Biography of an indomitable spirit: Zarina Patel

Photo: Odhiambo Orlale
Publisher: Mvule Africa Publishers
Photo: Odhiambo Orlale Publisher: Mvule Africa Publishers

Publisher: Mvule Africa Publishers.

So many books have been written about minority communities in Kenya, but the biography about Zarina Patel stands out in a class of its own.

The 245-page book written by George Gona, senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, provides a rare glimpse of a story that is rarely told in most societies about minorities.

It does this by highlighting the critical role South Asian Africans have played in the revolution and transformation of Kenya’s pre and post independence struggle, a role similar to that which was played by women in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and other global struggles for freedom, against domination and exploitation.

The history of South Asian Africans goes back over a century ago when the British East African Company decided to recruit thousands of Indian labourers from the Indiana sub-continent to build a railway line from the port of Mombasa through the protectorate of Kenya to Uganda.

Immediate former Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga says in the foreword: “This biography is perhaps the first treatise on a South Asian African woman who not only struggled against the oppression faced by fellow women, but who was also involved  in other movements, above and underground, which fought against injustice.”

To most people, Zarina is the face of the five-acre prime Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi’s Central Business District, in which she single handedly fought to ensure that land grabbers of the 1980s and 1990s did not grab from ordinary members of the public.

Zarina is the granddaughter of Alibhai Mullah Jevanjee who gave the land to the colonial government in 1906 to be used as a recreational park.

Thanks to Jevanjee’s granddaughter, the park is one of the few green spaces gracing the “The City in Sun” today and used by hundreds of residents and visitors.

In leading the campaign against the intention to grab the land at the height of Kanu dictatorship under President Daniel arap Moi, Zarina was vilified and called all sorts of names including being referred to as “mama matata (troublesome woman). However, she did not relent and soldiered on with the likes of Nobel Laureate Prof Wangari Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement, the opposition and civil society leaders.

She was fully supported by the media in the campaign against grabbing of the park. At the time, Zarina wrote many letters to the editor and also penned commentaries to back her cause.

In the first letter to the press on the issue, Zarina’s mother, Shirin, wrote: “My father, Mr Alibhai Mulla Jevanjee, planted and presented Jevanjee Garden on March 17, 1906, for the sole purpose of providing the citizens of Nairobi with a recreational area…It is my express wish and hope that these gardens caringly donated by my father, should continue to serve the people of Nairobi now and in future, as was the intention.”

Zarina is an accomplished writer who has three biographies to her name including Challenge to Colonialism (a biography of her grandfather), Unquiet — The Life and Times of Makhan Singh, the father of Kenya’s trade union movement and Stormy Petrel, a biography of Manila Desai.

Indeed, the well-written biography chronicles her multi-dimensional life. Although she was born in Mombasa within an upper middle class family, Zarina rejected opulence and sought personal liberty as well as fulfilment by identifying with multi-ethnic and multi-racial groups that were struggling for human rights and freedom from exploitation and domination.

Additionally, her multi-dimensional life bears witness to the harsh realities that women in African and Asian communities witness: the lack of independence to choose whom to marry, whether to have children and adherence to a particular religion, among others.

According to the author, Zarina’s dissent liberated her from the shackles of patriarchal Asian society, but also drew her to Kenyans of similar character and thinking. Her biography echoes the lives of many women around the world playing a multitude of roles as wives, mothers and professional women who have struggled and given up their dreams in order to succeed in each of those roles.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Zarina joined other Kenyans in the broader struggle against neo-colonialism and injustice perpetrated by the State. Even after the new political dispensation ushered in by multi-partyism and the 2010 Constitution, Zarina continues to voice concern about the unchanged material conditions of the ordinary citizen.

The above is evident by the bigger numbers of South Asian Africans participating in public affairs today, thanks to Zarina and her ilk who have always been urging fellow sisters and brothers to take up their rightful place as citizens of Kenya.

In the foreword, Mutunga notes that it would not be complete without mentioning something unique and noteworthy about Zarina’s patriotism: “The author documents Zarina’s use of art as a space and medium for liberation. This is a distinct and innovative endeavour that reveals a different side of the story of the social movements in the 1970s and 1980s that is only now being documented.”

Through the eyes of Zarina, the author helps the reader go down memory lane of the country’s political, social and cultural history. In her life and actions, she understood the connection between freedom of creative expression and struggle for democratic space as well as the concomitant benefits of conscientising the public of prevailing social, political, cultural, global, and economic circumstances.

This biography is a must-read, and as Dr Mutunga, who has interacted with Zarina since the 1970s in his days in the civil society says: “This book is a significant contribution to the history of Kenya’s Social Movement that is yet to be fully told.”

%d bloggers like this: