Brilliant book by Kenyan writer

 

Bead Bai
A novel by Sultan Somjee
Published by CreateSpace and available through Amazon
March 2013, pages 450
You look at the cover of Kenyan ethnographer and writer (currently living in Canada) 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, 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 two cents worth of attention. 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, her spirituality, her love for nature and art. Why? Because male writer has given birth to her in his book and clothed her with the spirit and the ghosts and memories of Kenya’s history past. She is connected the many ghosts past of some of the earliest Khojas, South Asians, white colonialists and, more importantly, generations of African ethnic men and women who are no longer with us. Sadly, these early Kenyans now rest in oblivion. New Kenyans know nothing of them except for some dry text book histories of land and oceanic migrations, settlements and their interconnectivity through trade.

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 like her stepmother, grandfather and uncle 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, unapologetically. It is easy for an insider to celebrate that fact. 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. The story begins in 1920s in the overcrowded segregated Indian shanty town so filthy that it had to be burnt down two times because of outbreak of plague.
 
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 Nairobi, Kenya, is uplifting to say the least. 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 communities  are exhilarating to say the least. 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 overwhelms Sakina as she comes to understand it, and Somjee, through Sakina, paints a picture 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 capitalized and mother Earth legends interwoven in the story and art), its villagers and their customs and traditions, 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 to open my senses to her words, 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 you listen to my story in your body
And it smells and you feel the heat and cold
Joy and the pain like how you hear a song
I know then you are listening
When I ask Wasikia?  Are you listening?
I also mean, are you feeling?





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

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, never to be seen again, like the animals that have gone before them and today we do not know that many of them existed. When I asked the author if he was not being too sentimental, he replied an artist has to be emotional to create, that he looks over the technicalities while writing prose as in curating exhibitions he staged because to him to reach the heart is more important. As Sultan Somjee pays tribute to his own kind with buckets of love and respect to history and traditions but also points to conflicts in family stories and to the clan divided over allegiances to Saheb, the Aga Khan as the world would know him.

It is a considerable feat for Somjee to divine the stories out of the 450 pages of the book through the eyes of a female. But then his mentor was a grandmother in a bead shop in Arusha where as a child he worked on beads for sale. Later it was the women’s lives he would be listening to while researching on Bead Bai.
Somjee’s great grandfather sold beads sitting on the mat under a tree in the market in Mombasa. That was in 1902.  Then in 1905 Rajan Lalji started the first Khoja Bead Store in the main Indian Bazaar of Nairobi. The building is still there on Biashara Street. To look after the voluminous stocks of beads in those early days were the women called Bead Bais. It was too tedious and time consuming for men to sort out, arrange and display the beads often on the verandas of their stores. The Bead Bais would have probably not have imagined then how their back breaking daily routines would develop into one of East Africa's largest art production employing hundreds of skilled bead artists and agents today. Most importantly, the continuous flow of beads to the most remote ethnic communities enables this indigenous and largely feminine art heritage of East Africa to flourish. 
Yet, when it comes to art, it is the mother-instinct in Sakina that shines so brightly. Hence, 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 living side by side as separate yet in some ways inter-reliant societies of the savannah.” One object is the revered bandhani shawl of the Khoja Ismailis, who austerely adhere to a distinct faith tradition rooted in Sufism and Vedic beliefs which absorb Sakina’s spiritual life. The other is the emankeeki, a beaded neck-to-chest ornament of the Maasai, pastoralists, for whom the sky at night is their roof and the savannah their ancestral home and source of their art, spirituality and well-being that Sakina yearns for during moments of torments in her life.

 
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.
 

Cyprian Fernandes,
Sydney, Australia

The writer was a senior journalist with the Nation in Kenya 1960—1974. He was born and raised in Nairobi.

Dr Sultan Somjee is the former head of Ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya, founder of the Community Peace Museums Programme and Foundation, and the Asian African Heritage Trust in Kenya. Somjee’s book on the Material Culture of Kenya is the only such a book available to schools. He is also the only Kenyan recipient of the UN honour of The Unsung Hero of Dialogue among Civilizations. There are just 12 such recipients globally.