My classmate, Skippy: the seeker of truths



1950 – 1974 Yesterday in Paradise
By Cyprian Fernandes
Balboa Press 2016. (Available at Amazon.com.)
Pages 219 with 18 pages of photographs
Price $ 17.99



Cyprian Fernandes’ 1950 – 1974 Yesterday in Paradise (Balboa Press 2016) is his story set among essays on immediate post-independence (1963) political, sports and media personalities. Reading the book, I found myself deeply involved.  Perhaps, it maybe because I lived the era. Perhaps,  because I felt the connection with his story. He was in class with me at St Teresa’s Boys School in Nairobi.

I started to write a review and it turned out to be a conversation with a friend. I wanted to talk to Skippy, as I knew him in school, and say:  “Hey, Skippy! I didn’t know you were arrested and held prisoner during one of those random scoops in Eastleigh that targeted the Mau Mau.” That was the 1950s when there was an armed rebellion against the British in Kenya. That’s around the time when Cyprian’s memoir begins with tragic poverty in the family. The six siblings were without food and with no shelter over their heads. The mother grabbed whatever mean and manual jobs that came by her in the poor Asian and Somali mixed neighbourhood of Eastleigh. The tenacious strength of the mother, Rosa Maria Fernandes, held the family together and they survived.

1950 – 1974 Yesterday in Paradise, is a memoir in part and in part it pays tribute to some admirable politicians, sportsmen and journalists of Kenya’s immediate post-independence history. It ends around 1974 when the author had to flee his birth land because his life was in danger. The front cover can be deceptive because it has the iconic pictures of Kenya’s wildlife. Perhaps, it’s that nostalgia of the paradise lost that was yesterday that the pictures reflect for the book has nothing idyllic in it. It’s a hard story of an investigative journalist to reach the truth in the newly independent African state ruled by a corrupt despot and his cronies. In the early 1960s young Cyprian would chase the truth behind the rumours and hints that come to him about missing public funds. He would attempt to expose them and would have some miraculous escapes. All this in midst of several assassinations of politicians who opposed Kenyatta’s misrule and the huge amassing of illegible wealth and land grab by the political elite, their families and their close circle of clansmen and friends.  That was what The Truth and Reconciliation Commission would find out fifty year later and The Nation would report in 2013. That was the birth Kenya today – third on the Corruption Index, a clique of millionaires and the majority living in abject poverty.

At thirteen Cyprian left school because his integrity was questioned and he refused the punishment for stealing altar wine that he did not. We were in the same class and I had presumed or most likely heard that Cyprian was expelled because of disobedience. A cardinal sin in the mission school at the time. Only Skippy had that stubbornness, courage and a mindset that defied Father Hannan, the principal of St Teresa’s Boys, who we thought was formidable and feared the very sight of him. It was that will power of the stubborn thirteen year old who entered adult life lying he was twenty two. He never gave up and led on to be one of the most admirable investigative journalists that The Nation (1963-1974) has ever produced and one of the most principled one in the profession that Kenya has ever seen.

Reading on, I would exclaim, “Wow! What audacity!” Cyprian had the nerve to report on the hypocrisy and corruption of the politicians at the time of the rise of African nationalism when the politicians were so full of hot headed arrogance. The President and his cabinet bloated with newly acquired power pampered by US and European praise, and lavished with favours to keep the communists at bay from their corporate investments and army bases. At the time of ‘one party democracy’ there was a clamp down on the freedom of expression that the young nation was just beginning to voice. Later, within a short time we saw how the writers, artists, journalists and generally the intellectuals were detained or had to flee into exile. It was the time when a culture of fear and silence developed as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o put it. At one point Cyprian was even discussed in the parliament and was nearly deported as was the rule then when Asian Africans disagreed with the politicians. He writes that it was Njoroge Mungai, one of the core GEMA stalwarts in its making, who defended him. Every politician had Cyprian Fernandes’ name on his lips, perhaps with a hidden hope of using the young Asian reporter at Kenya’s most read newspaper against his opponent. But Cyprian would not be corrupted by any of the big fish. At times he was called ‘an imperialist stooge’ on his face by the high the ranking politicians. This was ironic for they were, in fact, the real stooges of the western imperialism. His interrogation by the Minister of Information, Zachary Onyoka, is revealing (Chapter 10 Interrogation). One day, he was called to the MP’s office together with Jim Glencross, The Sunday Nation editor, and threatened with: “I can have you killed in five minutes! ... you pundas, don’t you know that I have the power to cancel Fernandes’ citizenship and deport him to Britain?” This episode epitomizes not only the behaviour of ministers working for a dictatorship but also the threat that the Asian Africans constantly lived under and curtailing of the freedom of the media.

There are some illuminating details about Pio Gama Pinto’s life in the book. How he worked underground supplying arms to the Mau Mau, perhaps in cohort with the Indian High Commissioner Apa Pant whose residence in Muthaiga was raided by the British police and investigators in spite of the diplomatic immunity of the ambassadors. Pio had a brilliant mind of a strategist and he helped to lay plans for the movement. One critical question that the author asks that has been left unsolved and no doubt he was pursuing as a journalist: Who was supporting the Mau Mau? Where were they getting financial and material help from? He suspected some Indians in Kenya and the Indian government but he could not verify this. I read in a recent article by Sharad Rao, Chairman of the Kenya Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board, how Ghandian pacifist Ambu Bhai Patel and his wife Lila Ben sent medical supplies to the Mau Mau. Once Ambu Bhai told me how he and his wife hid the urban guerrillas in the water tanks at their home in Eastleigh. Were they coming to get the funds and supplies? He would not tell me. These stories can only be verified now by children of the Indian businessmen and others, especially in the Central Province so we can learn about the intricate network of supply lines from Nairobi to Mt Kenya and the Aberdares. This remains a mystery till today.

1950 – 1974 Yesterday in Paradise brilliantly re-creates the tense atmosphere of the post-independence years in terms of both the vibrancy of nationalism and the looting spree, both of which led to the making of an instant Kenyan bourgeoisie. If one lived through it one would feel it throbbing in Cyprian’s words. However, what we used to hear on the evening news on the just arrived TV in our living rooms that often centred on anti-Asian, anti-Somali or Shifta, and anti-communist harangues was different from what was discussed at The Nation offices on Victoria Street. At least by a handful of calibre journalists. The book fills in personal details about the life of Pio Gama Pinto and Joe Rodrigues, the controversial editor of The Nation that even their spouses, and I would say the major half of the staff at The Nation, did not know or care about. As colleagues do on Friday evenings, Cyprian chatted over beer with the two at Lobster Pot on Victoria Street that was ten minutes’ walk away from The Nation. Cyprian’s writing draws empathy and friendship close to admiration for the two patriots of Kenya not because they were Goans like he is, but because as journalists they sought the truth and had their hearts on their professions and for the country. That meant they found themselves working against the growing misrule, corruption and injustice not to mention the attempted control of the media by Kenyatta’s government. The writer obviously carried the same values and professionalism.

The author pays compliments to  Joseph Murumbi the onetime Vice President of Kenya with ‘socialist leanings’. He does the same to Njioroge Mungai, the powerful Minister of Defence and a close ally of Kenyatta and his Kiambu group. They were so close to him that he could walk into their offices. He regrets Joseph Murumbi and Noroje Mungai stepping down from politics as loss to Kenya, and for Kenyans not appreciating what they stood for, what they had achieved and what more they could have achieved had they continued to serve the nation. The two parliamentarians were obviously aware of the assassinations, the massive land grabbing, corruption and greed of the Kenyatta family, his cronies and the brutality of the police state in the making. However, they did not stand up against it or join the opposition as other brave KANU politician did on principle.

There are insights that Cyprian gives about The Nation in 1960s and early 1970s. It was the newspaper that began around the independence time with the birth of the country itself.  It was the newspaper that was formative in guiding the mind of the nation as it came to hold its own reins. In the youthful and vivacious media house, there were small but telling incidents of racism, corruption and harassment of junior staff – once Cyprian had to write a report 25 times, ‘a punishment’ that he has not forgotten. In the end his original first draft was published. The criticisms of some personalities are politely rendered that goes with the tone of the book and then quickly passed over to positive aspects of the same personalities. For example, he writes that Gerard Loughran in Birth of a Nation: The Story of a Newspaper in Kenya forgot to mention ‘all the small people who made The Nation what it was.’ Then, in the next paragraph he compliments ‘Gerry’s brilliance as a journalist in writing the book’.

Cyprian Fernandes was probably the first one to see the Tanzanian soldiers digging trenches at the Uganda border in preparation for an invasion of Uganda. He was the first journalist to witness the massacres that had just begun in Uganda and photograph bodies floating in the rivers that came to represent Idi Amin’s regime. He took risks all single handed while the international media journalist would not step there without a backing of a battery of support.  He was leap frogged to Idi Amin’s presence and made to sit before him. He listened to ‘his lies’ for two and a half hours! The dictator wanted his story as the saviour of Uganda to be reported in The Nation. When Cyprian, having narrowly escaped, filed the breaking news report that he had already arranged to be on the front page, his boss Boaz Omori, unfortunately tore the negatives destroying the evidence that he had collected risking his life. There is a clear indication of Kenya’s hand in the overthrow of Milton Obote and planting of Idi Amin with the aid of the British and US.  It also speaks about the government’s interference with the media. It’s such firsthand witness accounts of an investigative journalist that makes 1954-1974 Yesterday in Paradise a valuable read and record of history.

1954-1974 Yesterday in Paradise is material for an intriguing movie based on the life of an investigative Kenyan journalist at The Nation, the newspaper that wrenched the tightly held power of journalism from the hands of the Europeans and put it into the hands of Asians and Africans. In fact, in the process, The Nation developed the Kenyan brand of journalism while learning to manipulate and negotiate with the state’s meddling of the news and getting through what needs to be said to the wanainchi sooner or later.  It’s that story of a sixteen year boy who lied to get the job at The Nation saying he was twenty two. The boy that John Bierman, ‘the fearless founding editor of The Nation called, “the biggest conman I have ever seen” and gave him the job. Perhaps, the editor-in-chief knew that the conman had the mettle to make the journalist Kenya needed at that crucial period of the birth of the nation and The Nation newspapers would be ‘no one’s mouthpiece’.

Cyprian touches on a whole lot of photographers and journalists at the Nation – Phillip Ochieng he admired for his intellect and speed in finishing The Times and Daily Mail crosswords; Michael Perry the proof reader ‘who changed my life’; Hilary Ng’weno who was ‘the best journalist at the time without doubt’, and many others with whom he had beers or simply chatted in the corridors.

He pays tribute to Goan Olympians, and briefly mentions the Goan civil society working for the welfare of the poor, the church and education. It’s contributions have been enormous but little known. Perhaps, that may be because the institutions that they created or helped to strengthen and expand bear the names of saints and come under the Church. Thus there are no visible signs or memories of this important part of the East African Goan history. An exception to this is perhaps, the Dr Ribeiro Goan School in Nairobi that bears both the founder’s and community’s name.  The loss of their community’s name attached to these organizations means the loss of the names of individuals who contributed and maintained the institutions that today serve the poor especially the students like at St Teresa’s. In all, it’s loss of ethnic Goan citizen role models and what they had achieved over almost two hundred years in the segregated, racialized and caste ridden Asian society of East Africa working in general as office wage earners. The status they were proud of, and what Cyprian hints at, the Empire’s pet children and Christians looking down over other Asians.

Had Rufina Fernandes, Cyprian’s wife to whom the book is dedicated, not pleaded with him to leave the country when it was intimated to her that he had ‘a bullet to his name’, I doubt Skippy would have left Kenya. He was on hot pursuit of stories and truth about the growing corruption, killings and political misdeeds of the government that he felt his professional duty to tell. His good and powerful politician friends did not come to help him. Perhaps, they no longer found use for the reporter to fund their own popularity in the eyes of the public or use him in their inter-ethnic power games.

To the end, Cyprian had that stubbornness, courage and mindset of the thirteen year boy with integrity that remained undeterred through his career. That the principal of his high school could not break. He remained with it to the last day of his departure into self-exile from his birth land that he dearly loved. He lives in Australia now after a brief stay in Britain. What his mother, Rosa Maria Fernandes, the lady with ‘dynamite eyes’ and ‘vice-like grip’ said about her son to Father Hannan who wanted to strip and beat him, as was his habit, was what he was. Speaking in Swahili mixed with broken English, she said “You won’t stop him, Father, if he has made up his mind to leave (school), he will leave. If he says he did not steal your wine, he did not steal your wine. You must believe him.” We were in the first term Form I, elated to be in the Secondary stream and fresh from our success in the Kenya Asian Preliminary Examination (KAPE). The year was 1957.

Sultan Somjee.
Sultan Somjee was the Head of Ethnography, National Museums of Kenya 1994-2000 and is the Founder Community Peace Museums of Kenya. Author of the very successful and brilliant Bead Bai.