The Joseph Family Website
Sarah Joseph
"She was the most remarkable Syrian Christian woman I ever met"

This was part of a condolence message that her husband, AG Joseph, received upon her death from someone who knew her well and it probably typified the reaction of most people who came to know her.

Sarah Joseph was born in 1913 and died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 52. She was the eldest daughter of Barrister George Joseph (who belonged to the Oorayil family) and his wife Susannah (Papiamma). She had three siblings - a brother Moncy who was elder than her and two younger sisters Maya and Babu. Her formative years were spent during a tumultuous period in the history of modern India while the fight for independence against British rule was being waged. Her father was at the forefront of that movement and this doubtless left its mark on her personality and may, in part, explain her independent streak and unwillingness to kow tow to unfair treatment.

Her father, was from all accounts, a major influence in her life and she, in turn, was viewed by several who knew of the relationship, as his favorite.

Sarah went to college in Madurai where she obtained a BA in History. She then commenced working as a teacher. In 1935 she got married to AG Joseph - it was an arranged marriage, as were most marriages at that time. AG Joseph came from an illustrious family with long antecedents unlike Sarah whose family was more middle class. This difference in backgrounds was a source of occasional friction between husband and wife - and especially someone like her with her definite views which she was not reluctant to express. AG Joseph was perhaps more intellectually inclined then her. He had completed his Masters degree and also was a Bachelor of Law. Part of the reasoning for this "match" between them was the potential for AG Joseph to further his career as a lawyer. Her father was at the time of the marriage a very successful barrister in Madurai with more work than he was able to handle. The plan was for AG Joseph to become a junior partner of sorts to him and get a head-start in his law practice. All of this came to naught when George Joseph passed away prematurely two years after their marriage.

George Joseph's premature death was to affect the course of their lives and was the catalyst for their subsequent move to Kenya after the Second World War. It was the need for suitable employment which caused AG Joseph to emigrate to Kenya where he got a job as an English teacher. Sarah Joseph followed him with her then three children in 1949 and they were to remain there until the mid-60s', initially in Mombasa and in the latter part of their stay, in Nairobi.

In Kenya, Sarah got a job as a teacher of history at Coast Girls High School in Mombasa. Kenya was then a British colony and schools were segregated by race. She taught at a school for Indian girls and established a reputation as an excellent teacher. Her social and communications skills as well as her personality enabled her to interact effectively with people of different racial backgrounds. In an era when racial groups kept very much to themselves, it was striking that she had friends and acquaintances from all spectrums.

Her desire to "integrate" - a concept that was totally alien at that time in Kenya - was responsible for her youngest son being admitted at one point, to a school that was predominantly African and then later into a school that had just been desegregated from being a "European" school - a term used to denote a school that was for white children. This son, still talks jokingly about his having been the "victim" of his mother's experiments in integration!

Kenya, in the 50s', was not just racially segregated but even among Indians, the social interaction was essentially by community. Again, Sarah chose to break down that barrier by socializing with Indians of other communities and had friends who were from just about every community.

In the early 60s' she was appointed to a job as the principal of Ngara Secondary School - a high school in Nairobi. Again, this was quite an achievement since such positions, were in that era, given to Europeans or to Indians who were educated in Britain. Someone with her Indian educational background would typically not be given such an appointment. To no one's surprise, she proceeded to make her mark in her new position. She befriended Lawrence Sagini - the first African Education Minister in Kenya - and with his assistance was able to get financial backing to improve the facilities and amenities at the school.

She was outspoken as always and not above engendering controversy as she did in one of her speeches before parents and students when she decried the requirement that young Muslim girls should be required to fast all day during Ramadhan. While making it clear that she was not questioning the religious custom, she suggested that it placed an undue strain on the affected children - who could not even drink water all day despite the sweltering heat - to have to observe the fast and at the same time be expected to concentrate on their classes. The main newspaper in Nairobi, known for its sensationalism, came out with a headline "Principal lashes out at Muslim children fasting" which helped stir additional controversy!

She commenced her position at the school in early 1962 and by the time she left because of ill-health in 1964, she had succeeded in making Ngara Secondary School as one of the better high schools in Nairobi.

All of the above does not address her devotion to her children and the strong influence she had in their lives - and especially that of her three sons. She had an abiding faith in her children and encouraged them to break barriers. Two of her sons, while she was alive, went on to continue their higher education in England from Kenya - and this was in no small measure because of her almost passionate wish to see her children succeed and to go wherever opportunity beckoned.

She was diagnosed with cancer in early 1964, at a time when medical facilities to treat the disease were lacking in Kenya, and so she proceeded to Bombay, India for treatment at the Tata Clinic. Sadly, a few months after the treatment, the cancer returned and she left Kenya for good around August 1964 and returned to India. On March 20, 1965 she passed away. By then her husband and two younger children who were still living in Kenya returned to India permanently. Her two sons - one who was working in Kenya as a teacher and the other who was studying in England - came to India and spent several weeks with her during her illness. It was the first time in many years that all her children were with her at the same time since her eldest daughter had married and left home to live in India.

She had five children: two daughters - Mary and Fifi - and three sons - George, Rana and Peter. One of her children once referred to her as the "king-pin of the family" - a very apt description. Over the years since her death, there have been events which impacted the family and one cannot help but wonder how things would have transpired had she been alive to deal with them in her inimitable way.

The epitaph on her tomb quotes a verse from Psalm 23: "Yea Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death I Shall Fear No Evil". A more appropriate epitaph would have been the verse from Proverbs 31:28: "Her Children Will Rise Up And Call Her Blessed"



Members of the Adangapurathu and Oorayil families who attended a memorial service for Sarah Joseph in 1995






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