'Outsider' who rescued Kenyan Asian history

Sunday July 10 2011

Main picture: Shaila Mauladad, Errol Trebinski, Cynthia Salvadori, David Fisher, Jasvant Vohora, Prof. Richard Peck and Dr. Roland Minor, at the ‘mini’ launch in Lamu of ‘Settling in a Strange Land:’

My connection with India is unexpectedly direct. My maternal grandfather — my mother’s stepfather—came to Kenya from Goa, India in the 1940s as a teenager.

He was in the Police force for some time, married my grandmother in the early 1960s, and adopted her two daughters— my mother and her sister. He had a daughter with my grandmother in 1962 and raised all the three girls as his own. After working in Nairobi as a mechanic for over three decades, he retired and went to live upcountry in the village with my grandmother where he was quite a spectacle — a quiet, unassuming Goan man living quite comfortably in the heart of Kikuyuland.

Though my story wasn’t featured in her books, Cynthia Salvadori who died in Lamu on June 26, 2011 will be best remembered for her painstaking documentation of stories like these in her extensive work on the history of South Asians in Kenya.

Through Open Doors: A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya; We Came in Dhows; Two Indian Travellers and Settling in a Strange Land all capture the stories of the South Asian experience in Kenya, which would otherwise have been forgotten.

Salvadori has been described as a child of several heritages — her father was Italian and was jailed by the Mussolini regime for his outspoken opposition to the tyranny of fascism. After being released from prison, he went into exile and found his way to Kenya.

Salvadori’s mother was English, related to the explorer John Hannington Speke, the first white man to see the source of the Nile, as well as to H. Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines, among other works.


It is into this rich heritage that Salvadori was born in the 1930s in Njoro, Kenya. Upon launching her last book, Kenya’s former attorney general Charles Njonjo said: “Two forces came to Cynthia from this extremely rich heritage: A deep commitment to Kenya, and a deep commitment to the dignity of the marginalised in society. Both these forces show in Cynthia’s many books and writings.”

Njonjo aptly describes her as “a hunter-gatherer of memories.” In the 1970s she and her late colleague and partner Andrew Fedders joined forces, she as photographer, he as writer, to produce three books Maasai; Turkana, Pastoral Craftsmen and Peoples and Cultures of Kenya, as well as numerous articles about Kenya.

In the 1980s, Salvadori then turned her attention to the South Asian community in Kenya.

With the support of her publisher Kul Bhakoo, she compiled the encyclopaedic Through Open Doors: A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya. The first edition, published in 1983, met with such an enthusiastic reception that she did an updated edition, published in 1987.

It is remarkable that until Through Open Doors, South Asian history and culture in East Africa had gone virtually unrecorded, despite their conspicuous economic footprint in the region.

Her first compilation of South Asian history came in the wake of the 1972 expulsion of South Asians from Uganda and the nationalisation of South Asian-owned businesses in Tanzania under Nyerere’s Ujamaa philosophy. Perhaps preferring to lie low and not rock the boat any further, the South Asian community did not embark on any serious documentation of their history and culture until an “outsider” took an interest in chronicling their heritage.

South Asians in East Africa are often viewed as one homogenous, insular group, but Salvadori’s works helped to bring out the diversity in the various South Asian cultures — Sikhs, Hindus, Punjabis and so on.

Bhakoo says, “Cynthia helped put Asians on the map from an independent point of view — unbiased, open and fair to all communities.”

Through Open Doors described the historical background of the South Asians in Kenya, but had little information about individual people. To fill this gap, Salvadori then began recording the personal histories of Indians in Kenya which resulted in the critically acclaimed three-volume set entitled We Came in Dhows: Stories of the Indian Pioneers in Kenya, published in 1996. Works of this nature required spending a lot of time gathering stories from Indian families, and painstakingly reconstructing their early years in Kenya, going back to even before the British arrived at the East African Coast in the 1880s.

After that, she, with her historian colleague Judy Aldrick and two translators, Vimla Chavda and Shariffa Keshavjee, translated and annotated two original Gujarati journals, one Bohra and one Parsee, which was published as Two Indian Travellers, East Africa 1902–1905.

Salvadori then turned her attention to the communities in northern Kenya who have long been marginalised by successive governments. She translated from Italian and helped to revise Gabra, Camel Nomads of Northern Kenya by Paul Tablino (1999).
While working on that she was commissioned by the Kenya Human Rights Commission in 2000 to compile The Forgotten People Revisited, Abuses of Human Rights in Marsabit and Moyale Districts.

She spent the next six years working with the original author in southern Ethiopia to completely revise and illustrate a massive Borana dictionary entitled Aada Boraanaa, A Dictionary of Borana Culture, which was published in early 2007.

During that time she also translated (again from Italian) and edited Decisions in the Shade; Political and Juridical Processes among the Oromo-Borana by Marco Bassi, which was published in 2005.

She then turned her attention back to the South Asians of Kenya; her last book was Settling in a Strange Land, Stories of Punjabi Muslim Pioneers in Kenya, co-authored with Shaila Mauladad Fisher and published in December 2010.

Zahid Rajan, executive editor of AwaaZ magazine which focuses on South Asian culture in Kenya, says that Salvadori filled a much needed gap in South Asian history.

“Cynthia was an anthropologist, so she was deeply committed to human stories. She noticed that there was a lot of literature on Europeans and Africans in Kenya, but hardly anything on the Asians, so she went about filling it — and did a sterling job of it.”

Her legacy will not be quickly forgotten, says Nairobi advocate Pheroze Norowjee. “She made our community aware of our own history, and aware that we were a part of Kenya’s history. She was also very much concerned about marginalised communities: She had written several books on the Maasai and Turkana, as well as undertaking several studies of the Borana, including translating a Borana dictionary. She felt that these communities must be recognised and protected from neglect and discrimination,” he says. Bhakoo says she had an extraordinary dedication to detail and commitment to the research that her books required.

“Cynthia didn’t just do the normal armchair research when she was writing; she actually lived the book. She would spend vast amounts of time interviewing one family after another; gathering information and putting her notes together. Through Open Doors, for instance took nearly seven years to complete — from 1981 to 1987, when we published the revised edition.”
Bhakoo says that putting a manuscript to bed was quite difficult as the additional research and inside stories would go on and on.
“She was very intense, checking and double-checking the work to make sure that the facts were correct. She and I got along because I let her do things her extremely thorough and meticulous way.”

Before her death, Salvadori was looking for funding to publish a book on Lamu and was starting a book on Sufism in East Africa.

Her friend and illustrator for the Lamu book, Yoni Waite, says Salvadori loved animals and was very devoted to her cats. She says Salvadori also wanted to be known as a historian of minority communities.

“I’ve known her practically all my life. She was very methodical; her work had to be perfect. I’m hoping the Lamu book will still be published.”

Mauladad Fisher, who was her co-author on Settling in a Strange Land, a collection of stories of Punjabi Muslim pioneers in Kenya, says that Salvadori was always curious and was quite the adventurer, even as she got older.

“She did not have a permanent home because she loved to travel. She went backpacking around the world after university, and would travel to Ethiopia from Nairobi mostly on foot, hitch-hiking on lorries for part of the way. When I asked her if she was afraid she would meet bandits, she dismissed the notion, saying, ‘What would anyone do to an old woman like me?’”

Mentor and friend

Ms Fisher adds that Salvadori was not only- a friend and co-author, but a teacher and a mentor as well. “It took ages to put our book together, but all the work was worth it. Her recording of history is invaluable. We — not just Punjabis or Indians but Kenyans as a whole — have a lot to thank her for. “

Cameraman and founder of Africapix Ltd Sir Mohinder Dhillon admires her discipline and warmth. “She was very disciplined and time-conscious, and that is how she got so much done. She made an impression on every body she met. I’m trying to emulate that, that you must try to make friends with everybody.”

He adds, “My brother Jindi and myself had a very pleasant lunch with Cynthia last February in Lamu. She was very energetic and insisted on walking up the steps where I was staying, and she did it without panting; joking that she was much younger than me (she wasn’t). I shall cherish that pasta lunch when she insisted on reading my autobiography before it went to the publishers. We have lost a treasure.”