In 1895, the British foreign office took over the administration of the Imperial British East African Company’s territories in what are now Kenya and Uganda, and persuaded the colonial government of India to sanction large-scale emigration of indentured labour to construct the Uganda Railway (aka “the Lunatic Express") from the port city of Mombasa to Lake Victoria.

Some 30,000 Indians, shipped in on contract, were joined by thousands of others—Gujarati shopkeepers, Goan tailors and civil servants, Punjabi policemen—pursuing the East African opportunity described by Sir Harry Johnston, special commissioner of Uganda from 1899-1901, as a possible “America of the Hindu".

“It seems incredible today to imagine Africa as the land of milk and honey that it was for Indians," writes M.G. Vassanji in his latest book, And Home Was Kariakoo—Memoir Of An Indian African. “By the early twentieth century, Indians could be seen everywhere in East Africa, in every town, large and small…But these ‘Jews’ of Africa, as they were sometimes called, were rarely appreciated. To the poor Africans they were the ones raking in the cash. To the white colonials they were often an irksome, alien presence, the bone in the kabab—to use an Indian metaphor—spoiling their pure black-and-white picture of Africa—the whites the superior race out to convert and civilize the blacks, and later the benefactors bringing aid, the blacks the beneficiaries. In their writings and nostalgic musings about East Africa, the white settlers seem to have simply wished the brown man away."

Moyez Vassanji is one of Canada’s acclaimed writers, the first double winner of the country’s prestigious Giller Prize (Alice Munro has since also won it twice), and author of six novels and two short-story collections. Born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, he left Africa to study physics in the US and Canada, and eventually settled in Toronto. His fiction returns again and again to migrant preoccupations: shifting identities, the idea of belonging, topographies of loss.

And Home Was Kariakoo is best understood as companion to Vassanji’s previous book and his only other volume of non-fiction. A Place Within: Rediscovering India is a telescoped account of the author’s travels around his ancestral homeland—first visited when he was already 43: photos, personal anecdotes and family stories set off by broader-frame historical sketches of the places visited. He wrote that India “spoke to me; I found myself responding to it, it mattered to me. It was as if a part of me which had lain dormant all the while had awakened and reclaimed me".

And Home Was Kariakoo—Memoir Of An Indian African: Hamish Hamilton, 384 pages, 599.

Despite all the years away—and the celebrated literary life in Toronto—his desire to write “not as an outsider reporting to outsiders but as someone from there, who understood", is palpable. You recognize the truth when he writes, finally: “I wished I could go on and on, from place to place, and never stop. But I was not young anymore, and one lives with constraints; twice I had to be told Enough, and reluctantly, facing an inviting, unvisited landscape, I turned back. I had to stop."

One main compulsion driving the book is familiar to Indians and other former colonials. It is the reclamation of place. The precise question that struck Vassanji after learning all about the pioneering explorers of East Africa, John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton and David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, was, “Where was I in all this history?" Thus his book returns again and again to “that irresistible and obsessive subject", the Khoja community in which he grew up, and its own strand in the East African narrative.

But there is also a strong measure of what was quite unique in the Indian African experience: a sense of wholehearted belonging to the modern, post-colonial nationalistic project. Thus, Vassanji deplores Tanzania’s descent into donor dependence, “for those of my generation who have not forgotten the calls for self-reliance and dignity, who volunteered to build houses during our vacations, and recall the pride we felt at (Julius) Nyerere’s rebuff of a pushy foreign power, this is humiliating."

The front cover of the book’s Indian edition is adorned with a pabulum blurb comparing Vassanji to V.S. Naipaul and Graham Greene (it is taken from a long-ago review of his first novel, The Gunny Sack). But this book is much better understood as a necessary corrective to what has been written about Tanzania—and other African countries—by jaded, opportunistic journeymen like Paul Theroux. About Theroux’s “dark continent" drivel on Tanzania, Vassanji writes, “How do you explain to a fleet-footed traveler, who speeds through a place like the Road Runner, ignorant of the language and knowing nobody locally, and with naïve arrogance reports to his brighter world about it, that there is life here, and all that living entails. That the people who live here are not shadows or mere creatures but humans; all you need to do is touch them."

Vivek Menezes is a writer, photographer, and founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts and Literary Festival.

To read an excerpt from the book, click here.

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