Kweli Ikidhiwri Uwongi Hujitenga – “When Truth comes, falsehood disappears” – Swahili saying.
“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is the biography of Hyder Kindy an East African Swahili political leader during the end of the British colonial period in Kenya.
Hyder, was a local African political leader who never will be mentioned in the same breath as Nkrumah, Kaunda, Kenyatta or Mandela, yet his contribution to his country was as equally as important from a local perspective, something the history books and commentators often ignore.
I came across the copy of Hyder Kindy’s memoirs as a gift which was given to me by Hyder’s grandson Soud Hyder, who is a close friend of mine. When Soud gave me the book, I initially was intrigued to understand more about Soud’s grandfather, yet at the same I did think “now when would I read a book about a Swahili figure I have never heard of?” However, because I had worked with Soud Hyder and was often told about his Kenyan Swahili and Omani heritage, I knew it would be a good read to understand something I had no knowledge of. The memoirs of Hyder Kindy would give valuable insight of life of a man of Swahili descent living under the rule of Zanzibar Sultanate during the period of the territory being a British Protectorate. Similarly, because I myself keep a journal, I am often intrigued by diaries and biographies to see how people recollect their ideas and memories which becomes a documentation of history.
Hyder’s memoirs gave a unique view of local politics during Kenya’s road to independence together with some witty anecdotes, tales and stories of success. His biography has examples of principles, humiliation, struggle, tragedy, work and civic duty. Hyder’s life provides a story against the divisions of a complexed ethnic, religious and tribal society in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. Richard Stern who gave the foreword to the book sums up the biography by writing “Sheikh Hyder Kindy is a fine story-teller with many fascinating experiences to recount.” From the onset Kindy shows how Mombasa was a plural society yet split between African, Indians, Arabs and the British, while Kindy as a Swahili Muslim was from a community quite often perceived as Arab by the Africans and as African by the Arabs and considered to be less politically valuable for British, hence why Hyder’s had to constantly play a difficult political game to survive.
It was obvious Hyder Kindy came from a family who understood the concept of responsibility and even though he lost his father at a young age he was constantly taught the values of honour and respect from his mother, his step-father and his brothers. I liked the way Kindy would recall his stories yet show a moral purpose at each juncture of his life. For example, he had promised his mother he would pay her his first month salary when he started his job in 1925 as a legal clerk, yet as a young idealistic man he spent his money on his own, however his conscience overcame him and regretted what he had done as he wrote “ever since that time I have tried doubly hard to keep whatever promises I have made,” something which Hyder held true in his life with examples throughout the book.
In 1929 Hyder and his two associates were sentenced to nine months in jail for beating up an influential Arab who had insulted the Swahili community in an article. The case became a political one as it highlighted the differences between the Arabs and Swahili Muslims living on the coastline. Hyder for his actions become a hero for standing up for a people who quite often were made to feel inferior by the Arabs of the East African coastline. Even though with his friends he was incarcerated, Hyder showed how the principles of being honest does pays off. During an incident with a corrupt prison official where Hyder was accused of defying orders and striking the officer in retaliation, Hyder was exonerated for what took place and was rewarded for working inside the prison due to his reputation of being a trustworthy man. Even when Hyder formed various trade unions for workers an example of being a true leader was shown when he refused to take a job as a civil servant at a time when local men were looked over for professional jobs. Only when the authorities gave 75% of his members in the union allocated jobs did Hyder accept the government post. Another example of his principled stance was when he led a union for taxi drivers who were often discriminated against. Even though he led the union for better pay and equality he resigned from his post when he found out some members were violating driving laws when they were told not to.
Hyder sadly had his fair share of tragedy as his first born child Aisha and his first wife Fatma Ali Haji died within three months of each other in 1929. In 1931, Hyder found true love by marrying his second wife Fatma Soud. Hyder was a Swahili, Fatma Soud was of Arab origin, their marriage had defied social norms and structures in British colonial Kenya society as it was unthinkable for a Swahili man to marry an Arab woman. He initially had proposed to Fatma Soud through the traditional way, however as it was rejected by her father, Fatma ran away with Hyder and they both married amongst a few witnesses. A marriage borne out of love for 34 years and eleven children ended in tragedy as Fatma Soud died of heart failure living a heartbroken Hyder who wrote it was painful for him, In Fatma Soud’s honour Hyder wrote a 71 verse Swahili poem which is featured in his memoirs. Hyder also had another wife during his marriage to Fatma, but he divorced her after Fatma died. After Fatma’s death and through the insistence of his children, Hyder married Fatma Shee in 1966 as a life companion.
Through “Life and Politics in Mombasa” Hyder presented a historical narrative of the Swahili community and where they stood amoangst Africans, Arabs and the British during that period. The Swahili were African with an inward influence of the African continent and at outward influence of Arabs and Persians, yet they were never perceived as their own by each side. Hyder demonstrated that as the Swahili people they have no choice but take their destiny into their own hands to stand up for their own rights through engagement an ideal which is so relevant for minority communities in our globalised world today.
In 1951 Hyder was in London after he accepted the post of assistant lecturer at SOAS, again this period shows Hyder’s trustworthiness as it was an Arab who recommended the job for Hyder, despite objections from other Arabs, his benefactor remained defiant. The London chapter is where Hyder I feel found his political awakening. Spending time in the city of empire, London in 1951 was a dream for many colonial subjects and what London offered to them was to understand and see what the capital of the empire had to offer. Throughout British colonial history there has been an irony where leading campaigners against the British empire such as Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru and Kenyatta had spent time in London and how the city of empire was also a hotbed of ideas of change and emancipation within the liberal and metropolitan society. The duration spent in London for Hyder was a period where he met other African intellectuals and activists while he came to terms with what colonial rule had done to not only his country but other distant lands as well.
“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is a series of events and anecdotes of a man who wanted his people to be emancipated from all forms of bigotry and rule and to embrace a true African identity as Kenyans, Muslims or even Swahili. In his life Hyder ran committees, developed a radio station, ran a translation service, worked as a judicial officer, taught in academia, worked as a Mudir (Private Secretary) for an official, an organiser of gatherings, speeches and honourary banquets and a representative of a people as a Senator in the Mombasa legislative.
What “Life and Politics in Mombasa” demonstrates that for every independence leader like Jinnah, Gandhi, Kenyatta, Mandela or even Havel there are hundreds of Hyder Kindy’s who were on the streets working for the same cause locally or regionally. They may not have statues or countless biographies written about them, but their contributions were essential. I may have not have heard of Hyder Kindy and what he offered to his society, but we should seek people like Hyder Kindy out and follow their stories and struggles. My own grandfather Hasanji Patel who I was named after during the period of post partition India worked immensely hard to improve the educational and political standards of his local community. Hasanji Patel was no legislative member nor was he a teacher, yet as a community worker he set up schools and colleges in his area, he was a writer for his regional newspaper, a champion for the poor and vulnerable and a political operator who was respected and revered by many. Yet like Hyder Kindy he was a pillar who for his locality was as important if not more valuable than any national leader. Again, a valuable member of society who often are unsung heroes, yet their contributions will echo for years to come, hence why it is essential to understand them, study them and learn from them.
“Life and Politics in Mombasa” is a journey of a man who made a difference to his people on a micro level yet the legacy has lived on within his family, his locality and his community. Whatever one lives in Mombasa, Manchester or Multan, we have many Hyder Kindy’s who have worked for their community, we often hear about them, I am fortunate in reading about one such giant.