Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book review 2017

Home Between Crossings, however, is more than just a family saga in the classic tradition ... It is also an epic, albeit a fictional, account of a people`s passage across the oceans through time and space – that of the Khojas.  But although it presents their perspective – and Somjee writes as an Ismaili insider - it is also representative of other Asians in Kenya (and East Africa generally) during the time-scale in question. The people in the other communities could relate to everything that happened to the Devji family because they too went through parallel experiences at all levels and in more or less the same way. 
Above all, Home Between Crossings is not just a work of fiction, it is a personification of Kenya`s history of the twentieth century. Somjee has undoubtedly used his first-hand lived experience to chart every significant turning point in the march of the country from colony to republic.  Nothing remains untouched.  Together with Bead Bai, he has created a literary masterpiece that will also serve as a historical record of our time, of particular interest to those of us in the diaspora who share his Kenyan background, and one that will benefit future generations of scholars as well.  I was privileged to read the manuscript online and must say the published version is an impressive document.
RAMNIK SHAH (c) 2017

“My story runs like the Nile. Many rivers flow into the Nile from many directions and change its waters like how my story changes when other stories merge into it, and keep moving all together” (p. 598).

Such is the continuing story of Sakina, known as Moti Bai, in Sultan Somjee’s Home Between Crossings, a sequel to his first enchanting novel, Bead Bai. The books trace the life of an Ismaili girl, then woman, living in Kenya before and during the tumultuous years of transition from British rule to independence under Kenyatta.

Somjee blends a gentle narrative with biting political and social commentary in this second novel - a style much more daring and adventurous than that in the story of Moti Bai’s upbringing in the first novel. His poetic style mesmerizes readers as we learn about the cultural and religious life of Ismaili families of Indian origin in East Africa. When we are with Moti Bai in her personal life, she tells us, in her voice, of her struggles to reconcile the many contradictions she witnesses and experiences.

© 2017 Christian Steckler
Review Vancouver


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Mala Pandurang
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Mala Pandurang: Home Between Crossings (Sultan Somjee)

Sultan Somjee
Home Between Crossings
Create Space: Charleston. 2016
ISBN-10: 1508586373
ISBN-13: 978-1508586371
Pp 644

The Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa

Home between Crossings is the second novel in Sultan Somjee’s intended trilogy on the history of the Satpanth Khoja community in East Africa. Somjee published his first ethnographic–historical creative-narrative Bead Bai in 2012, wherein he recreates the community’s movement from western India to East Africa at the turn of the 19th century, and describes the early decades of their settling of roots in the African terrain. Somjee draws upon his ethnographic research on the Maasai, and reconstructs the life narratives of a fascinating group of women called ‘bead bais’ who enabled the flow of coloured beads between the ‘dukawallahs’ or Asian petty traders, and the ethnic tribes of East Africa in the early days of trade. His central protagonist Sakina Devji masters the synthesis of Asian and African art forms using embroidery under the tutelage of her stepmother Ma Gor Bai; and beadwork under the tutelage of her indigenous Maasai mentor Ole Lekakeny. Somjee draws from his expertise on Masaai aesthetics, having completed his PhD research in this area from McGill University, to create an interstitial space at an emotional, aesthetic and intellectual level hitherto unexplored in creative writing from the diaspora.

It is the mid-20th century in the opening chapter of Home Between Crossingsand the 28-year-old Sakina is now known as ‘Moti Bai’ – which suggests her identification with the beads as an integral part of her life. The narrative is encyclopaedic in scope as Somjee lyrically weaves together a wealth of historical facts, oral traditions, family lore and core aspects of Ismaili cultural heritage. The novel is structured into sixteen parts that initially take us through the British colonial practices of creating a racial/class pyramid structure of Europeans on top, Asians in middle and black Africans at the bottom. This is followed by the rise of Kenyan nationalism in the 1950s and the turbulent anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion. The latter half of the book deals with growing anti-Asian hostilities in the post-independence phase. The narrative ends with Sakina’s heart-wrenching dislocation from home in Kenya, and emigration westwards to Canada.

Apart from offering an incisive political overview, Somjee’s narrative is feminist in its intent. The novel gives a detailed description of the domestic and everyday living of Khoja women while gently critiquing its inherently patriarchal structure. Moti Bai’s life revolves around the communal Jamat Khana which is the fulcrum of Satpanth Khoja life and the centre of social interaction for the women in the community. Her life’s decisions are governed by the teaching of the spiritual head ‘Sahib’ or the Aga Khan. She must learn to negotiate the teachings of the Sahib of the past, and his contemporary calling for assimilation which includes switching from Gujarati medium education to English, and for women to abandon their traditional style of dressing for the western frock. Having lived in a cloistered community with its insistence of the pachedi and bandhani, and restrictions on clothing associated with issues of family honour and shame, Moti Bai is in a dilemma about Saheb’s call for the community to modernize and to ‘unlearn language, dress, worship practices and evolve a new identity.’ Moti Bai’s ability to assert agency is limited by multiple factors. But this does not stop her from self-questioning norms of a fundamentally patriarchal social-cultural system as well as problematic issues of the community’s stance on questions of race and integration.

Somjee acknowledges the role of Indian nationalists such as Ambu Bha, Makhan Singh, and Isher Dass in the struggle for Kenya`s independence while simultaneously delving into complexities of black-brown race relationships. Moti Bai reminiscences over the tenderness shared between her children and their African caregiver Frieda, while at the same time, experiences a growing suspicion about her male black servants, created by British propaganda about the Mau Mau as ‘the barbaric gang that is terrorizing the country.’ Home Between Crossings offers an honest exploration of contentious issues of Asian racism especially in the section narrated by Swahili woman Riziki, who is her brother Shamshu`s second wife and mother to his son Issa. Despite her desire to reach out to Riziki, Moti Bai admits that Riziki’s presence at the Khoja Flats in Mombasa would be a ‘blemish’ to “my family’s honour, if not the caste name. She is black. We are not” (371). A fascinating aspect of the narrative is the manner in which Somjee draws upon the use of material cultural artifacts to explore the more positive dynamics of African-Asian relations. While Bead Baifocused on the unique relationship between Sakina and the Masai elder, the artifact that takes prominence is the kanga (‘the cloth speaks wisdom’, 335). The kanga is evocatively described as a fabric ‘whose threads knit the genealogies of women of the Indian ocean’ (342).

The last section of the book deals with the escalating anti-Asian hostility. Moti Bai and her family are torn between their economic survival, reverse racism, their physical safety and issues of nationalistic loyalty and Kenyan citizenship. Moti Bai’s husband dies a broken man after the loss of his business to the local MP. Diamond, her son, opts to emigrate to Canada and Moti Bai feels the compulsion to relocate to be with her children because that is the norm. The final few pages of the novel evocatively capture her spiritual agony at being uprooted from the songs that have anchored her to the land. The novel ends with her flight out of Nairobi, a moment of heart-wrenching pain from the motherland. The year 2017 marks fifty years of the dislocation of Africans of Asian descent from Kenya. Home Between Crossing reminds us of their largely, untold stories.

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'Home Between Crossings' highlights 'Kanga' magic in East Africa | Coastweek

Author Sultan Somjee [inset]. 'Kangas' drying on a washing line [center] in Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Woman in 'Kanga' [right]from Siyu township on the Pate Island in Kenya. WIKIPEDIA PHOTOS
'Home Between Crossings' highlights 'Kanga' magic in East Africa
Reading ‘Home Between Crossings’, former Kenyan journalist Cyprian Fernandes* writes that he "was simply blown away" by Sultan Somjee’s second book.It is not only a veritable treasure trove of Asian history, including the 'mass exodus' of 1968, but also a vault full of hypnotic literary gems, among them is the humble looking African cloth called the 'Kanga'.The kanga is the Swahili wrap-around that displays not only wisdom in one line sayings but also memories.
It is a feminine art form that women of the coast have carried on their bodies for generations. Sultan Somjee worked as an ethnographer in Kenya. In the process, he collected material culture, staged exhibitions and listened to stories that emerged from artefacts.
It is in Mombasa that the pioneers of exploration, slavers and the British and Omani Arab colonialists first set foot before conquering the hinterland.
It is the almost invisible 'Kanga', the cotton wrap-around worn mainly by women.

Usually spun from cotton, it keeps the wearer cool from the raw heat of Mombasa and covered from lascivious eyes.
Indian merchants brought textiles from the handlooms of Gujarat to Mombasa for clothing, and trade but it is not quite known who actually created the first kanga.

The printed patterns and words on the 'Kanga' divulge influences of dyes, art and motifs of African heritages and those from around the Ocean, India and even Europe …

Today, the repertoire of 'Kanga'  designs, and words on them called mithali or msemo(Swahili for a proverb or saying) reveal artistic and literary exchanges between oceanic and inland migratory routes and settlements.


Home Between Crossings, touches on real life stories of many Asian families during the rise of African nationalism that suddenly shifted from anti-white to anti-Asian. Heart wrenching decisions led to emigration of the ‘Paper Citizens’, and virtual expulsion from their birthland. 

More by this Author
Title:Home Between Crossings
Author: Sultan Somjee (Author of Bead Bai 2012)
Publisher: CreateSpace (December, 2016)
Reviewer: Cyprian Fernandes

Though Asians had started leaving Kenya in small numbers since 1960, the floodgates opened in 1968 to beat the immigration deadline to enter the United Kingdom.Now a new book that chronicles in the minutest of details one family’s painful journey out of its homeland, Kenya.
Although a work of fiction, Home Between Crossings, touches on real life stories of many Asian families during the rise of African nationalism that suddenly shifted from anti-white to anti-Asian. Heart wrenching decisions led to emigration of the ‘Paper Citizens’, and virtual expulsion from their birthland. The story is told as a Khoja tale but speaks for the Asian experience through Kenyan Asian eyes.
This is another classic by the Kenyan ethnographer and writer, Sultan Somjee. It is a work of dedication and attention to detail on vibrancy of the changes that occur in 1950s and 1960s. His character, Moti Bai, suffers the pains, the joys and the disappointments of cultural changes within the Ismaili Khoja community in mid 1950s while in the country another force was stirring changes in the mighty British Empire – the Mau Mau.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Exodus Kenya 1968

Nairobi Airport 1968 The Asian Exodus

  Exodus is a new word in our vocabulary. The insidious word has crept into conversations and into my dreams. It’s the word in English that carries foreboding pictures. Pictures that alarm and terrify us. Pictures that assault families viewing the nine o’clock news on the TV before they go to bed. Pictures that they see again in newspapers when they wake up the next morning.  Pictures that one would think are deliberately put there to cause panic in the community. Pictures that demand we leave quickly. Exodus is like the other word called emergency full of images that swell fear in the heart and the fear eats into words. Emergency was less than a decade ago when the Mau Mau roamed the night.

         Because I do not read English, I look deep for a long time into pictures of the Asian exodus out of Kenya. I try to understand. The luggage they carry is in all sorts of makeshift packages and suitcases. One old woman is even carrying her kitchen pot with her. It’s probably her favourite utensil without which her pilau would not be the same. She is like me who measures the recipes by how the ingredients spread in the pot. So it has to be the same pot. The expressions of their faces and gestures are all the same – they exude anxiety. A collective community apprehension – Gujaratis in saris, Punjabis in long tunic-shirts over loose pants, Goans wearing short dresses, pervades the airport departure hall like a colossal aura as it does in our homes. I also look at the five p.m. Swahili news on the TV and listen to the follow up commentary on the exodus before going to khane. The airport faces haunt me. They are my people. I think I could be that woman in the sari sitting on her suitcase holding her son and daughter in each arm at the airport lounge. A tin of travel food sits by her foot. I am that mother of children. I could be that woman in a sari pressed in among the tired mob at the British High Commission. They have been standing for weeks at the door waiting to present their papers and secure the visa before the deadline to enter Great Britain clamps down on them. What used to be a single tidy line has swelled into a mob of desperate and nervous families. Their mood aggravates as days go by. The new legislation now requires a voucher over the visa to enter Great Britain. The process is tedious and slow. 

1968 The Asian Exodus

        The British High Commission people are suspicious of every Indian as if she were a criminal. They even stopped the flights. Some sleep there on the pavements in the rain and the cold highland night air of Nairobi harassed by the police. 

Patrick Shaw, ex-British now Kenyatta’s most feared police henchman, patrols the pavements with a baton in his hand and a gun at his waist, pushing the crowds back as if expecting a riot to flare up at any moment. In the scuffle that he creates, he thrusts at a defiant woman. She does not move. He shoves her with force this time tearing her sari blouse. She is a small built Gujarati woman and he, a Goliath of a white man in khaki police uniform. She is shamed. Next day her picture appears in The Nation newspaper. She has filed a court case against Mr Shaw. She demands her right. I am her.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

About the Kanga and Writing on the front cover

                                        EVERY  BIRD  FLIES  ON  ITS  OWN  WINGS

KILA NDEGE HURUKA NA MBAWA ZAKE is a kanga mithali or proverb that literally translates as EVERY BIRD FLIES ON ITS OWN WINGS in Swahili.  It’s a mithali that implies a journey. People translate this proverb in many ways depending on the context and situation at the particular time in their life’s journey. Birds appear in Quranic verses giving metaphorical meaning in stories about Islam’s prophets: Abraham, Solomon, Moses, Jesus, Joseph and David. The Swahili society is rooted in Arabic and African cultures over centuries of mixing and travelling. In fact, the Swahili word mithali comes from Arabic mithal meaning an example or a model that can also be a person’s name.

Some would say the kanga proverb about the bird means that one makes one’s life according to one’s ability or with what one has in terms of material possession. It simply means you accept life with what’s yours or what’s given to you by God. Others relate the proverb to mean life is a destiny and that’s where life’s journey will take you like saying: ‘You are what you have’ or that ‘You’ll get what’s yours’. A teacher or parent would counsel children using this proverb: ‘You have potential to overcome (or succeed) with what you have’. Or it can mean the opposite: ‘Realize that you have limitations’ depending on the context.

Every bird flies on its own wings also means that what one does in life is within oneself or that actions are one’s own responsibility. Then there are other people who think in collective ways. They would say the proverb tells you that one has one’s own family, home, country and culture to carry one along life’s journey.

Philosophers will tell you KILA NDEGE HURUKA NA MBAWA ZAKE actually means that each human being is an individual. He/she alone makes his/her journey through life like a bird on wings making its own path.

A bird flying on its wings intones imagery of the sky above and the land below. A mortal’s walk through life is like the flight of a bird between the earth and the sky. 

Sultan Somjee
Autumn, 2016


I Love  my Khanga
by Shariffa Keshavjee 

The paisley design
The khorosho design 
Reminiscent of the nut
Nature made it all
Before you and I 

The intricate mandalas 
Like the galaxy above 
Planets and myriad stars 
In orbit by the Divine 
Before you and I 

The joy of a dancing step
Sets off the colour divine 
I am the Lord of the dance 
The dance of angels divine 
His grace thought it all 
Before you and I 

I beckon to My Lord 
In humble appeal 
To bless my heart 
With infinite patience 
That was there always
Before you and I 

Magenta and pink meld 
In Bandhani harmony
Fine feathers maketh
Not a beautiful bird 
All praise is due to Him
Before you and I 

Foliage circles 
Circles and squares 

Foliage and bird combine 
Centre adorned by borders
Where the bird lands
Is it's chosen place
Before you and I 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

About Home Between Crossings

It’s mid-twentieth century. Uprisings and nationalism shake Great Britain’s East African Empire. It’s also a pivotal moment for the cloistered Ismaili Khoja community of several thousand in East Africa to begin a process of disassembling from their Indian history and heritage - their native languages, dress and worship practices, and learn to live with a new identity. All this is happening at once in the name of modernization and adaptation, seemingly in response to the Wind of Change blowing over Africa and the associated violence – the riots and armed rebellions. The decade of the 1960s sees independence come to Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika followed by an escalation of African nationalism that swings from anti-European to anti-Asian. The global media begins reporting on exoduses of Asians from East Africa. This comes to a climax in the winter of 1972 when Uganda Asians begin landing as refugees in Canada, Europe, Australia and the USA.

Moti Bai, the middle-aged wife of a Khoja bead merchant on the savannah in Kenya, is confounded. She feels displaced. Like her pioneer forefathers, she hopes to live through the political turmoil with the resilience of her faith and traditions. Yet, both are shifting under her feet, uprooting her from the stories and songs that anchor her. Where do I belong? She asks. What am I without a language I can call my own? Who are my people without a history we can say is ours? Who are we? There are many questions

Home Between Crossings carries an enthralling feminine voice spoken in Frame Story. The literary genre embeds Saurashtran Oral Traditions as spoken in homilies called waez in the jamat khana of the time.

When suspicion changes to fear and fear to hate

It’s about 7 am in Nairobi 1952.  People were arrested randomly at night while they were sleeping or early in the morning as they were going to work. Notice the Indian boy passing through the lines where a path is left clear. Could be the writer walking to his primary school.

In the 1950s graphic descriptions of Kenya’s Freedom for Land Movement, also known as the Mau Mau, shocked the world. 

It was to the equatorial highland meadows and plains of Africa that disgruntled European aristocracy, displaced war veterans, economic and war migrants from Europe, and run away white plantation farmers from South Africa, came to settle and work. They built new communities but preserved the old cultures rooted in segregation of races, their diverse Christian creeds and Europe’s nationalist patriotism. They drew secure boundaries around the Indian and African inhabitants of the land. So well established did the Europeans become that Kenya claimed to be Whiteman’s Country after the declaration that the most fertile lands be reserved exclusively for European ownership.

What was narrated at dinner tables and at the Europeans only social clubs, in myths, fictions, films and tales of conquests and Tarzan’s adventures, materialized in gruesome news and equally gruesome pictures of the Mau Mau in newspapers and newsreels that astounded the colonial imagination. So intense was the anti-Mau Mau propaganda that it put terror in the hearts of Asian Africans. Some joined the Home Guard units and kept guns at home that they never had the occasion to use.


For the next few evenings, Rhemu Bhai comes home about the same time, after jamat khana prayers and dinner. He says he enjoys the after dinner chai made by me but the fact is, he is worried like we are about the rebellion and how it would shape Kenya’s future, more importantly, Asian businesses, and our lives. 

Exactly at 9 p.m., the three men gather around the radio to listen to the BBC. The massacre in Lari is mentioned again followed by a commentary on subsequent other killings of white families in their homes on the plantations. Once again, grotesque descriptions of the witchdoctor rituals deep in the dark forests of Kenya put fear in our hearts.

The next day, a few people talk about the news – truths and half-truths, and even some self-made news that come from their anxiety. How the Mau Mau drink blood. How they bury people alive. How they walk unseen through the night. How fast they run and disappear into the air like spirits. How they mutilate before killing. How they maim animals. 

Kenya Hindustani Radio appeals to Asians to join the special police force, the CID and the local home guards units. It warns housewives to be cautious, and keep alert at all times, day and night. “Indirectly,” says Kabir, “the government is calling on Asian men to join the forces to protect their womenfolk.” He does not sound like he is in favour of the government. I pray Haiderali does not heed the call.

There is emergency in the air. Emergency means trust no strangers, which means trust no Africans, even those quartered in your backhouse and those who have worked for you for many years, perhaps, even from their early youth. The governor appeals to us to be loyal to the crown and help the government defeat the terrorists. Asian families are prompted to keep guns, and quietly report any suspicious talk anywhere even at places of worship. Report even on Asians.

Suspicion grows like an infestation of some insidious worm silently burrowing inside you. There is suspicion of all Africans, even those only passing by the house as they have always done as long as I remember. You can read fear in the look of suspicion in Asian eyes. 

How instinctively we change conversations and glance over the shoulder at the African house help. Is he listening? A kind of a self-questioning glance. How we stalk passers-by with our eyes. I notice how Haiderali has developed a habit of impulsively looking at the door every few minutes while working in the duka-store. How uneasy he becomes when an African enters the shop. Ole Lekakeny must have noted Haiderali’s doubting gestures, wringing hands as if he were washing them in air, shifting eyes, so noticeable to anyone who knows him.

We speak like thieves afraid of being discovered as if by instinct responding to the atmosphere that wraps over the land like a blanket. From home to home and from mouth to mouth, facts-rumours-broadcasts trek around Nairowua like journeys of pilgrims. Chup chap talks, forewarning whispers and scanning glances, so the servants, the neighbours, the children would not hear conversations between two. 

Nowadays, it’s difficult to know what’s true and what’s made in the chambers of the mind. It’s said that fear is that sort of a catalyst that mingles truth with imagination. Emergency, the word itself is dreaded. It carries some kind of a portent, a tragedy in waiting. In the jamat khana, listening to others rubs further terror into me in a kind of collective way – mass terror, terror of Blacks.

But the blacks are everywhere. Gradually the distance between me and Freda, Kamau, Jennifer and all their friends – African workers from Asian homes and stores, in fact, anyone who is not brown or white, grows larger. From the women’s talk in the jamat khana, I feel there is an invisible wall of suspicion growing between Asians and Africans. Uneasiness pervades at home where we have no choice but be together. I cannot do without their housework – mopping the floor, scrubbing off yesterday’s curry oil in pot bottoms, washing and ironing clothes, polishing shoes. How suddenly our house helps have become suspects? Our behaviour is changing so insidiously that we do not even realize it. They would know they are watched. That our attitudes have changed.

Review by Cyprian Fernandes in the Nation Sunday January 29 th 2017

Somjee’s seminal work is a must read to understand the story of ‘the other Kenyan,’ the ‘Paper Citizen Kenyan’, the ‘Kenyan of Asian origin’, the Kenyan ‘sitting on the fence’, ‘the mhindi’, the term itself came to be derogative. The one who refused to marry his daughter to the African. The one who provoked ‘the Asian Question’. The Shylock who had similarly provoked ‘the Jewish Question’ earlier in Europe.
The author puts this in family dilemmas and conversations, confused as they were at times, secretive at times and at times simply as spaces of withdrawal and silence.


Part Seven


While the fear of the Mau Mau gripped the land, it became evident that change in governance in British East Africa was coming as it happened in India, Ghana and Nigeria. At this time there came a wave of modernization sweeping through the Satpanth Ismaili Khoja community. Through dramatic moves that included a shift of worship rituals to Arabic forms and vocabulary, the community began displaying a character identified by a lifestyle thought to be modern and adjusting to change. All this happened within a decade of the 1950s that ended with the end of Mau Mau. 

The Imam encouraged the women to adopt European dress style. He found a way around those who were reluctant at first because short dresses exposed their legs and they felt it was not just immoral but also embarrassing to walk around the town with ‘naked legs’ as they put it, and without a pachedi shawl over their chests and heads that they were used to as Gujarati and Kuchi Khojas. The Imam decided to give his signed picture mounted on a board to those women who would wear the European dress. It was a special photo in colour of the Imam and his begum not seen anywhere before. Moreover, it carried blessings written in the Imam’s own handwriting.

It was like a benediction certificate that the women craved to possess and show off on sideboards and shelves in their living rooms. Some had it even framed. It read just one line, as the Imam’s blessings usually do, and that was enough:


A large majority of women, including many in their senior years, put on what the Imam called a ‘simple colonial dress’.  There were a few, however, who were unable to abandon their traditional dressing and they continued to wear a long frock or adopted sari as their regular dress.

Conversely, the Ithna Asheri Khoja women’s ethnic Indic dress segued into full length veiling testifying sturdier adherence to the Twelver Shia faith and Middle Eastern religious identity.