A PASSAGE TO KENYA - A Historical Collage of a Unique Time and Place

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website: www.johnsibi-okumu.com

Website: johnsibi-okumu.com

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?

John Lawrence Nazareth, (let him be J L Nazareth hereafter, to distinguish him from the other Nazareths who are evoked in the book), was born in Kenya in 1946. His father John Maximian (or J M) Nazareth had also been born in the country, near the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. However, His grandfather, Joachim Antonio (or J A) Nazareth, hailed from the state of Goa on the Indian subcontinent. Goa was colonised from 1510 by the Portuguese who went on to convert the great majority of its peoples to Catholicism before it was reunited with India after that country’s independence in August, 1947. ‘Grandpa’ J A Nazareth, the great patriarch, came to Kenya from India in 1899 to work as one of the approximately 30,000 indentured labourers, pejoratively called coolies by their British taskmasters, to work on the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway. With one significant, financial hiccup along the way, the Nazareths of Kenya rose to material prosperity, complemented progressively by intellectual achievement and social prominence. His father was ‘a brilliant  lawyer, (a Queen’s Counsel), and a principled, maverick politician.’  J L Nazareth himself is a retired university professor, having obtained a Ph.D. in Computer Science and simultaneously, an M.Sc. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. He now lives near Seattle, Washington in the USA. He was prevailed upon to recall his family’s past against the backdrops of the region of his ancestral roots and the country of his birth.

The overall response to A Passage to Kenya is embedded in the persistent author’s conundrum: to define or not to define one’s readers? These will, consequently, fall into two broad categories: those who know little or nothing about J L Nazareth’s concerns, for example the great majority of Americans within his adopted country, and those who have a certain ownership and knowledge of his subject matter, namely Goans from South Asia and Kenyans from East Africa. One group will be thankful for whatever it gets, the other will yearn for novelty of detail, analysis and insight.

It is from the know-all’s perspective that A Passage to Kenya is likely to be most wanting. In this regard, the author makes a curious admission in his preface: ‘Throughout, I do not hesitate to quote directly and extensively from my source material, rather than summarizing such content in my own words ,…..’ What this means, in execution, is that J L Nazareth repeatedly takes the liberty to lead the reader to an author and a title and then to quote huge chunks from the publication itself, in smaller font. Some titles are indeed quite esoteric, including his father’s Brown Man, Black Country: On the Foothills of Uhuru, but the Kenyan market will prick its ears to this introduction, around Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa: ‘…only a deep love and attachment to the land and the way of life born of it can create writing such as this: “had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills….” If you have a copy of your own, you can track the quotation all the way to: ‘Here I am, here I ought to be.’ That is more than a page later. Like treatment is given to Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. And, more obscurely, to Piers Brendon’s Decline and Fall of the British Empire; to John Boyes’ King of the Wa-Kikuyu; to Charles Hobley’s Kenya: From Chartered Company to Crown Colony. And so on and so forth. This authorial sleight of hand proves to be at first intriguing but at last exasperating, even though the author explains that it is a style of writing inspired, for example, by William James (…..) in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Stylistically, two things, for which an editor would be to blame, are a bit disconcerting. One is the author’s baffling insistence on using the royal ‘We,’ instead of the personally involving ‘I’. The second has to do with structure. For example, he abandons his family history to give us a lengthy history of Goa and the evolution of its social fabric, all 36 pages of it in Chapters 5 and 6, before returning to his father’s story in chapter 7 with the words: ‘We now pick up the thread of our story…’ A smoother sequence might have emerged if the potted histories of Goa and Kenya had preceded the main narrative, altogether. And for the pure seeker after knowledge, an eagle-eyed proof reader would have put paid to the confusion over whether the native language of Goa was Konkanim (page 58) or Konkani (page 69)? There are one or two other niggling inconsistencies of that kind.

As a reviewer from the Kenyan market, I trust that what I came to read with profit and pleasure in A Passage to Kenya is now quite understandable. I was enlightened by his description of the history of the Indian subcontinent, as a whole, and of Goa, in particular. I learned more about the Goans in our midst than I had ever known beforehand: the contradictions inherent in their laying great store by the Catholic church, the Indian caste system and hierarchical members’ clubs. I was led to a greater understanding of neo-colonial machinations in Kenya. I was encouraged to read about his father J M Nazareth’s experiences as a pioneering community leader. I was provoked to thought by one quotation which pointed out that it had taken centuries for the Romans to bring civilisation to the primitive Anglo-Saxons. So would it be defensible to posit that the call to quell the tribal instinct and to entrench democratic and institutional practice in Africa as a whole has come with insufficient historical preparation? And with regard to J L Nazareth himself, where would Kenya be, young as it is as a nation state, if it had so embraced its minorities after independence as to have people of J L Nazareth’s academic accomplishment consider it well and truly home, forever, rather than feel obliged to leave, for good, only to write about it from afar, with nostalgia?

Therefore, my summary assessment of J L Nazareth’s A Passage to Kenya is that it could have been more subjectively written and better structured but, for all that, it is guaranteed to give most readers hitherto unknown information and, in the process, to point them to an expansively rewarding reading list.

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