A Personal Reflection

ZARINA PATEL writes about the LANDMARKS in the NCCK Community and Race Relations Project she headed, 1972-75.

I had volunteered with the NCCK Cottage Industries in Mombasa and had at one time chaired its board. Evelyn Mutua was its Director.

The NCCK Secretariat in Nairobi had got to know about me and in 1972 requested me to revive their Community and Race Relations Project which had been established in colonial times but had become dormant after independence. I agreed and relocated to Nairobi as Head of the Project. I was the only non-Christian and South Asian in the entire organisation. John Kamau was the General Secretary, Bethwell Kiplagat was his deputy. Several Caucasian missionaries were on the staff – Don Mathews, Harold Miller, Heinner, Gerard …..

I lost no time in identifying and contacting South Asians and Africans who were interested in fostering better Community and Race Relations in Kenya. A committee was formed and a programme of discussions and activities was drawn up. I genuinely believed, and so did the committee members, that the mistrust and unease between Africans and Asians were simply due to a lack of interaction and open discussion on an on-going basis. So joint discussions and activities were held in church halls, Asian community centres, etc. We encountered enthusiastic support and the C&RR Project was soon one of the most active and busy departments of the NCCK.

I felt very welcome in the NCCK and had a friendly relationship with John Kamau and Bethwell Kiplagat. We all seemed to be on the same page. John Liyoo was appointed as my assistant and soon we were travelling nationally to visit NCCK centres and promote the C&RR programmes there. Places I drove to regularly were Kisumu, Mombasa, Nyeri, Nakuru ………..

Landmark events that I can recollect:

A M Jeevanjee. I was advised by John Kamau that I should avoid mentioning my connection to my grandfather as he did not have a good reputation and was known as a ‘hustler’. Not knowing any better I accepted the advice. (It was only  when Jaramogi Odinga, at a meeting in Kisumu, greeted me with the words: ‘It is an honour to meet a descendant of Jeevanjee’ that I began to question history).

The expulsion of the Uganda Asians by Idi Amin. I did not get very involved in this event as I was still learning the ropes.

The Africanisation Debate. I took the line that affirmative action needed to be taken and this position did not go down well with many of our South Asian contacts.

The Sharpeville Commemoration. I was placed in charge of organising this event. I travelled, with B Kiplagat, to Dar es Salaam and remember having breakfast with Marcelino dos Santos. (I met him again in Dar in 2010 at the Nyerere Festival. When I mentioned Kiplagat he seemed to scowl!) We met Joachim Chisano and other liberation heroes – it was truly inspiring.

In Nairobi the programme continued to expand. Walter Rodney, Sam Nojuma and others attended and they spoke at different functions and met various leaders. The event I remember most vividly is standing on the steps of City Hall facing KICC, holding a mike to a recorder and seeing a sea of faces mouthing the song. ‘We Shall Overcome’ it declared.

Totally unknown to me the University students were also commemorating Sharpeville. Without doubt the NCCK event was a great success as far as public response and interaction went and it gave me the opportunity to meet a wide spectrum of Pan Africanists, and spend time with Sergio de Vierra of Mozambique and South African exiles Eve and Tony Hall.

I was therefore most surprised, painfully so, when the following year NCCK organised a rather low-key event and completely kept me out of it. I was deeply disturbed but did not share my consternation with anyone. It was many decades later that I learnt that the first NCCK commemoration had been met with strong disapproval from the Kenya Government and marked the increased surveillance of the University students.

I was an ardent supporter of justice and freedom but still politically very naïve. It was only a few years earlier that a Marxist friend in Mombasa had given me feminist literature to read and I had realised that the problem was not ME but the SOCIETY and how it was organised.

My work in the NCCK continued to radicalise me. In 1975, together with Heinner and his family, we travelled to Tanzania and camped in an Ujamaa village. I then stayed on as a guest of Andy Chande, and later Roger Zwanenberg and his family at the Dar University and attended the TANU 7 July celebrations. I remember standing with thousands of others in an open ground which had a makeshift stage on which President Nyerere and the invited guests were seated. The weather was overcast and it drizzled intermittently. There were no umbrellas or overhead coverings – Presidents Nyerere, Kaunda and others were as exposed to the sun and rain as we all were. Nyerere spoke for over an hour in Kiswahili to his people as he explained and laid out his governance plans. I was just bowled over ….. perhaps that was when I became a socialist …..!

In the evening I attended a cultural event at which Nyerere was present. A musical group had composed a song for Nyerere and proudly sang it. To their horror and our surprise, Nyerere took offence to the song and made his displeasure plain to us all. He did not approve of what he called ‘the cult-like adoration of him ….’ I was bowled over once again; and returned to Kenya the next day, very reluctantly.

At the NCCK, the disquiet which had been brewing for some months amongst senior staff members had increased. Several heads of departments (I was not one of them) had evidence that funds donated for specific projects were being diverted to NCCK Secretariat personnel. I became involved in a group that planned to expose the scam. Ultimately nothing came of this attempt as the lead persons got cold feet.

At some point Rebecca Njau, wife of Elimo Njau, joined the C&RR Project. I remember us both addressing a class of girl students at the Kenya High School – the subject was race relations but I had branched off into feminist issues and the need for women to be more independent. I had no idea that the Njau marriage was on the rocks and to say I was being a ‘bull in a china shop’ is putting it mildly.

Looking back to this period it is now clear to me that my ideological development and feminist fervour were alienating me from not only the NCCK Secretariat but also from many of my workmates and colleagues, including my husband and parents. At the time, in my usual well-meaning but quite insensitive manner, I shared my political and feminist thoughts freely; totally oblivious to the opposition I was generating.

So when in 1975, Prof Peter Marris (UCLA) offered to arrange a Ford Foundation scholarship for me to attend a one-year study in the MIT SPURS Program in the USA, the NCCK Secretariat readily agreed and encouraged me to take it. I left then ostensibly on Sabbatical leave. While at MIT I learnt of a one-year EdM course at Harvard – it was an opportunity for me to acquire a University degree.

My request for the one year extension gave the NCCK Secretariat the excuse to terminate my employment. But most galling of all was the manner in which it was executed. A deal was worked out between them and my then husband (I was in the USA); the latter informed me later that I would not be returning to NCCK. A further factor in my decision to not return to him either!

I was able to get a further scholarship for the year at Harvard and returned to Kenya in 1977, a thoroughly convinced socialist/Marxist and feminist.

Zarina Patel

28 February 2021.

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