Trevor Grundy on the story of a Goan who experienced the best and the worst of East Africa

Yesterday in Paradise by Cyprian Fernandes (Balboa Press, Australia 2017)

‘History,’ says a character in Louis de Bernieres’s novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, ‘ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it’. Yesterday in Paradise, by Cyprian Fernandes, is an anecdote-driven autobiography that paints a moving picture of the rise of an impoverished Goan teenager to a position of importance in the Kenyan media between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

There are other books that tell you more about the Goans and their history. But for a full taste of what it was like to be a member of the minority Goan ‘tribe’ in that rich and often staggeringly lovely country between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970s, when Fernandes, his wife and children were forced to flee, this is a book that deserves our attention. Sometimes our tears, too.

Yesterday in Paradise by Cyprian Fernandes (Balboa Press, Australia 2017)
Yesterday in Paradise by Cyprian Fernandes (Balboa Press, Australia 2017)

Despite his deprived upbringing, Fernandes and his fellow young Asians were members of a relatively privileged community in British-ruled Kenya before independence in December 1963. They were to the British what the ‘Coloureds’ (people of mixed race) were to Afrikaners in South Africa before 1994: treated as inferiors, but less so than the black majority. Most Goans were Christians who had abandoned their own language, Konkani, and spoke English with a Portuguese accent.

Yesterday in Paradise is the story of a man who burst through the glass ceiling imposed by the British to become one of Kenya’s best known and most widely respected reporters and feature writers. This was a personal triumph, but eventually a political tragedy, because he was forced out of the land of his birth after trespassing into politics, questioning various scandalous land ownership deals involving President Jomo Kenyatta and his greedy, shopaholic wife, Mama Ngina.

Cyprian Fernandes was born in the all-Asian suburb of Eastleigh outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in September 1943. Abandoned by an alcoholic father, the family somehow survived, thanks to a mother remembered with huge affection. ‘Uneducated, untrained,’ he writes, ‘her only tools were her feet and hands, her eyes and, above everything else, her faith in God and an unshakeable belief that nothing was impossible.’

Though unable to read or write, Mama Fernandes was fearfully ambitious for her children. And, despite the family’s poverty, they were proud of their Christian and Portuguese heritage. The enclave of Goa, on India’s western seaboard, was held by Portugal from 1510 until 1961, when it was taken over by India.

Goans played a significant role in British-ruled Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. Colonial administration in those countries might have collapsed but for the Goan clerks and accountants who held it together until 1968, when they were given the stark choice of staying and becoming local citizens, or leaving for Portugal or some other part of the planet that would have them.

Most left, but in his early twenties Fernandes had landed a job at the Aga Khan’s stable of newspapers in Nairobi – the Daily Nation and the Sunday Nation, where he fell under the influence of one of Kenya’s most able journalists, the Goan editor of the Daily Nation, Joe Rodrigues, and excelled as a sportswriter.

With the encouragement of several English expatriate journalists, Fernandes went on to became one of Kenya’s leading political commentators, travelling the world with President Kenyatta and his ministers, including the half-Goan, half-Maasai Vice President, Joseph Murumbi Zurate. ‘Our visits to the world’s capitals usually ended with R and R at the nearest sauna with Aquavit, champagne and caviar,’ he writes.

Fernandes covered the Munich Games massacre in 1972, and interviewed the Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, at a time when that unruly despot was slaughtering upwards of 250,000 black Ugandans and expelling the entire Asian community to other parts of the world, mainly the United Kingdom. As a member of neither of Kenya’s two main ethnic groups, the Kikuyu or the Luo, the journalist was seen as neutral, and enjoyed the confidence of the elite, until he started probing the wealth of the Kenyatta family.

One day in 1974, Cyprian’s wife Rufina returned to their Nairobi home and told him that she had heard from people with friends in high places that his life was in danger. So many critics of Kenyatta had been killed by unknown, unpunished gunmen, among them the Luo leader, Tom Mboya, and the Goan socialist revolutionary, Pio Gama Pinto, that it would have been foolish to ignore the threat. The family fled, first to England, then to Australia.

Yesterday in Paradise could not have been easy to write, as the length of time before its publication shows. But the author ends by saying, ‘I have woken up each morning and my prayer has been: thank you, God. It is great to be alive, in Australia.’ The book is an important contribution to our understanding of the problems facing ethnic and religious communities in post-colonial countries.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, East and Southern Africa from 1966 to 1996


The Return Home by Justin Huggler

Short Books, 2017 £8.99

Reviewed by Raymond Whitaker

The title of the second novel by Justin Huggler, an Asian Affairs contributor, could refer to the writer as much as to the characters in his book.

The Return Home by Justin Huggler Short Books, 2017 £8.99
The Return Home by Justin Huggler Short Books, 2017 £8.99

Huggler’s first work of fiction, The Burden of the Desert, was set mainly in Iraq, based on his experiences as a journalist there. Though sharply observational, the plot followed the conventions of a thriller. The Return Home is overshadowed by the wars in Afghanistan, another country from which the writer reported, but its setting is Jersey in the Channel Islands, where Huggler grew up.

The narrator is Ben, an eight-year-old schoolboy, whose uncle Jack, a journalist, comes to the island to recover after losing a leg while covering the mujahedin struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The family tensions caused by his arrival, and the secrets that emerge, are dealt with in masterly fashion.

Having roamed the globe in the course of his profession, the author now recognises the peculiarities of his island birthplace, the only part of the United Kingdom occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. He cleverly weaves together the lingering traumas of that conflict and the more immediate suffering inflicted on Jack and his comrades in Afghanistan.

The Return Home is not only exciting, but deeply human. We witness Justin Huggler maturing as a writer, drawing in adulthood on his experiences as a child, and look forward to his future work.

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