Thanks for providing me with the BCID!
Salim Juma remembers his family's history by looking through the souvenirs in the gunny sack he inherited from his grandmother. His great-grandfather Dhanji Govindji, member of a Muslim sect with Hinduistic influences, who went away from his Indian village in the 19th century came to East Africa to build up a new existence. At first he settled south of Dar es Salaam and became father of a son from an African slave: Huseni, the narrator's grandfather. Later he married the daughter of an Indian widow living in Sansibar. Huseini was lacking self-control and one day he disappeared leaving his wife and child alone. Those two returned to the woman's family somewhere in Kenya and Dhanji was unable to find him despite his intensive search. Huseni's son Juma married the daughter of a petty trader in Nairobi. After his death the remaining family (Juma's wife Kulsum, her children, her siblings and their relativs) changed their place of residence according to the political situation and came to rest in Dar es Salaam. There Juma's son Salim (the narrator) got accidentally into contact with the wife of his oldest half-brother, Ji Bai, who told him the whole family history. During the struggle for independence and in the time of ujamaa many aspects repeat themselves including economic decrease of the family business and marriage problems.
Vassanji comes from the Indian minority in East Africa which has a long settling tradition there and played an important role in trade. His novel takes place in this environment. Against the background of nearly 100 years of East African history he presents that of the family Govindji. Compared to the timeframe the book is very small so most of the characters remain somewhat faint with the exception of the two strong women: Ji Bai and Kulsum and, of course, the narrator himself.
Some of the street scenes are felicitous, the noise and the smell seem to come out of the book but other scenes are quite boring. The family reacts to political events, including the Maji-Maji rebellion in German East Africa, the Mau-Mau in Kenya, the independence of Tanganyika and the following ujamaa policy and expropriation, but there's no real link between these aspects. Several times Vassanji summarizes the history in a form you would expect in a text book on the subject followed by chapters of family internal matters. So sometimes I get a feeling of simple enumeration of facts. Nevertheless the historical background is correct even in the dates. Expressions from Kiswahili and Gujarati bring in additional atmosphere. So over all, it was an interesting insight into a minority society, necessary but not loved, which played and still is playing an important and difficult role in East Africa.