Nitin Ganatra is a household name who needs no introduction. But very few are aware of the hardships that the EastEnders star and his family faced when they initially moved from Kenya to live in England. Born in Kenya, Nitin was only three years old when he arrived in this country with his father Jayantilal Kakubhai Ganatra. Today, his father, recalls his emotional journey from the small village of Yala in Kenya to Coventry. Says Mr. Jayantilal,
“We had a small general provisions business in Kenya where we used to supply infrastructure material from fertilisers, cement, barbed wires to building bricks.”
Jayantilal’s grandfather, Popatlal, was one of the thousands of Indians who came to East Africa, at a time when many were driven by famine at home, between 1896 and 1902 to work on constructing a railway to link Mombasa on the coast with Lake Victoria. Conditions were so dire that, of the 32,000 Indian labourers who worked on the project, around 2,500 died.
Regardless of the conditions, Popatal looked at the optimistic note and stayed in the country when his three-year contract was up, went into business, and started a new store on one of the new towns, Broderick Falls, later known as Webuye, that was established along the railway line. The business was steady and growing but political atmosphere in Kenya shifted after 1963, when it achieved independence.
“We had good relations with the district officers and commissioners who assured us that we will not face any obstruction in business. But some of my well-wishers including some Parliamentarians advised to me that changing rules and regulations in the country may hinder the future of my children,” recalls Mr. Jayatilal.
Following independence, new laws were introduced where business had to renew their trading licenses annually and business ventures were encouraged to have African-origin stakeholders. In the meantime, there were noticeable tensions in the communities and many citizens were served with a “quit-notice” by the government. Amidst such tensions Nitin’s father chose to leave Kenya as opposed to surrendering his Commonwealth passport and becoming a Kenyan citizen.
Before joining the family-run business, owing to his excellent skills in mathematics, Jayantilal had previously served at the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited in Kisumu. Gradually, he expanded his family business but over the years his family’s assets were seized by the Kenyan government when they left in 1971 and, with the help of a £2,000 loan, he started out his business again in the UK. Today he reminisces the hard work behind setting up the family newsagents in Coventry. He says,
“We came penniless from Kenya. I asked the bank manager for a loan of £2,000 and he refused because I had stayed in the UK for only a few days. When I used my wife’s jewellery as a deposit, he gave me a loan for three years which I repaid within nine months.”
Overcoming the language and culture barriers, Mr. Jayantilal Ganatra with his wife Manglaben successfully ran the newsagents that continues to operate in Coventry even today. In the meantime, his son Nitin has found his calling in the performing arts and culture industry. Over the years, a number of stories have focussed on Nitin's stardom and his acting career. Today, speaking about integration, and adapting to the British culture, he says,
“We have come a long way in the UK today to embracing a multi-cultural society. But it is equally important for one to understand their roots and heritage.” In 2013 series of Who do You Think you Are? Nitin explored his origins in Gujarat, India and Kenya, Africa.