Book Review: The In-Between World of Kenya’s Media – South Asian Journalism 1900-1992.
Author: Zarina Patel.
Publisher: Zand Graphics Limited.
Any reader keen on Kenya’s media history in the past century does not have to look far thanks to Zarina Patel who has chronicled it so well in her 204-page book that is illustrated with colourful photos and newspaper cuttings.
The In-between World of Kenya’s Media – South Asian Journalism, 1900-1992, presents a most comprehensive picture of South Asian journalism in Kenya during the last century – of various papers and periodicals and their proprietors, editors, managers and writers – their fortunes, ups and downs, battles with authorities and financial and personal hardships – the lot.
According to Ramnik Shah, an independent scholar and retired lawyer: “Above all, it is the collective trajectories and portrayal of the past and present and better or lesser known people featured in the book that will make it a definitive and encyclopedic work of reference on the subject – a valuable addition to the growing literature about East African Asians in general. We need this, to learn for ourselves and for the world at large.”
The easy-to read book is divided into five themes: the introduction; the newspaper, journalism in the colonial era; the print journalists; the radio journalists; and the photo journalist.
In the forward by Shah, he says we may think of the past as history (or vice versa) but in continuum of time history is not past, because it can live on in our memories, in our folklore, in our literature and art and architectural monuments, in our personal archives and so on.
In the pages of this book, history is certainly not dead or gone but rather brought alive as a vivid reminder of Kenya’s past, both pre- and pro-colonial, spanning practically the whole of the last century.
Says Shah: “To people of my generation it has a special appeal and meaning because not only did we live through a large chunk of that period ourselves, but we were also beneficiaries of our parents and elders’ tales about earlier years.”
Indeed, what the book does is to fill a vital gap in the documented history of the South Asian contribution to the development of Kenya from a British colonial territory to a fully-fledged independent nation and beyond.
Zarina Patel is an accomplished biographer of certain leading players in that field, and therefore also a historian of record. She has followed in the same tradition here, to focus on specific subject of the sub-title of the book across its whole spectrum, with a follow up to the present.
But asked why she chose to write about journalism, Zarina explains that the newspaper journalists are essential because in a democracy ‘they inform its citizens, give voice to the voiceless and hold the powerful accountable,’ and newspapers make events public that would otherwise remain private and act as watchdogs on the working of the government.
On why she picked to tell the journalism story through the eyes of South Asians, it was because it was one more reslisation that the journey to research and record the presence of the minority in Kenya’s multi-cultural society – a journey that more and more travelers are embarking upon and in so doing helping to shed light on hitherto unknown (hi) stories.
The book treats us to a journey of discovery and wonder, starting with the role and place of the South Asian journalism and its noteworthy organs and practitioners during the colonial era. We read about A.M. Jeevanjee and other legendary figures such as A.C.L. de Sousa, Manil A. Desai, Sitaram Achariar, Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi, Makhan Singh, Haroon Ahmed, D. K. Sharda, Pranlal Sheth, and Pio Gama Pinto, and about their struggles to be published at all.
Other prominent names are of award winning photo journalist Mohamed Amin (1943-1996); UK-based renowned journalist, Shamlal Puri; long-serving columnist, Dr Yusuf Dawood Kodwavwala
Hardly any of the papers or periodicals including the long lasting ones, The Democrat, Colonial Times, and Daily Chronicle, (though the Kenya Daily Mail may have been an exception), could be said to have been a profitable enterprise.
Most were funded by proprietors and through generous donations with no returns. There was neither a thriving commercial market nor a wide readership to sustain them for long, but their promoters, editors and writers persisted out of a sense of mission to air Asian and also African grievances and to seek proper representation for them.
Says Shah: “In that they did succeed, for they were regarded as a thorn in the flesh of the colonial authorities, who were quick to resort to harsh measures to silence or punish them.”
As Zarina informs us, Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi, together with his team, spearheaded a revolutionary brand of political journalism in the colony, under the ‘Frank, Free and Fearless” motto of his Colonial Times, that had provided a pivotal channel of expression for emerging freedom fighters like Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya and, who later became the founder of the nation, Prime Minister and President and Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs and later as Minister for Economic Planning and Development, respectively.
The first English national newspaper was The East African Standard, now renamed The Standard, in 1902, by British investors, followed by Nation, owned by H.H. Aga Khan, in 1960.
Other journalists who have been heavy weights named are Kul Bhushan, who has written a chapter on The Nations Fifty Golden Years; former editor-in-chief of Nation, Joe Rodrigues (1931-1987); Pio Gama Pinto (1927-1965); Salim Lone who was a beneficiary of the Tom Mboya student airlift to the in the 1960’s, was first chief editor of Viva Magazine and later worked in the United Nations as director of news and media, and later as spokesman for Raila Odinga, former Prime Minister, and ODM Leader.
In her preface in April 2015, Zarina Patel summed her book so well, and it reads like she wrote it today in defence of the media: “After a period of nascent democracy and relative press freedom, sadly as I write, Kenya is once again in the grip of a creeping dictatorship. A court battle is being waged, the protagonists are the local mainstream Kenya media television stations which are being forced into a position of subservient to two foreign media organisations; both these have recently entered the market and are set to monopolise the digital platform in Kenya. And the Communications Commissions seems to be rooting for the foreigners. The Media Council of Kenya has threatened at least one newspaper with closure. The Security Laws Amendments Bill 2014 which was introduced in Parliament last December is an ominous foreboding for the media and for the civil society in Kenya.”