5 June 2005

Kenya: Down Memory Lane


Nairobi — The untold story

As Goans mark 100 years in Kenya, few appreciate the role this small community played in building this country

Pio Gama Pinto was the best known of the Kenyan Goans - the political ones at least - and when he was assassinated in February 25, 1965, the entire nation came to a standstill.

Some frightened Goans, including Pinto's wife and three children - Linda, Malusha and Tereshka - started packing bags for western capitals where it was politically safe to start a new life.

The death of Pinto just after independence and the resignation of Joseph Zunzarte Murumbi (whose father was Goan) as Kenya's second vice-president did not augur well, at least then, for the small Goan community.

The story of the Goans who remained has hardly been told while the Goan Institute - now renamed Nairobi Institute - is hardly recognised as the glue for this close-knit community.

However, their story begins more than 100 years ago. Always confused with Indians, Goans came to Kenya from the Portuguese colony of Goa to form the bedrock of the administrative staff of the fledgling colonial experiment.

With independence, they were bundled out of their jobs by the Kenyatta government as part of the Kenyanisation policy that sought to replace all non-indigenes in both commerce and administrative positions.

This week, the Goan Institute will mark its 100 years of existence having survived the turbulence of the early pioneer days, the colonial period - with all its mischief - and post-independent Kenya's politics of intrigue.

These days Goans eschew controversy and there is reason for that. "We are a small community of about 200 families," explains Vincent Azavendo, chairman of the Nairobi Institute. Although the institute has opened membership to all races, very few indigenous Kenyans take a second look at the building that is commonly known as "GI" along Juja Road.

When the first Goans arrived in Nairobi as part of the Indian coolies building the Kenya-Uganda Railway, Nairobi was just a plain field that teemed with wild animals and the entire land was being administered from Machakos or what John Ainsworth, the imperial British East Africa (IBEA) sub-commissioner, baptised Ukambani Province.

While the Africans kept away from the railway project, Goans and their Indian counterparts were given junior administrative positions where they eked out a living either as labourers or clerks.

Goans were well known cricketers and the origins of cricket in Kenya can be traced to the early days when Indians and Goans dominated the game. Interestingly, the Nairobi Institute has its origins in the Portuguese Cricket Club founded in Nairobi in 1899. This was a few months after the railway reached the edge of the Kikuyu escarpment, the only place where there was ample land for the wagons to halt as engineers cracked their heads on how to tackle the rugged terrain ahead.

With Nairobi chocked in dust or soaked with mud when it rained, there was hardly any place to pass time. Social amenities were non-existent and as sightseers and speculative traders followed the railway, the construction of a sports club was a welcome move.

The Europeans had in 1906 started laying the foundation for the Nairobi Golf Club, later christened Royal Golf Club, which was a year after Goans had built the Goan Institute in the compound of present day Tusker House on Ronald Ngala Street.

The whole story started in Mombasa. Cricket had first been played in Mombasa in 1896 and when it reached Nairobi and its environs, a split emerged with railway workers forming a separate club, The Railway Goan Institute (RGI), as a semi-official branch of the railway.

But the Goan railway employees discriminated against other Goans perhaps because of the enmity that existed between the railway administration and Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) under John Ainsworth.

That might explain why in 1905 the Indo-Portuguese Institute was formed in Nairobi to rival the Railway Goan Institute, which was on the grounds of the present day Pangani Girls High School.

This was also a great year for Nairobi. It was the year that it became the administrative capital of IBEA, replacing Mombasa and a year later, the Indo-Portuguese Institute changed its name to Goan Institute as the Nairobi Golf Club and the New Stanley Hotel opened doors.

But why an institute?

"The choice of the word institute was because it was both a literary and a recreational place," explained Azavedo. "That junior workers managed to put up a club then was a major achievement and that is why we are in a celebratory mood."

Apart from Pio Gama Pinto, arguably the most recalled name among the Goans, there were other pioneers who left a mark in Kenya's colonial past. Dr Rozendo Ribeiro became Nairobi's first medical practitioner at a surgery built of wooden parking crates.

Ribeiro is best remembered for advising the medical officer of health in Nairobi to burn some Indian shanties that were a source of bubonic plague that had hit Nairobi. Besides taming a baby Zebra, which he gallantly rode in Nairobi's dusty streets alongside the rickshaws, Ribeiro was the first president of the Nairobi Goan Institute.

His anti-malaria tablets, made with his own secret formula, were well known in Nairobi and even the white settlers could not resist the Ribeiro magic. As an honour, Parklands School, opened in 1931, was known as Dr Ribeiro Goan School.

But rather than medicine, sports was the main theme that ran through the Goan Institute.

On the ground and first floors of the building, trophies stashed in cabinets are testimony to this great sporting past.

"We have retained many trophies won by the Institute and it is a reminder of the past," explained Azavendo as we strolled along the corridors to the open space that is the Goan Institute's dance floor.

The dance floor is one of its kind in Kenya, for apart from the City Hall dance floor (when it functioned) this is the only spring wooden floor in Kenya.

And from this institute has sprung many famous names in both cricket and hockey. At one point more than half of the Kenyan hockey team members comprised Goan Institute players.

In the 1960s when Naftali Temu, Ben Jipcho and Kipchoge Keino rose to become big names in athletics, one name that rang a bell beside them was that of a Goan, Seraphino Antao.

Antao was a triple gold medallist in the 100m, 200m and 400m (Commonwealth Olympic Games) and laid base for the modern day races.

In hockey, Kenya was at one time ranked number four in the world and the Goan Institute provided some of the team members. Names such as Alu Mendonsa, Silu Fernandes, Leo Fernandes, Egbert Noronha, Saude George and Reggy Fernandes are well remembered.

But the story of the Goans of Kenya that has remained untold is their contribution to the building of the modern Kenya.

"We regard ourselves as Kenyans and that is why we have opened this place to all communities," emphasised Azavedo.

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