Mrs. Mascarenhas of Kisii (Mervyn Maciel)
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2018-07-12 09:22:06 UTC
Mrs. Mascarenhas of Kisii

By Mervyn Maciel

In many respects, it is a pity, that some of us,
Goans, are not given to writing or even talking
about our past. It is only in recent years, that
there has been a growing interest among our younger
generation in Oral history; and published
reminiscences of our childhood/adult days are a
rarity in many a Goan family 'collection'. Memories
and verbal recollections there are a-plenty, but
sadly precious little recorded.

An exception to all this was a real treasure trove I stumbled
upon when I contacted the family of the late Mrs. Mascarenhas.
They provided me with copious "Notes" this good lady had
made, and these, in the main, form the basis of my story.

Marcilia Mascarenhas was born in Nigvaddo, Arrarim, Saligao
(Goa) on June 2, 1893. Having lost her parents at a very
young age, she was brought up by her sister-in-law in the
ancestral home. She attended the local parochial school where
she was taught elementary Portuguese.

Arriving in Kenya as a young bride in 1912, she was not to
find herself in towns like Nairobi or Mombasa which boasted a
sizeable Goan population, but instead, to Riana, a remote
village in the vast South Nyanza district of Kenya, inhabited
mostly by the Luo and Abagussi (Kisii) tribes, where her
husband, Thomas Joseph, ran a typical African-type duka
(shop) dealing in produce and also hides and skins.

For nine long years, they had no children, but the arrival of
a son in 1921 was no doubt a joyous occasion in the
Mascarenhas's small household which they shared with Thomas's
brother, Joaquim. Sadly, this joy was short lived.

On 30th March 1922, a mere five days before his
35th birthday, Thomas Joseph died at Riana of
Blackwater fever (an epidemic not uncommon in those
days, in the remoter regions of Kenya, where
medical facilities were almost non-existent). How
would she now cope running the shop in this remote
corner of Africa, with a year-old baby on her
hands was a thought that must often have crossed
her mind. But this young lady was made of sterner stuff.

According to the "Notes" she kept, her late husband's assets
totalled Shs 2012.50. Hardly any Asians were interested in
his effects and the poor Africans could ill afford to buy

Undaunted by the awful blow destiny had dealt her, she was
determined to carry on with her late husband's business, and
set in motion, a course of action which I describe here in
her own words.

"I sold four gold bangles to an Indian trader at Kisii, and
obtained sufficient money for a third class rail fare to
Mombasa, and a deck passage to Bombay for my son, Alex (18
months) and myself. My brother, Anthony D'Souza, accompanied
me, and we reached Bombay in October 1922. Through his help,
I obtained the proceeds of an insurance policy on Thomas's
life, amounting to Rs. 8880, from the Karachi Life Insurance
Co Ltd. My brother-in-law, Joaquim, also let me draw Rs. 900
from his Post Office Savings Bank account in Bombay. I thus
deposited Rs. 9780 with the Mercantile Bank of India and then
left for Goa. Due to the Exposition of the body of St.
Francis Xavier that December, many people had come to Goa
from abroad. I, therefore, managed to sell all my personal
effects and jewellery. This realised Rs. 3820. I also
attended the pilgrimage, and earnestly prayed to St. Francis
Xavier to give me courage and assistance to bring up my only
son. He answered my prayers over the years."

There is no doubt that her faith had sustained her. In March,
1923, she returned to Kisii before the first anniversary of
her husband's death. Here again, in her own words, she goes
on to say:

"I bought and carried with me plenty of India
cloth. With the help of my 'Singer' hand-sewing
machine (bought for my wedding in 1910), I started
dress making for the Kisii and Luo women. Until
then, they did not wear any Western clothing. Men
wore loin cloth or goatskin flaps in front and
rear. Kisii women wore goat skins from the hip
downwards. Luo women wore a sort of skirt made of
papyrus or other reeds grown along the lakeshore.
The Catholic Mission at Asumbi and Nyabururu helped
me tremendously by sending all the women to have
them "dressed" by me. I worked round the clock, and
with God's inspiration and my husband's prayers,
started saving money each month. On occasions when
a few women came to collect their frocks, they
insisted on wearing them and having their
traditional dance (something like our Goan Mando)
in the verandah of our grass hut."

She goes on to say that as news of her dressmaking spread,
so did the business boom. Her brother was very helpful in
sending the materials she needed from his base in Mombasa.

Later, with her brother-in-law Joaquim's help, she expanded
the business by selling many much sought after items like
sugar, salt, soap, kerosene oil, beads, cigarettes, matches
and hoes. She made frequent trips to Kisii, leaving very
early in the morning, and travelling in a native chair
(palanquin) borne by four porters. Her purchases were made at
Kisumu whence she travelled to Homa Bay by ox wagon, thence
by one or other of the sailing boats owned by an Asian
businessman (Mr. Dhanji Manji). Much later, she observes,
motorboats owned by Capt. Richard Gethin (Snr), and Mr. H.
Lakhani started plying between Kendu Bay and Kisumu.

It must not have been easy for her travelling by boat and
sometimes road transport, with a young child, especially
since road conditions could be quite treacherous in the rainy

In 1924, she bought a plot at Homa Bay where she erected a
wood/iron building consisting of a shop and two living rooms.
This cost her Shs. 4000/-, and she rented it for 80/- a
month. A year later, she bought another plot, this time at
Sare-Sakwa-Awendo for the same price, and again rented it out
at 80/- per month. The woman's business acumen was beginning
to show!

In 1926, she went to Mombasa where her brother taught her
simple accounts, and also introduced her to Indian traders
who were able to give her useful advice on conducting retail
African trade. Seeing what she had already achieved, despite
all the setbacks, I feel she could teach them a thing or two!
Her brother also coached her in basic English, and with this:

"and my poor vocabulary and foreign accent, I
managed my business and also meetings with
Government officials of all ranks, including
Governors, whom I had the honour to meet during
their rare visits to our district."

Time was approaching for Alex's schooling and so, in 1926,
Mrs. Mascarenhas moved to Kisii, leaving Alex at the Aga Khan
School in Kisumu. While her brother-in-law (Joaquim) looked
after the shop at Riana, Mrs Mascarenhas decided to start a
small shop in Kisii, and later ventured into the garage
business. The business prospered and she was encouraged to
start a grocery business with many agencies like petrol, oil,
cigarettes etc... The enterprising spirit of this wonderful
woman was evident once again. Not content with the business
she had, she ventured into the transport business where she
had two trucks which carried produce from the various trading
centres to the lake ports. She also ran a passenger bus
service between Kisii and Kendu Bay. I wonder how many men in
her situation could have attempted all that she successfully
undertook and made a success of?

Wanting to give her son Alex the best of education, she moved
to Kisumu in 1927 and got Alex admitted to the Government
Indian Boys School. Initially renting two rooms in a wood and
iron house owed by an Indian trader, she later bought a plot
on De Boer Street where she put up permanent buildings
consisting of two shops and four living rooms. She and Alex
moved into the two rooms and rented the remaining two. Alex
didn't keep good health and suffered from frequent bouts of
malaria which interfered with his schooling.

On her occasional visits to Kisii she noticed that her
business there was not doing well in her absence, but there
was nothing she could do to remedy the situation. A self-made
businesswoman that she was, she later bought a plot with a
wood and iron house on it for Shs. 5,500 on Station Road,
Kisumu, paying for it from the money brought out from her savings
in India.

In 1929, the Goan Community started a school in the
Goan Institute with the Catholic mission providing
some Franciscan nuns for the teaching staff. The
Goans were keen that Alex be transferred to their
new school, but since he was already well settled
at his Indian school, Mrs. Mascarenhas saw no need
to move him. Besides, she was giving him religious
instruction at home and even preparing him for his
First Holy Communion. The sad episode in this story
is that some Goans complained to the then Parish
Priest and the latter threatened to excommunicate
her on the grounds that she was not prepared to
offer her son a sound Catholic education. I wonder
how such a threat would stand today?!

Reluctantly and under pressure, she moved Alex to the Goan
School. After a short trip to Goa for the exposition of St.
Francis Xavier in 1931, where she had hoped to leave Alex to
continue his education -- a plan that didn't work because of
Alex's ill health -- she returned to Kenya in 1932 and moved
Alex, initially to Dr. Ribeiro's Goan School in Nairobi, and
then to the Government Indian Boys School. However, Alex was
not happy at his Nairobi lodgings, and so was brought back to
Kisumu, back to the Indian Boys School where he once was. The
Goan School, which had been temporarily closed down, was
re-started, and the old problem with the Catholic clergy
resurfaced. The Parish Priest, Fr. Rowland, in Mrs.
Mascarenhas's own words: "not only refused to bless my new
house on Station Road, which I built in 1934, but even
insulted me by slamming the door against me, and telling me
to go away. That was the first and last time I was insulted
in this manner in my lifetime, and of all people, by a
Catholic priest! (Destiny made him bless my son's engagement
ring some 16 years later in Kisumu)"

To me personally, this sounds like a disgraceful episode, and
I only wish Mrs. Mascarenhas had referred this incident to
the relevant Bishop at the time.

The sheer determination and courage of this remarkable woman
is evident in her next purchase -- this time a 160-acre farm
at Kibigori, which she bought from a lately deceased
soldier-settler. Once again, in her own words, she goes on...

"I had no plans nor any experience of farming.
Included in the Shs.6000/- price was a fully
furnished farmhouse, several heads of cattle, farm
implements and a small acreage under coffee. I
employed a Sikh Manager and planted 50 acres of
maize. I sold a lot of wood fuel, extra cattle,
some coffee and maize. Within two years, I
recovered the purchase price I had paid for the
farm. However, with the depression at its height,
and the prices of produce at rock bottom (a 200 lbs
bag of maize for Shs 2/25), I started losing money;
what I had gained in the first four years, I lost
in the subsequent five years, and eventually sold
the farm in 1940 at a profit."

By now, Alex had successfully completed his Preliminary
Cambridge exams, and was later moved to the Allidina Visram
School at Mombasa to complete his higher education. Unlike
his enterprising mother, Alex was not business-like, but
continued to help his mother in many ways.

Driven by her enterprising spirit, Mrs. Mascarenhas continued
to enjoy great success in all her later business ventures; of
her, it could easily be said, 'everything she touched turned
into gold!' But all through sweat and hard work.

In his memoirs, the late Capt Richard Gethin (Snr), who met
Mrs. Mascarenhas at Riana in 1914, had this to say: "...After
covering some eight miles, we came across a trading centre
with a few dukas, and as I was passing, a Goan woman came out
of one of the shops and was very interested to know where I
was going. She struck me as being very poor, as she was
barefooted and badly dressed, but she very kindly asked me to
come in and have a cup of tea, which I did. She was most
interesting and gave me all the news about Kisii and the
district, and was quite certain I wouldn't stick it out long,
as the Kisii were the biggest thieves on earth and would take
everything off me, including the engine and posho (maize
meal) mill... The Goan lady I met at Riana Trading Centre is
one of the wealthiest people in Nyanza Province, with houses
and property in Kisumu, Kisii and many other Trading centres.
This can be attributed to a good business head, a sharp
tongue, and a forward vision of events that might happen in
10 years time -- she was nearly always right!"

A fitting tribute to a grand old lady.

Having sold her Riana business, Mrs. Mascarenhas retired and,
being the independent individual she was, moved to her own
flat at Kisii. My wife and I were privileged to meet her and
enjoy her hospitality on many an occasion during my time in
South Nyanza. She struck me as a very gracious and unassuming
lady. She exuded warmth and was always interested in other
people, and rejoiced with them in their success stories.

She adored her son Alex, his wife, Jessie and grandchildren,
and they have all been a great credit to her.

I would like to end with some 'words of advice' she gave her
son and daughter-in-law:

a) Keep your principles and honesty
b) Harm no one, even in error
c) See good in others, and never be envious of what others have or do.
d) Frankness is a good quality, but bluntness does not pay.
Tact and diplomacy is a better weapon.
e) Never do anything for which you may have to hang your head
down in Shame.

Lastly, remember, our good deeds will be buried with us, but
the bad or evil we did or spoke will remain as history.

Words of a true Sage no doubt, and sound advice that we could
all benefit from.

Sadly, the end came on 24th March 1963, when Mrs. Mascarenhas
passed away in Victoria Hospital, Kisumu, of a diabetic coma,
at a still young age of 69 years.

This remarkable woman has left behind a legacy which will
benefit not just her immediate family, but Goans and others
the world over, and I feel truly privileged to have known
such an amazing character.

I salute the memory of this great daughter of Saligao, Goa,
and also a pioneer Goan businesswoman of Kisii, whom the
Mkisii affectionately called Mogina (Mother).

Acknowledgements: I acknowledge with gratitude the help I
received from Mrs. Mascarenhas's daughter-in-law (Jessie),
her grandson-in-law (Bryan). I am also grateful to Cliff
Pereira for permission to use some material from his
extensive research.


Mervyn Maciel has crafted many, many pages of work in an attempt
to document things, particularly the Goan life in East Africa,
where he spent a lifetime working. He is now based in the UK.
Keep Mervyn in your thoughts and prayers as he copes with
health issues in the family, even while remaining active in
his writing. His book 'Bwana Karani' is arguably his best-known work.
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