans and the Arabs along the coastline of the Indian ocean. During the late 19th century many of these European nations began colonising the African continent. This is when the ‘Scramble for Africa‘ began.

In 1833 slavery was legally abolished in U.K.

This posed a great problem later for the advancement of the British colonies.   Uganda was the ‘Pearl of Africa‘ for me because of its beauty and splendour, but for the British, their ‘Pearl of Africa’ had great commercial value! In search of labour, the British turned to the system of indentured labour.  In E.Africa instead of using local African labour, indentured labour was brought in from their colony of India.

As reported by  British officers and researchers of the time, the following reasons were given for not using local labour in Africa:

  • There was not enough African labour.
  • Africans were lazy.
  • Overcrowded India would be a good source of labour.
  • The British were familiar with the Indian labourors.

The indentured labour (coolie Indian) who were contracted to build the railways in E.Africa, were not allowed to bring wives and family. This only happened after the  end of their contract AND when opting to settle in Africa.  In contrast the voluntary immigrants (passenger Indians) were able to bring wives and children over. Indentured labour was eventually abolished in 1917. Most Gujaratis went to E.Africa  as passenger Indians after 1880 on economic grounds and partly as Gujarat was recovering from a long famine. My grandfather Dahyabhai came to E.Africa in 1910, at the tender age of 16.  As Dahyadada had a good knowledge of English  he was  able to secure a job with an English firm in Mombasa. In 1918 he brought Gangaba over, when she was 16. I have heard many stories  of their life in Mombasa in those pioneering years.  Gangaba learnt her English there, a skill she was able to make use of when the family moved to London in 1972. Over the years, as the family grew large,  Dahyadada and Gangaba moved inland towards Uganda. They finally decided to settle in Jinja. Most large towns and cities were inhabited by the Indians, while the Europeans(white) population lived in the richer greener outskirts and the local Africans(Ugandans) lived in the rural areas.. This was in accordance with the segregation laws laid down by the colonial rulers.  Your grandfather, Daddaji(Jashbhai) came to Kenya(Eldoret) in late 1940s  to fulfill the need of  teachers in an  Indian school. There was a wave of professionals, such as  lawyers, doctors, teachers and clerks, who immigrated to E. Africa over the years.

My life was like a bubble out of India, complete with the Indian neighbourhood, clothing, food and language. Even though our teachers were from India, our education was all in English. We lived in an unequal colonial society of 3 tiers.

  1. Africans (servants)
  2. Indians (clerks and merchants)
  3. British (rulers and administrators)
    This segregation together with the different history, language, culture and identity ensured that the Indians lived in a bubble and  did not integrate with other population. Many Indians  sent money and visited relatives back home on a regular basis. This reinforced their ties and their culture. Hence even after more than 100 years, there is still a lot of Indianness in our family!

Some days ago, our book club members went to a literature event where a well known Indian author Pankaj Mishra,  talked about his writing. I was not too impressed either by the critic conducting the evening or by Mishra himself. My short time in Pune revealed many idiosyncrasies of India but I still came away infused with the buzz of its population and a vibrant sense of a positive future for  the country. Mishra painted a ‘doom and gloom’ picture of India that I do not agree with. The same old topics of the caste system, the effects of British colonialism(both of which the West are obsessed about), the declining status of women in India, the poverty , the hindu-muslim rift, the ‘spectacle’ of elections and so on  were discussed. India has many problems it needs to handle, but show me one country in this world that is problemlos!

One needs to stay positive to advance in life and that too goes for the workings of a country. A great TED talk that I saw recently emphasizes this point. It is also detrimental to sweep problems under the carpet, you need to address them, but like any life-challenge, one problem at a time.

To keep my letter short and to keep your interest alive, I have but just tapped at most of the story line. There is a lot of history to devour on the net. Perhaps you can fill in my gaps when you go over this history.

A couple of more recipes with this letter: Badam Rolls and Stuffed Parathas. The badam rolls always remind me of our big kitchen in Pinner and talkative Amar helping me make them. I loved all your help in the kitchen and in the housework. But then I am the tiger mum who had a strict regime of   house chores for all of you, even at that tender age.

Always hope that all those house chores are helping you in your present existence!

Bye for now.

I am all ready to answer the onslaught of questions from you. So fire away!

Lots of love, hugs and kisses

Vishfully yours


P.S. I was able to get a lot of my ideas from the following thesis. It was hard to come by, and my sincere thanks to Roshani for getting hold of it.

“Moving life Histories: Gujarat, East Africa and the Indian Diaspora.” 1880 to 2000, by  Savita Nair

4 thoughts on “Gujarat to Africa”

  1. In deed I enjoyed it. Thank you very much for sharing the part of history and heritage.
    Beautifully written, could not stop reading.
    Enjoyed reading and learning first hand part of Indian history.
    Great work! Would there be a book coming out one day?

  2. Wow, so interesting to hear about how Laltaba journeyed to Africa for the first time, must have been so daunting to leave all her sisters behind! Does she want to go back to Uganda to visit? Has she been back since you moved to England in 1972?

    I actually read the initial parts of that thesis you sent me, its a really interesting read. Talking about the British Raj, I watched a great movie on the way back from Paris last month, its called Viceroy’s House. It’s all about the untold story of the partition of India, so much in there that I had no idea about! You should definitely watch it when you get a chance, I think you’d like it.


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