Neera Kapur-Dromson pays tribute to Cynthia Salvadori, who wrote extensively about the peoples and culture of Kenya. 'Cynthia never got the full recognition that she deserved, yet she left us an invaluable legacy with treasures of well researched and documented works. We in Kenya remain indebted to her generosity,' she writes.
Cynthia Salvadori, author, anthropologist, historian, photographer, illustrator and activist passed away in Lamu on Sunday, 26 June 2011. Over a simple ceremony inspired by Islamic rites, she was buried by some of her friends three days later where she had been living the last two years. That she had chosen to end her life did not come as a surprise to those who knew her well; she had been saying it in so many ways.
Her death will leave an irreplaceable vacuum. She was a faithful friend, regular in answering your mails, guiding you, caring and being concerned about you. She also confronted and corrected injustice through her writing. Her ‘The Forgotten People Revisited’, commissioned by the Kenya Human Rights Commission on ‘Abuses of Human Rights in Marsabit and Moyale Districts' and published in 2000 documented events in the 1990s when she was living in the NFI ‘I wrote it primarily to attack the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments/police/military,’ she said.
Cynthia’s journey was highly influenced by two men in her life. Her father, Massimo (Max) Salvadori, and her companion and colleague Andrew Fedders. She and Andy travelled all over Africa (seven times in the north). In the 1970s, with Cynthia as the photographer and Andy as writer, they published their works on the Maasai and the Turkana in ‘Pastoral Craftsmen, Peoples and Cultures of Kenya’. Cynthia spoke of Andy often and remained faithful to him (and to his memory) right to the end, but for those of us who had never known Andy (he had died a long time ago), he remained a mystery.
Cynthia’s father Max Salvadori, a political thinker, political economist and historian, had been shaped by a hatred for all dictatorships. His radical stance and anti-fascist activity, coupled with being a vigorous opponent of Mussolini, led him to imprisonment in Italy. Under pressure, he was released - on the condition that he go into exile. He and his British wife, Joyce Woodford Pawle, chose refuge in Kenya. Here he farmed for three years but left soon after Cynthia was born on Equator Farm at Njoro.
Her father returned to Europe and the US to continue his fight against fascism in Italy; he worked in the British secret service, the SOE. He taught at universities and he wrote. ‘My father was never around often, but I was influenced by his political activism,’ she said. ‘He was a historian, on a grand scale. He had an amazing mind and history mattered to him greatly because of the politics of liberalism. He was really primarily a political activist. As a British officer, he played an important role in the Italian resistance. Had it not been for my mother, he would have been involved in post war Italian politics. But he knew she couldn’t stick Italy so he spent his life as a professor of history mostly in the US (from classical Greek and Roman to modern European, but mainly the latter). He wrote books and hundreds, if not thousands of articles.
And my brother is a motorcyclist! With hundreds of articles and three books to his name. I think Clem (Clement Salvadori) and I grew up thinking that's what grown-ups did, they wrote books. The idea came absolutely naturally. Though it was Andy - who despaired of my commas - who taught me how to write well.’
Cynthia’s growing up years in Kenya, Europe, in San Tomasso and studies at Berkeley in California opened her universe. In 1962, she returned to Kenya. This was to be her home for always - even though she chose to continually renew residential visas rather than take up citizenship. As she was to say once, ‘Here I am sitting at the border, always an intriguing place to be. And comfortable. All my life I've never felt that I “belonged” anywhere; as we moved so frequently when I was a child I was always an “outsider”. The only consistent thing was that I hated whatever school I was in. But in the long run being an “outsider” has stood me in very good stead. I've liked certain places for certain reasons - usually for the riding. Lamu for its cats and donkeys and history. Never for any individual people.’
Yet Cynthia’s Kenyan connection goes back over 150 years. In her own words: ‘My mother's great-uncle was the first British vice-consul here in Lamu, back in the early 1880s. And a great-great-uncle was Speke, so my roots in East Africa go back to the 1850s! First of all my family was Andy and our horses; one by one they died. But my natal families, Salvadoris and Pawles, are strewn all over the world - that was when the map was mostly coloured pink. Both my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather came from families of twelve. I couldn't stay “back” from them if I even tried.’
Cynthia’s multi-heritage opened her life to so many doors. Her thoughts, her numerous articles for various journals, the conferences she gave, her detailed and meticulous and in-depth studies and writings on various cultures of Kenya clearly displayed a desire to understand the peoples around her. It was an insatiable curiosity for human cultures and of unjust treatments. She travelled widely in Kenya, doing much field work, especially in the Northern Frontier District, the NFD, which she came to love. Marsabit, Isiolo, Moyale. She worked with Paul Tablino to revise and translate from the Italian his book, ‘Gabra, Camel Nomads of Northern Kenya’.
She spent six years working under difficult conditions (with only occasional mails from Marsabit) in southern Ethiopia to completely revise, and to illustrate, a massive Borana dictionary, the ‘Aada Boraanaa’, a dictionary of Borana Culture which was published in early 2007. During that time she also translated (again from the Italian) and edited ‘Decisions in the Shade; Political and Juridical Processes among the Oromo-Borana’ by Marco Basi.
She would say, ‘It was bliss, sleeping on a cowhide under the stars, between the camels and the goats. It was also bliss that, having been to many Gabra weddings and carefully photographed each and every ritual detail, this time I didn't even take my camera out of my bag. I just lay on my mattress and watched, and listened to the singing that goes on all night prior to the bride being escorted at about 5am to her new mat-house that the women of both families erect for her the previous evening (the same Gabra day) - in an hour - in the groom's family's camel boma. Then I'll head back to Marsabit and spend another couple of weeks there, checking up on things I uncovered. And just enjoying being there - dirty, dusty and dry though the town is.’
The Indians of Kenya have always been a very visible minority in Kenya, conspicuous by their dress and also by their economic status. In the 1980s, Cynthia’s attention turned to the Indians of Kenya. They were not a monolith group, but very little had been written about their histories or their cultures. She compiled the encyclopedic book, ‘Through Open Doors, A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya’. This was a monumental project, containing immensely detailed religious and cultural background on the different groups. She travelled all over Kenya to record histories as told by the Indians themselves - as they saw their histories -and came up with a three volume set, ‘We came in Dhows’, besides working on two Gujerati journals (Parsee and Bohra) ‘Two Indian Travellers in East Africa 1902-1905’. Equally importantly, she encouraged so many of us to write and publish our own histories and stories. Late last year, Cynthia, together with Shaila Mauladad, compiled yet another book on the history of Punjabi Muslims of Kenya, ‘Settlers in a Foreign Land’ – a book very much in line with ‘We came in Dhows’.
‘Thanks for the Happy Diwali wishes,’ she would write, ‘but sadly I didn't even light a candle. I agree with you, if one isn't in the thick of the culture, it seems rather vapid to try to celebrate it by oneself. I spent so many years so deeply involved with Indian culture that all the festivals came to mean a great deal. And I really miss them. I have a deep-seated loathing for theology (which is an oxymoron, how can one know anything about “theo”?) but a great fascination for rituals.’
Hers was not an allegiance to any religion - Hindu, Jew, Christian or Muslim - yet she could have sat for hours in a Sikh Gurudwara listening to the Gurbani in a language she did not understand. Or, under a tree being a part of Sufi ceremony, she could have given you a long lecture extempore on St. Simeon of Aleppo.
Cynthia’s publisher in Addis Ababa persuaded her to write a book on the Sufis of Ethiopia. She spent years collecting and compiling data; the manuscript remains unpublished. ‘It makes me feel a bit redundant, writing about Sufis in Ethiopia,’ wrote Cynthia. ‘I'm sorry my father didn't live to see my “Forgotten People Revisited” and my “Maji” book (which I dedicated to him). But at least I've given it a historical dimension and put a political slant on Sufis. I've added an Appendix “Militant Sufi Movements in Africa” - Dan Fodio of Sokoto, Abdel Kader in Algeria, the Mahdi in the Sudan, the Senussis in Cyrenaica and the Ahlu wal Sunna in Somalia today! Finally, after years of writing stories about other people’s families, I wrote one about mine -“Anti-Fascists on the Equator”. This story was published in an issue of the Old Africa magazine.’
The enormous time and meticulously detailed effort she put into her work made her hyper sensitive to any corrections or changes without her written approval. In the event that when her 'Glimpses of the Jews in Kenya' was published, she completely disowned her own book, claiming its mutilation by one of her friends. Yet she displayed none or little stress in physical discomfort or pain -something a couple of whiskeys, pain killers and a hot bath, if possible, could solve. She lived sparsely, her lodgings bereft of furnishings; it was almost ascetic.
Cynthia may have been more or less housebound since her arthritic hips (which she absolutely refused to have replaced) reduced her movement, but in no way was she ever disconnected. Her conversation more than made up, whether it was discussing Lamu affairs, in Kenya or the rest of the world or her concern for the troubles between the Burji and the Borana in the NFD and how the government was failing to come to grips with the situation. One minute she would be in awe of the beauty of the dances of the Wataa peoples that she had witnessed. The next she would be swearing about the developers and jet setters who had taken over Manda Island, Shela and Kipungani for putting fresh water in their swimming pools, houses and hotels while doing nothing for poor people. She had an extraordinary memory, combined with an equally deep and extraordinary recognition of the other.
She never owned a house. But she would have her horses and cats when possible, or else she had them parked with various friends. She adored her animals. Very early in her life she became vegetarian. As she explains, ‘At one point my father wanted to host a meal for the peasant families on the farm; he'd provide the ingredients, they'd do the cooking. We couldn't very well ask them to bring their own chickens so I had to go to a chicken battery for the first time in my life. I was so horrified that's when I became a vegetarian, then and there. I had a couple of rows with my mother, “No Mummy, not even hamburgers for the Cousin Jane's children!” And then she accepted it. And everybody was perfectly happy.’
When in Nairobi from up North or from Ethiopia, she stayed with friends. Much later, in the secluded compound of 90-year old Jan Hemsing, who in earlier days had authored 20 books herself, she had a small bedroom and no kitchen so she did without hot meals. ‘I'm fine at Jan's,’ she said, ‘It is really convenient. And full of cats. Suzuki lives just outside my window, covered with jacaranda blossoms, and when I drive in and the engine is warm there is always one cat or another ready to curl up on her bonnet. I've now got Suzuki parked right in front of my window, which is very companionable. One of Jan's six cats, the ginger Orlando, is sitting on her bonnet, looking at me…my new digs, a detached guest-room in a mini-jungle right behind Sarit Centre. It's convenient but claustrophobic. Although I appreciate Jan's hospitality immensely, and realise she appreciates my being here, I'm hoping something else will materialise. But it doesn't matter much as I intend to go to Lamu anyway.’
Cynthia’s last two years were in Lamu at a guesthouse of her friend, American born Kenyan artist Jony Waite. They started work on ‘Lamu Scrapbook, stories of Lamu’ written by Cynthia, with sketches by Jony. The book awaits publication, pending funding.
Surrounded by Moshi and Mabawa, her cats in Lamu, Cynthia maintained her relationship with her numerous fans and friends, continuing her writing and publishing projects. She spoke of her cats with affection - as the soul of her house. And when they died, poisoned by neighbours, she was devastated. Perhaps also complicated by her eternal frustration with the lack of communication from her publisher in Ethiopia, or looking for funding for her books, Cynthia chose to go, the way her father had done. ‘I’d always been proud of my father, but the way he chose to die in ending his life made me proudest of all - which I was there to witness,’ she wrote in one of her emails.
She could be sharp; sometimes it sounded rough and hard, but Cynthia's work remained meticulous, her mind clear. Cynthia never got the full recognition that she deserved, yet she left us an invaluable legacy with treasures of well researched and documented works. We in Kenya remain indebted to her generosity.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS