Remembering Emma Gama Pinto

To those who did not know Emma Gama Pinto, she was just “the wife of Pio Gama Pinto,” the Kenyan anticolonial fighter, but to those who knew her, she was fearless in her own right.

The first time Emma Dias stepped foot in Kenya, it was jacaranda season in Nairobi. September 1953. She had flown from India to visit her twin sister Joyce, who had just married a Goan man working in the Kenyan civil service.

Emma was beautiful: shoulders set with assurance, face framed by strong, straight brows and a soft but deliberate smile. She had a good head on her shoulders. She was whip-smart, she stood her ground. You know the story. A beautiful, intelligent woman arriving in Kenya—a single woman? Of course Goan families began making “inquiries.”

Anton Filipe da Gama Pinto was eager for his son Pio to meet her. He was getting worried about Pio’s political activities. Goans were whispering that Pio was Mau Mau, that he was a communist, that he was—in hushed, scandalized tones—”politically active.” A.F. da Gama Pinto believed that marriage would “settle” his son. So inquiries were made, arrangements followed, and one day in Nairobi, Emma met Pio.

At the time, Pio was 26 years old. He was built like an athlete, with a thick, black shock of hair. But Emma found him, in other more important ways, unlike other Goan men. Pio was invariably kind, generous, with an easy laugh. He was sharp. He was driven. At the time, he was working as a journalist, writing for a radical newspaper. He was always getting thrown out of places for breaking Nairobi’s “colour bar” which segregated Europeans, Asians, and Africans in restaurants, buses, residences, and in virtually all other spaces in the colonial city.

Even as Emma found herself drawn into his laugh, it was clear to her that he “was not the marrying kind.” It was clear from the beginning where Pio’s heart truly lay: with the Kenyan people. Later, she would often wonder what made him decide to marry after all, when it was so clear that his first love was his “cause.”

Still, despite these very honest “terms and conditions”, Emma was dazzled by Pio. He was not patronizing. “Pio was honest in a funny way,” she said. “He told me he did not make much to support me and I should therefore start thinking about getting a job myself!” And he was drawn to her quiet intention, the way she listened carefully to your words and folded them away in her mind. They chose each other.

Pio and Emma were engaged in October 1953. Within the three months that Emma had on her visitor’s visa to Kenya, she had become Emma Gama Pinto. The two honeymooned in Jinja.

Once they returned to Nairobi, Emma realized that Pio would remain true to his word. Their life was not comfortable. They lived in a bedsitter in the courtyard of a friend’s house. The four foot by four foot kitchen had only a single-burner stove. The toilet was a hole in the ground.

Emma’s parents flew in from India to visit the newlywed couple. When they saw the conditions in which their daughter was living, they asked themselves in dismay if they had given their daughter over to a life of poverty. They gifted the young couple a car, a washing machine, and some cash. Later, Pio confessed sadly that he had used some of that money to make a down payment on a printing press. There were hardly any printing presses owned by Africans then, and Pio wanted to operate one as “the voice of the people” to print radical papers in local languages. Emma knew then that she would be sharing her husband with the entire country.

She had married a flitting shadow, always moving, always working. He was hardly ever in their tiny bedsitter. He barely slept. To protect Emma, Pio compartmentalized his life and kept each compartment sealed. He kept his two worlds apart and made sure they did not touch.

But in the end, Pio’s work would do more than just touch Emma. It would shape her entire life.

The film Softie, directed by Sam Soko, follows human rights activist Boniface Mwangi as he vies for the Pumwani Member of Parliament seat in 2017. The documentary follows Boniface’s campaign, but it features two main characters: Boniface and his wife Njeri.

Boniface has made a name for himself expressing raw fearlessness. He puts himself on the line, from photographing the frontlines of post-election violence in 2007 to leading demonstrations where he is shot point-blank with a tear gas canister. It is clear that Boniface’s vision of a better Kenya drives the risks, big and small, that shape his political life. It also becomes clear that his wife and three children are not always a part of that calculus. Through Njeri’s eyes, we see that, actually, they are more often an afterthought.

At one point during Boniface’s campaign, Njeri has no choice but to leave Kenya with the children and seek asylum in the United States because of escalating death threats. In one of many strained video calls, Boniface asks Njeri to return. He needs her by his side, he says. Njeri says that she would, in a heartbeat. She is always there for him. But he needs to be there for her.

The plotline of the revolutionary is familiar to us. We know how to speak of Boniface Mwangi and Pio Gama Pinto. With praise: that they have chosen country over family, country over self, country above all else. In these stories, their domestic obligations—if at all they are acknowledged—are cast, at best, as sacrifices made in fighting the good fight or, at worst, as impediments.

But the other plotline—that of Njeri and Emma—is not as familiar. Women who, of course, like anyone else, want a better Kenya. But women who also never felt like they were the first love. Women who advocated for a more complex worldview to husbands wearing blinkers. A worldview in which political organizing carries a steep opportunity cost.

We do not yet have the language to fully honor people like Njeri and Emma in their complex contribution to struggles for liberation. Instead, we speak of them only in relation to their husbands. The work of Njeri—an active partner in the campaign who is often right beside Boniface on the frontline of demonstrations, and who pulls close to both their weight running the household so that Boniface is free to engage in the heavy, draining, consuming work of politics—is reduced in TV interviews to the question: “Do you worry about his safety?”

A question that is not only patronizing but that also somehow manages to place the onus of care on Njeri and not, say, on the state violence against which both Njeri and Boniface are fighting.

“People don’t see me for me. They don’t know me. It’s like I don’t exist,” says Njeri in the film. “It’s like I don’t have my dreams, I don’t have my ambitions, I don’t have normal struggles, girl problems—it’s like I don’t have all that. Why are you introducing me as “somebody’s” while I am standing right here myself?”

Pio was arrested only a few months after he and Emma were married. It was a long time coming; Pio was deeply involved with the Mau Mau Central Committee based in Mathare. He had trafficked guns into Nairobi and had had them delivered to Mau Mau forest fighters. He had assisted Mau Mau in drafting documents, and had coordinated the non-military wing of Mau Mau in planning its “subversive campaign.” All of it without Emma’s knowledge.

Pio’s friend Fitz de Souza took Emma to see Pio at the Nairobi Prison. He was thereafter transferred to Mombasa, then to the detention center on Manda Island, where the “hardcore Mau Mau”, the most incorrigible, were held under brutal conditions.

That was the last time she would see him for four years. The printing press which Pio had paid for with their wedding money, was lost after his arrest.

A year had not passed since Emma had arrived in Kenya. She was alone, unprepared to make an income in an unfamiliar country, in a nation that was undergoing a revolution, and married to a man who was inside the revolution.

In the first four years of her marriage to Pio, Emma heard her husband’s voice only through handwritten letters—censored, of course, by the colonial administration. She would not hear about the torture, snakes, and backbreaking manual labor to which detainees at Manda were subjected, nor the nine-day hunger strike that Pio staged to protest the inhumane conditions at the camp. She could only imagine.

Emma spent those years reading. She wanted to understand why Pio fought so hard for a country that was not his. A country that would one day betray them both.

On February 24, 1965, Emma stood in her house, her mind muted with shock, her house spinning around her, a carousel of strangers and friends entering and exiting, asking her questions she could not hear, putting their hands on her, crying and wailing.

A heavy sky, a body wrapped in a pink blanket, shards of glass.

“Gosh. Pio looks so pale.”

The light in the house turned to a strange, warm color. Emma turned towards the back door and caught a glimpse of a huge fire burning in the backyard. Two of Pio’s close friends had gathered Pio’s books, papers, everything that they thought could expose and endanger other organizers around the world. Without thinking to ask Emma, they fed them to the fire.

A phrase that came to Emma’s mind, though she could not remember in which book she had read it, perhaps it was from one of those books on South Africa that she read while Pio was in detention: “Bitterness is like a fire in the corner of a house which will eventually consume the whole house.” Emma decided she could not give bitterness air to burn. Whatever she had folded and set aside in her mind as memories—those would be all she had. Pio was gone. His voice—even the familiar voice of his handwritten letters—was gone.

The country reeled from the news. Independent Kenya had lost its innocence; this, then, was how power would be wielded. Pio, a man who had given everything to the struggle for liberation, would be murdered by those with whom he had fought only years before.

It broke the country, but it broke Emma more. Yet she had no time to reel. Emma, fearless.

This year, Emma Gama Pinto and the families of her three daughters Linda, Malusha, and Tereshka celebrated the 33rd anniversary of landing on the docks of Montreal. They set up a Zoom call with all three families and sang rounds of CA-NA-DA, the “Centennial Song.”

Because of the pandemic, Emma was moved from an assisted living residence into the home of her eldest daughter Linda, which turned out to be a true blessing. Emma’s final year was spent enjoying almost daily video calls with her daughters and her grandchildren, in different time zones.

Though I could not imagine a more beautiful way to spend her final days, the news of Emma Gama Pinto’s death broke my heart. I feel that, for months, I have been gazing at her life through a one-way mirror, collecting her words and memories through my research. I have been producing a podcast/radio series on the life and work of Pio Gama Pinto, alongside Brian “Stoneface” Otieno, a community organizer at the Mathare Social Justice Centre. Together, we aim to not only illuminate the various roles that Pinto played in the liberation struggle—Mau Mau ally, land justice advocate, trade unionist, radical journalist, and political mastermind—but to also use them to answer the central question of decolonization: how was the nation of Kenya able to become free without the people of Kenya becoming free?


Stoneface and I were looking forward to sending Emma photos and notes from listeners who will have been deeply impacted by her husband’s work. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

But then again, I suppose Emma Gama Pinto is really the last person to whom an explanation of what a huge difference Pio Gama Pinto made in this country needs to be made. Although we would have loved for her to hear the voices of those “thousand beacons that arise from the spark he bore”—the epitaph engraved on Pinto’s grave—we know that Emma understands, more than anyone else in this world, how the price which both of them paid for a better Kenya will lead to the continuation of the fight for freedom.

In our correspondence, Linda Gama Pinto wrote this to me:

Mum was a powerful match to my Father. Her strength, independence, non-conformist tendencies, and intelligence, freed Pio to pursue his vocation—justice for the Kenyan people. Without self-pity, she was proud of his work and his sacrifice.

To those who did not know her she was “the wife of…” To those who knew her, she was Emma! Fearless!

Emma Gama Pinto died peacefully on October 28, 2020 at the age of 92 in Ottawa surrounded by her loved ones.

Further Reading