By Frederick Noronha
There was something very familiar about the figure I encountered at the crowded weekday Mapusa market. Looking closely, I realised it was Benjy, an old schoolmate. In shorts, shoes and socks he stood, looking distant and somewhat distant, but quietly confident at the same time.“You’re still quite the Africander”, I half-joked. This unexpected encounter brought back a flood of memories of an archetype that go back four decades and more.
The image of the ‘Africander’ (or Goan in Africa) is writ large on my childhood memories. They first came as a trickle, in the mid-sixties, when one first encountered them. This soon turned into a flood, thanks to the independence of the British colonies in East Africa and, of course, Idi Amin.
When in school in the 1970s, this was an increasingly noticeable group. Probably this was more so in the so-called Old Conquest areas, and particularly in Bardez, due to the demographics of migration out of Goa.
(There’s always an argument over which part of Goa has had the highest out-migration to East Africa. Some say it’s Bardez, and others point to Salcete. But the first English-language high schools in this then Portuguese colony were all from the Bardez area – St Joseph’s Arpora, Mater Dei at Saligao and Sacred Heart, Parra.)
Two thoughts predominate when one thinks of the Africanders they were neither Africans nor Afrikaners, mind you, and were rather particular about this appellation. The first was the slight, but tolerable, air of superiority some carried along with themselves. As everyone knows, there are pecking orders within Goa and Goans. A Goan gets respected more, or less, depending on which part of the world he has migrated to, where he lives. All are not equal; for that matter, there are hierarchies even within religious communities or among caste groupings.
But the more lasting impression is about the impact the Africander had on Goan life back home. Together with the influx around the early 1970s, ‘Old Conquest’ villages like ours got a new lease of life. The schools perked up, so did the playgrounds. Suddenly, school plays became vibrant, and new sports got popular. We saw hockey as an East Africa import; and probably some of the chess skills came from there too (though more were locally built more recently).
Some villages stopped being homes merely for grandparents and grandchildren, as was till then the case. Other English-influenced Goans, returning from other parts of India, also added considerable charm to local life.
We were stunned once to enter our school-hall – when then looked large to our small eyes – and seem large, canvas modern-art style paintings decorate the flanks of the stage. Suddenly, plays like the three-act operetta Pearl the Fishermaiden made it to our school stage. If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came along, the acting was of the highest quality. One can still recall the younger boys trained to somersault around on the stage as dwarfs, and one of the pretty girls take on the role of Snow White. Spoken English took on a new polish, wrapped in accents and diction that gave us a bit of a complex.
This afternoon, seeing someone wearing an almost-gaudy Africa-influenced shirt – was it called the kitenge? – on the CHOGM Road at Sangolda brought back memories.
Quizzes, spelling bees and elocution in English got a boost with their arrival, and you could run into the young Africanders often at the English ‘Our Youth’ (later, Yuvavani) programmes of All India Radio too. They were among the brightest and most forward kids of our times.
They brought back a new vocabulary to Goa. Words like “Jambo Bwana” (in Swahili, “Hello Mister”) habari gani? nzuri sana (“how are things going? very well”) and hakuna matata (“no problem”) got heard here. If someone said ‘Hodi’ (May I come in) on approaching your house, you could guess where that came from.
Anyone with a proclivity for the English language was assumed to be an Africander. (If you’re wondering, I didn’t have any direct connection there, but a brief 2005 visit allowed me to understand why Goans loved the East Africa setting, strong enough to believe that it would be their home. Forever.)
They wrote to distant radio stations, got into hobbies like DXing, and were fans of the Beatles.
In those pre-Internet days, they served as a link to the then distant, outside world. Invariably, they had far more access to reading material than any of us. This was perhaps one reason we latched on and built friendships with the children of returning Africanders.
Comics like ‘Beano’ and ‘Bunty’ – though published in the United Kingdom – made their way home with them. It opened our eyes to new worlds. Idi Amin disallowed expelled Asians from taking along any of their money with them; my aunt thought of despatching piles of such magazines by the post to us in Goa. These made a big difference in times when children’s reading material here was almost as scarce as a hen’s teeth! One competition in such a mag gave me the idea of taking to writing.
Recently, via cyberspace, one thought of searching for those unusual Lance Spearman comics that also came in from Africa. Surprisingly, these can actually be found online if you search hard enough. These were among the early illustrated texts for African children, published in Africa. They had comics-like stories, but instead of drawings and sketches, the publishers used black-and-white photographs. One remembers the plots had African detectives sorting out mostly local crime in local settings.
Back in Goa, the Africanders met up on Fridays, the market day at Mapusa, at the Terry Lobo-run Casa Bela in Mapusa. The hotel is no more, it’s squat, charming one floor has given way to a multi-storey that makes more commercial sense.
In some villages like Moira, Aldona and Saligao, it might be true to say that the early 20th century ‘clubs’ got a new lease of life, thanks to the card-players of games like Rummy. They even condescended to teach us youngsters the classic card game Bridge, more out of necessity and the lack of a partner to make up a foursome. When I looked back and did a rough calculation, it turned out that some of them had been religiously making their daily evening visit to the club for something like the last four decades. If they passed on in their eighties, it meant they had retired sometime in their forties.
Some found it tough to fit in; and Goa, despite its reputation as being a “hospitable” place, can be unhelpful to someone new wanting to adjust. But others continued to play their useful roles. One of my Africander schoolteachers was a wine-maker, Scout-master, skilled artist, taxidermist, and overall a man of amazing skills and talents.
It is only now, as more books get written on the Africanders, that we realise more about their lives and their times. But the story didn’t always end happily. The son of one of the richest Bardezkar Africander died literally on the streets. It was heart-wrenching to see him, one day, sit on the back stairs of a club – that an earlier generation of Africanders had probably contributed immensely, if not built. He tied a sullied cloth around his neck, as if it was a princely napkin of earlier times; and then proceeded to crack a raw egg and gulp it down hungrily….
Just when it seemed that things were settling down in Goa, the younger generation of Africanders grew up. A few managed to cope very well in local life. For instance, at least two I know are skilled translators of Devanagari Konkani. Others have worked as professors, publishers and what not, adding to the intellectual climate in Goa and other parts of India.
But time has its own logic. By the mid-eighties, many were already moving out of Goa. Australia, Canada and the UK-US were their new found homes. The children of returning Africanders were leaving Goa in droves. Maybe they found it hard to adjust, and preferred to be in other parts of the globe. I don’t see them, as some do, as being entirely lost to Goa; but efforts are definitely needed if we are to tap into this skill base – the mistrusts aside – on a continuing basis.
After exchanging some pleasantries with Benjy, we moved on. But that’s how it was. Nostalgic.