Cyprian's Kenya By Iris C.F. Gomes



Cyprian’s Kenya


Iris C F Gomes
Yesterday in Paradise, published by Goa, 1556, brings us the memoirs of Cyprian Fernandes, a journalist of note who is of Goan origin. The book opens to us the world that Cyprian was witness to from 1950 to 1974 in Kenya. He was born in Nairobi in 1943 into a family that was far from being an ideal one. This novel gives rich insight into the cultural attributes of the Goan diaspora in East Africa, and Kenya in particular. The political history of Kenya as retold by Cyprian Fernandes is gripping and extremely informative.


Cyprian Fernandes is an anomaly in that his professional career began on the premise of a lie, but it was completely justified by proven merit. A graduate of the school of hard knocks, Cyprian, although a bright student with immense potential, left school at thirteen after a row with Fr Hannan, the headmaster. Ensuing a trail of jobs (once as a probation officer), Cyprian landed his first job as a reporter with the Nation at the age of sixteen. Gumption and his skill in English writing were his winning tools. He did not look back after that; he had found his niche.


The 19th and 20th century movement of Goans to East Africa to work in the civil services or as tailors, butlers, shoemakers, etc, is recorded by Cyprian in the book. The Goans carried along with them caste and regional (North and South Goa) distinctions which were gradually effaced by time with the new generations of Goan origin. Cyprian’s father was a tailor and an alcoholic who threw his family onto the streets. His mother, Rosa Maria Fernandes, was a woman of mettle. Cyprian writes at length about the indomitable spirit she possessed that helped her raise six children on her own.


As a sports reporter, Cyprian learnt on the job, eventually moving on to the general news section.Yesterday in Paradise sees much of his enthusiasm for sports in the chapters ‘Birth of the Gold Rush’, where he applauds record breaking athlete Kipchoge Keino as Kenya’s greatest athlete; and ‘Munich, 1972’, which recounts the killing of the Israeli hostages by the Palestinian terrorist outfit Black September.


Cyprian explains the Mau Mau rebellion to repossess land that had been usurped by the British from the Kikuyu people. His close relations with the Kikuyu in the Mathare Valley led him to a better understanding of the frustrations of these suppressed people beyond the British propaganda against them. The author himself experienced the injustice first-hand when he was mistaken for a Mau Mau rebel at the age of twelve. The chapter ‘Eastleigh, Unforgettable’ is harrowing in its detail of the atrocities committed against the Kikuyu.


The story of Cyprian’s brush with evil and madness while covering the despotic Idi Amin’s rise to power (1971) in Uganda, is remarkable in its candour and the author’s own grit in sitting down with the Butcher of Uganda to interview him. Cyprian narrowly escaped death trying to investigate claims of innocent people being killed by Idi Amin’s death squads and fed to crocodiles.


A truly extraordinary man you meet in this manuscript is Pio Gama Pinto, Kenya’s first politician to be assassinated. Beginning his career as a seventeen year old fighting for Goa’s freedom, he had to leave his homeland and adopt Kenya as his new home. Here he once again began the fight for freedom, this time for the Kenyans from the British. It is said that prominent politicians had a hand in his assassination since Pinto was at odds with land grabbing capitalists.


The corruption that followed Kenya’s independence in 1963 was well known among the journalistic fraternity. President Jomo Kenyatta and other politicians had made sure of land deals that were lucrative to them and their families. Those who dared to speak up were silenced through threats or violence, even death. Cyprian was one of those who was forced to flee Kenya as a result of a death threat.

A sickening reminder of the sex abuse scandal that continues to plague the Roman Catholic Church is the systematic sexual exploitation of a friend of Cyprian’s at the hands of the aforementioned Fr Hannan (headmaster of St Teresa’s). In true Goan Catholic form, a priest could not be reviled under any circumstance. In its candour, this part of the book serves as a warning to those allow charm and religion to beguile them and in turn become perpetuators of evil.


Yesterday in Paradise brings to mind the cyclical nature of history as we evince similar issues time and again. The experience of paradise is indeed based on perception and ‘what you make of it’ as Cyprian said at the launch of the second edition of his book at the International Centre Goa. This retreat into the past is a lesson to be learnt for, as many famous men have quipped, the learning and appreciation of history is vital for us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.