Zarina Patel, granddaughter of the activist Alibhai Mullah Jeevanjee, is most well known for how she challenged the take over of Jeevanjee Gardens in 1991 by the Nairobi Municipal Council who wanted to turn it into a multi-storeyed parking lot.
“When the story broke, I was still in Mombasa. I hardly knew what Jeevanjee gardens was,” she remembers. But the story in the Daily Nation made her sit bolt upright, and she thought to herself, “No way. I am not going to allow the garden to be lost.”
She and her mother, the youngest daughter of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, travelled to Nairobi immediately and with the late Professor Wangari Maathai’s assistance, amassed public support to protest the conversion and commercialisation of a green haven within the city centre.
“We fought for Jeevanjee Gardens,” Zarina says matter of factly, “and we won.”
Her success re-ignited interest in who Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee was and why he had donated the garden to Kenyans.
“People started saying who was Jeevanjee? Why did he give us this garden? Who was the man? People would say you must write about your grandfather,” Zarina says.
She had in the past been approached to write a story about her maternal grandfather but before the family’s success in reclaiming Jeevanjee Gardens as a public trust land, the interest had predominantly focused on how he had made his money, and suggested that he had been a hustler. And this was definitely not the kind of story that she wanted to research and write.
What changed her mind was a chance encounter with Jaramogi Odinga in Kisumu.
“When I walked into his office,” she says, “he stood up and said, It is an honour to meet a descendant of Jeevanjee. And I thought: What! And then I realised that something is desperately wrong with history. That there is a distortion here and it needs to be rewritten.”
And so after the successful recovery of Jeevanjee Gardens, Zarina toyed with the idea of writing a short booklet about her grandfather, the first non-white Kenyan to be appointed to represent Indian interests in the Legislative Council.
It turned into a 300 page book in 1997 entitled Challenge to Colonialism and chronicled the life of her maternal grandfather, Kenya’s “Grand Old Man”. It also highlighted the rich political and economic contribution of Asians to Kenya.
“It was an exciting voyage of discovery of what this man had done, she says. “And not just Jeevanjee but his colleagues. They were an uneducated people; he was illiterate and I am sure the others were too. And yet they could defy the British empire. It’s really inspiring.”
What is less known about Zarina Patel is that like her grandfather, her participation in civil society has made her an integral part of Kenya’s contemporary identity, and recently she was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission.
During the appointment ceremony, NCIC Chairman Dr Mzalendo Kibunjia noted that the ambassadors represented people of different communities, and are respected by the communities they come from but also by the country as a whole due to the work they have done.
Zarina is also a trustee of the SAMOSA festival which uses music, art and culture to propagate messages related to pluralism and harmonious coexistence in Kenya.
“I lived through the colonial period and I experienced colonial injustice. When Uhuru came, I was in Mombasa and I remember dancing at Tononoka stadium at midnight when the flag went up. We were so overjoyed,” she says. The joy, however, was quickly succeeded by a different kind of oppression.
“And then the onslaught against the Asians started: an anti-Asian hysteria. And it forced me to think about who I am and what my rights are in this country and what makes me a Kenyan.”
Her eyes narrowed as she reflected back to 1963. “It was a difficult time in the sense that one was bending over backwards to be accepted,” she says. “I didn’t want to be cocooned into the Asian community but acceptability in the wider society was very difficult. It was a phase in the 1960s and maybe early 1970s that this country went through.”
The oppressive and repressive period that Kenya experienced at that time curtailed freedom of expression, movement and association and it gave birth to a group of people who refused to accept the dictatorial aspect of the ruling regime. What it triggered for Zarina was an exploration of her own identity through writing and art.
“I began to look into history. Where did I come from. Who were my forefathers? What did they do? And I began collecting little bits and pieces that answered that search of mine. I also began to write in the newspaper. Little articles trying to discover my own identity.”
She started with cultural stories and histories for a Gujrati newspaper in Kenya, at a time when the country Kenya boasted a strong Asian-owned anti-establishment media including publications like Salim Lone’s woman’s monthly Viva, and The Colonial Press by GL Vidyarthi among other radical newspapers published in vernacular languages.
Her lack of fluency in Gujrati did not prevent Zarina from expressing herself. “I would write it in English and then get one of my friends to translate it. And that’s really when I began to look into our history. People like Makhan Singh. Who were our great leaders and what did they do? And how closely they worked with Africans.”
Since the ruling regime of the time limited the topics and the opinions that could be represented throug the written and the spoken word, Zarina also started drawing social art – a form of expression which was not being censored.
She gestured to the paintings on the wall of her home and said, “That’s all true historical stuff that actually happened.” The wave of her hand encompassed four paintings on one wall. In the first, Mekatilili, the Giriama woman who led the struggle against British colonialism at the Coast, is depicted counselling followers while some of them prepare weapons and the rest fight the British across the river.
In the second, Zarina captures a street protest led by Makhan Singh against the British empire in downtown Nairobi in May 1937 demanding better working conditions. Her third painting narrates the story of social injustice in Kongowea in Mombasa through the representation of a greedy, commercial developer who grabbed a public plot evicting the working class residents. And in the fourth, Zarina presents an altercation between City Council askaris and a group of female street hawkers in May 1979.
The far side of the wall displays one of her more abstract paintings titled Women’s Liberation which portrays the message that only when women work together can they break the chains that oppress them.
“We would do these paintings and have a caption underneath,” she said. “And we would put these up in schools and church halls. And nobody bothered; it was a way of educating the public about our history, and showing them that we had fought oppression before and we could do it again.”