Remembering Kampala Jamatkhana: Special in so many ways

By Vali Jamal, PhD

A photo of the Kampala Jamatkhana taken in 1982. Notice the broken windows, non-functioning tower clock and lone VW beetle. Photo: Vali Jamal. Copyright.

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. [1] 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 [2], and tennis-ball cricket. We gathered all the chanothi (red beads) that had fallen from the chanothi tree [3] 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. 

The Imam's chair is poised on a platform of the "My Flag" shield that used to adorn the "taak" (arch) entrance. Photo: Vali Jamal. Copyright.

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

~~~~~~~~~~

Notes:

[1] 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. 

[2] Gili-danda: flip the little wedge (gili), hit it in the air with the baton (dando) and “make runs.” 

[3] 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. 

~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Vali Jamal

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 vali.jamal@yahoo.com

~~~~~~~~~~

The cover page of Vali Jamal's forthcoming book. Please click image to view a PDF file containing the contents pages as well as both the front and back covers of the book.

~~~~~~~~~~

We invite your contribution to the Jamatkhana series. Please click The Jamatkhana: A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence.

We also welcome feedback/letters from our readers on the above Kampala piece.

Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New. Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.

20 thoughts on “Remembering Kampala Jamatkhana: Special in so many ways

  1. Ya Ali Madad.

    First of all, this is a marvelous piece and brought goosebumps to me. I wasn’t even born when this happened in Uganda but just reading about it, gives an entire flash back feeling.

    I have been raised in Uganda and this JamatKhana means a lot to me as well. I moved to Uganda as a very young kid and did my nursery, primary, secondary and up to 2 years of university education here. It has been about 15 years or more here and I can totally relate to the line ‘Kampala Jamatkhana was the best. Of course, any Ismaili would say the same for the Jamatkhana of their childhood, but Kampala Jamatkhana was special’. By the way, most of us still do live around this Jamatkhana today.

    This piece has inspired me to write something similar on my blog. Although my time was different from this, but it is a story none-the-less. The Baitul Ilm classes on Saturday mornings, the Friday evenings and majalis’, the Khushialis…I mean everything was so special back then. Today, that feeling that was there back then seems to be lost.

    Perhaps the regret that I really have is not having photos of that time. Today I am a photographer and I capture moments of events in Jamatkhana but I just wish I had a camera then too.

    Lastly, I love this piece and I hope I can write one as well.

  2. Ya ali madad,
    Thank you Vali for the wonderful write-up of Kampala Jamatkhana, and the readers who responded to your piece. You certainly brought back tears to my eyes. My heart was full of smiles. I share a lot of memories with you of this beautiful Jamatkhana.I was born & raised in Kampala. We lived only a few minutes walk away from the Jamatkhana along Martini Road. I remember all the facilities that took care in the Jamatkhana property,e.g.,the library,the dispensary(Oh how much I remember “Dolu Dispensary” Bless her). There were also special flat for visiting Alwaez and also guest rooms for visitors.I used to spend a lot of time in the library, but used to line up for “mogo & Chanabeteta”. I remember getting in trouble with my brother when I got home!! I hope you are reading this My Dear brother!! I love you all the same.
    I left Kampala in 1968 to pursue further studies in London.
    The garden was just beautiful and still is except for the trees.
    The beautiful steps were always used for getting together after khane and also for taking wedding photos. In fact My husband proposed me standing on those steps!.How can I ever forget that!!
    Kampala Jamatkhan is beautiful place of worship,comfort & peace.
    We had 3 generatios of weddings. My husband’s parents were married there. In 1972 we were blessed with our Hazar Imam’s visit my husband & I were married there. About 6-7 years ago my husband’s nephew was married there!
    I finally left Kampala soon after Idi Amin expelled all the Asians. My first visit back to Kampala was in 1994. Wow what a dramatic change! I just could not stop crying.I visited again in 1997. I visited again in 2003 & 2005.I was there for the Golden Jubilee and also this year in July. I just love Kampala and the Jamatkhana is THE BEST.
    I could go on & on & on. Many many fond memories.Good old Days!

  3. I have been residing in Kampala for 9 years after moving here as a teenager when we had about 500 to 600 people. The Jamat has significantly grown since then and I am deeply appreciative of the chance I have to serve the Imam and the Jamat. I can’t imagine any other Jamatkhana in the world to be the way we have the Kampala Jamatkhana. It has been also mentioned in Mawlana Hazar Imam’s farman during the recent visit.

  4. Thank you, Vali, for the beautiful writeup of Kampala Jamatkhana. I share my memories of this Jamatkhana with you as we were in Scouting together with your brother Abdul who was a friend of mine.
    I studied under the jamatkhana building until ‘SS1′ and then moved to “Old Kampala Secondary School.” In my last year at the Agakhan School, I was in a class with two other boys and ALL girls. I remember Roshan Tarmohamed and Mumtaz Pirani. I thought I had a crush on Mumtaz but could never dare to tell her. We were made to sit on the last desk.
    I remember fondly many hours working on ‘Red Scarf’, the scouting megazine, together with AGG, Abdul Jamal, Sadru Issa, & Mansur Bhatia. (by the way, has anybody got a copy of Red Scarf?)
    I remember the old man with white cap and white dress on his ‘Gadi’ selling Mogo. How we used to love that! We used to wait for his ‘bell’ and run after him.
    How can I forget ‘scouting’ and the ‘Agakhan Band’. I was the scout master of 21st Mengo group and played clarinet in the band. I remember the march past and the procession round Kampala. I remember ‘Jafu’ on the drum and ‘Shamas Bhudho’ and ‘Passlo’ on side drums with Sadru Rawji on Bugal.
    I remember the beautiful garden in front of jamatkhana with a big tree in the centre. When I visited Kampala in 1997, I saw most of the garden was lost but the ‘tree’ was still there.
    Oh! the library on the main floor, I used to visit quite frequently and spend many hours reading the local paper ‘Uganda Argus’. I also frequented the ‘Dispensary’ next to the library and remember ‘Dolu Dispensary’.
    I have visited many Jamatkhanas and I think, ‘Kampala Jamatkhana’ is the best.
    Sultan

    • Sultan: Well you brought back tears, invoking names of our heroes. In those days Scout Masters and teachers were indeed our heroes. You missed Didu, eh? And you missed that during a gap year when Abdul and Suri were gone I stepped in and wrote a lot of copy on the Red Scarf. What a PT it’s not to be found with anyone.
      What I remember about the band is Sadru Rawji (jugu jugu) and Mamadi discussing what tune to play next: Mama Dolly or Three George? Mama Dolly we deciphered years later meant Oh My Darling Clementine and Three George, Marching Through Georgia.
      I speak to Sadru Rawji when I go to Fraser Valley Jamatkhana. Shamsh Budho (mayay, also?) and Passlo are still around.
      Jugu jugu? That was our household name for Sadru Rawji. Why? Because of that line in the Ismailia Anthem – Joog joog jiwo.
      They still play those tunes at PNE, reading them from notes. Pretty pathetic, I’d say. There – I lost some degrees of freedom at the Ve-rity Show.

  5. I have never been to Kampla but this beautiful write-up has inspired me. Inshallah, I shall visit soon.

  6. Thank you Dr. Jamal for the beautiful write-up of Kampala Jamatkhana. I was in my teenage years when we had to leave Uganda, but this has brought the memories back. Good Old Days.

  7. Vali, this is fabulous! I share so many memories of this Jamatkhana with you as I have known you as a younger brother of Khatun with whom I attended Old Kampala Secondary School later. My years at Primary School up to JSL, Junior Secondary Leaving exam were on the ground floor of this Jamatkhana. The Aga Khan Dispensary ‘compounder’ as he was called, Badrubhai lives in Leicester and I often run into his family. I left in 1967 to pursue post-graduate studies at University of Oxford, returning to Kampala in 1971 briefly, the year Amin Dada expelled Asians during my last stage of a break there. It was pathetic to hear him, appearing on the Television changing his mind almost everyday as to who should leave, doctors, lawyers or teachers. I had to return in a fortnight to take up a full-time post in Birmingham leaving remnant of our family to their fate. Most had already left for Canada prior to this turmoil.

    Oh, I remember the ‘chanothi’ tree, sad it is felled. During Khushiali ‘Chhambo’ we Girl Guides marched through the city with scouts to the rhythm of the band, and bandmasters were my late brothers Madat and then Mansur… I remember the lemon & spoon race and the sack race etc. You have brought the past to life with vivid details. I shall forward this to my family, friends and of course, put it on my website. Brilliant!

    • Zarina,
      Thank you so much for your comments! I have been trying to contact you in relation to my book in which a bunch of our gang got together to write tributes to Nizar. I need some pictures of his from then times and later. Please write me vali.jamal@yahoo.com
      I like your website – very brave!
      Best.

  8. Your article is very interesting and brought back many memories. In the early fifties we lived a “block” (the word was not in our vocabulary till we moved to the west) – just a few minute’s walk from the Jamatkhana along Martini Road.

    On the Jamatkhana properties were many facilities that took care of the jamat from birth to death. It had a “dispensary” which served as an outpatients hospital for the jamat. Before going to doctors most people visited it for their medical needs, fever, ear ache, malaria,… It advised expectant mothers, and held baby shows for the babies. Next to the dispensary were a couple of rooms that served as mission classes for religious education. There were also offices of the council and what we now call ITREB, and a flat for visiting missionaries. There were a few rooms serving as “guest house” for visitors from upcountry, who came there either on business or pleasure, but could not afford hotels or had no relatives to stay with in Kampala. I have very fond memories of the library. I used to frequent it on daily basis for the Uganda Argus and other papers in English, and Readers Digest, etc. Library was the only place that provided me with reading material in English. I also learned my cross-word skills from the various magazines in the library, and which your brother Abdul encouraged with our Scout Magazine. During school holidays I used to spend a lot of time during the day at the library, or playing in the jamatkhana grounds with friends.

    In the evening just outside the entrance along Martini road an old vohara guy used to come with his wagon to sale mogo and other snacks, which we all frequented regularly, till the Lucky Stores and DJ came up to serve ice creams and sodas.

    How many of our Jamatkhanas, if any, could match Kampala. Credit must go to our leaders for their foresight.

    You mentioned the school and mayat/gusals in your article.

    The gardens in front of the Jamatkhana extended right down to the Indian cricket club. But quite a large section of this lower part of the garden is now lost.

    Thanks for bring up the memories.

    Hassan

    • I want to thank you for sharing your wonderfully poignant memories of Kampala Jamatkhana. For the “pre Lucky Stores age group” our highlight was the two food vendors seated behind the Nandi area who served ‘Chana Bateta’ and cholesterol loaded Mogo chips lathered with Ambli in a plastic bakuli for 25 cents.

      The outpouring of emotional responses to Vali’s article shows that even 40 years after the expulsion, our thirst for accurate, historically documented information about pivotal places, people and events relating to our upbringing continues to evolve. This bodes well for the publication Vali has researched and worked on tirelessly for the past three years. However the affected group continues to diminish rapidly making Vali’s publication vital if our anecdotal history is to be preserved.

      Thank you again for your input – it went a long way toward reinforcing my gut feeling.

      Regards, Nazim

  9. I just read your piece and want to say I really enjoyed it. My family is from Uganda (mum from Jinja and dad from a small place called Kabira Maido). Anyway, your wonderfully written piece brought up many of memories they have shared with me (I was of course born and brought up in the UK). I will be sure to pass on the link to them as I am sure they will enjoy it too.

    When I visited Jinja a few years back it was sad to see the state of the home in which my mother’s family used to live. Even more upsetting was what has happened to our old Jamatkhana, which I hear was once thriving with a Jamat of 500. But I suppose what one must look at is how our Jamat continues to thrive wherever it resides, thanks to the infinite grace of our Imam.

    I did manage to see Kampala Jamatkhana during my brief time in the city and indeed, it remains magnificent.

  10. What a pleasure to see the Jamatkhana of “Bakuli” Kampala after so long…
    This brings back lots of wonderful and fun childhood memories. I feel like traveling!

  11. This a beautiful and blessed place. We had three generations of family weddings; one by Late Hazrat Sultan Mohamed Shah and two weddings by our present Living Imam.
    Many fond memories at this Jamatkhana.

  12. What a wonderful piece of writing that cajoles the reader down memory lane, that jogs the memories of childhood, that wells up the joy of recalling three sisters’ wedding photos of the steps of Kampala jamatkhana, that surfaces the pangs of exile,that reminds us all, once again, that Ugandan life in the pre-Idi Amin era, despite the political hiccups, was one of a vibrant sub-culture that cannot be replaced, except in sweet memory. Well done Vali!

  13. This write-up about the the beautiful Kampala Jamatkhana really reminds me of our young days. During Khushialis this Jamatkhana was decorated with multiple color lights and the entire town would come to watch it. The Jamatkhana being on hills could be seen from miles away. Without doubt, the Jamatkhana was one of the most beautiful in East Africa.

  14. Wonderful to know about the Kampala Jamatkhana. Hopefully there will be contributions on the Jamatkhanas in Bombay especially, Hasanabad and Aga Hall.

    I believe that from these series one will get a sense of what made these wonderful places of worship sources of comfort, religious ecstasy and community unity and progress, and how that spirit can be sustained in this modern world.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s