A Khoja bride’s journey in 1930s Kenya

Author Sultan Somjee in Canada. He has written the book ‘Bead Bai,’ the first in a planned trilogy. Left: The cover of the book ‘Bead Bai.’ Photo/ZERA SOMJEE

What you need to know:

  • Khoja tradition required that at marriage, the bride be dressed in the bandhani, a silk tie-and-dye shawl with a heavy embroidered border. Then at death, the other rite of passage, the marriage bandhani would cover the woman like she was a bride again leaving home in a shine to meet the Lord.

You look at the cover of Kenyan ethnographer and writer Sultan Somjee’s Bead Bai with a kind of reverence that is reserved for the Mona Lisa or works by the old masters.

The portrait of Sakina, a Khoja bride in wildest Kenya of the late 1930s or early 1940s, is no major artwork by any stretch of the imagination, however pumped with emotion you are.

Even with a smiling face, tears running down the side of your face, your heart overrunning with a loving melancholia, it is not a face you would pay much attention to. In fact, in today’s currency, it is a face that is fairly nondescript.

However, if like me, you look at the face again after reading the 450-page tome, you would be forgiven for losing yourself in sheer rapture of the woman who has made you fall in love with her story. Why? Because a male writer has given birth to her in his book and clothed her with the ghosts and memories of Kenya history’s past.

She connects the past of the earliest Khojas, South Asians, white colonialists and, more importantly, tribal men and women no longer with us. Sadly, these early Kenyans now rest in oblivion. New Kenyans know nothing of them.

Tormented married life

Somjee’s own jacket blurb sums Sakina as thus: “Sakina is an embroidery artist growing up in the shanty town of Indian Nairobi, a railroad settlement in British East Africa in the early 1900s.

At home there are many storytellers… whose stories blend like a tapestry of India and East Africa that flare her child’s imagination. In her tormented married life, while becoming a woman, Sakina finds comfort in the art of the beadwork of the Maasai.”

But it is not just Sakina that has turned your head, your heart and your whimsy. It is the Khoja clan which is laid somewhat bare.

Khojas, or Ismailis, were not a secret society, except for their religious practices (you still cannot enter the jamat khana during prayer time if you are not an Ismaili). But like every other clan, ethnic group, race group in Kenya, the Khojas went about their lives in an intentioned, but not executed plan of separate development by the colonial government. 

I went to school with the author, but I cannot claim to know him other than as a classmate. In any case, I left school at the age of 12, hence this near romantic sojourn into Khoja life in early Nairobi, Kenya, is uplifting. Similarly, glimpses of the other South Asians, Europeans (including colonial British settlers) and the wonderfully complex and often brilliant as well as racially distant African tribes, are exhilarating.

I found Sakina’s wonder-eyed journey into the lives of the Maasai stunning, especially, since I got to know the Maasai in their own environment as a young reporter.

Hence, I could appreciate the connection with the land and Maasai bead art that Somjee, through Sakina’s eyes, paints a picture of, almost dripping with religious and artistic fervour.

I always felt that it was very easy to get intoxicated by Kenya’s flora and fauna, the Earth (Kenyan Earth in the novel is capitalised and mother Earth legends interwoven in the story and art), its villagers and their customs, especially their music and natural rhythms that one senses in the reading of Bead Bai.

I felt as if I was in an Aladdin’s cave of senses, smells, traditions, taboos, God with people, and people without God. I could smell the golden savannah, the rich scent of mid-autumn grass was intoxicating, especially in the journey heading towards Maasai country. Lest I forget, Sakina reminds me how I must listen to her story:

“To listen to my story you must feel the words in your body/ Like how you listen to the smell in Swahili/ Wasikia harufu? Do you hear the smell?/ When I ask Wasikia? Are you listening?/ I also mean, are you feeling?”

Kenya’s blessed wildlife brings its own godliness and spirits to those who ventured into their world uninvited. This is a sacred land and the intruder, visitor, trespasser would do well to pay homage to a land where earth is my mother and my soul. This repeats in the novel like a theme because in it resides the beauty of tribal beadwork.

Then there is the Khoja bandhani, from the old country that they preserve in families like gold.

Khoja tradition required that at marriage, the bride be dressed in the bandhani, a silk tie-and-dye shawl with a heavy embroidered border. Then at death, the other rite of passage, the marriage bandhani would cover the woman like she was a bride again leaving home in a shine to meet the Lord.

The Maasai emankeeki is a woman’s pride and joy: it is a neck-to-chest body décor in patterned beads depicting nature’s gifts of clouds, animal coats, trees, rocks and mountains.

To know the art, you must know the land and its legends. (In later years, the country has been reduced to a mere commodity to be fought over, to kill over, and eventually to be sold like a bag of potatoes in markets all over Kenya and now to the old and new superpowers and corporations).

If it should dawn on the reader, enjoy the book for what it is: a celebration of ethnic art, the country and its people, many of whom have vanished in tradition and custom like the animals before them and today we do not know that many of them existed.

It is a considerable feat for Somjee to divine the stories through the eyes of a female. But then his mentor was a grandmother at a bead shop in Arusha, where as a boy he worked on beads for sale.

Later, it was the women’s lives he would be listening to while researching on Bead Bai. To look after the voluminous stocks of beads in those early days were the women called Bead Bais.

They would have never imagined then how their back-breaking tasks would develop into East Africa’s unique art production employing hundreds of bead artists today. Most importantly, the continuous flow of beads to the tribes enables this indigenous and largely feminine heritage to flourish. 

Different cultures

It is an even greater feat for Somjee to draw “this historical novel from the domestic and community life of Sakina evolving around two objects of women’s art.” Both, the reader will recognise, “are of considerable social and artistic value among two culturally different people”.

One object is the revered bandhani shawl of the Khoja Ismailis and the other is the emankeeki, a beaded neck-to-chest ornament of the Maasai. ‘Material culture’, as he would put it.

I have feasted at Sakina’s banquet and I can boast an elegant and eloquent sufficiency.

I am filled with even greater anticipation for the next book in the trilogy, which will probably begin just after I was born in 1943 in the Kenya of Sakina and blow some winds of change into my nostrils as I lie dreaming … of Kenya and the most wonderful time of my life… in happy and contended slumber.

The writer, Cyprian Fernandes, was a senior journalist with the ‘Nation’ from 1960 to 1974. He was born and raised in Nairobi. Sultan Somjee, who now lives in Canada, is the former head of ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya.

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