Sunday, May 14, 2006

Being Goan, in a sea of Chinese and Malay... and beyond

Berkley, California-based Dr Filomena Giese (pronounced Gee-see) is an expat Goan whose name one keeps hearing of in cyberspace. During her recent visit to Goa, FREDERICK NORONHA took the opportunity of a hurried meeting at the Kala Academy canteen to whip out this IBM ThinkPad and record some views and perspectives of this interesting person, who lives "about half-an-hour from San Francisco". Excerpts.

FN: To begin, Filomena, tell us something about yourself.

My parents were married in Singapore. My mother, when she was expecting me, came back to Goa. It was the war time. That's how I was born in Goa.

After six years, we went back to Singapore. I was brought up in Singapore, went for my college to Australia -- Melbourne University, where I did a PhD in multicultural education. Of course, I never used that really. I've been teaching English as a second language, and thought I would get on in a career. Unfortunately, I had a brain operation in 1991, and then had to slow down.

Q: That's interesting. You've been almost all of your life across the globe, outside of Goa. Why then do you feel so strongly about Goa?

We were brought up in a home where (the Goan identity) was very important for my parents. We spoke Konkani and Portuguese at home, though I went to an English school. I understand Konkani, and can say a few words. It makes people smile, because I have an ... (foreign accent).

My mother was a great cook. My father was a stickler at home. We were brought up with a sense of being Goan, in a sea of Chinese and Malay. After college, I met and married an American, and have been living in California since 1967.

But we went to Goan functions, had Goan friends. It was always like social engagements. Somewhere along the line, I kept saying we should be doing something to help Goa become a better place, and to help Goans here. They have needs, we are well off, and that's true of almost all whoever is in the diaspora. We don't have to struggle. Finally, I met George Pinto who was also looking for something. We set up about making Goa Sudharop (a not-for-profit organisation that supports projects in Goa,

FN: If you were asked to make a shortlist of issues, which would you -- with your perspective from the outside -- see as the three most important facing this region today?

Let me thing.... Okay, I've just been to North India (Rajasthan, Delhi, and Rishikesh) for possibly the first and last time in my life. That's a good perspective for me; I feel we're not alone with some of the issues (that we face in Goa).

There's the environmental issues; everywhere there's the issue with garbage. Then, there's the problem of historical buildings. It's not only in Goa. Even India as a whole is over the top in historical buildings. But everywhere there's a need to preserve the past.

Besides that, I think, another issue is of adapting to new conditions, facing up to competition from other ethnic groups that come to any place -- whether that's in Jaipur, or Panjim or Rishikesh. There is the pressing need to help people who have been here for many generations to get the job skills, entrepreneurial skills and life skills so that they can compete.

FN: Looking back at Goa Sudharop, which you've played an active part in, what would you see as the organisation's main achievements so far?

We've managed to raise consciousness among Goans in California and the US or in some other places, through the website. (We've put it on the agenda) that it is a good and healthy thing if we stay connected to our homeland, and that we can really do something.

There has been a shift in the thinking of overseas Goans.

We have connected with people who have been doing great work in Goa, doing work in the field of education, or saving the environment. This year hopefully we plan to have some projects for Goan seniors.

FN: So do you see a bigger potential for the overseas Goan communities to get more deeply with their roots?

We've just touched the surface. If there are good projects here that Goans can get interested in, they (their overseas counterparts) will support, they will donate, and they will help. Maybe we can connect people with skills and other talent.

There is obvious potential, but I can't predict where it is going to go.

FN: But Goans in the US or North America aren't quite like the expat community from Goans in the Gulf. The former plan to stay on overseas....

At one level I think we're all the same. We do share certain cultures and aspects in the diaspora. But, on the other hand, no, we're not like the Gulf Goans, because we are going to stay there.

Besides, very few Goans in US have actually migrated there directly from Goa. Most have come from Pakistan, other parts of India, or even from Africa. It's a whole different ball game. Many don't have contact in Goa. They come mainly for holidays.

FN: So, why should they bother at all?

Well, that's a good question.

Why I wanted to bother about Goa is I have roots here; I still have family here (around Margao and Salcete). I've lived through some kind of a transition when Goa became part of India. I always had a social action kind of drive (laughs). Of trying to change the world.

My daughter who's a doctor has come to Goa few times, and loves it. I mentioned this idea of wanting to do something. She said why not concentrate just on Goa, because it's good to do something for a specific part of the world. As I had so many roots and connections here, it made sense to me. I can't talk for other Goans. I can only tell you what my own motivations were.

The idea is, if you're trying to make a difference somewhere, it could work better for a specific place. And when you have roots in a specific place, it's more meaningful.

FN: Could you share with us some of the big names who have been supporting Goa Sudharop, your vision and goals?

There's Romulus Pereira (of Navelim) who had a company in computers in California, and is extremely well off. Victor Menezes of Citibank is another big name. But the bulk of donations we got were our friends and family members. They know what we're doing, they trust us, and know we're sending the money to the right people. I can't mention all the names, but that's what it is. I don't think it's just the big names that are important.

FN: There is a general perception that Goans have, globally, lacked entrepreneurial skills, as a society. Maybe it's because they got it easy early on, and decided to play it safe as a salaried, employee class?

Culturally, Goans don't come inbuilt with the shopkeepers' entrepreneurial style talent. Specially when compared to what I just saw -- say in the case of the Rajasthanis, Sindhis, or Punjabis. Yes, we have gone more into the civil service, and the professions. Now, our children are however thinking of business, definitely. Quite a few Goans work in the financial field, and are doing very well. They're rising to the top.

I think we had such a necessity. We were rural people, we were never thrown out of anywhere to be refugees. I just saw one of the sections of Jaipur which was just desert land not very long back; and it was given to the Punjabis thrown out of Pakistan during the Partition. Through hard work and mostly entrepreneurial activity, they're thriving today. It's all business, business, and more business.

You won't find that ethic among the Goans. They've (the Punjabis in Jaipur) have turned the desert into a money machine.

FN: To pick your brains, what in your view are the strengths and weaknesses of our society, as you perceive it?

What I see here is two Goas. One is the old Goa. The one that I remember: where it's all about family, having a stable kind of life, not being very competitive. The other Goa is the new Goa. It's all about tourism, business, corruption, drug-tourism. It's sad, but it is a reality, and we need to face it, change it. We have to work to change something.

FN: So is your view of Goa pessimistic, optimistic, or a mix of both?

I'm not a pessimistic person by nature. If there are people working to change things for the better -- even a few people -- it makes a big different.

Just to mention a few people I met (during my recent visit here). One of Goa Sudharop's volunteer Ibinio de Souza, a liberal-minded but still a traditional Catholic Goan. The future lies in building a bridge between Catholics, Hindus, Muslims to save the values we share. We're not really doing that. I do wish we could do more.

Then there was Olav Menezes, who has been and continues to, help us a lot. The other person I met is Dr Francisco Colaco of Margao, who keeps busy, amidst a hectic professional life, raising public issues of concern through the papers and by other means. He's just been elected president of the Indian Medical Association-Goa. He's going to help us at Goa Sudharop with health issues. Both he and Ibinio say they keep fighting and just keep going.

The other marvelous person is (the former Goan bureaucrat) Percival Noronha, who has done so much for heritage, and also for diverse fields such as Goan astronomy. A 15-year-old boy Ralph D'Souza has just been to the international olympiad in astronomy, in Geneva. That's through Percival Noronha's efforts. When you see things like that, you can't be pessimistic. FN: So, what do you look forward to?

Let me think... After this trip to India, the big impression I got was North India -- which is so different from this part of India (Goa, on the west coast) -- still has this 5000 year old tradition. It's a living tradition, in relationship to nature, for example, something that is divine. It's so touching.

I'd like to really work on environmental issues, because I somehow saw the significance of nature and the earth to the people. That really was my biggest experience on this trip. I would like to remove the garbage and the filth and work to conserve certain areas. Maybe in Goa... I don't know.

FOOTNOTE: Dr Filomena Giese can be contacted at Goa Sudharop is at (do take a look at their special listing of non-profit and non-governmental organisations in Goa):