Goans: Silent pioneers whose place in history seems forgotten

Sunday July 14 2019

Dr Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro.

Nairobi’s pioneer physician Dr Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

JOHN KAMAU
By JOHN KAMAU
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When it reigned, the 114-year-old Goan Institute was the bastion of Kenyan politics, culture, sports and much more.

The last time I was there was a few years back as they prepared their 100-year celebrations and I met a fine man, Vincent Azavendo, by then the chairman of the club, who showed me around.

It is a small compound for a minority community with a rich background. Often, they get forgotten.

OLD CABINETS

I found that the old cabinets were still overflowing with trophies of yesteryears but the story behind this institute hides the secrets of a minority race that had arrived in East Africa to look for fortune, work and progress. They came as tailors, clerks, doctors and lawyers.

In this reclusive compound, near Parklands Police Station, you could chance upon stories of some of the best-known Goans in Kenya: Nairobi’s pioneer physician Dr Rosendo Ayres Ribeiro, Joachim Nazareth, Francis Xavier D’Silva better known as Baba Ndogo for his generosity for impoverished whites who lived in Baba Ndogo area, lawyers Fitz de Souza and John Nazareth, Pio Gama Pinto, who was political activist, and Joseph Zunzarte Murumbi, the half-Goan who was Kenya’s vice-president for a brief period before he was scared out of the position.

There was also Joe Rodrigues, a pioneer journalist and another writer, Cyprian Fernandes.

Those who have seen early pictures of Nairobi must have noticed a man riding atop a Zebra. That was Dr Ribeiro in his escapades to attend to his patients.

He had bought the young Zebra in 1907 and tamed it. Ribeiro was instrumental in the founding of the first Goan Institute and many other schools, including Parklands High School – which was first named Dr Ribeiro Goan School in his honour when it opened its doors in 1931. In 2015, it reverted to Dr Ribeiro Parklands School – a great effort to honour a doctor who had done so much for a country.

GOAN CLUB

With his brother Campos Ribeiro, they became some of the famous names in colonial Nairobi and Campos was the first President of the Goan Club.

There was something else about Dr Ribeiro. He was said to have some magical anti-malaria tablets and he was everyone’s doctor in the emerging township of Nairobi; especially during the days that plague outbreaks were common. At one point, his clinic at Bazaar Street was among those razed down as the administrators battled Nairobi rats. It is claimed that Dr Ribeiro is the one who advised the medical officer for health to burn the Indian shanties.

And now to Baba Ndogo, aka Xavier da Silva. He had decided to help the impoverished whites who lived adjacent to his 40 acres in Baba Ndogo, where they kept African and Seychellois mistresses. He built several bungalows here to rent and planted lots of mangoes in Ruaraka. Most of the trees can still be spotted in Ruaraka.

Having said that, the place of Goans in building the foundation of modern-Kenya is actually downplayed. Some of the institutions they fundraised for, and built, have largely been forgotten while most of those in public service were bundled out during the Kenyanisation process. Today, it is hard to find any Goan in public service – a shame for the country.

But the institutions they built still stand as a reminder of the halcyon days. At the junction of Prof Wangari Maathai Road (former Forest Road) and Limuru Road still stands St Francis Xavier Catholic Church – the signature project for the Goan Catholic community in Nairobi.

CRICKET CLUB

It was a celebration of Saint Francis Xavier – the man who had built Kenya’s first chapel in Malindi in 1542 when he landed there on his way to India. The small thatched Chapel still stands to date!

A deeply religious group, the Goans in Nairobi had also built the Holy Family Basilica and St Theresa in Eastleigh and are actually credited as the bedrock of Catholic faith in the city.

The Goans had arrived in Nairobi from the Portuguese colony of Goa – today the smallest State of India – at the time when the Kenya-Uganda railway was being laid.

Together with the Indians, the largely Catholic Goans got jobs as clerks while the less educated arrived in Kenya as tailors. Actually, Goans are credited as the original tailors in Kenya and they had formed Tailor’s Society. One of the best known was Alleluia Fernandes who at one point stitched suits for Jomo Kenyatta.

Like the Europeans, and being a minority, the Goans started exclusive clubs and they – and the Indians – are credited for the bringing the popular game of cricket into Kenya. This was first played at the modern day ‘Kirigiti’ stadium in Kiambu, a corruption of the word cricket.

The Goans had founded the Portuguese Cricket Club in Nairobi in 1899 – just a few years after the railway had reached this edge of the Kikuyu escarpment. Being a desolate, windy, and muddy place when it rained, the only solace for the new settlers was in the clubs to kill boredom in a new country.

The Portuguese Cricket Club had evolved into Goan Institute, which opened its doors in 1905. It was in 1980s forced by President Daniel Moi to drop its Goan Institute name and adopted Nairobi Institute. It has since reverted to its original name.

COLONIAL GOVERNMENT

With mainly junior administrative positions in the colonial government, they could not join the all-European Nairobi Golf Club, which was in 1936 allowed to use the prefix “Royal” as a mark of the Silver Jubilee of King George V’s reign. That is how Goans started other clubs of their own, including the Goan Gymkhana and the exclusive Goan Railway Club.

But there was a split with the elite Goans, employed by the railway — by then the best blue-chip employer — and the low-ranked tailors.

That saw the emergence of the Indo-Portuguese Institute (later Goan Institute), which was supposed to rival the Railway Goan Institute, then located on the grounds of modern-day Pangani Girls High School. There was also the Goan Union, whose members were once dismissed by PX da Gama Rose as “illiterate servants not equipped to engage socially or politically with the educated classes”. This is because the later conducted its meetings in Goan language of Konkani.

Goan Institute was the place of some elite workers of the colony and when they built their dancing hall – they fixed some springs to support the wooden floor, and apart from Charter Hall in Nairobi, this was the only other dancing floor with such springs.

SPLENDID STARS

As the centre of sports, this was the heart of both cricket and hockey – and in 1960s when the likes of Kipchoge Keino, Ben Jipcho and Naftali Temu surprised the world of athletics, there is one other name that was a product of Goan Institute: Mombasa-born Seraphino Antao - first Kenyan athlete to win a gold medal at an international level.

Antao, who died in 2011, was Kenya’s triple gold medallist in the 100m, 200m and 400m during the 1962 Commonwealth Olympic games. As a result of the training they received, thanks to Goan Institute, Kenya was one time ranked number four and Goan Institute produced splendid stars such as Egbert Noronha, Sauda George, Reggy Fernandes and Alu Mendosa, among others.

It is interesting that the Goans are hardly mentioned after they were thrown around after independence and most of them had to leave for either UK or Canada.

These silent pioneers have at best kept away from local politics after one of their own, Pio Gama Pinto – the best bet on Kenyan politics – was gunned down in Nairobi in 1965, the first politician to be assassinated in independent Kenya.

[email protected]; @Johnkamau1