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December 11, 2018

A tale of South Asian journalists documented

Zarina Patel is a Kenyan activist and author, involved in the struggle for social justice, equity and women’s rights. Her latest book, The In-Between World of Kenya’s Media, was launched this week. It explores and documents the contribution of South Asian journalists and media practitioners in the twentieth century.


You have written and worked extensively on South Asian history in Kenya. You are of course a South Asian yourself, but what is your motivation?

I think I really first started getting interested in writing South Asian history around about independence time. Like everybody else, I rejoiced at the onset of independence. I lived in Mombasa and I'll never forget that uhuru day/ night, we danced at Tononoka Hall. But then very soon after that, there was a real anti-Asian sentiment which began to be generated, and so that really stopped me in my tracks to say, 'hey, who am I?’ I call myself a Kenyan, I've got a Kenyan passport, what does it mean? So that's what got me interested in looking at our history- who are we as South Asians in Kenya? That's how I got really interested. That's been my motivation for writing my books. Writing a book wasn't even in the horizon for me. There was a lot of writing for newspapers and small articles and getting to debate things in society and things like that. But then in 1991 there was a grab for Jivanjee gardens. I lived in Mombasa at that time and Jivanjee Gardens really didn't mean much to me, though Jivanjee was my grandfather. So immediately when I read that, sitting in Mombasa, Jivanjee Gardens was going to be "developed", two things came to my mind: one of course that was my grandfather's donation to this country and it couldn't just be taken away like that; two was the whole environmental aspect- I knew that it was a garden and of course just before that Wangari Maathai had fought for Uhuru Gardens, so that's how I put up a fight for Jivanjee Gardens, me and my mother.

I managed to 'save' Jivanjee Gardens, that's when people started asking me 'who was Jivanjee and why did he give us this garden (and all the rest of it)?' and that's when I realized that I had to write a book.

The British colonialists ruled not only Kenya but all their colonies. When you think, how is it that a small country like England could control three quarters of the globe? They did it through the divide and rule policies, by just dividing people. In India it was putting Hindus against Muslims and in our own country it was putting one ethnic community against another- something that we are still trying to get over. But in colonial times, we had one enemy- the British- and so we all united. Now the British were very worried about Asians and Africans uniting. It was very important for them to keep us apart, and that's one of the particular reasons why they put Makhan Singh in detention, because he was uniting Asian and African workers. He was more dangerous to them than even Jomo Kenyatta. He was detained longer than Jomo Kenyatta and he was only released after they released Jomo Kenyatta, because he was working with the workers- that's the majority of the population. They tried all the time to ferment the divisions between Asians and Africans; the whole story of they take away your business opportunities, they exploit you- the whole thing of exploitation, they started. But because we had one enemy at that time, this was a small issue. As soon as we became independent, now it was not the colonialists, we began to look at each other and unfortunately the leaders, post-independence leaders, the Kanu group, encouraged ethnic and racial division. They carried on with the same policy. So it was very easy for the government to say 'well, these are Asians we need to African-ise them' and so that was the anti-Asian sentiment.


Your previous books have all been on South Asian leaders, Jivanjee, Makhan Singh, Manilal Desai; and they were all biographies. This book seems to be different. Explain.

The main difference is that all my previous books were about people who passed away, so it was past history. But this is history in the making. Most of the journalists, almost all, are not even in Kenya anymore, they're spread out all over the globe. When I first started writing the book, I knew hardly a handful of South Asian journalists. I knew a bit about the journalists in the colonial period because that's what my previous books were about, but I knew nothing almost about the post-independence South Asian journalists. In 2010 the Nation celebrated 50 years since its establishment and there were a lot of books and exhibitions and writings. Looking at all that I realized that there was an absence of South Asian journalists. And though I didn't know any, I knew that it only made sense that the early period of post-independence journalism in our country owed a lot to South Asian journalists. Kul Bhushan was a veteran journalist in our country and is now in Delhi. He sent me an email, and he said 'have you seen this? And what are you going to do about it?’ That's how I started looking into the journalists. He gave me four or five names and contacts and that's how I `started the search. But you know it was, you contact one journalist and they give you the name of another and so on. In the end, the book has 65 South Asian journalists- nine from the colonial period, post-independence 28 print, ten radio journalists and 18 photo journalists. It was an amazing journey of discovery, and I built up these relationships. You can imagine, there was this chit chat over the last five years. So when the book was completed, and I had to hand over the digitized copies to the printers, I kept delaying. I was always finding an excuse why I had to make this change or that edit. Then I suddenly realized, I was just hanging on to this script and not letting go. And I realized `the reason was that I had built all these relationships over five years and now I was saying 'END'.

What I decided right from the start was that I would ask the journalists to write their own stories. Journalists are always writing about other people's stories, they never write about their own. So I was determined that I wasn't going to write their stories. There were some who had passed away so I got their relatives or their colleagues to write about them. Each journalist, together with the work that they did. For example you have Cyprian Fernandes, in the book, alongside his picture and his article, his press cuttings, some of them. If it's a photo journalist like Mohinder Dhillon, you got him, his article and then the pictures that he took. It's more of a photographic book. It's a beautiful book, I'm really delighted with it. My previous books have been heavy, they're full of facts and figures, and history and such. But this is a real, delightful photographic book.

The book was published by Zand Graphics Limited.


Why did you decide on 1992 as the cut-off point?

In 1992 we had multi-partism and then the airwaves were liberalized. Also most of the South Asian journalists, post-independence had left. A few have stayed on like Mohinder Dhillon, but it's just very few, almost all had left by that time. Then we got a new crop of journalists. So it made sense to make the cut-off there. I hope later on someone will write about post 1992.


How have these journalists contributed to Kenya’s history both before independence and after?

I think that our journalists, I think media is central to any society. I think we tend to and we should write about our own communities because that's what we know best- that's why I write about the South Asians. Talking about the South Asian journalists, I think they have made a very, very important contribution to Kenya's history.

In colonial times it was only the South Asian journalists who were the voice of the anti-colonial struggle. Remember very few Africans at that time were allowed to write, they were not even allowed to own printing presses by the colonialists. So it was the South Asian printing presses which used to do the printing- like the Vidyarthis, Manilal Desai's East African Chronicles (the chronicles press used to print Harry Thuku's Tangazo). The South Asian papers like East African Chronicles, Daily Chronicle, Colonial Times- always had an English section, and it is this English part of the newspapers which was read by leaders in India, by leaders in Britain and so our anti-colonialism struggle was internationalized by the South Asian press. I think that was a very important role that they played at that time.

Post-independence, South Asians continued to struggle for a democratic society. But then of course they came up against a very different kind of society. Now you aren't dealing with the British colonialists, you are dealing with a very ethnically divided country, with leaders who have very vested interests. So you find that gradually they find themselves, one ideologically out of step, and two now the African journalists were coming up and the Europeans of course were then leaving. So they wanted to step into this and really didn't want the South Asian journalists there. Most of them opted then to leave the country.


Give us a few especially interesting highlights in the book.

For me, it was a really exciting journey. I learnt so much and I made such great friends with people. The thing that really struck me was the censorship, media censorship. It's really bad in today's Kenya. You only have to think of Gado and Dennis Galava and all these people, what's happening to them. It was pretty bad even in colonial times. The very first Kenyan ever to be jailed for sedition was a South Asian called G.L. Vidyarthi. He was jailed three times by the colonialists. But he's not the only one. There was Harun Ahmad, Nathwani, and M.I. Fernandes who was deported. It wasn't easy for the media even then. In post-independence times, we've had cases where- we all know about the way Joe Rodericks of the Nation was dismissed from his post; cases of people like Cyprian Fernandes who was sent a message that there was a bullet with his name on it, and he had to leave the country.

What I'm saying is, media censorship, journalists have had to fight against this from time immemorial.

I'm glad that I had the opportunity in the book to expose this. Sometimes the ordinary general public is not aware of really the kind of risks that journalists run. I'm glad that I was able to talk about the first South Asian woman print journalist, a woman called Ragetri Sagar, the first South Asian radio journalist- that was quite momentous. I think even today, I’ve never done a count but I would imagine that the majority of journalists are male.

G.L. Vidyarthi was the first Kenyan to be jailed for sedition. Almost 50 years later, his son Anil Vidyarthi was charged with sedition in 1998 and he's the last person/journalist in this country to date, to have been charged with sedition; because at that time there was a high court case and the law on sedition was changed.


What is your next book going to be about?

I certainly have a few ideas. You might have read about the J.M. Desai house and how it's being threatened with demolition. So the Desai family is interested in recording the history of their grandfather, so that's a possibility. And then the Vidyarthis have been thinking for a long time that it's time we wrote something about G.L. Vidyarthi and the family itself.



About the author

Zarina Patel is a Kenyan activist and author who is involved in the struggle for social justice, equity and women’s rights. She is best known for her virtually single-handed campaign to save Jeevanjee Gardens from land grabbers – a park donated by her maternal grandfather to the residents of Nairobi. She hails from the South Asian community and has focused much of her attention on the issue of minority rights, researching and writing about the South Asian leaders who played a part in Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle. She is the managing editor of AwaaZ magazine which covers minority and diversity issues and is now in its eleventh year of publication.

She has been honoured with the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Foundation and the Asian Foundation Awards for her life-long commitment to the struggle for peace, justice and democracy. A biography authored by Dr George Gona of the University of Nairobi, Zarina Patel – An Indomitable Spirit, was published in 2014.

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