In Nairobi with Meena Foyba

Sheyfali Saujani speaks the unspoken
By Sheyfali Saujani

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Meena Foyba is a kind of aunt. My tranquil brother and I met her this past summer in Nairobi. She is bony, elderly and peaceful. After she got to know us, she would tease us, asking suspiciously, "How are you? Are you well? Sure?" As if we might be holding out on her—lacking for something we were too shy to ask for.

"Fine che? Sure? Chai joyech? Khavanu joyech? Sure che?"

"Yes, yes, we're fine. No, no tea, no food. Yes, yes, we're sure!" We'd finally laugh. She is the kind of classic Hindu woman who always puts others before herself: selflessness its own reward. But we paid with adoration. And everyone was protective of her. Especially Samson the 'houseboy' who made sure she never had to do any of the heavy work.

By asking us to call her Foyba—Aunt-who-is-my-father's-sister—she was exercising a kind of right. When my father was growing up in Uganda, Meena Foyba's father lent him some money so he could study in England. That was how my father became the only member of his large and rather impoverished family to acquire a college education. He also acquired a more open attitude and liberal values which he passed on to his children. Meena Foyba claimed him as a brother with the pride one takes in the achievement of siblings.

Her husband's family was similarly generous to my mother. In 1962, Mom, her twin sister and their uncle arrived in Nairobi in search of 'suitable boys' Back then, Asians travelling in colonial Africa stayed with friends and family. One did not waste money in strange foreign hotels with food that was cooked who knew how. Hari Bhai's family had a reputation for hospitality, which they extended to my mother's entourage. Hospitality, generosity, selflessness and respect; these are the qualities we value in others and seek in ourselves.

When my parents visited Nairobi in 1992, after a long exile from Africa, Meena Foyba and Hari Bhai insisted that Mom and Dad stay with them in their modest two-bedroom apartment. It was cheaper and cleaner than any hotel could be with home cooked meals and Samson to take care of things like laundry. Besides, Nairobi had grown dangerous since the 60s. It was better that they stay with people who could take care of them and book them on safari at the rate reserved for Kenyan nationals, not the inflated price charged to foreign tourists.

By the time my younger brother and I finally visited Nairobi with Mom, we could not break this long-standing tradition. It would cause injury and offence.

Meena Foyba, Hari Bhai and all the members of their large extended family were generous with their time and hospitality. Some, like Meena Foyba, more than others. We stayed at their homes, ate their food, slept on their beds, and depended on the services provided by their black servants.

And yet, the time we spent in Kenya was intensely frustrating for me. All this wealth of hospitality, generosity, selflessness and respect was reserved exclusively for aprawalla. Our kind.

For their kind—Ohloko—there was none. Their kind—always said with a dismissive gesture— included any black Africans at hand, the flow of passers-by at an intersection, perhaps, or Samson bent over with the broom and dustpan.

It was appalling. Again and again we were barred, in the politest way possible, and for our 'own good,' from seeing or doing anything that might involve direct contact with black Africans. After all, we were foreigners and could not be expected to know better.

These decisions were taken not by Meena Foyba, who seemed only to want whatever would please us, but by people she deferred to naturally: her husband, the portly Hari Bhai, his brothers, their sons and daughters-in-law.

My brother and I wanted to hear live African music and see an African play at the Kenyan National Theatre. But when we stopped by the theatre, all we got was a look inside. It was full of black students attending a matinee. Suddenly, all plans for the evening became uncertain. Some people were probably coming by to see us. Wouldn't we like to meet them instead? We never came back. Sullen, we insisted on visiting the Kenya National Museum. But, "Why do you want to go there? There's nothing there."

We did go to Bubbles, a discothèque frequented by the young sophisticates of the Asian community. There, we 'bhangra-ed' the night away to the latest from Bombay, London and San Fransisco. I went out for air. By the front door I heard an angry exchange between the doorman and ayoung black Kenyan woman. Was this a public disco or a private Indian club, she wanted to know? Why was the DJ only playing 'their' music? I didn't catch his answer.

And for a special treat, we went to Basti, a very chic dinner club. The music, the food, the diners, the owner and the head waiter were Indian. The sub-waiters and busboys were black. My brother tried to ask our busboy if they took credit cards. But he was interrupted. "Don't ask him," Hari Bhai said, "he won't know." Well, of course he did, but it was becoming unbearable.

I think it was hard on my mother—watching me seethe. I never said anything in front of anyone, that would have been unforgivable, but in private I raged. Small battles, waged in the back seat as we waited. "But they've been so nice to us!" she would protest. And more damningly, "You're too protected. Don't you remember how they kicked us out of Uganda? The terrible exodus!"

"Well, maybe now I know why they threw us out!" I hissed, bitterly irrational. The look on my mother's face left me wretched. What did my moral outrage matter? But I couldn't let it go.

What shamed me the most was the echo of that bigotry resonating in the darker recesses o§ my own heart... as much part of my heritage as the qualities I cherish in Meena Foyba.

"You haven't lived here, Sheyfali, you don't know what it's like." Then in the face of further protests, exasperated, "Yes, yes, you're right. Now be quiet! They're coming. Please." And the other look, the one that said, "Have you no manners, no shame, no respect for people who have shown you such hospitality?"

How could I? Faced with the grim knowledge that what shamed me the most was the echo of that bigotry resonating in the darker recesses of my own heart, as much part of my heritage as the qualities I cherish in Meena Foyba.

The one black African we did meet was Samson. He has worked for Meena Foyba since he was a teenager, almost thirty years. She had trained him in the 'proper' way to scour pots, scrub floors and hand-wash the laundry. Their relationship was affectionate, bantering. They laughed together, with and at each other. Perhaps that explains why Samson seemed so much more cheerful than the other servants we saw.

Everyone we met had a 'housegirl' or 'boy' like Samson to do the heavy work. Every single day he cleaned the entire two bedroom apartment with an impressive thoroughness. We were told to leave dishes in the outside sink for Samson to scour. If I rinsed a spoon, I was reprimanded. That was Samson's job. He arrived at six and left at three. And the whole time, except for lunch, he worked.

Samson has children. I don't know how many or how old. And I couldn't really talk to him to find out. My brother's halting attempts at Swahili seemed to please him. I have forgotten the Swahili I once knew.

Lately, Samson has been wanting to retire. He injured his leg in an accident and the work is becoming difficult. Meena Foyba worries about how she will replace him at this late stage in her life. How can she train a new 'boy,' now?

Most of the time he worked quitely, efficiently. But sometimes I heard him, during his break or while hanging laundry outside on the communal patio, talking to the 'laundry girl' from the apartment below. I wondered what they talked about as they shouted back and forth in Swahili. Did they discuss their bosses? Did it hurt them to see us, the foreigners, come and go, add to their work and do so little ourselves? Did they despise us as I did?

One day, we were sitting at the kitchen table having our mid-morning chai and talking about the high cost of living, the weak Kenyan shilling and the double-digit inflation. Ordinary Kenyans, we were told, have to scrape to get by.

"But," said Meena Foyba in Gujerati, "even we are better off, it must be really hard for these poor people." The gesture towards through bars across the window Samsa, scrubbing at the the breakfast dishes in the sunlight, was gentle.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Sheyfali Saujaniis
Sheyfali Saujaniis a Toronto-based media worker and writer.
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