Book Reviews

Diasporic Distractions

Volume 14, Issue 1 | Published 03/07/2017  

Author: Mohamed Keshavjee
: Silverfish Pro, Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur 2017
Reviewer: Farouk Topan

Mohamed Keshavjee’s collection of short stories.

The stories in this collection display a thread that is familiar to persons of Indian background whose forefathers had settled in East, Central and South Africa from the 19th century onwards, if not even earlier. It weaves the good, the ugly, the best and the not so best of human thought, emotions, deeds and interactions into a mosaic of tales that entertain, inform, educate and, at times, provoke. But the quality which makes them attractive, in varying voice and pitch, is their relevance to our times. And by this, I mean the period, post-1960, when political changes and the transfer of power in East Africa, the brutal enforcement of the apartheid system in South Africa, the socio-political attitudes and differing economic status in East Africa, coupled with the new immigration restrictions in Britain, threw up challenges for people to come together “to build the nation”, as the slogan proclaimed. It was not easy, and it still isn’t. The reality of this phase has been well described by M.G Vassanji in his works, and given excellent analysis as ‘The Asian Question’ by Tirop Peter Simatei, a professor at Moi University, in his book, The Novel and the Politics of Nation Building in East Africa.

Kenyan-South African Dialogue On Devolution

Volume 14, Issue 1 | Published 03/07/2017  

Editors: Steytler, N (Editor), Ghai, Y (Editor)
: Juta and Company (PTY) Ltd, 2016 1st Edition
ISBN: 9781485109204

In a radical break with its past, democratic South Africa established a system of devolution that was confirmed in the 1996 Constitution. In reaction to a system of highly centralised government that had seen the abuse of power, spatial inequality and underdevelopment, Kenya has also opted for devolution. This system was embodied in the 2010 Constitution and implemented with the establishment of 47 counties after the general elections in March 2013. Devolution lies at the heart of Kenya’s new constitutional dispensation and provides a means of addressing past injustices.

The Kenyan Constitution largely copied the structure, approach and principles of provincial and local government from South Africa. Since the Kenyan system is still in the process of being fully implemented, Kenyan-South African Dialogue on Devolution compares the two systems with reference to their legal provisions. Comparing how the two systems have functioned is more difficult. However, the principal value of this comparison at this stage lies in the lessons that Kenya can learn from South Africa’s 21 years of experience of devolution as Kenya proceeds with establishing its system: what routes to follow and what pitfalls to avoid.

Author: John Lawrence Nazareth
: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu

For an author, choosing a book’s title must be as all-consuming an undertaking as, for a parent, choosing a child’s name. When John Lawrence Nazareth settled for A Passage to Kenya perhaps he was giving a respectful nod to E M Forster’s novel A Passage to India, later made into an award-winning film by British director David Lean? Or, perhaps, he had his sights on library or bookstore placement? Or on what the IT experts know as SEO or Search Engine Organisation? Whatever his inspiration, his title gives prominence to Kenya as a country, which is somewhat misleading. It would have been more accurate to entitle his book A Passage to Kenya and Goa. Similarly, it does not turn out to be A Historical Collage of a Unique Time and Place as the subtitle indicates. Here again, the reading experience reveals a historical collage of Kenya and India and Goa.  What, therefore, one might ask, is a historical collage in this instance?

Author: Andrew Palmer
: I B Tauris
Reviewer: Alexander Opicho

Andrew Palmer who is a respected maritime security consultant at Idarat holds an MBA and works in a non-academic institution. He brings a wealth of experience from his involvement in maritime security consulting to the academic world. His work spans from the liberal arts of Indian Ocean literatures as well as to the literature on economics and politics of maritime industry under the threat of piracy. Palmer defines ‘Piracy’ as the criminal act of hijacking, kidnapping and robbery on the high seas outside the jurisdiction of any state which inevitably affects maritime trade and travel. He states that piracy has existed since the times of Alexander the great and Julius Caesar, the two great leaders that were once hijacked while on the high seas. This is further also evinced in renaissance literatures as in the works of Cervantes who uses the words ‘buccaneer’ to mean ‘pirate’ and ‘buccaneering’ to mean ‘hijacking’ in Don Quixote. However, Palmer points out that the resurgence of global piracy in the 21st century is a new phenomenon that requires special contextual analysis - an intellectual service which Palmer offers in the book.

INDIANS IN KENYA: The Politics of Diaspora

Volume 14, Issue 1 | Published 03/07/2017  

Author: Sana Aiyar
: Harvard University Press:  Cambdrige, Mass., 2015
Reviewer: Prof. Yash Pal Ghai

Ms Aiyar’s book is more comprehensive than any other book on the political history of Indians in Kenya. It covers a long period, from late nineteen century to the 1970s when a large number of Indians left the country under extreme pressure from the Kenyan African government. It starts somewhat shakily, with the terrorist siege in Nairobi of an Israeli owned shopping mall, with invocations of statements from Kenya’s literary figure Ngugi wa Thiong’o, himself an exile in California, and the novelist Shiva Naipaul, neither of them an authority on Kenyan Indians. Ms Aiyar’s implication is that until these figures came on the literary scene, few realised the history or the current presence of Indians in Kenya.  However, there are more books which discuss the history of the arrival of Indians in East Africa and their settlement there than she imagines. But the book picks up momentum soon after the introduction, which is a little too much filled with jargon. She does not dig out a great deal of new material about the history of Kenyan Indians, but she does present a detailed account of the Indian presence; if anything, perhaps too much detail.

The African Diaspora in Asian Trade Routes and Cultural Memories

Volume 14, Issue 1 | Published 03/07/2017  

Author: Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya
: The Edwin Mellon Press, Lampeter, Wales (UK), 2010
ISBN: 9780773436510
Reviewer: Shehina Fazal

This is another absorbing book from Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya about the presence of Africans in Asia, a subject that is only beginning to be addressed by scholars on the African migration from East Africa. The focus of the book on Africans in Southeast Asia is a timely one as the world’s geo-political landscape is shifting from its fundamental points in Europe and North America, to the East.

The theme of the book consists of various case studies focused ‘around how various loci of exchange, transgression and creativity have been confronted and negotiated by migrants’. (p14) While the resources for this area of research are somewhat ‘silent’ Jayasuriya’s book opens some doors towards an understanding of the prime contributions made by the African presence in Asia, thereby enriching the cultural diversity of the region. Archival records in the British Library in London were utilized for this important contribution to the study of African presence in Asia. As Jayasuriya writes, ‘By combining a macro-level approach with case studies, oral histories and local histories, we can begin to assemble the pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle’. (p15)

Jayasuriya starts Chapter One with a pertinent paragraph:

‘Traditional European historiography is rooted in the revolution of nineteenth century archival research. Its own history, therefore, is tied to the written record. If we were to follow this path and the root it prescribes, it would be impossible to map the silent history of the Africans who moved to Asia.’ (p1)

She stresses the point that knowledge available from the ‘coerced involuntary’ migration is difficult to locate from those who were at the receiving end of enslavement. So while the movement of people across the Indian Ocean has been taking place for centuries, the movement of people as discussed in the book was primarily for filling labour shortages not only for the colonial powers but also enabled invaluable contributions by the Africans to the military, trade and sea-faring traditions of their masters. Additionally, the expansion of the European mercantile interventions not only involved particular nations but that Africans and Asians were also part of the colonial structures. When the Portuguese started using multi-ethnic crews in their travels to the East, these slaves and crewmen were vital to the European travellers and explorers on board.

Jayasuriya also touches upon the issues of the slave trade being officially abolished across the Atlantic while the movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean continued.

In Chapter Two, the author describes the free and enforced migration to Japan and China. In Japan, the slaves were often described as Kurobojin which according to Jayasuriya could be interpreted as black people. And contact between the Africans and the Japanese was well established since the fifteenth century. It was well known that the Africans arrived in Japan with the Portuguese, usually as sailors or servants to the Portuguese. These Africans conformed to and underwent cultural transformation adapt to their new environments.

While in China it seems that it was common practice to have slaves and the existence of trade links between China and Africa is recorded in the archives of the Ming dynasty. The author mentions that it is important to understand the passage of Africans from the East African coast to Japan, China and the Pacific, and states that more evidence is needed to further elucidate the reasons on how and why the Africans have a presence in East Asia.

Chapter Three discusses the slave route to south-east Asia and the importance of the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, for its role in the slave trade. However, the demands for slaves by the slave traders could not be supported by Madagascar and in some cases, the Malagasies conducted ‘slave raids in the Comoros Islands nearby’. (p31) Madagascar was also seen as a source of raw materials like gemstones and hardwood as well as a source of food products like cattle, rice and locally made rum. As Jayasuriya writes on the importance of Madagascar in the ‘global economy’ of the time:

‘Madagascar is an important location for histories of imperialism between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. Even before that, European navigators stopped off at the “Big Island” during their Indian Oceanic voyages. The Dutch sought Malagasy slaves in the seventeenth century. The French and the British followed this pattern as it became a source of supply for Indian Ocean island colonies.  Many of these Malagasy slaves who had perhaps originally come from the continent then migrated to another Indian Ocean island in the Mascarenes enhancing the intra-African diaspora. Some moved longer distances because they were sold to foreign ships whose trading activities took them to faraway lands in the East. They were destined for British factories such as Fort St David (Madras) and Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen).’ (p31)

The author provides extracts of the Captain’s journal from the vessel Delaware. This vessel played an important role in the transport of its human cargo from East Africa, as well as raw materials to the East India Company factories in the east. These extracts provide an interesting dimension on the travails of the captain and his crew on these relatively long journeys.

The account of the British interests in Bencoolen (a British territory in Sumatra in the area of Bengkulu city today) makes very interesting reading in not only why the slaves were needed in Bencoolen. The main reason slaves from East and South Africa were required was because of the high death rate among British workers in Bencoolen. At the same time, the East India Company refused to send out more people from Britain to their graves. As Jayasuriya states:

‘Africans were not merely a factor of input to a production process as in the Atlantic, but they were a valuable workforce in sustaining British presence in the East.’ (p44)

In addition, the author also lists the significant number of slaves that were in Sumatra by the end of the eighteenth century through the lists of names which included the country of origin and the ages of the slaves. By doing this, the author has attempted to give each slave listed, an identity rather than the usual historical records that lists them as numbers.

Chapter Four discusses the emancipation of the slaves in Sumatra and the machination by the British and the Dutch in carving out the spice trade in the region. This impacted on the exchange of territories between the two countries and more importantly the slaves who had been brought to work for the colonial masters in these territories. In 1824 the slaves in Bencoolen were moved to Penang (Malaysia) or Bengal (India), the territories which the British acquired from the Dutch who in turn were given Bencoolen. However, it seems that the freed slaves chose to remain in Bencoolen and put their roots in their new home.

There was fierce competition for the trade of spices in the nineteenth century. And the East India Company records show that African slaves were moved along the European trade networks. Not only do these records provide evidence that African slaves were used during the British presence in Indonesia and Malaysia, they also indicate the small pension entitlements for the freed slaves following the transfer of Bencoolen to the Dutch. The rest of Chapter Four is dedicated to the list of pensioners and their entitlements.

Discussing the issues concerning African settlements in Sri Lanka, Chapter Five is devoted to exploring their arrival on the island, as well as their status during the colonial period plus their status following the abolition of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The island was colonised by the Europeans from early sixteenth century until mid-twentieth century. It was under Portuguese rule from 1505 to 1658, then the Dutch from 1658 to 1796 and finally it was the British colony from 1796 to 1948. Whilst under colonial rule, slaves were brought to Sri Lanka and engaged in many tasks including road building by their colonial masters.

Chapter Six examines the linguistic dimensions of the lives of the slaves who were taken away from their homelands to work and live in other parts of the world. The chapter starts by examining the records of the voyages of discovery by the Europeans and the linguistic changes that resulted from these primarily due to ‘the unexpected contact situations into which the Africans were thrust upon’. (p132) The African slaves accompanied the Portuguese explorers and traders and were often used as translators due to their linguistic skills. In some cases, the African slaves were seen as an asset as they spoke many other languages including Kiswahili (the lingua franca in East Africa) and English as well as one or more of the Indian languages. And the table that Jayasuriya provides in this chapter makes interesting reading for both Kiswahili and Sindhi speakers as it indicates the origin of some words from Kiswahili to Afro-Sindhi words - the language spoken by Africans in the Sindh region of the sub-continent of India.

In Chapter Seven, Jayasuriya discusses the loss of home language(s) among the African slaves when they were forcefully sent to countries in the East. The evidence points to the slaves adapting to their new home and speaking the local language. However, there are some elements of their culture that are still alive: music and dance. While there are many instances of music and dance surviving and spilling over into other groups from the Atlantic crossings of the African slaves, there is not much awareness of the same in the African movement in Asia. As Jayasuriya writes, ‘Invisibility is a crucial obstacle to recognising the African presence in Asia’. (p156) Jayasuriya also tracks the trajectory of the musical instrument the lyre common in Egypt, Greece and eastern Mediterranean as well as the Horn of Africa and the east coast of Africa. In Western Asia, it is called the tanburah.

In the final chapter (Chapter Eight) Jayasuriya writes that while African migration across the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans is intertwined with cheap labour, commerce, slavery and abolition, it cannot be dismissed as something that happened in the past. Issues of crucial importance are:

‘Cruelty inflicted on the victims, the disregard of human rights, public recognition of slavery as a crime and the natural desire of descendants of slaves to bring the truth to light over-rides any easy dividing line between the past and the present’. (p173)

To increase our understanding Jayasuriya argues that the Atlantic slavery provides us with a model that was supported plainly by an economic underlying principle where labour was essential ‘in the plantations in the New World’. But this model cannot be applied to the movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean as it occurred over a longer time-frame and over a wider geographical area. Across the Indian Ocean movement, there seems to be greater adaptation and it appears that the slaves were not allowed to build their own networks and therefore, assumed new identities in either the European or Asian societies. But within these transformed identities there are features that signal African heritage. And as Jayasuriya states, it seems that while ‘traditional scholarship tends to concentrate on belief systems, religion and ideology,’ other cultural aspects like music and dance played a major role in the transformation of the identities of the migrants.

To conclude, the East India Company’s presence in South East Asia could not have survived without the help from outside labour, that is, the slaves from Africa. It seems that local labour was expensive in the east and African slaves were cheaper. While there are no accounts or narratives of slaves who were taken to South and South East Asia, the movement of Africans across the Indian Ocean happened over a long period. And further exploration of the process of settlement in the post-colonial period has thrown up some interesting paradigms of assimilation.

As Jayasuriya sums up:

‘Mixed identities are both simultaneously dependent and independent of ethnic origins. While a new language and religion came as a package and replaced their African tongues and religious beliefs, they found a vehicle - music and dance - through which they could assert their African identity’. (p130)

Author: Eknath Easwaran
: Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai
ISBN: 978-81-8495-041-0
Reviewer: Roshan Shah

It might seem incredible given how endemic violence seems to be among the Pathans of Pakistan’s north-western frontier and neighbouring Afghanistan but there was a time not very long ago when a completely non-violent movement for personal, social and political transformation gained mass popularity among these very people, led by one of their own. In this book, noted spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran (d.1999) provides a fascinating account of that amazing man—Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988), also remembered as ‘Frontier Gandhi’ and ‘Badshah Khan’ (‘King of the Khans’).  That Easwaran, one of the most well-known and widely-loved spiritual writers of our times, should write this book is a remarkable testimony to Badshah Khan’s deep spirituality and the enduring message of his life.

Badshah Khan’s fellow Muslim Pathans, Easwaran writes, were characterised by a fierce sense of independence. Warfare was for them a way of life. He describes repeated British attempts to conquer the Pathans, depicting horrific atrocities committed by the British in graphic detail. This, along with incessant feuding among the Pathans, provided the context for the emergence of Badshah Khan as what Easwaran terms as a ‘Muslim St. Francis’, comparing him to the medieval Christian saint known for his compassion and love.