What you need to know:
- Her husband, Kenya’s independence hero Pio Gama Pinto, was arrested and detained by the British colonial government barely six months after their wedding in 1954.
- He was released five years later — but an assassin violently cut short the revived marital bliss in February 1965.
- Fifty years after the personal and national tragedy, Emma Gama, who lives in a nursing home in Ottawa, Canada, talks about how the death changed the course of her life and her feelings on Pinto’s killing as narrated by veteran journalist CYPRIAN FERNANDES
Emma Dias arrived in Kenya from India in 1953. Her twin sister Joyce was already in Nairobi, married to Tome Mendonca.
Pinto’s brother Rosario and Tome used to ride the bus together to work and one day hatched the plan to bring Emma and Pinto together.
The plan worked and the couple married on January 9, 1954.
Recalling her earlier years with Pinto, Emma said that the first time she heard that her husband may be a communist, she asked him about it and he told her he was not a communist but a socialist with strong Gandhian principles.
That removed any doubt that might have lingered in her mind.
But it was going to take a particularly strong and decisive woman to survive the perils that would befall her family over the next few years, beginning with Pinto’s detention by the British colonial government in June 1954 during the robustly named Operation Anvil. This was barely six months after their wedding.
Pinto would remain in detention in Manda Island, and later in Kabarnet where Emma was allowed to live with him for almost two years until his release in 1959.
Upon release, Pinto got more involved in his political activities, joining others in the final leg of the fight for independence that finally paid off in 1963.
But two years later, the socialist politician, whose influence transcended Kenya, was killed at the age of 38, marking the first post-independence assassination.
He left behind Emma and three daughters: Linda, Malusha and Tereshka. Pinto is buried with his father in Nairobi’s City Park.
During the politician’s detention, the colonialists would not allow him to visit his dying father – but it is a sad irony that they are now joined together in death.
Fearing for her safety, Emma relocated to Canada two years later and dedicated her life to raising her children. She has, over the years, battled ill-health, including a failing eyesight and memory, and now lives in a nursing home in Ottawa.
Fifty years after her husband’s death this month, Emma recently said she regretted that Pinto “was virtually burnt out of the world” after his death.
One of the peculiarities of the politician’s life has always been that he seemed not to have written much. Almost all of his original work as a journalist, a political strategist or a spokesman for various causes – every scrap of paper that was blessed by his hand – appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth or could not be accessed.
Emma recalled the reason for this. On the night of Pinto’s assassination in 1965, she said a bonfire was lit at the back of their home.
Pinto’s close friends, the nationalist Pranlal Sheth and the economist Sarjit Singh Heyer, decided to burn everything the avowed socialist had ever written: books, diaries, notes, newspaper clippings, policy strategies, speeches and minutes of meetings.
In fact, said Emma, it was as though every scrap of paper from Pinto’s office and anything they could find around the house was burnt.
The two men thought that they were safeguarding Emma, her daughters, and her extended family. They were also trying to protect anyone, either Kenyan or foreign, who could be targeted for being mentioned in the writings. Pinto’s friends believed those that had killed him were powerful enough to come for other people.
Many old faces
After moving to Canada in 1967, Emma has visited Kenya a couple of times and was happy to meet many old faces.
In one visit arranged by a son of Achieng’ Oneko, an independence hero and former Cabinet minister, Emma was accompanied by her daughter Linda and son-in-law.
“In our honour, he had a goat slaughtered for a barbecue. He said to me: ‘Emma this is specially done because it is our tradition’, ” she said in a recent conversation.
She said that one day at breakfast, she was made aware of Oneko’s office that had apparently been locked up for long.
“I asked, ‘Do you have papers in there? You must let me have some of the papers Pio wrote to you’,” Emma recalled the conversation she had with the freedom hero.
The former minister was reluctant to open the room but he eventually did.
“So he went in and brought out one file folder and, as I leafed through, I recognised a letter in Pio’s handwriting. And I said, ‘Achieng, give me this letter’,” she said.
He initially refused to give her the original but later photocopied the letter.
“I said, ‘You are not going to give me the copy. I want the original.’ He took the letter and wrote: ‘Given to Emma’ and signed his name. I was so excited with finding one letter that I forgot to go through the rest of the folder,” she recalled. Oneko died in 2007.
Emma said she was not bitter and appreciated that Kenya still recognised Pinto’s role in the struggle for independence.
Here’s an interview based on excerpts of an earlier conversation Emma Gama had with BENEGAL PEREIRA, and transcribed by CYPRIAN FERNANDES
What were the early months of your marriage like?
During the first four years of my life with Pio (Pinto), while he was in detention (from 1954 to 1959), I read a lot to try and understand why he was in politics for a country that was not his (they were both from Goa in India).
It was just six months after we got married in January 1954 when Pio was sent to Nairobi prison. Fitz de Souza (a barrister, MP and later deputy speaker) took me to see him there. Soon after, Pio was moved to Manda Island in Lamu.
What was Pinto like as a husband?
He was hardly ever there. Within the first six months, he told me, ‘You can’t stay at home. Intelligent women don’t stay home.’ He said, ‘Take a secretarial course and find a job.
And take Gregg shorthand’ (as opposed to the more popular Pitman shorthand). Pio did Gregg shorthand and he said: ‘One day you will be able to read my shorthand if I need you to read back my notes.’
So I enrolled at Premier College and started learning Gregg’s. I had hardly finished the course when I had to go (to) work because I didn’t realise (before then) that he wasn’t earning anything.
He would come home at seven or eight in the evening. I would be quite annoyed because we had no phone and his parents were in Nairobi at the time.
Pio and I (in the early days of the marriage) lived in the servants’ quarters of Fitz’s house and Fitz’s parents were staying in the main house. (Fitz was partly in England studying).
Did you know Pinto as a political activist, and supporter of the Mau Mau?
No. I didn’t know the name Mau Mau. (Elsewhere she says that Pinto never spoke to her about politics, it was his way of shielding her.)
I knew he worked for the Indian National Congress in the Desai Memorial Building (in Nairobi). I was not aware he was actively involved in the African political movement.
What do you remember of that awful day (when he was assassinated in February 1965)?
We were living at Number 6 Lower Kabete Road (in Westlands, Nairobi) at the time. The house had been donated to Pio. He had bought me a little car so that I could have some independence as far as transport was concerned.
The new government was now nearly 14 months old and they had decided to get rid of all the English secretaries and Pio told me: ‘You are going to be the secretary to Achieng’ Oneko, the Minister for Information, Broadcasting and Tourism.’ (On that day) Pio had dropped me off at my office in Jogoo House and had returned home to collect his parliamentary papers (he was then an MP). My car was being serviced. About an hour later, I was in Achieng’s office, around 9 o’clock when my mother called me on the phone to say that Pio had been attacked (outside the house) and she was hysterical. I said, ‘I will be home soon. I am coming home right away.’
But I am a very, very calm person in any emergency. So I immediately phoned the Minister for Defence, Dr Njoroge Mungai, and told his office that Pio had been attacked and said, ‘Please send the police there.’
Then I picked up the phone and rang Joe Murumbi (a close family friend, Cabinet minister and later vice-president) because he would not have left the office because Parliament does not start until 11 a.m. He was the minister for Foreign Affairs.
He and his wife Sheila lived five minutes away from us. I said to him, ‘Joe, Pio has been attacked, please go to our house.’
Next, I ran into Achieng’s office and said, ‘Can I have your car?’ He said his car was in the garage for repairs or a service. Then I rang (Jaramogi) Oginga Odinga’s office (he was then the vice-president and later an opposition leader. He was ideologically a socialist – like Pinto) and spoke to an American girl, Caroline Odongo, the secretary, and said to her: ‘Caroline, Caroline, can I get a car to take me home?
Pio has been attacked.’ She said she would call me back immediately. She did. She told me the spare car was being sent round to the front of Jogoo House and would be waiting for me.
All the time, I assumed that Pio had been attacked and that he had been injured. As I got to the gate of our house, I saw our car had been parked at the gate and as I got out of Odinga’s car, I saw Murumbi arriving in his car.
As we walked past the car and into our home to find out about Pio, my mother said, ‘He is still in the car, he has been killed.’
That was the first time I had heard that Pio had been killed. So we both dashed out to the car and saw that Pio’s body had been covered in a pink blanket.
My mother had asked our house servant, a nice young man called Waweru, to cover Pio. Pio usually gave our 18-month-old daughter Tereshka a ride from the back of the house to the gate from where she would be collected by the maid and walked home. When the maid got to the back of the car, she heard shots and she ran back to the house to get Waweru.
She really did not see too much because she was terrified. By the time Waweru got to the car, Pio had already been shot.
Did you get much support from family and friends?
My twin sister Joyce lived just down the road from me. The people at the first private British company I worked for (International Aeradio Limited engineers) — I don’t think they were sympathetic to Pio, but they were sympathetic to a widow.
Joe and Sheila Murumbi took me to their home for two days. My mother stayed with the girls (the three daughters) at our house. When we saw Pio’s body in the car, Joe said, ‘Let’s get Pio inside the house.’ Because I was in shock, I have no clear memory of the people there.
Waweru and Joe’s driver put Pio’s body in the pink blanket and carried his body — not like a sack of potatoes — into the living room.
Fitz de Souza arrived at one point. I had not phoned Fitz. I don’t know at what point Fitz was involved; perhaps he found out from Parliament which had been informed.
Fitz was there when Pio’s body was brought into the living room. I remember I sat down and they put the blanket down and I could see that little hole under his ribs. I was sitting with Joe and Fitz, and I said: ‘Gosh, Pio looks so pale!’
And Fitz said: ‘Get out of there, get out of the room.’
So that was my one and only view of Pio when he was brought into the home.
As you may have realised, I was more or less the breadwinner and Pio and I never checked our bank balance. I did not know how much we had until he was assassinated, and when I went to the bank to get the money to pay our rent which was in arrears, there was nothing.
On the night of Pio’s death, his two best friends, the nationalist Pranlal Sheth and the economist Sarjit Singh Heyer, were said to have burnt every scrap of paper. Why?
We have to speculate because Pranlal said that Pio was not only involved in Kenyan politics but also in African politics – countries that were just emerging.
I guess they were concerned that Pio might have mentioned names and they were protecting these people, the politicians and dignitaries that Pio had come into contact with.
I had no idea who they were because Pio never told me what he was involved in or the personalities.
Pio used to have people from foreign countries come to the house and have meetings in his office, but I was never involved.
He never asked me to make tea or provide refreshments. I just did not want anyone living in our home, even though we had a spare room. I told Pio we should protect our family. I said we had daughters and we must protect them.
How long did you remain in Kenya after the assassination?
I remained in Kenya for two years. I was waiting for the tombstone which I was told was coming from Italy.
Was he buried at City Park for any reason? Most Goans were buried in the Lang’ata cemetery
All the arrangements were made by Joe Murumbi and Fitz de Souza. Fitz left Kenya soon after the assassination because he was afraid — he told me so in London not so long ago. He realised he might have been in danger.
After nearly 50 years, do you feel that Kenyans have served Pio’s memory well?
I think they are doing quite a bit to keep his memory alive. They have named a road after him and they also included his image in a commemorative stamp ‘Heroes of Kenya’ (issued in 2008) that included Tom Mboya (who was assassinated in 1969), Ronald Ngala (a leader from the coast who died in a road accident in 1972) and Oginga Odinga.
The street (in Westlands) in which we lived, Kabete Road, has been named after Pio. All the houses have been demolished, including ours, and the whole area has been redeveloped. A large shopping mall (Sarit Centre) has been erected.
Are you still angry?
No. Because of my reading of political matters I am aware that politicians lead very dicey lives. They are walking a tightrope. So when Pio was assassinated I assumed it was part of the politician’s life.
It was shocking for me, a new immigrant to Kenya, that he was shot so soon. He had already been in detention for four years. It was tragic.
Did you feel cheated?
Well, I felt disappointed — that (he was) someone who had worked so hard for freedom ... In my readings, I read that bitterness is like a fire in the corner of a house which will eventually consume the whole house. So I was cognisant of the fact that I should never be bitter about the whole situation. It was a fact of life – (even) Mahatma Gandhi was murdered.
Benegal Pereira, who taped the conversation with Emma Gama Pinto, is the son of the nationalist Eddie Pereira. He was born and raised at the height of the MauMau rebellion.
His avocation over the years has been collecting printed material on East Africa, informed by the love for his birthplace and what he believes is a largely untold story of Asians’ contribution to the independence and development of East Africa.
Cyprian Fernandes is a former chief Reporter of the Daily Nation (1960-1974) and has worked as a senior journalist in Europe and Australia where he now lives.