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Open Features: Kersi's Opus - 1

Today Open Writing introduces you to a new author, Kersi Rustomji.

Kersi was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1936. He spent his early childhood in Mwanza, Tanganyika, now Tanzania.

As a child, he grew up with a man of the Sukuma tribe, who mentored him in the magic of the wilderness, its flora and fauna.

Here are some words of introduction by journalist and author Kul Bhushan, then some introductory words by Kersi himself.

Kul writes:

Young Kersi explored not only the exciting wilderness around Mwanza, but even as a toto, a young boy, he roamed far out of the town and befriended the rural people, and walked in the bush observing and viewing the wild life that abounded in these areas. Indeed he was told by his indigenous friends, that he was a very strange muhindi, Indian boy.

From age 11, he grew up in Kenya and was involved with wildlife even as a young boy, and walked the wilderness and parks. In the forty years he spent in Kenya, he was an ardent conservationist of the flora and fauna of the country. He was a very well known figure on the old Nairobi-Mombasa road and from the Ukambani to Kibwezi, and coast, areas he tramped regularly for more than thirty years.

Kersi had a long and distinguished service as a teacher. At Likoni, a coastal town just off Mombasa Island in Kenya, he was well known, esteemed and highly regarded, and known as 'Mwalimu Rusto’ teacher Rusto by the local population. Kersi also has had a brilliant career in scouting despite loosing his left arm in a childhood mishap.

He is the recipient of the Silver Acorn award, the highest for Rovers, for having completed a 100 mile hike, the last stretch of it on his favourite Nairobi-Mombasa road in 1956, commencing from Voi to Mazeras on the coast. His extensive experience and close encounters with wildlife and the indigenous people, has resulted in this very refreshing and entertaining CD of African animal stories, 'East African Animal Tales.' It is the ‘Jungle Book’ of East Africa. Nearly a hundred illustrations and graphics excellently woven in the Tales, with a currently much needed message of living in peace and harmony, makes exciting as well as pleasant reading for the 11 years old and even adults.

His other work, 'My African Animals and Australian Animals', illustrated and with simple text makes for wonderful reading to children 3 years and older. It is also produced on CD. Kersi has also written a brief account of his people, the Parsis, and their contributions in the development of Kenya, as a contribution to the Asian African Heritage Trust in Nairobi, Kenya.

His autobiographical work, 'Jambo Paulo, Jambo Mykol, Hello Paul, Hello Michael, Kem Che Paul, Kem Che Maikl, How Are You Paul, How Are You Michael,’ is a fascinating reading. This work tells in vivid details the real life story of an Indian mtoto, boy, growing up in Tanganyika, now Tanzania and Kenya. It is a unique work, as no other such work, by an East African Asian or Indian is known of.

Kul Bhushan. Kenyan Editor, Author, Publisher, Freelance Journalist, Media Consultant to UNIDO in New Delhi. New Delhi. India.

*****

And here's Kersi:

“Jambo Paulo”, “Jambo Mykol”, “Hello Paul”, “Hello Michael”, is a greeting in Swahili; in Gujrati the language the Parsis speak, I would say, “Kem Che Pol, Kem Che Maikl,” which means “How are you Paul? How are you Michael?”

Let me first tell you how I came to write these tales. Many times, as little ones, before going to sleep, you asked me to tell you stories about my life in Africa. I told you a few, but now you can read all about growing up in East Africa. East Africa was the part of Africa I grew up in. It was made up of three countries, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika - now called Tanzania, all of which were under British rule.

The people of these countries speak a common language called Swahili. It is a beautiful language and I love to talk in it. It swings, with ups and downs, and has a range of lilts and repetitions, that make it sound quite musical. If I was describing how I walked through grass and reached a river it would sound like this. “Nime enda... nime enda... nime enda katika nyasi, shwa, shwa, shwa, mpaka... nime fika mto.” It means, “I went and went and went through the grass, shwa, shwa, shwa, until I reached the river.” It is also phonetic, so is written as it is spoken. Also, every word in Swahili ends in a vowel so your names in Swahili change to Paulo and Mykol; and I was called Kesi. Jambo means hello and is a common greeting. So, Jambo Paulo, Jambo Mykol, means Hello Paul, Hello Michael.

I will here tell you something of my people and myself. I am a Parsi, a small group of people who are followers of the prophet Zoroaster or Zarathushtra, who lived about 1200 BCE. My great, great ancestors lived and wandered in the regions of the Great Iranian Plateau, the Pamir Plateau and the lands on the either side of the Oxus River, the regions of Afghanistan, Russian steppes and the Tigris/Euphratis River regions of Iraq. They belonged to different tribes under a king or a chieftain. In fact, the Parsis are a mixture of many tribes and of all the conquerors from both East and West. It was on the banks of the Oxus that a father and his son representing their respective side and chief fought in single combat, the story of which is told in a famous poem, Sohrab and Rustom, written by Matthew Arnold.

In later times, after embracing Zoroaster’s teachings, the majority of Zoroastrians lived in Iran, Persia, until the 10th century. During this period, the Arabs started a Jihad, a Holy War, and conquered Iran. My ancestors had to choose between keeping their religious and ethnic identity and go into exile, or embrace Islam and stay in Iran. As they wanted to retain their identity, they chose exile and sought refuge in India.
Many years later, after protracted negotiations with the king of Sanjan and acceptance of certain conditions, they were allowed to settle in India. Since then India has been home to the Parsis, though they have also settled in many different parts of the world. All my folks came to East Africa from India, although my mother was born in Nairobi, Kenya.

The suffix ji after our name Rustom is due to an Indian custom. The suffix ji or jee is used as a term of respect especially towards elderly persons. If as a child you addressed an uncle, you just do not say chacha, uncle, but chachaji. It was also added after persons’ names as a term of respect so, Rustom, through usage became Rustomji. Similarly, other Parsi names also acquired the suffix ji or jee, like Burjorji or Merwanjee.

Some of our surnames are occupational and my father’s full name was Minocher Rustomji Ghadiali, Minoo being the short form of the first name. The surname Ghadiali derived from my paternal grandfather who was a watch repairer, which is what Ghadiali means.

Persons who trade in locally made alcoholic brews, are known as Daruwala, daru meaning alcohol and wala meaning of, or from. Pithawala is a publican. Dastur or Dasturji is a priest. Another interesting surname is Readymoney. This was given to a Parsi businessperson who provided a large amount of ready cash to the Bombay Presidency to avert a civil service strike.
The treasury ship bringing the money from Britain was for some reasons delayed. The wages were long overdue and there was unrest in the ranks. The only way to avert a civil strife was to obtain the money locally and a Parsi businessperson, I believe a Mr. Cavasji was approached who promptly provided the cash, and became known as Readymoney.

Some occupational surnames were anglicised, as in the case of barrel makers who became known as Cooper; among other such surnames are Engineer, Contractor, and Driver. Tangawala built horse buggies while Surti, from the city of Surat and Mahambleshwarwala, from Mahambleshwar, are geographical surnames derived from the places or towns of residence. One can easily guess what Canteenwala operated. The longest surname I know of is Sodawaterbottleopenerwalla, of a family who made wooden plungers for soda and other soft drinks bottles, plugged with a marble stopper.

Indians, who were first brought to Kenya by the British to build a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Kampala in Uganda, largely populated East Africa. Many of them also settled at Mwanza in Tanganyika where they became the mainstay of the local trade. Among them were the craftsmen, artisans, builders, carpenters, and those with mechanical and other technical expertise. Many also worked in commercial firms and in the civil services and settled in the three East African countries. As such I grew up with Hindu, Sikh, Punjabi, Gujarati, Moslem, Goan and even Arab children, as we all went to the same school. Of course, we also had lots of African rafiki, friends.

We had very little to do with the children of the ‘Europeans,’ as the British and all the white people were known. They only turned up from Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam or England during their school holidays and did not mix much with the other races, except occasionally at the town ‘Christmas do’, and even then, they remained aloof.

These stories Paul and Michael are for you and for all the children big or small, young or old on this beautiful planet. I sincerely hope that as you journey on this spaceship Earth all of you may find fun and joy in her soil and dirt, among her rocks, waters and plants and all her creatures, including us in spite of our weaknesses and errors.

In places, the terms Granny Jeroo and Grandpa Minoo are used. These of course refer to my mum and dad, your grandpa and granny. I did not meet my grandparents on dad’s side as they lived in India and were dead when we went to India.
Apart from the Parsis there are also other Zoroastrians who live in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. A major city and a Fire Temple associated with the Zoroastrian connections as early as 6th century BCE and up to the 2nd century CE are presently being excavated in the Uzbek.

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