How Cyprian Fernandes set out on the road to be a man

A file photo of former Nation investigative reporter Cyprian Fernandes. He has released his memoirs titled ‘Yesterday in Paradise’. PHOTO| MIRIAM NAMUBIRU

What you need to know:

  • At 13, Cyprian left school because his integrity was questioned and he refused the punishment for stealing altar wine that he did not.
  • He had the stubbornness and courage to defy Father Hannan, the principal of St Teresa’s Boys.
  • It was that 13-year old boy lying he was 22 who entered adult life.

Yesterday in Paradise: 1950-1974 is a part memoir and a part tribute to some admirable politicians, sportsmen and journalists of Kenya’s immediate post-independence history. At the tender age of 12, Cyprian Fernandes was arrested and held prisoner during a random scoop in Eastleigh that targeted the Mau Mau. That was the 1950s, around the time that Cyprian’s memoir begins with tragic poverty in the family. It was the tenacious strength of the mother, Rosa Maria Fernandes, that held the six siblings together. They survived in the poor Asian-Somali mixed neighbourhood of Eastleigh.

The memoir ends around 1974 when the author had to flee his birth land because “there was a bullet to his name”. It’s a hard story of a young Nation reporter chasing the truth in the midst of the politicians’ looting spree and several assassinations of those who spoke against the regime’s misrule. It was the birth of Kenya as we know today — third on the Corruption Index, a clique of millionaires while the majority live in abject poverty.

Cover of the book 'Yesterday in Paradise' by Cyprian Fernandes. PHOTO| COURTESY

At 13, Cyprian left school because his integrity was questioned and he refused the punishment for stealing altar wine that he did not. He had the stubbornness and courage to defy Father Hannan, the principal of St Teresa’s Boys. It was that 13-year old boy lying he was 22 who entered adult life. He went on to become one of the best investigative journalists in Kenya. His lived his formative years during the one party democracy, when writers, artists, journalists and intellectuals were detained or had to flee into exile. It was a time of fear and silence as Ngugi wa Thiong’o puts it.


At one point Cyprian was even discussed in Parliament and was nearly deported as was the rule then when Asian Africans disagreed with politicians. But Cyprian would not be corrupted by any of the big fish. At times he was called ‘an imperialist stooge’ to his face. This was ironic for the politicians were, in fact, the real stooges of the western imperialism. His interrogation by the minister for Information, Zachary Onyoka, is revealing (Chapter 10, Interrogation). “I can have you killed in five minutes! ... you pundas, don’t you know that I have the power to cancel Fernandes’ citizenship and deport him to Britain?”

There are some illuminating details about Pio Gama Pinto’s life in the book. How he worked underground supplying arms to the Mau Mau, perhaps in cohort with the Indian High Commissioner Apa Pant, whose residence in Muthaiga was raided by the colonial police in spite of diplomatic immunity. One critical question that the author asks that has been left unsolved is: Where were the Mau Mau getting financial and material help from? He suspected some Indians in Kenya and the Indian government but he could not verify this.

The book fills in some details about Pio Gama Pinto and Joe Rodrigues, the controversial editor of The Nation, that even their spouses did not know. He shows admiration for the two patriots not because they were Goans like he is, but because as journalists, they had their hearts on their profession, and for the country.

The author accolades Joseph Murumbi, the one time vice-president of Kenya with ‘socialist leanings’ and Njioroge Mungai, the powerful Minister of Defence and a close ally of Kenyatta and his notorious Kiambu group. History, however, remembers the two parliamentarians who did not stand up against the assassinations, the massive land grabbing, corruption and greed of the Kenyatta family, and the brutality of the police state in the making.

There are insights that Cyprian gives about The Nation in 1960s and early 1970s.  It was the newspaper that was formative in guiding the mind of the nation as it came to hold it’s own reins. It was the time when the newspaper wrenched the tightly held power of journalism from the hands of the Europeans and put it into the hands of Kenyans. In the process, as one reads between lines in Cyprian’s book, The Nation developed the Kenyan brand of journalism while learning to negotiate with the state’s meddling and getting through what needs to be said to the wananchi. In the youthful and vivacious media house, there were also small but telling incidents of racism, corruption and harassment of junior staff.


Cyprian Fernandes was probably the first journalist to witness Idi Amin’s massacres. He was frog-marched to Idi Amin and made to sit before him and listen to ‘his lies’ for two and a half hours! The dictator wanted his story as the saviour of Uganda to be reported by The Nation. Cyprian, having narrowly escaped, filed the breaking news report. Unfortunately, his boss Boaz Omori, tore the negatives, destroying the evidence that he had collected risking his life — a clear indication of Kenya’s hand in the controlling the media and planting Idi Amin in Uganda with the aid of the British and US.

He pays tribute to Goan Olympians, and briefly mentions the Goan civil society working for the welfare of the poor, the church and education. It’s contribution has been enormous but little known perhaps because the institutions that they created or helped to strengthen bear the names of saints and come under the Church. There is also a suggestion of the community feeling itself superior to other Asians as the English speaking Christians and the Empire’s pet children.

Had Rufina Fernandes, Cyprian’s wife to whom the book is dedicated, not pleaded with him to leave the country when it was intimated to her that he had ‘a bullet to his name’, I doubt Skippy would have left Kenya. He earnestly felt it was his professional duty to stay and tell the truth. His powerful politician friends did not come to save him. Perhaps, they no longer found use for the reporter to prop their own schemes.

What Cyprian’s mother, the lady with ‘dynamite eyes’ and ‘vice-like grip’ said about her son to Father Hannan, who wanted to strip and beat him, as was his habit, was what he was. Speaking in Swahili mixed with broken English, she said “You won’t stop him, Father. If he has made up his mind to leave (school), he will leave. If he says he did not steal your wine, he did not steal your wine. You must believe him.”

I was Cyprian’s classmate. We were in the first term Form I, elated to be in the Secondary stream and fresh from our success in the Kenya Asian Preliminary Examination (KAPE). The year was 1957.

1954-1974 Yesterday in Paradise is material for an intriguing movie based on the life of an investigative Kenyan journalist. It’s the story of a 16-year-old boy that John Bierman, the fearless founding editor of The Nation, called “the biggest conman I have ever seen” and gave him the job.

Sultan Somjee was the Head of Ethnography, National Museums of Kenya (1994-2000) and is the Founder Community Peace Museums of Kenya


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.