By Vali Jamal, PhD
Any Kampala Ismaili over 60, even though they are now in their diaspora countries and seen some remarkable Jamatkhanas, would say the Kampala Jamatkhana was the best. Of course, any Ismaili would say the same for the Jamatkhana of their childhood, but Kampala Jamatkhana was special because most Kampala Ismailis lived within a mile-circle of it until the mid-1950s, making it the centre of our social as well as religious life. To top it all it’s one jamatkhana that for most of the jamat lives only in their memories because of the expulsion.  It is fitting that it is the first in this series to be featured. I write from the vantage point of having grown up in Kampala in the 1950s – and returning to Uganda in the last few years. If I use the past tense it’s in recalling the jamatkhana of my childhood days.
The Jamatkhana was light and airy, on two floors, the bottom floor just an open hall. From the second-floor prayer space you could see the lights come up on opposite hills as the prayers were about to commence. It was built in the 1930s, with donations from community leaders, matched by the Imam, on the foothills of what was known as “Mengo Hill”. Until then the Jamatkhana was located in the market area where Alidina Visram had set up his first duka (shop). School classes had commenced almost immediately on the premises once the official structure was built. As early as 1910, the Jamat numbered a thousand. The new Jamatkhana could accommodate twice as many people. Two extensions in the 1960s doubled the capacity over again.
The Jamatkhana to us, as children, growing up in the 1950s became a home for many events: sure, it was the prayer-house where one was taken everyday for dua, but it was also the playground for before-and-after-jamatkhana games. These were team games such as goma (fist rounders), gili-danda , and tennis-ball cricket. We gathered all the chanothi (red beads) that had fallen from the chanothi tree  and played target games with them. Scouts and Guides could be practising nearby. We’d have about thirty minutes of the games, and then, dusty, and rather reluctantly, we’d enter the prayer hall, sitting down at the front so our parents could notice our presence. That also carried the hazard that they’d notice we weren’t attentive to the ceremonies. Masti (mischief) was a constant for which the Jamatbhai would invariably be onto us in a flash, followed at home by an appropriate scolding. Now and again a kid of our age would recite the dua amid much fanfare. If he was from a rival gang and missed a line – which happened frequently – we’d snicker.
Jamatkhana went on “forever” in those days and people were generally quite happy with this as it was their only A-listed social event. Discipline lacked between prayers despite frequent pleas of “khamosh” (silence please) from volunteers. The men folk maintained that most of the talking came from women’s side on the left. Jamatkhana proceedings took nearly an hour (there were longer prayers and ceremonies then), and for us children, this was quite unbearable. We looked forward to the niyaz ceremony and the sukreet we would enjoy, although it was somewhat dry in those days, because not too much ghee was used in making it.
One glorious week is etched in all beyond-65’s memory: one Alwaez, the late Sultanali Nazarali, conducted a whole week of waez’s in the mornings and evenings based on the Noor-e-Mubin - the history of the Imams. He was a great orator, full of inspiring history which he punctuated by calling on the Jamat to recite the Salwat “louder and louder, so that the breezes of Lake Victoria can carry our sound to the Imam in Marseilles!” This, he said, in a whole vibrant sentence of English, not katchi, to emphasize the fervency of his point. During this same week he came to Jamatkhana with Sheikh Arif Aamir Tamir, a well known Ismaili from Syria, dressed in full Arab regalia. The Sheikh gave his lecture in Arabic. The translation was provided by the missionary, but the talk, to our disappointment, did not include any fascinating stories to cheer about. It was said by elders that “much was lost in translation.”
One of the best parts of going to Jamatkhana was the after-prayers. People mingled upstairs and then congregated on the steps. Many a life-time marital partnership were struck here. If I were to write an autobiography of my life (to be rendered into a screenplay) I’d be sure to include that scene in it. And the khushiali festivities. At home, mother would do udh-khewa on newly-tailored clothes (that is, lay out clothes on the smoke from the udh). We gasped on entering the Jamatkhana hall, for overnight the whole ceiling would be festooned with red and green buntings. We also literally gasped for breath as the air was laden with udh and other perfumes.
Even while the prayers were going on, the Scouts positioned themselves on the balcony for their moment of glory and our much-anticipated moment of ecstasy – the playing of the Ismaili anthem, Noor e Rasulilah. The next morning khushiali melo took place – the flag-raising, followed by stalls, jaman (feast), and ramat-gamat (games) in the afternoon. “Gardofordo” the Scout Master bellowed, whereupon the Council President descended solemnly from the dais in his magnificent, red, embroidered jabba (robe) to inspect the guard of honour. He’d shake hands with the Scout Master with the left hand and we just chuckled. The jamats’ thoughts, however, would be on the great jaman. It was always akni in those days. People were served at tables on a common sinio. They called out “bota-bota diyo” (include meat pieces). The randhan (cooking) committee were the heroes of the day. If you went to Jamatkhana that dawn you would see them in their element, frying up the onions, strewing the masala, then meat, and then the rice. The aroma hit you from far. The randhan people had the privilege of keeping the liver and kidney for themselves, which they stir-fried with lots of spices and if you were nice to them they even invited you to partake some. Dandia at night was always well-subscribed by all.
After the mid-1950s, the Jamatkhana was also where funerals took place: up until then, it had been from the person’s home. The funeral hall was the Diamond Jubilee Hall. Funerals were emotionally charged then, with lots of weeping and constant recitation of ginans. The entire Jamat was allowed to perform chantas individually. At other times the same hall was used for other “functions” – for example in the early 1950s as a debating and a quiz-games centre. This was because some prominent-family students had returned from coveted studies in England and wanted to share newly acquired ideas with the community.
The Kampala Jamatkhana premises were also special because it’s where school took place. Classrooms had been partitioned off just under the stairs leading upto the prayer hall. The biggest thrill of our lives was when the Rojo and Panje Bhenu Majlis were held as women would off-load excess jooras to their children. The teachers overlooked the goings-on, as they were the secondary beneficiaries of the freebies. The other fun part about the Jamatkhana was that all Ismaili weddings took place there. After the ceremonies upstairs, the bride and the groom would descend together to pose for photographs, first by themselves, then with the attendants, the groom’s family and then the bride’s, in cascading groups. It was said that if things were going to go wrong at a wedding it would definitely happen at the photo op as everyone would dispute the order of precedence used.
That simple life came to an end in 1972 when we were expelled from Uganda, our claim to a historical footnote. Prayer time was brought forward to 5 pm in the face of mounting insecurity. Once the army even raided our Jamatkhana. This was indeed a day of infamy for the Kampala Ismailis. It was our Imam’s work and our luck that Canada allowed us to gain entry to its land. The rest is history. The tide changed after Idi Amin was deposed and the Jamatkhana was repossessed. I returned to Kampala in 1982 during a UN mission, visiting the Jamatkhana compound almost the next day. It was still being used as a Mosque by the Muslim Supreme Council, its windows broken and carpets and prized chandeliers gone missing. The Imam’s chair was poised on the Ismaili flag, like some war trophy. The Diamond Jubilee Hall was being used as a make-shift hostel. It was a sorry sight.
In recent visits to Kampala, Mawlana Hazar Imam has given didar in the Jamatkhana. That has to count as something very special. The 1957 takht-nashini (ceremonial installation of His Highness the Aga Khan as the 49th Imam) was held on its grounds. On any given chandraat (start of a new Muslim month), the prayer hall again feels full, with our Jamat having grown to 1,500 people, mostly from India and Pakistan. Children do their games before jamatkhana and sometimes a six-a-side cricket tournament is organized after prayers under the steps. Alas, the trademark chanothi tree has been felled to make room for additional parking.
Date article posted on Simerg: March 22, 2011
Copyright: Vali Jamal
 At the end of 1972, President Idi Amin Dada caused the expulsion of 55,000 people of Asian origin from his country. Around 7,000 were Ismailis, 4,000 or so based in Kampala. Five thousand went to Canada and the rest to UK and 20 other countries. About 250 original Uganda Ismailis have returned, in a total jamat of 2,500. Altogether less than 2,500 original Asians have returned in a total Indian population of 25,000 people.
 Gili-danda: flip the little wedge (gili), hit it in the air with the baton (dando) and “make runs.”
 The chanothi tree: Its trunk and branches are/were thorny; it has orange flowers in the shape of grasshoppers. These transform to pods which split to reveal the red beads. When “ripe” the chanothi falls to the ground.
About the writer: Vali Jamal was a Senior Economist at the International Labour Organization of the United Nations from 1976 to 2001. He completed his BA at Cambridge University and PhD at Stanford University, California. He is the author of several books and articles on the question of poverty and income distribution in sub-Saharan Africa. He is currently based at Kampala, writing a book about Uganda Asians (see cover page, below), based on the expulsion in 1972. Memory stories like the above figure in it and on his blog www.vivaeastafrica.blogspot.com. The book should appear in the fall, weighing in at 777 pages – “a wrist-breaker before it’ll be a block-buster, full-colour, coffee-table format.” Dr. Jamal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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