Heritage Story. A Tale of Passage
Passage: "The action or process of moving through or past somewhere on the way from one place to another"
100 years ago, my paternal grandfather left his birthplace, Aden, as an accompanied minor. He was eleven years old. The son of two immigrants, a Somali father and Ethiopian-Italian mother, who had both been raised as orphans in Seera, then known as Crater. At that point in time, most of his family had lived through the First World War and epidemic outbreaks. All but one little sister had survived the "Spanish" flu.
In the aftermath of these fateful events, his father, our great-grandfather, wanted to place his hard-earned salary in the future by investing in the education of his children. He wished to provide and ensure opportunities for his offspring. He made the decision to send his oldest children, all those who had reached school age, to the most prestigious schools that he could afford. Both were located in Agra. This was a radical resolution in more ways than one. For a man of his time, with a limited budget, it is quite remarkable that he did not distinguish between his sons and his daughters. Despite push-back from his peers and the fact that the cost for boarding and tuition was higher for girls than for boys.
It was November 1920. The traveling Salole children said goodbye to their mother and youngest brothers at their home. They were accompanied to the port by their father. This first stretch of the journey was made by taxi. According to our grandfather's unpublished memoirs, it was evening when they boarded the SS Innsbruck, an Italian liner of the Lloyd Triestino Company (depicted in the image from italianliners. com above). He describes his excitement for the massive machine and the journey ahead, and underlines that he did not understand the gravity of the situation. With him were four of his seven living siblings; an older sister, an older brother, a younger brother and a younger sister. Ages 8-14. Also traveling with them was their guardian for the voyage, a teacher who was changing posts from the school where they had been pupils.
Their father escorted them onboard the ship and waited with them until she was ready to set sail in the early morning hours, “steeling his heart” in order to separate from his children. As the ship left Aden, the children watched the shape of their father grow smaller, then disappear into the distance. They saw the only home they had ever known recede. Ahead, somewhere beyond the vast sea, waited their new homeland and their new life. In India.
The voyage to Mumbai, at that time still named Bombay, took four to seven days. The children did not have a cabin, they were deck passengers. Grandfather recalled: “the only protection against the elements was a roof of canvas”. On the second night came the storm, “rocking the liner like a small sailing boat. The ocean waves crashing over the sides.” Fear of water or not, motion sick or homesick, they had to weather the storm.
When the group finally set foot in Mumbai, their senses were overwhelmed. The city was the “gateway to India”. In his writings, our grandfather describes it as “large, with high apartment buildings, gardens and green parks.” So different from the houses with flat roofs, the scorched earth and volcanic landscape they were used to seeing in Aden. So strange to be surrounded by this flush new greenery and bright flowers, to hear the new cacophony of languages and birds, to smell new spices in the air. Here, there were cows and not camels in the streets.
There was no time to take it all in, as the next leg of the journey was still ahead. The group boarded The Great Indian Peninsular Railway. The train route ran through some of the most fertile land of the sub-continent and the scenery was breathtaking. The train passed through many stations en route, by-passing some of the smaller ones and stopping in the larger towns. After about three days on the train, and what to a youth must have seemed to be an interminable journey, they finally reached their destination. Agra Cantonment Railway Station. It was around 5 a.m., on a cold and crispy morning. Their first taste of the cold season in Northern India, not yet acclimated and perhaps without appropriate clothing. The final stage of their travels to their new schools and new lives was completed by “tongas”, horse drawn carriages.
From then on, the brothers and sisters lived segregated lives. They met about once a month on the school grounds, never alone and always with a guardian. Suspended in faith, the children were left to fend for themselves and each other in the midst of new people, new rules, new climate and new tastes. They learned how to navigate languages, customs, curriculums, classism, colourism and racism.
Weekly, they corresponded with their parents back home. Father and children wrote letters diligently. Keeping the tone formal and positive, the difficulties, sacrifices and sufferings on both sides were only detectable between the lines. The cost of traveling back for the school holidays was too high, as was the cost for visits from family members, so the Salole children remained on the school grounds and distanced from their parents. They were able to reunite only after their schooling was completed. All except their big sister, whom they lost and buried in Agra.
So it was that our grandfather did not see his first home, his father, his mother and his youngest brothers for almost ten years. He left as a child and returned as a young man. We imagine him at his homecoming in 1929. Standing on deck, watching the port of Aden coming closer. Noticing the changes, recognising the landmarks. And, finally, standing on solid ground, surrounded by familiar sights, smells and sounds. A son, a local, a subject. A stranger, a foreigner, a visitor.
Since lockdown began, we have been collecting, unpacking and studying this and other family stories, across the generations, continents and seas. Time-traveling while staying home. Tracking the bloodlines and the travel routes. Searching through our heritage inheritance. Trying to decipher the echo of choice and circumstance through the generations. Discovering the impact of distance, migration, movement. Identifying themes, contexts, patterns and systems. Exploring ways to preserve, learn from and share the stories of those who came before us; women and men whose lives transcended borders, languages, world views, and neat categories of identification.
“Remembering is a moral act, it is our duty”, says Pádraig Ó Tuama. Remembering the lives and resilience of our ancestors bears witness for future generations. Remembering is also an act of resistance, a method for reimagining, a labour of courage, love and hope. Reminding ourselves that history/herstory is not behind us, but with us, and all around us, seems imperative at this moment. When all of our homelands are on fire, and our common task as a global community of humans is to solve the burning issues of our time.