Sultana's Dream

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Sultana's Dream
May 2011


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A Tapestry of Dreams

On learning that the journal title, ‘Sultana’s Dream’ was inspired by Begum Rokeya’s novella, it started me reminiscing about how my mother’s dreams and mine became stiched together over the years into a tapestry. Sultana’s Dream, written in 1905 appeared in an era when middle class Muslim women, of the Indian sub-continent, although exposed to the Western world, were still enmeshed in the age of strict purdah. The Begum was a reformist who questioned the status quo of women being confined to the domestic sphere (the char diwari) as it was popularly known then.

My great grand parents from Western India settled along the coast of East Africa in the 1800s; they carried with them practices like purdah ‘on board’. The custom ensured that women were safe and protected from the depredation of the outside world in the new land. As times changed, my mother’s generation enjoyed the benefits of a Fine Arts education at home that included embroidery, sewing and English. By the time it came to my generation, we had shed the ultra conservatism of purdah and it was time to go to school, but dressed ‘properly’.

I was the only girl at school wearing trousers, which did not fit the modern, Western image that the school promoted in the decade following Kenyan independence in 1963. Although I was a top student, I often found myself overlooked as a school representative, especially when it came to welcoming special guests. But this in no way lessened the joys of exploring science, math, history and literature.

Soon it was time to go on to secondary school and my mother’s dream of a high school education for me was realised. On my way to school, I wore the special overcoat she sewed for me over the compulsory skirt and blouse uniform. No trousers allowed this time! I would remove my overcoat as soon as I entered the building.

At high school my fascination with learning continued. My final year, however, was blighted by the trauma of losing the two most important women in my life – my mother and grandmother, both passing away within a span of four months. Coupled with these sad events, and because there were no institutions of higher education in the town of Mombasa, my dream of a tertiary education started drifting away. Going overseas to study was out of the question, as this would mean staying on my own in a foreign country, or needing someone to accompany me. Without my mother’s support it seemed as if my dreams would not be realised... but then the Amir Bookshop came to lend a hand.


The bookshop was just opposite our flat; Mr Amir, the owner, knew that I spent most of my allowance on books at his store and kindly offered me a ‘deal’. Every month he would send a box of books that I could choose from—to read at five shillings each—which I had to return in mint condition! Besides Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte (yes I did read the classics, Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre), authors like Daphne du Maurier, Catherine Cookson, Jean Plaidy and Barbara Cartland (of course!) became good pals that opened up a world beyond what was happening on the local Mombasa scene. However, my yearning for education persisted, interspersed with sporadic and unenthusiastic forays into short-hand and typing classes. I was so irregular with my attendance that the tutor instructed my colleagues to tell me not to turn up anymore! What to do next? An overseas correspondence course proved an innovative option that I took up with great commitment as I worked towards a Montessori diploma course in Early Infant Education. All of this kept me absorbed until I became married.


Four years later, with two children, I was able to embark on the journey that would one day lead to a doctorate at an Australian university. It started in small steps of one A-level at a time; English Literature first and then Economics. I progressed smoothly from  Chaucer’s medieval Canterbury Tales and continued with relatively ‘modern’ authors like Thomas Hardy and later, Graham Greene. I was half way through studying economics when the political situation in Kenya caused the departure of my expatriate teacher. I was left on my own trying to teach myself macroeconomics.

This experience was so liberating and gave me so much confidence that I took the opportunity of extracting a promise from my husband. If I did get through the exams and was offered a place at an overseas university, would he support my dream of getting a Bachelor’s degree? And bless him, he promised that he would. A year later I held him to it!  

I spent the next three years with two small children in London, pouring over books in the harsh cold of winters that I’d never ever experienced before. My husband visited us frequently and I went back and forth during the holidays. Finally, armed with a degree in economics, I couldn’t wait to get back to Kenya where I began teaching.

Slowly, piece by piece, my ‘tapestry’ took shape. The opportunity for a Master’s occurred when Australian universities began marketing higher education in 2000. Again with my husband’s support I packed my bags, and this time traveled to Australia where the children could also study. With a Master’s degree but no job in sight, perhaps it was time to dream further- a doctorate this time? Was that asking for too much? How would I know unless I tried! Eventually, I applied for a scholarship and was successful. Yet this news came at a very dark time in my life…


We were holidaying in Kenya where my niece was getting married. The day before the wedding, my husband was shot in an attempted robbery; three bullets in the abdomen and one just above the heart—it was touch and go. An air rescue team transported us to Johannesburg. As I checked my emails in between hospital visits, I found I had won the scholarship. This was not the time to celebrate; we were living a nightmare that lasted for months. My husband only had a fifteen percent chance of survival but after fifty-two days in an induced coma, his resilience led the way to a slow recovery. Due to the unusual circumstances, I found myself moving between – Kenya, South Africa and Australia. Why this came about is another story for another time…

Finally, in September 2005, our lives became stable and I began my doctorate which I completed six years later. Dr Samani—at last! I sometimes wonder…is my tapestry finished? Or is it perhaps time to start dreaming for my daughter…

Shamim Samani