And Home Was Kariakoo

And Home Was Kariakoo by M.G. Vassanji Read Free Book Online

Book: And Home Was Kariakoo by M.G. Vassanji Read Free Book Online
Authors: M.G. Vassanji
to have a prolific career, publishing numerous books, some of which were best-sellers. His favourite novel, however, according to the Francis Brett Young Society, was
Jim Redlake
, now out of print, which uses some of the censored portions of
Marching on Tanga
.
    To me the great war does not evoke Flanders or Vimy Ridge or Gallipoli, all vividly and multiply brought to life in novels and films, or the red poppies of November, in the same way it does the windblown thorny semidesert from Voi to Moshi under the mighty Kilimanjaro, the Usambara Railway, and the road to Tanga. And too, there is the overriding irony of it: the graves at Moshi, the anonymous monuments to the Africans and the Indians.
    A week before my journey to Moshi from Nairobi, I had gone to visit Taveta from the Kenya side to look at the site of Smuts’s great push eighty years earlier. On the way, however, there was a bit of family history to lay to rest.
    Even before Kenya was colonized and its great railway was built, Indians had settled along that interior route to Uganda, running their little dukas (shops) that brought supplies to the local Africans. My great-grandfather, Nanji Lalji, was one of them, having arrived from the village of Girgadhada in the Kathiawar region of Gujarat to begin a business in the town of Kibwezi, not far from Voi. Here he was the local mukhi, or headman, of the Khojas and presided over the khano. This bit of family history I had learned only recently after a meeting with one of his daughters-in-law, my father’s aunt, a shrunken old woman in a mattress shop in downtown Nairobi. Kibwezi turned out to be a typical nondescript town under the sun, with nothing of interest save the ruin of the old khano where my great-grandfather had presided. The Indians had all gone away. Several years later, I saw my ancestor’s village in India. Here too theKhojas had gone away, except for one family, and the khano was shut down, after the Gujarat violence of 2002. It was a strangely moving experience, to come to the place of my origins, but by this time I could also manage a sense of detachment.
    The Uganda Railway was built in the early 1900s using indentured Punjabi and local African labour. Given various names, including the Lunatic Express and the Iron Snake, it was an engineering marvel of its time, traversing some six hundred miles, ascending to more than 6,000 feet before plunging down into the Rift Valley and rising up again to meet Lake Victoria. The construction was gruelling, and many workers died from malaria, dysentery, and sleeping sickness; and for a few terror-filled months some Punjabis fell victim to lions in the grassland who had become so emboldened by access to easy meat that they would creep inside a tent of sleeping men and drag one off. This grisly episode of the railways—the plight of the “coolies”—is captured vividly in the book
The Man-eaters of Tsavo
by Colonel Patterson, the man who hunted down the predators.
    The Nairobi–Mombasa highway, going east, stays close to the railway. Arriving at Voi around noon, we turned into the Taveta road. It was rough and dusty, punishing for the car, and there was not another vehicle in sight, so that if the car broke down, as our driver worried, we would be stuck in the middle of nowhere under a burning sun. All around us the dry thorny shrub of the Taru Desert, a dull brown and green landscape relieved by the occasional baobab tree. Roads led into villages now obscure, which in that brief moment of the war had assumed such importance. There was no sign of the military railway from Voi, only a herd of cows and a few lanky Masai youth in red shukas with their herding sticks. Finally we entered a grassland, and soon thereafter the land was abundant and green withlarge shady trees and we were in Taveta. Straight ahead of us loomed Kilimanjaro, both peaks visible.
    An eerie feeling. Could this be real? Is this where, under the eyes of this African god, the great war was

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