Emma was born July 24, 1928 under the astrological sign of Leo. A lioness has died, and we are all diminished. We remember Emma for her strength and rising up against many odds. She was a remarkable woman of immense fortitude, enduring numerous challenges illuminating a complex personality. Throughout her life, she embodied the very essence of a woman with a profound sense of self-worth and dignity. An intelligent woman, quick-witted, fun loving and well-travelled.
Emma was born in Jamshedpur, India, and educated at a convent boarding school near Darjeeling. Her father was employed as a superintendent in the Tata Steel mill. Her mother affectionately known as Mamagrand volunteered with doctors administering to the sick when not fulfilling her responsibilities to her small family. Emma was a twin sister to Joyce and had a brother, Douglas.
Emma first arrived in Nairobi, Kenya in 1953 and soon after married Pio Gama-Pinto in 1954, a member of the Kenyan Parliament who was assassinated on February 24, 1965. From the time of her arrival in Nairobi, she was met with and encountered numerous setbacks and had to quickly adapt to her new home. Her parents and brother Douglas flew in from India for her wedding. While they were impressed with Pio’s mission, they were taken aback with her living quarters which was a small bed-sitter, nothing near to what she had been accustomed to.
Pio was taken into detention just five months after getting married. Simply put, Pio was not there, and even when he was, he had prioritized much of his time to his political causes advancing the rights of Kenyans.
While Pio was in incarcerated, Nairobi’s ‘color bar’ which segregated Europeans, Asians and Africans in restaurants, buses, residences, and in virtually all other spaces in the colonial city, was very much in force. She wrote of several incidences, one in particular on how they were thrown out of a restaurant after they were seated. An English farmer walked over to their table and waved his revolver and shouted, ‘get out niggers’. Despite these incidences, Emma and Pio showed much courage and determination to fight against the racist attitudes of the time.
Pio Gama-Pinto might have been a champion to the Kenyan people; yet, Emma was a champion to her three daughters Linda, Malusha, and Tereshka. She did not live her life in Pio’s or anyone else’s shadow and encouraged her children to stand in that same very conduct. Her daughter Linda wrote of her mother: ‘We were women, and visible minorities, but it was drilled into us that we were as good as everybody else – not better than – as good as. We had as much right to the sunshine as the next person. And no one was to tell us otherwise’.
Emma courageously drove herself to various places on the rough and dusty roads of East Africa. Through the period of her first arrival in Kenya, she taught Pio how to drive. During the time of Pio’s incarceration, Emma would not see him again until he was released from Kenya’s notorious Manda Island prison four years later. Emma was eventually able to reunite with Pio when he was transferred to Karbanet a detention place near Eldoret in 1958. Emma would drive long and difficult routes to try and reach her husband. During her two-week vacation she drove herself to the coastal region determined to find a way to see him. Again, later in 1958, when Pio was transferred to Karbanet and the authorities allowed her to stay with him, she drove the long distance from Nairobi down the escarpments through the Rift Valley and back up to the Eldoret region during the rainy season. These were treacherous roads at the time, with steep bends and wind drifts crisscrossing the roads, with water reaching above the hubcaps. Her Peugeot had to be pulled out of the floods and could have easily been swept away.
Emma was non-political and did not involve herself with Pio’s politics. When Pio was imprisoned, she took a crash course in shorthand and typing in order to support not just herself, but her in-laws working as a secretary.
In 1957, both Pio’s father, Anton, and Emma’s father, Jocquim, passed away. She endured difficulties during these times.
On the morning of 24 February 1965, Emma was in the government office where she worked when she received a call from her mother, who was visiting from India.
‘Pio has been attacked,’ she told Emma. ‘I am coming home right away,’ Emma said.
Emma recalls the moments of that morning when Pio was gunned down in their driveway of the family’s Nairobi home and the aftermath. She often recounted that day with sadness, but never with indignation. Linda said her mother did not let the bitterness of that tragedy consume the rest of her life.
Emma was always opposed to bullying she inscribed in her private memoirs. She wrote about an incident that occurred while in the employ of IAL in Nairobi; One day a signals officer blamed her for not bringing to attention an important telegram. She told a colleague at work she would stand for unfair accusations and left the office. After three days of searching, they finally found her home (residential areas were segregated by race). She was asked to return to work as the officer was ready to apologize for his unfair accusation. This attitude of not bending to injustice would be repeated.
Emma often spoke of her longtime friendships and those that stood with her at the time of Pio’s assassination. The support she received from Rosario, Pio’s brother and his family, as well as her own family, especially Mamagrand, Joyce and Douglas. She remained longtime friends with Fitz and Romola de Souza. She recalled her friendship with Joseph and Sheila Murumbi, Achieng Oneko, and several others. The long association of friends with those she met, is testimony to her character of faithfulness.
In 1966, Emma travelled to Santiago Chile to receive an award that Pio had been selected to receive by the International Organization of Journalists. She travelled through Brazil, visiting San Paulo, Rio de Jainero where she met with Rosario’s cousins, and onwards to Chile. She received the posthumous award for Pio and thanked the IOJ. A Czechoslovakian delegation asked Emma if she would like to visit Prague and Moscow? She was thrilled and accepted. She travelled on to Vienna where IOJ representatives showed her around. Two days later she arrived in Moscow and was treated well, and was taken to the Bolshoi, the Napoleonic Museum depicting the massive French Invasion that failed. On her way back to Kenya she stopped in Bern, Switzerland and had an equally well-organized tour.
Emma when we first met, struck us as a woman in her own right, she radiated a dignified self-esteem, never afraid to stand on her own merit. She listened carefully and responded with strong confidence, always polite and respectful.
In 1967 Emma immigrated to Canada with her three children. Joe Murumbi was among those who organized and arranged her migration. They first arrived in Montreal, but not speaking French, she was advised to move to Toronto. She worked in secretarial positions in several organizations in Toronto, before retiring from the Scarborough Board of Education in 1983. On an impulse she moved to Ottawa in 1997 and lived on the same street as her daughter, Linda.
When she was a new immigrant to Canada, she secured a secretarial position in an accounting firm. One day she wore a sari to work. One of the partners approached her to advise her that a sari was not appropriate office wear. She disagreed. And resigned on the spot. She had almost no savings and three young children at home. But no one could condescendingly instruct her on what was ‘appropriate’ office wear. The partner called her at home, apologized and requested that she please return to work with them.
Emma’s mother, Mamagrand, remained very close to her even during the later years in Kenya and eventually settled in Canada too. Mamagrand was always there to support Emma and her granddaughters through the challenging times.
Emma returned back several times to Kenya and travelled the world on a shoestring budget with her beloved twin sister Joyce.
Emma was fearless in her approach to life. With love, courage, integrity, determination, curiosity, and compassion for others that were the touchstones of her life.
‘She only moved in one direction and that was forward,’ Linda said. ‘She would move towards the unknown. She had so much courage. She was fearless, she truly was.’
She will be deeply missed by her many friends and relatives in Canada, USA, United Kingdom, Kenya and across the world.