Travelogue: Dockside Farewells, the Goan Abroad.

By Clifford J. Pereira

       Armando, Mena and Clifford Pereira c. 1964, Mombasa.

       Armando, Mena and Clifford Pereira c. 1964, Mombasa.

The lives of thousands of people of Goan origin are filled with travel, with new homes in new lands, sometimes several of these migratory movements squeezed into a lifetime. I recall the first words when I called my mother from Vancouver, Canada:

“Hi, nice to hear you, you sound so close, what’s it like there? Have you met any Goans? Is there a church nearby?”

This one sentence frames her world of migrations. My mother is not on Facebook, Twitter or Skype, in fact she does not use any cyber technology, and an Apple or a Blackberry are just fruits that one takes bites of.

My mother said  good-bye to her parents and brother at the dockside of Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa as they left colonial Kenya on a white British India Steam Navigation Company (BISNC) ship for a liberated Goa in 1962. That dockside farewell was to mark a change in her world and theirs that would shape the rest of their lives. She would not see them again for another seven long years.

Soon Kenya would be independent and her comfort-zone of the Goan railway community at Makupa on Mombasa Island would vaporise as more people would leave for Goa, or move inland into the formally 'White Highlands'. Her new family would end up across the country and 1700 meters (5,577 ft) up in the Western Highlands. Gone were her familiar Goan families, the social centres of the local Makupa church in Mombasa and the Goan Club that her father co-founded, the Star of the Sea School that her cousins taught at, and the local market. Gone were the pillion rides on her husband’s scooter as they crossed the floating pontoon Nyali Bridge to picnics on the white sand beaches of the north coast.  

Then  communication with Goa was by Aerogram letters sent from the small five-street town of Kisii that took up to two weeks to get to Goa. This was Kisii “post-Maciel”. That is, shortly after the town described so vividly by Meryvn Maciel in his book Bwana Karani (Merlin; 1985). For mother there was no electricity, and food was cooked on a cast iron oven made in Newcastle that ran on firewood (kuni) cut from the surrounding forest by prisoners! Hurricane lamps provided light and food was kept in a meat safe. But, for a few years at least, there were some other Goans, a tiny red brick Catholic Church with Sunday English services in EkeGusii and Kiswahili, and the club that was for the few Goans, Seychellois and the Europeans - as all white people were called. Mombasa was recreated in miniature.

The beach gave way to picnics at a nearby Coffee Research Station, two of her brothers and one sister-in-law were there. It seemed like all those Mombasa Goan names had been reduced to four; Costa, D’Souza, Remedios and Pereira. Post-independent Kenya brought many changes; at the club a few Goans took the lead in bringing other Asians and eventually Africans into its membership. They built a swimming pool. The local Catholic orphanage and church were supported by the Goans to the extent that a new larger concrete church was soon constructed.

                St. Anselm's Parish, Tooting Bec, England.

                St. Anselm's Parish, Tooting Bec, England.

But rough times were on the horizon. Work permits were cancelled, and the Goans of Kisii dwindled down to six souls and two surnames, four of those souls were my family. My mother left her native Kenya for yet another place, Britain in 1971. In London, hospitality was offered by a Goan family from Kenya, and the St Anslem’s Church at Tooting Bec was crowded  with East African Goans. Four immigrant Goan families of the 'Exodus' lived in one large war-damaged  house with one outdoor toilet. But my mother thrived. With gas cookers and electricity at home, she went back to work and positively enjoyed winter fashions. The nexus of four families became a link  to the wider Goan diaspora network.

Her move from Tooting Bec, in inner London to Bexleyheath bordering Kent a year later was to be marked with initial culture shock as she said: 'They are all whites, no coloureds here at all!'

Within a year the Ugandan Goans arrived and more came from Kenya. Mum took the racism in the job market for what it was; challenged it and made her own career. Her St. John Vianney Church now had a Goan congregation including Goan altar boys, her brother and brother-in-law lived  in the area, Goan dances and village feasts soon followed. Goan East Africa was successfully recreated in outer London.

Suddenly mum’s telephone comment makes perfect sense. Family, community, and faith are at the centre of her world, they have been her comfort zone, her safety net and her support. They are the basis of her identity. These aspects have enabled her to deal with a life forged of migration.

Goans in Goa have moved along on their path too, just as my family has moved on its global routes. Indeed there comes a point when the Goan identity in the so called diaspora becomes arguably invalid as it does for any migrant community. The basis of connectivity is much older. In the days when Hindu Goans had to flee Portuguese Goa, they took their religious icons and fled to neighbouring Ponda, or further to Mangalore recreating their Goan identity in new lands with family, community and faith. In the eighteenth century when Goans went to Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta or Macau, they did the same, and the nineteenth century Goans in Mozambique and Zanzibar followed the same pattern.

                                                                               Goan community picnic in Kisii, Kenya, c. 1965.

                                                                               Goan community picnic in Kisii, Kenya, c. 1965.

The Goans of Macau became Macanese and later when they migrated to Hong Kong they became the 'Hong Kong Portuguese'. Somewhat parallel to the Goans in other British colonies they built the first Catholic churches and established their own clubs in Hong Kong. In her book Community, Memory, and Migration in a Globalizing World (OUP; 2014) Margret Frenz explains this pattern concisely as: “Creating a sense of belonging to the new place was part of the process of making themselves at home there.”  

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, as the English put it, historically this appears to be the socio-economic niche that Goans and other Ibero-Asians often found themselves in. Strength in self-identity was a necessity in the colonial world, as a visiting Portuguese professor in Hong Kong remarked, 'In official records, the Portuguese see all these people as the same: same names, same religion, but they and their descendants know that they are of part Goan origin, even though we now call them Macanese, Hong Kong Portuguese, Malacca Portuguese, or Singaporean Eurasian.'

What of the post-colonial world?  One thing is for sure, the further from Goa I am in generational terms rather than in geography, the less Goan I understandably feel. In fact when I have met Goan 'houseboys' in Saudi Arabia or Goan stewards from cruise liners at Nova Scotia, we simply have nothing in common; our worlds have different reference points. Clearly, as they sit in groups on the pier in Halifax speaking in Konkani on their ipads, tablets, and cell phones to their families in Ribander, Vasco, Chinchinim and Assolna, their identity anchorage is still in the villages of Goa and so it should be. Sometimes I fail to recognise other Goans, though they recognise me  and place me in their world. I recall the waiters at a work club in Muscat who asked me to sign my name on the receipt for my chilli con carne and in coded language said:

'A lemonade and a chilli Kon-kani on order, ah-ray'.

It was only later I realised their joke at my expense and thought it quite amusing. I made sure I gave them a tip after that. But we still had nothing to converse about. I often find that I have more in common with a random Kenyan Ismaili in Vancouver or the Hong Kong Portuguese and Filipinos than  I do with say, a movie-effects creator from Delhi or an IT Engineer from Bangalore. The food we eat, the films we watch, our mannerisms, the way we dress and our outlooks are very different.  I tend to  create my own community within which I feel a sense of empathy and shared  interests. I feel as secure in my layered identity as those Goan boys in Halifax, Muscat and  Al-Khobar.  Perhaps it's generational  or simply the reference points of my own  family history. Genealogy is definitely a source of strength and so are role models in an ever challenging world. This is where access to our heritage is important, both in the many countries our ancestors have lived in and in Goa.  But back to my mother’s question, how else could I respond?

'Yes mum, this technology is amazing and I am on a mobile as well. Vancouver is very wet –like one long monsoon. I found the local church; the assistant priest is from Kerala, lots of Chinese and Filipinos, but no Goans in this area.' 

Clifford J. Pereira FRGS is an independent researcher, curator and museum consultant. His research in London, Vancouver and Hong Kong over the last sixteen years has focused on a variety of themes, leading to publications by UNESCO, BRILL and Routledge. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG); a researcher with the Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Canada, and a guest lecturer with the African Studies Department, University of Hong Kong. His recent research into Canada's naval history was featured on CTV Halifax.