I interviewed my Kenyan grandad to help him forget about lockdown – but what I learned was more important

Listening to his rags to riches story was the ultimate wake-up call for me, and helped to put the coronavirus crisis in perspective

Sooraj Shah
Sunday 07 June 2020 15:53 BST
Kenyans are sent bottles of Hennessy in coronavirus care packages

Behind my great grandfather’s shop was a room, and it was home for 10 people. He slept in the shop, and the toilet was a hole in the ground behind the building.

His son – my grandad – was born in December 1936 in Nakuru, Kenya. He was the second born of eight siblings, all brought up in that building. The doctor had told his parents that he wouldn’t survive for more than four days; he’s now 84, so that prediction was wildly off the mark. But he was extremely ill for a number of years and, even to this day, he is constantly battling with health issues. Yet he perseveres.

It was my grandfather’s poor health, and the fact that he was told he would be shielding during the coronavirus outbreak, that prompted me to interview him about his remarkable life story. I wanted to make sure I got both of my grandparents‘ stories on record, starting with my grandad.

The first thing he tells me, in Gujarati, is that his parents sold textiles; his mum would stitch until 2am everyday and his dad would help with the stitching as well as running the shop. But it wasn’t always plain sailing: the business went into liquidation and his father even went to jail for a short period of time.

My grandad helped the family to sell everything they had in an auction in order to get their shop back. His mum would make hair oil and fill empty Vaseline bottles with these. My grandad would go to school, come back at midday and help to sell these bottles. It was hard work and graft, but it typified the entrepreneurial spirit that both my great grandparents and my grandfather had.

Success came in waves; following the highs there were some very steep lows. After his mother passed away in 1957 – which he describes as the saddest moment of his life to date – the family was left with no money or food. They were grieving and starving at the same time. “Others around us wouldn’t give us any oil or flour. We had nothing in the house,” he told me.

And then, he fondly recalls, someone gave them a bit of flour one day. They made chapatis – an Indian bread; nothing had ever tasted so good.

In 1967, my grandad cut a deal with a company to be the sole supplier of textile and yarn. Business took off, and they never looked back. He has since helped all of his children to lead successful lives of their own.

Interviewing my grandad about his early years was a wake-up call for me. I have a renewed sense of gratitude for everything that he and his siblings had to endure – the hardships of starving, of sharing such little space with so many people, of having to sell everything in order to start all over again, and again, and again. It has also put the coronavirus lockdown itself into perspective.

I wanted to interview my grandparents to ensure their memories didn’t disappear after they pass away, and to help them persevere throughout lockdown by taking their minds off the spread of Covid-19. What I achieved is far more significant: I now have a better sense of who my grandad is, and what he lived through.

My advice would be to reach out to your loved ones, particularly those that are shielding. Everyone has a story to tell, and it might give you a fresh perspective on this remarkable era we’re living through.

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