This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.
In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab, to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.
Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘ (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.
One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.
Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.
After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya. A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin. My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.
While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.
My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.
Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.
Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.
Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.
After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.
My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.
Image and Text contributed by Bhavna Mehta, USA
This picture of my parents Umedrai & Hansa, was photographed around 1963 in the village of Pravaranagar (Maharashtra) where they lived for a few years. They were married only a few months. I’ve always wondered who took this picture, staged maybe after old Bollywood movie scenes of couples running around trees.
My father Umedrai was born as one of nine children to Harjivan Bhaichand Mehta and Kamala (originally Triveni) in the small town of Ahmednagar, Maharashtra India. My father’s family belonged to a tiny community of Gujarati merchants in Ahmednagar and my mother Hansa was born in Nakuru, Kenya to Nagardas and Vimla Bhuva.
Leaving Gujarat for Maharashtra as a young man, my paternal grandfather established ‘Harjivandas Bhaichand‘, a wholesale grocery store in Ahmednagar, that still provides for his great grand children more than a 100 years later. My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, had decided to make his way to Kenya as a young man and owned a textile & sewing shop called ‘Bhuva Store‘ in Nakuru with his brothers. The family travelled to and fro to India (Gujarat) often.
My parents had an arranged marriage. At the time of the arrangement, my father was working as a merchant ship’s electrical engineer in Bombay with the Great Eastern Shipping Company. Right before the wedding, he quit his job which used to otherwise keep him away for a month at a time. My mother completed her Bachelor of Arts from Dharmendrasinhji College in Rajkot, Gujarat. A cousin introduced the families and they met only once before each side said ‘Yes’!
I was born in neighbouring Shrirampur in the district of Ahmednagar. At that time, my father was an engineer at Pravaranagar Sugar Factory. Far away from her own family, my mother ran our home, made friends with the neighbours, walked to the temple, cooked, cleaned and embroidered. When my mother left on some visit, my father would cook his rice and dal in a pressure cooker before he left for work in the morning. Many trials awaited the couple in this picture in the future which they have decided to keep private. But here they seem carefree and happy and willing to be a bit silly.
Image and Text contributed by Pritpal Virdee, UK
This is a picture of my mother, Satwant Kaur Virdee photographed in Ludhiana, Punjab around the late 1960s.
She was born in Nurpur, near Lahore (now Pakistan) in 1929 and later moved to Kot Badal Khan, Jalandhar district (now India). It was one of the many journeys and migrations my mother would make in her lifetime; initially with her mother and father, Daya Singh, and then with my father Prem Singh Virdee after marriage, circa 1945.
She spent time at Nangal when Bhakra Dam was being constructed (my father was a mechanical engineer) then Phillaur, Ludhiana, Nakuru, Nairobi and finally Coventry, UK. Moving across three continents with her daughters in tow – a sewing machine too was always essential. This picture represents so much of the migration history that epitomises modern life, the Punjabi diaspora and our own personal family history.
Migration from the Doaba area of Punjab has been prolific and in our family, it started initially with my maternal grandfather. Doaba is now called the ‘NRI Hub of Punjab’ as a consequence of a significant percentage migration of the Doabias. By the 1960s, my father also ventured into East Africa, taking advantage of family and colonial linkages. He spent time working in Nakuru, Kenya and my mother spent time in Ludhiana; father would often bring “foreign” gifts for his daughters when he returned home. He would buy bicycles, radios and other modern consumables, including a camera for his girls. My mother told me he was quite progressive in his thinking and despite us being girls, he wanted us to have the latest gadgets.
Scanning the old family photograph album after my mother passed away in 2012, I came across this picture of my mother sitting in the verandah of our house in Ludhiana. She’s sitting there with an old sewing machine, a need and passion that would remain with her for the rest of her life. Having no formal education, she was nonetheless, astute and nimble with her fingers. Creating many wonderful pieces of art, many of which I have carefully treasured. From this handwheel sewing machine she advanced to the computerised Bernina, taking to it like pro, and I still have that Bernina.
The photo is also unusual because it’s not taken in a studio, the norm at the time. Most likely, it was my sister who took this photograph. In its messiness, it shows everyday life, yet it also captures the grace my mother had until the end of her life.