A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION
By Ameer Janmohamed
Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Wishes
It was sometime in 1960 that I learnt from Vazier Maherali Ramji and Mr Ramzan Hussein Meghji Dossa, (the then President and Hon. Secretary of the Ismaili Provincial Council for Mombasa) that Mawlana Hazar Imam had expressed a wish that a new Constitution be promulgated for the Ismaili Jamats in Africa. This was to be done in full consultation with all the Jamats. Pursuant to Mawla’s wishes, Constitution Review Committees were being formed for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika). I was told that Ramzan H.M. Dossa and I had been appointed as Mombasa delegates on the Kenyan committee.
It was the brief of these committees to consult with Ismailis in every city, town, village, hamlet or outlying district and solicit their views on the new Constitution. It was Hazar Imam’s wish that every Ismaili murid be given an opportunity to express his or her opinion. Mawla had further decreed that these committees should include a number of Jamati youngsters in addition to existing leaders and office bearers.
The Committee Compositions and the First Meeting of the Kenya Delegation
The Kenya committee consisted of Sir Eboo Pirbhai (Chairman), G.K. Ishani (Hon Sec.), Jimmy Ahmed, Ramzan H.M. Dossa, Ismail E. Jamal, Aziz R. Kassim-Lakha, Zaher K. Ahmed and myself. Aziz, Zaher and I were the ‘youngsters’ and Ismail Jamal only slightly senior to us. (I was 29 at the time, with no previous involvement in Jamati matters, though involved in Rotary and other public Institutions).
I understand that Abdulaziz Pirani, Jimmy Verjee, B.K.S. Verjee, G.A. Kassim-Lakha, P.K. Pirani, Hassanali Lalji Mangalji, Nurdin Jiwan, Amir Ishani, Husseinali Jiwa, Malik Lakha, Abdul Karim I.V. Jamal, Hassan G.A .Rahim and Zeenatali Virani were involved in the Uganda deliberations. Eight of them would have been actual Committee members.
Likewise the Tanzania Committee consultative process included A.G. Abdulhusein, Aziz Jamal, Nick Cassam, Mohamedali Nasser Damji, N.V. Gillani, Abdulla Tejpar, Fatehali Nasser Shariff, Habib Ali Meghji and Abdullah Bhojani. Given the spread of the country, the Tanzanian committee had the most daunting task ahead of them. Once again, eight of them would have been actual members of the Committee. Count Camoula represented Madagascar, Count Hassanali Rajan Lalji represented the Congo, South Africa was represented by Count Gulam Keshavjee and Mozambique by Count Issa.
The first meeting of the Kenya Committee was held in the Council Chamber in Nairobi Jamatkhana on Government Road. Sir Eboo re-apprised us with Mawlana Hazar Imam’s wishes. It became quickly apparent that the Committee would need to meet every week-end in Nairobi for the next two to three months. Using Nairobi as the hub, the Committee would need to consult with Jamats in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nakuru, Kisii, Bungoma, Asembo Bay, Kimlili, Brodrick Falls, Kakamega, Mumias, Kitale, Thika, Voi, Mwatate, Malindi etc. These trips would be undertaken by car. Sir Eboo had a fleet of chauffeur driven Ford Galaxy limousines which were put at the disposal of the Committee.
The Planning of the Journeys
In common with the two delegates from Kisumu, Ramzanbhai and I had to get to Nairobi every week-end for the next several months. Ramzanbhai and I planned to travel to Nairobi by train every Friday evening to return to Mombasa on Monday morning. We shared a first class compartment in the train. Those familiar with the journey would know that compartments had a lower and an upper berth. Ramzanbhai did me the courtesy to ask me on our very first trip if I had any preference as far as berths were concerned. I know he was considerably relieved when I expressed a preference for the upper berth. He was a big man, must have been six-foot six at least, not exactly slim, held himself straight, and as can be seen from the group photo, was quite the tallest delegate in the Conference – and always looked dapper in his trade-mark bow tie. Probably the only other person who had the same physical stature as him was Count A. G. Abdulhusein (seated fifth from the left in the photo).
Jamats were briefed well in advance about the purpose and when the Committee was due to visit them. Meetings were more often than not held in Jamatkhana Halls, with committee members sitting on the paats facing the Jamats. Sir Eboo and Vazier Ishani would lead off the discussions by explaining the brief of the committee.
A Misfortune in a Datsun
I recall one occasion when the Committee was to meet the Jamats in Voi and Mwatate. Ramzanbhai and I were to meet the rest of the Committee in Voi. At the time Ramzan Brothers represented a Japanese Company called Nichimmen & Company in East Africa. Nichimmen were agents for Nissan-Datsun who wanted to introduce their cars to the East African market. There were no Japanese cars on East African roads in those days. Those were still days when the perception was that all best things were ‘Made in England’. It is also noteworthy that in those days it was always ‘England’, rather than Britain, or the U.K.
Nichimmen had shipped to Ramzan Brothers, what was probably the very first Japanese car to come to Kenya, a Nissan-Datsun, for trials on Kenyan roads. Ramzanbhai’s son Shamsher, with a driver was taking the car to Nairobi and Ramzanbhai suggested that the two of us be dropped off in Voi to link up with the rest of the Committee who would be driving down from Nairobi.
On the appointed morning I was picked up by Ramzanbhai, Shamsher and the driver. I must confess that it was the smallest car I had ever seen. The driver and Shamsher sat in front and Ramzanbhai and I managed to squeeze in at the back.
The drive was not bad. Ramzanbhai and I always found a great deal to talk about. He was also well up in the Indian Merchants’ Chamber. We made it safely to Voi, a distance of 100 miles from Mombasa in good time. Shamsher and the driver were to carry on to Nairobi, a distance of another two hundred miles, after dropping us off in Voi. We met up with the rest of the committee who had driven down from Nairobi. Lady Pirbhai and Mrs. Ishani accompanied the Committee on this visit. They frequently did this and solicitously looked after the welfare of members and made sure that all cars were adequately stocked with delicious refreshments.
We had to pass through Voi in our return from Mwatate. To our surprise we found a delegation from the Voi Jamat awaiting us outside the town to flag us down. We were informed that Shamsher Dossa and the driver had met with an accident just a few miles out of Voi en route to Nairobi. The car had overturned and had rolled over several times into the bush. Shamsher had been hurt and sustained a broken leg. Rescue had been delayed because a curious elephant had stationed himself not far from the overturned car. It was eventually shooed away. Shamsher had then been taken to Voi Mukhi Nurmohamed Adam’s house.
As I recall Varasiani Rabhiabai GK Ishani, who also happened to be a qualified nurse, had been of immense help. Eventually, with his leg in plaster, Shamsher was returned to Mombasa on the back seat of one of Sir Eboo’s Galaxys. It is my conjecture that the very light car in which we had travelled from Mombasa had simply lost road-holding and traction once Ramzanbhai and I had got off in Voi, and with no more ballast on the back seat, the driver simply could not hold the car on a corrugated bend in the road.
The Wisdom of Sir Eboo
Reminiscing on this period, I must say that for me it was interesting, educational and rewarding. I had the opportunity to meet Jamats in every town in Kenya, and to inter-act first-hand with prominent members of the Community. There was much to observe and learn. Since we used to travel in a convoy of cars, obviously there had to be some form of planning on how delegates were to be divided between three cars. There was some good-natured banter amongst the youngsters as to who would be invited to sit in the lead car with Sir Eboo. In the event, we were all variously invited to do so on different legs of the journeys. These invitations were referred to in jest as sessions of “education, enlightenment and indoctrination”.
Sir Eboo, in his own inimitable way, was a font of wisdom. I remember his take on the process of decision-making in the communal hierarchical context. For example, he said, imagine you are the Chairman of the local Club Committee and you come up with an idea. You run it past the local Provincial Council and they don’t approve, perhaps because of ramifications on other committees, but you still feel aggrieved. Or you are the President of the local Council, and you come up with some suggestions which do not meet with favour at the National Council level. They are perhaps looking at your idea from the national viewpoint. You still feel aggrieved.
Similarly a National Council might feel aggrieved if it cannot implement certain ideas, because such an action might have an adverse effect on Jamats in other parts of the world. And so on. He said that decision makers at the top have to have an overview which sometimes transcends local, provincial or even national considerations.
The Jamat’s Warmth and Response, and Lessons for Leadership
I got the impression that all Jamats were deeply appreciative that the young Imam wanted their input in the new Jamati Constitution. Jamats we visited were invariably hospitable. More often than not, the Jamats laid on sumptuous feasts for the delegates and on several occasions we had more than one feast on the same day, especially in the Nyanza Province.
I observed something else too. Everywhere we went, it was all too obvious that the Jamat’s love for the Imam was total and their faith firm.
And in the ensuing years this view has been reinforced many a time.
However, this does not automatically translate into satisfaction with Jamati leadership at the provincial or even national level. The lesson is clear. People who are chosen to serve the Jamat need to earn the respect and affection of the people they wish to serve, almost like elected representatives trying to woo their constituents.
With a very few exceptions, the Jamats we met with approached the whole exercise positively. Frequently, their concerns had to do with Jamati appointments, perceived nepotism, rites and rituals. Our financial institutions, though outside the purview of our committee, were frequently brought up for discussion. Inevitably, there were occasions when some members of the Jamat took the opportunity to let off steam, especially since they had Sir Eboo’s ear, and an audience. Sir Eboo was always equal to the task, never lost his equanimity and dealt with these situations with aplomb. It was a salutary lesson for the younger elements on the committee on how to deport oneself sometimes in the face of severe provocation.
Presentation of the Recommendations to Hazar Imam
Our highlight was of course the audience with Mawlana Hazar Imam. This was the day when the three Committees would formally present their recommendations for the new Constitution to the Imam. We met in a lecture theatre in the Nurse’s Quarters of the Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, quite early in the morning on that day. Delegates sat in three national groups in a semi-circle facing Mawlana Hazar Imam. After the preliminaries were over, Mawla asked how many of the delegates present had read all three Committee Reports. As far as I can recall, not a single person claimed to have done so. Obviously, all delegates were clued up on their own Territorial Reports. I too was clued up on the Kenya Report but had not even seen the Uganda and Tanzania reports.
Mawlana Hazar Imam said it appeared that he was the only one in that hall who had read all three Reports. This was awesome because I do believe bound copies of the Reports had only appeared not too many hours ago. As Zaher Ahmed remembers, he drafted the concluding part of the Kenya Committee report at Kenya Litho, literally standing on top of the printing press whilst the report was being printed! During the discussions Hazar Imam left us in no doubt that he fully knew the contents of all three Reports.
The recommendations contained in our reports were further discussed at the Supreme Council level and with legal brains of the community, (seven of whom are in the photo) before being incorporated in the new Constitution.
The ladies in the photo and the women in leadership positions
I shared the foregoing account with a number of friends and others whom I considered might be interested. Some wrote back to ask why the people sitting on the ground at had not been identified. Now, with the help of Noordin Somji from Vancouver, I have the names of most of them. They are members of the Secretarial Support team. Sitting from left to right: Akberali Kassam H. Jeraj, Leila Ali Hasham Janmohamed, 3rd lady not identified, Mary Hussein Kanji Dossa, Malek Nazerali Walji, Fatma Rahemtullah Walji Madha and Ebrahim (surname not known).*
This is not the first time that I have turned to Noordin Somji for assistance. He too shares an interest in archive material, memorabilia and preservation of history. He has in fact written two interesting books, one an autobiography and the other a history of the pioneering Somji family, from Kutch-Bhuj to Bagamoyo, to Tanga, to the present. We have known each other since the 1960s when we were both Directors of the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust Ltd. He was on the Tanzanian Board and I was a Kenyan Director.
Others commented on the absence of any lady members on the Constitutional Review Committees, or in the earlier group photo of the Evian Conference. Quite so. However, this was 1961 when women could not even become Rotarians, for instance! Things have changed since then, in an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary manner. (Women were finally allowed to join Rotary in 1989 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a men only organisation was unconstitutional).
As I recall, the system of Portfolio Members in Councils, such as Economics, Social, Youth etc. was introduced following the 1961 Review. Mukhis of main Jamatkhanas, Chairmen of Education Boards, Hospital Committees, Ismailia Associations etc. became ex-officio Members of the Councils. Another innovation was the creation of a Portfolio for a Lady Member who would liaise with Ladies Committees, Ladies Volunteer Corps and other ladies issues and activities. This was to be replicated in National Councils as well.
The evolution continues apace. Today, most institutions in the Ismaili Jamat around the world have a far greater number of ladies, who on their own merits, hold down Economics, Education, Health, Tariqah and other portfolios. The women have thus begun to claim their rightful place in the upper echelons of Jamati and Imamat institutions which once would have automatically been considered exclusive male preserves. Following the diaspora, one is aware of the tremendous strides Ismaili women have made not only in Ismaili affairs but also in public life, commerce, industry, politics, Academia and so on.
I have since been advised by Dr. Mohamed Jindani, and I quote: “The very first woman to be appointed on the Aga Khan Council was Countess Fatma Jindani (who was) actually named in the 1937 Constitution. The 1937 Council was made a travelling Council, meeting every four months in cities like Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala, Pretoria, Lourenço Marques, Nairobi, but was based in Zanzibar. She sat on the paat and so took a critical step in emancipation of women in the Ismaili Community”.
The Supreme Council for Africa – 1962
This picture is relevant for several reasons:
1. It shows three ladies as members of the Supreme Council for Africa back in 1962 (this date is approximate).
2. It shows the Council chamber in Nairobi in which the Constitutional Review Committee had its deliberations in 1960/61.
3. Three of the Supreme Councillors, namely Sir Eboo, Vazir Ishani and Vazir Jimmy Ahmed also served on the Committee. Sir Eboo and G.K. Ishani sat in the same seats in the Committee meetings.
4. Malek Nazerali Walji who is the Secretary of the Supreme Council in the picture was also on the Secretarial support team to the Committee in 1960/61.
Gender inequality of course still persists worldwide. We learn that during the Commonwealth Conference held in Perth a few weeks ago, programmes for spouses of national leaders were awkward to organise, for there was only one male spouse present. He was the husband of the Australian Prime Minister!
Date article posted: November 25, 2011
Copyright: Ameer Kassam Janmohamed, November 2011.
* Readers are invited to submit names of unlisted (or partially listed) individuals in the photos. Please submit them on the feedback form below. The captions will be updated accordingly.
About the Writer: (Alijah) Ameer Kassam Janmohamed is the author of A Regal Romance and Other Memories and the three volume set of of AKJ Collection of Cynical Wisdom. His wonderfully written A Regal Romance, published in London in 2008 by Society Books, is a rich tapestry of vividly told personal and family vignettes from 19th century onwards as well as insights of life in Kenya before and after independence. Mr. Janmohamed has a vast record of services to his credit. He was initiated into the Rotary club in Mombasa when he was a youth, and subsequently got elected as President and later as District Governor of Rotary International, a position which covered nine African and Indian Ocean countries. He continued to be involved with the Rotary after he moved to London, UK, in 1973, and acted as the President of the Kensington Club in 1981/1982. Today, he is the oldest surviving member of this chapter.
Within the Ismaili community he has served as a past Governor of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and director of the Zamana Gallery, both in London. In Mombasa, he served in the capacity as Kamadia and Mukhi of the Chief Jamatkhana between 1962 to 1966, and later served as the President of the Mombasa Provincial Council from 1968-1971. He was also a director of the Diamond Trust. He is an alumnus of the Aga Khan High School, Mombasa.
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