Khalifa was twenty-six years old when he met the merchant Amur Biashara. At the time he was working for a small private bank owned by two Gujarati brothers. The Indian-run private banks were the only ones that had dealings with local merchants and accommodated themselves to their ways of doing business. The big banks wanted business run by paperwork and securities and guarantees, which did not always suit local merchants who worked on networks and associations invisible to the naked eye. The brothers employed Khalifa because he was related to them on his father's side. Perhaps related was too strong a word but his father was from Gujarat too and in some instances that was relation enough. His mother was a countrywoman. Khalifa's father met her when he was working on the farm of a big Indian landowner, two days' journey from the town, where he stayed for most of his adult life. Khalifa did not look Indian, or not the kind of Indian they were used to seeing in that part of the world. His complexion, his hair, his nose, all favored his African mother but he loved to announce his lineage when it suited him. Yes, yes, my father was an Indian. I don't look it, hey? He married my mother and stayed loyal to her. Some Indian men play around with African women until they are ready to send for an Indian wife then abandon them. My father never left my mother.
His father's name was Qassim and he was born in a small village in Gujarat which had its rich and its poor, its Hindus and its Muslims and even some Hubshi Christians. Qassim's family was Muslim and poor. He grew up a diligent boy who was used to hardship. He was sent to a mosque school in his village and then to a Gujarati-speaking government school in the town near his home. His own father was a tax collector who traveled the countryside for his employer, and it was his idea that Qassim should be sent to school so that he too could become a tax collector or something similarly respectable. His father did not live with them. He only ever came to see them two or three times in a year. Qassim's mother looked after her blind mother-in-law as well as five children. He was the eldest and he had a younger brother and three sisters. Two of his sisters, the two youngest, died when they were small. Their father sent money now and then but they had to look after themselves in the village and do whatever work they could find. When Qassim was old enough, his teachers at the Gujarati-speaking school encouraged him to sit for a scholarship at an elementary English-medium school in Bombay, and after that his luck began to change. His father and other relatives arranged a loan to allow him to lodge as best he could in Bombay while he attended the school. In time his situation improved because he became a lodger with the family of a school friend, who also helped him to find work as a tutor of younger children. The few annas he earned there helped him to support himself.
Soon after he finished school, an offer came for him to join a landowner's bookkeeping team on the coast of Africa. It seemed like a blessing, opening a door to a livelihood for him and perhaps some adventure. The offer came through the imam of his home village. The landowner's antecedents came from the same village in the distant past, and they always sent for a bookkeeper from there when they needed one. It was to ensure someone loyal and dependent was looking after their affairs. Every year during the fasting month Qassim sent to the imam of his home village a sum of money, which the landowner kept aside from his wages, to pass on to his family. He never returned to Gujarat.
That was the story Khalifa's father told him about his own struggles as a child. He told him because that is what fathers do to their children and because he wanted the boy to want more. He taught him to read and write in the roman alphabet and to understand the basics of arithmetic. Then when Khalifa was a little older, about eleven or so, he sent the boy to a private tutor in the nearby town who taught him mathematics and bookkeeping and an elementary English vocabulary. These were ambitions and practices his father had brought with him from India, but which were unfulfilled in his own life.
Khalifa was not the tutor's only student. There were four of them, all Indian boys. They lodged with their teacher, sleeping on the floor in the downstairs hallway under the stairs where they also had their meals. They were never allowed upstairs. Their classroom was a small room with mats on the floor and a high barred window, too high for them to see out although they could smell the open drain running past the back of the house. Their tutor kept the room locked after lessons and treated it as a sacred space, which they must sweep and dust every morning before lessons began. They had lessons first thing and then again in the late afternoon before it became too dark. In the early afternoon, after his lunch, the tutor always went to sleep, and they did not have lessons in the evening to save on candles. In the hours that were their own they found work in the market or on the shore or else wandered the streets. Khalifa did not suspect with what nostalgia he would remember those days in later life.
He started with the tutor the year the Germans arrived in the town and was with him for five years. Those were the years of the al Bushiri uprising, during which Arab and Waswahili coastal and caravan traders resisted the German claim that they were the rulers of the land. The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and the Portuguese and the Italians and whoever else had already had their congress and drawn their maps and signed their treaties, so this resistance was neither here nor there. The revolt was suppressed by Colonel Wissmann and his newly formed schutztruppe. Three years after the defeat of the al Bushiri revolt, as Khalifa was completing his period with the tutor, the Germans were engaged in another war, this time with the Wahehe a long way in the south. They too were reluctant to accept German rule and proved more stubborn than al Bushiri, inflicting unexpectedly heavy casualties on the schutztruppe, who responded with great determination and ruthlessness.
To his father's delight, Khalifa turned out to have a talent for reading and writing and for bookkeeping. It was then, on the tutor's advice, that Khalifa's father wrote to the Gujarati banker brothers who had their business in the same town. The tutor drafted a letter, which he gave to Khalifa to take to his father. His father copied it out in his own hand and gave it to a cart driver to deliver back to the tutor who took it to the bankers. They all agreed that the tutor's endorsement was certain to help.
Honorable sirs, his father wrote, is there an opening for my son in your esteemed business? He is a hardworking boy and a talented if inexperienced bookkeeper who can write in roman and has some basic English. He will be grateful to you for his entire life. Your humble brother from Gujarat.
Several months passed before they received a reply, and only did so because the tutor went round to plead with the brothers, for the sake of his reputation. When the letter came it said, Send him here and we will try him out. If everything goes well, we will offer him work. Gujarati Musulman must always help each other. If we don't look after each other, who will look after us?
Khalifa was eager to leave the family home on the landowner's estate where his father was the bookkeeper. During the time they waited for a reply from the banker brothers, he helped his father with his work: recording wages, filling in orders, listing expenses and listening to complaints that he could not remedy. The estate work was heavy and the workers' pay was meager. They were often struggling against fevers and aches and squalor. The workers added to their food supplies by cultivating the small patch of ground the estate allowed them. Khalifa's mother Mariamu did that too, growing tomatoes, spinach, okra and sweet potatoes. Her garden was next to their cramped little house and at times the paltriness of their lives depressed and bored Khalifa so much that he longed for the austere time he spent with the tutor. So when the reply from the banker brothers came, he was ready to go and determined to make sure that they would retain him. They did so for eleven years. If they were at first surprised by his appearance they did not show it, nor did they ever remark on it to Khalifa although some of their other Indian clients did. No, no, he is our brother, Guji just like us, the banker brothers said.
He was just a clerk, entering figures in a ledger and keeping records up to date. That was all the work they allowed him to do. He did not think they fully trusted him with their affairs but that was the way with money and business. The brothers Hashim and Gulab were moneylenders, which as they explained to Khalifa is what all bankers really are. Unlike the big banks, though, they did not have customers with private accounts. The brothers were close in age and looked very alike: short and solidly built, with easily smiling faces, wide cheekbones and carefully clipped mustaches. A small number of people, all Gujarati businessmen and financiers, deposited their surplus money with them and they lent it out at interest to local merchants and traders. Every year on the Prophet's birthday they held a reading of the maulid in the garden of their mansion and distributed food to all who came.
Khalifa had been with the brothers for ten years when Amur Biashara approached him with a proposition. He already knew Amur Biashara because the merchant had dealings with the bank. On this occasion, Khalifa helped him out with some information that the owners did not know he knew, details about commission and interest that helped the merchant strike a better deal. Amur Biashara paid him for the information. He bribed him. It was only a small bribe, and the advantage Amur Biashara gained from it was modest, but the merchant had a cutthroat reputation to maintain and, in any case, he could not resist anything underhand. For Khalifa, the modesty of the bribe allowed him to suppress any feeling of guilt at betraying his employers. He told himself he was acquiring experience in business, which was also about knowing its crooked ways.
Some months after Khalifa made his little arrangement with Amur Biashara, the banker brothers decided to transfer their business to Mombasa. This was as the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu was under construction and the colonial policy of encouraging Europeans to settle in British East Africa, as they called it at the time, was approved and launched. The banker brothers expected better opportunities to be opening up there, and they were not the only ones among the Indian merchants and craftsmen. At the same time, Amur Biashara was expanding his business and he employed Khalifa as a clerk because he himself could not write in roman alphabet and Khalifa could. The merchant thought this knowledge could be useful to him.
The Germans had by then subdued all revolt in their Deutsch-Ostafrika, or so they thought. They had taken care of al Bushiri and the protests and resistance of the caravan traders on the coast. They had suppressed that rebellion after a struggle, captured al Bushiri and hanged him in 1889. The schutztruppe, the army of African mercenaries known as askari under the direction of Colonel Wissmann and his German officers, was at that time made up of disbanded Nubi soldiers who had served the British against the Mahdi in Sudan and Shangaan "Zulu" recruits from southern Portuguese East Africa. The German administration made a public spectacle of al Bushiri's hanging, as they were to do with the many other executions they would carry out in the coming years. As a fitting token of their mission to bring order and civilization to these parts, they turned the fortress in Bagamoyo, which was one of al Bushiri's strongholds, into a German command post. Bagamoyo was also the terminus of the old caravan trade and the busiest port on that stretch of the coast. Winning and holding it was an important demonstration of German control of their colony.
There was still much for them to do, though, and as they moved inland they encountered many other peoples who were reluctant to become German subjects: the Wanyamwezi, Wachagga, Wameru, and most troublesome of all the Wahehe in the south. They finally subdued the Wahehe after eight years of war, starving and crushing and burning out their resistance. In their triumph, the Germans cut off the head of the Wahehe leader Mkwawa and sent it to Germany as a trophy. The schutztruppe askari, aided by local recruits from among the defeated people, were by then a highly experienced force of destructive power. They were proud of their reputation for viciousness, and their officers and the administrators of Deutsch-Ostafrika loved them to be just like that. They did not know about the Maji Maji uprising, which was about to erupt in the south and west as Khalifa went to work for Amur Biashara, and which was to turn into the worst rebellion of all and elicit even greater ferocity from the Germans and their askari army.
At that time, the German administration was bringing in new regulations and rules for doing business. Amur Biashara expected Khalifa would know how to negotiate for him. He expected him to read the decrees and reports that the administration issued and to complete the customs and tax forms that were required. Otherwise the merchant kept his business to himself. He was always up to something, so Khalifa was a general assistant who did whatever was required rather than a trusted clerk as he had expected. Sometimes the merchant told him things and sometimes he didn't. Khalifa wrote the letters, went to government offices for this or that license, collected gossip and information and took little presents and sweeteners to people the merchant wanted kept sweet. Even so, he thought the merchant relied on him and his discretion, as much as he relied on anyone.
Amur Biashara was not difficult to work for. He was a small elegant man, always courteous and soft-spoken and a regular and obliging member of the congregation at his local mosque. He donated to charitable collections when a small disaster befell someone and never missed the funeral of a neighbor. No passing stranger could have mistaken him for anything but a modest or even saintly member of the community, but people knew otherwise and spoke of his cutthroat ways and his rumored wealth with admiration. His secretiveness and ruthlessness in business were thought essential qualities in a merchant. He ran his business as if it were a plot, people liked to say. Khalifa thought of him as the pirate, nothing was too small for him: smuggling, moneylending, hoarding whatever was scarce as well as the usual stuff, importing this and that. Whatever was required, he was willing. He did his business in his head because he did not trust anyone, and also because some of his deals had to be discreet. It seemed to Khalifa that it gave the merchant pleasure to pay bribes and make devious transactions, that it reassured him when he made a secret payment for what he desired to happen. His mind was always calculating, assessing the people he dealt with. He was outwardly gentle and could be kind when he wished but Khalifa knew he was capable of real sternness. After working for him for several years, he knew how hard the merchant's heart was.
Copyright © 2022 by Abdulrazak Gurnah. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.