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Here In Africa: Indian Miscellany – Part Two

...I was taken up to a sort of mezzanine floor above the shop, where a large wooden trunk was opened and great armfuls of lovely cloth were carelessly thrown onto the bright Persian carpets covering the floor. Despite falling instantly in love with the colour and texture of these delicious garments, I was unable to make up my mind which ones to choose...

Barbara Durlacher tells of a visit to the beguilling city of Mombassa.

The story of the voyage on the Lady Kennaway can be read in my serialised tale, “Fair Stood the Wind” in http://www.openwriting.com/archives/joburg_days/ and further sections of the lives of my two paternal pioneering grandparents telling of the subsequent years when they lived and worked in Kingwilliamstown, then the capital of the fledgling self-governing state of “British Kaffararia” will soon to be available on the same website.

On a more personal note, many years ago I spent a week or so in Mombasa and visited the old Arab Dhow harbour which has had links with India and Arabia for thousands of years, as these fragile water butterflies skim across the waves with the trade winds when the monsoon is in their favour, and then lie over in Kilindini Harbour until the wind changes direction six months later. The fragile vessels have linked the two continents by trade in Persian carpets, Dates, spices and slaves for centuries and many of the coastal people have adopted Islam as their religion while the coastal Arabs speak the universal language of kiSwahili.

The life and activities of the harbour were fascinating, which I feel sure I would have enjoyed even more had I been dressed more appropriately instead of - can you believe it? - as if on my way to the office. I was wearing medium-high sling-back city shoes, a neat sleeveless navy linen dress with an excessively narrow skirt and tights which stuck to my legs like chewing gum in the 38deg C heat. I saw turbaned Arabs and Indian sailors offloading great bundles of commodities and heard their banter as they ran up and down the narrow gangplanks from ship to shore, moving as if their burdens weighed nothing.

If I had been a more seasoned traveller and not so nervous of the locals, perhaps I would have been able to drop my "British Memsahib" guard. Then I might have been invited to take a closer inspection of one of these vessels or enjoy a plate of curried fish and rice eaten with the fingers; but perhaps luckily, with my South African background and inbred distrust of dark-skinned races, I was too scared to invite a closer acquaintance. Recently, watching the famous Michael Palin on television and his real respect for, and close friendship with the dhow captain and his crew who took him across the seas somewhere in the Arabian Gulf and how, many years later, when on another of his adventurous trips around the world, Palin took enormous trouble to look this man up, made me realise how different these people from the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean lands are to the dark-skinned races with whom we interact in South Africa.

Passing through the narrow, cobbled streets of the old Arab quarter I passed what many years later, I learnt was a “Madrassi” or religious school for young boys. These youngsters, all clad in ankle-length white “khanzus” and knitted white skullcaps, sat cross-legged on the floor and recited verses from the Holy Koran, while the Mullah beat out the rhythm on the floor with a long cane to keep them in time.

Another interesting insight into a different culture was when I ventured into an Indian shop selling an enormous range of beautiful saris of all colours. Having expressed a wish to see some of the very finest, I was taken up to a sort of mezzanine floor above the shop, where a large wooden trunk was opened and great armfuls of lovely cloth were carelessly thrown onto the bright Persian carpets covering the floor. Despite falling instantly in love with the colour and texture of these delicious garments, I was unable to make up my mind which ones to choose and left without buying anything much to the disappointment of the two courteous and charming Indian gentlemen who had spent much time attempting to entice me with their gossamer fabrics.

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