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» Tribute to Cynthia Salvadori

Widely known as the historian of East African Asians, Cynthia died in Lamu in June 2011

Cynthia Salvadori was a child of several heritages. These marked her life and work.

Max Salvadori, Cynthia’s father, was an Italian political thinker who opposed the tyranny of Fascism in Italy. He was imprisoned by Mussolini before going into exile in Kenya to farm - where Cynthia was born. Cynthia’s mother, Joyce Woodford Pawle, was an artist whose family had been in Kenya and East Africa for over 150 years, From this heritage stems both her deep commitment to Kenya, and to the dignity of the marginalised in society.

Cynthia became an established and highly respected author of numerous books and articles on the peoples and cultures of Kenya and Ethiopia, including the Maasai, Turkana and Borana. Her standing as a serious social scientist and her approach, often working with her partner Andrew Fedders, was vindicated by the reprinting of many of her prolific publications over the years.

Cynthia’s work for a substantial period centred on the Asian African community in Kenya. Several books then followed: Through Open Doors, They Came In Dhows, Two Indian Travellers and Settling In A Strange Land (see review).

She was a hunter-gatherer of memories. What would have been lost was saved. What would have been forgotten was recorded. What would have been considered unworthy was recalled. This in itself retrieved self-worth and dignity. All this was achieved due to her patient efforts over many decades.

Cynthia was a lexicographer, historian, collector and also an accomplished photographer and artist. Many of her own photographs and drawings are to be found in her books and numerous articles.

She was a Renaissance person, fittingly for a child of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Her tools were her pen, and her sympathy and learning. A passion to understand the society around her, and a desire to confront and correct injustice, manifest in all her books.

It was therefore fitting that in 2000, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) commissioned her to report on the human rights situation in Marsabit and Moyale Districts, published as The Forgotten People Revisited.

Cynthia Salvadori wore her vast learning lightly and with great modesty. Her work was always meticulously researched, and she was a part of every step to each publication.

Her work as social archaeologist and archivist was always in the service of the marginalised in society. For this, African Asians, who have been the largest beneficiaries of her commitment and talents, remain immeasurably in her debt.

painting of Cynthia Salvadori by her mother, Joyce Woodford Pawle
photograph of Cynthia Salvadori by David Fisher – Lamu, December 2010