The Sultan of Hard Work and Sacrifice: Veteran Ismaili Journalist Sultan Jessa, Order of Canada, is a Model Canadian Citizen For All to Emulate

Compiled and written by Malik Merchant
Editor-Publisher, Simerg

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Sultan Jessa with his wife, Rosila, pictured during their last visit to Europe. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Sultan Jessa and his wife Rosila invited and entertained me at their home near Montreal for a full-day, and I returned for Ottawa with boundless energy for a number of reasons. I was captivated with the collection of medals and photographs that adorned the walls of his home. Each medal and photograph had a marvellous story – stories of his life as a journalist in East Africa, stories of his rich contribution to Canadian society at large, and how the nation then went on to recognize and celebrate his accomplishments by honouring him with Canada’s highest medal. There were other details from his life that both touched and inspired me.

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His Highness the Aga Khan and Begum Salimah with Sultan Jessa at the bungalow of the late Diwan Sir Eboo Pirbhai during their 1972 visit to Kenya. Photo: Azhar Chaudary. Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

I was to find out during this memorable visit that Rosila was raised in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), and that my parents who served in Mozambique for 8 years between 1954 and 1962 had taught her. Following my visit I learned from my mum, that Rosila had called them up and showed them her deep-felt respect and affection (my dad was affectionately known as mastersaheb and my mum Maleka bahen). The little that I learned about Rosila was quite remarkable. Her daily round-trip commute of approximately 230 kilometres between Montreal and Cornwall, where Sultan continued working, was an act of courage. During winter she had to brave the cold, snowy and icy conditions on Hwy401/20. It then struck to me the important part and role she would have played in Sultan’s own life of meeting and overcoming challenges when he settled in Canada under difficult and challenging circumstances, which he so well described to me during my visit.

SultanJessa_GGAdrienneClarksonSultan Jessa with Her Excellency Adrianne Clarkson, the former Governor General of Canada, at the event marking the presentation to him of Canada’s highest honour, the Order of Canada. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

In his former seaway community of Cornwall in Eastern Ontario, he came to be fondly known as the Sultan of sacrifice. However, this rare accolade was not handed to the Tanzania-born Canadian journalist on a silver plate. It required a lot of hard work and dedication. “Muslims are rarely portrayed as honest and caring citizens who make a difference in their communities,” Sultan told me in an interview.

From an early age, he got involved in community and charity work. His Highness the Aga Khan during an official dinner in Canada several years ago pledged that his followers, the Ismailis, would become contributors to the Canadian society. Jessa took up the challenge. “I take this very seriously,” Sultan said referring to the pledge made by the Aga Khan. “Citizenship has privileges but with it also comes some obligations.”

It was an uphill battle after the journalist arrived in Canada in the fall of 1973 to begin a new life. His original game plan was to gain experience in Canadian journalism and then move to a bigger centre like Vancouver or Toronto where most of his friends had settled.

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An apt caricature of Sultan Jessa which was presented to him by his colleagues at the Standard-Freeholder as he retired after serving the newspaper for 30 years. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Sultan started working for the Standard-Freeholder, a daily newspaper then owned by the vast Thomson media chain. His planned six month stay in Cornwall stretched to three decades. “I have no regrets,” he confided. “I came from an even smaller community (Arusha) in Tanzania.

Sultan has plenty of stories about his early days in Canada. Like most new immigrants, he struggled to find an apartment. No one was willing to rent apartments to immigrants, particularly those with strange accent and a different skin colour. No one would even seat next to him in the bus. In casual conversations, he was asked if people in Africa still lived on trees and if the streets were infested with snakes and hungry lions.

It was not smooth sailing in Cornwall, and he experienced racism first hand during his early years. But, all that changed over a space of six years. He soon became the toast of the community.

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Congratulatory message from his newspaper on being Awarded Canada’s most Prestigious Award, the Order of Canada Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Only six years after arriving in Cornwall, Sultan was declared the community’s top citizen and in May 2006, he was was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest and most prestigious honour, at a ceremony at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence in Ottawa.

This sought after award recognized more than three decades of community service with organizations like the Red Cross, Big Brothers, Children’s Aid Society, Rotary, Kinsmen, Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Association, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to name a few.

In Cornwall, Sultan became known as the ‘Sultan of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Sultan of Selflessness’.

Over the years, this dedicated volunteer has been honoured for his outstanding fundraising abilities, boundless energy, leadership and commitment. He has been recognized by municipal, provincial and federal governments and has been recipients of numerous awards, including the Queen’s silver and golden and diamond jubilee medals.

He won Ontario’s medal for volunteerism, good citizenship and even a medal from the Ontario Medical Association for his work in the health field.

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Sultan Jessa at Parliament Hill in Ottawa with former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

The Sultan of sacrifice even spread his wings to help Catholic, Jewish and other charities. The Jewish community set up a bursary in his name and the Sikh community presented him with the orange honour most commonly known as siropa. And, in 2010, Sultan was selected as the top 25 Canadian immigrant by the country-wide vote.

He never expected to receive the Order of Canada. In a congratulatory message, Canada’s former Prime Minister Paul Martin said Sultan had played a part in being recognized in this fashion. “You can take pride in your accomplishment over the course of your remarkable career,” the Prime Minister noted.

Landing in Cornwall and finding a job was a fluke. But Sultan has never forgotten the long-lasting friendship established with the late Dr. George McGowan, a veterinary surgeon, who helped settle the family in Canada. The rest is history.

During his 10-year career as a journalist in his native Tanzania and Kenya, Jessa covered stories in Europe and Africa, many of them involved interviews with the rich and the famous.

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With American actor Sydney Portier. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

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With American singer Harry Belafonte. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

They included people like Willy Brandt, the former chancellor of Germany, the late US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Cuba’s revered revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who helped Fidel Castro overthrow the Batista government. Cowboy legend Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, John Wayne, Sydney Poitier and Lou Gosset Jr. were some of the others.

He also became a friend of former baseball great Stan Musal, who owned a restaurant in St. Louis. After interviewing Musal, the star asked the reporter if he wanted his autograph.

“No one in Africa played baseball,” Jessa said. “I didn’t want to offend him and said sure.” It was not until Sultan moved to Canada that he discovered Musal was an America icon and one of the most famous sports figures.

Prior to moving to Canada, Sultan worked for the Nationalist, a government-owned newspaper in Tanzania. He later joined the Standard and later worked for the Daily and Sunday Nation in Tanzania as their chief correspondent and later moved to Kenya to work for the newspapers, in which the Aga Khan was a major shareholder.

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Sultan Jessa is presented with an opportunity to lay a wreath for a Remembrance Day event which is held annually on November 11. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

While in East Africa, Jessa also stringed for many international news agencies including the Agence France Pressure and many monthly publications like Africa magazine.

At one time, the Moshi-born Sultan was the editor and publisher of a newspaper, the Northern News, that he owned with Abdul Dewji, a friend in Arusha, Tanzania. Sultan’s parents were hard-working people who owned and operated a lot of going concerns, including a 300-acre coffee plantation, a bakery and a dairy in Arusha.

The family lost almost everything when Tanzania nationalized many businesses without compensation during the early 1970’s.

“The best thing that has happened to us in Canada is we have provided the best education to our two daughters,” he said. “No one can take away the knowledge you acquire.”

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Flashback to 1990: Sultan and Rosila with daughters Yasmin (left) and Anaar. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Sultan and his wife Rosila have two daughters, Anaar, an actuary and Yasmin, who with two degrees from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, now teaches at the Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

A past president of Rotary with 25 years of perfect attendance, Sultan was chosen in 1995 to lead a group study exchange team to England. He also served with the RCMP on a national advisory committee for six years and as a director of the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Canada.

Finally, Sultan moved to Montreal 10 years ago to spend his retirement.

Before my departure for Ottawa, the Sultan of Sacrifice (and Generosity) handed me a bulky large envelope. I had to open it in front of him. To my amazement, they were photographs of His Highness the Aga Khan’s visits to East Africa taken by Azhar Chaudary of the Daily Nation. With that and the joy of talking to the Jessas, my trip to Montreal became fully complete. It did not matter that I didn’t make it to Montreal’s vibrant downtown that I had planned to visit before returning to the Nation’s capital.

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13 QUESTIONS FOR SULTAN JESSA

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Youthful looking Sultan Jessa interviewing Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan when he was the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Simerg: You began your journalism career in East Africa. Tell us about your very first days in Canada as a journalist.

Sultan Jessa: Before coming to Canada in the early 1970’s, I had applied for a job with the Globe and Mail since I had heard so much about this reputable national newspaper. Unfortunately, there were no openings and the biggest problem was the lack of Canadian experience. The best thing for me was to start in a small city and gradually work my way up. I started with the Standard-Freeholder in the seaway city of Cornwall. This daily was part of the giant Thompson newspaper chain. Canadian newspapers have come a long way and the competition has become fierce. I will say, from a family perspective that working in a small community made it easier for us to give the very best university education to our two daughters.

Simerg: What were the challenges of being a journalist in East Africa where the freedom of the press was lacking? Were your stories rejected or heavily censored, causing you frustration.

Sultan Jessa: In East Africa, then and even now, freedom of the press, sad to admit, is still lacking and I will hesitate to predict if this will ever change. Two respected Kenyan newspapers I worked for, the Daily and Sunday Nation, were often banned in Tanzania because the government in power did not like their editorial comments. When the Nation newspapers were banned, I moved to my hometown in Arusha and started a weekly newspaper called the Northern News with my partner Abdul Dewji, who is now in Calgary. The paper circulated in Arusha and Moshi. I was threatened with jail after I wrote and published a story about the outbreak of plague. I was told such reports were hurting and scaring tourists away from visiting Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater National Parks. I was also beaten by soldiers when I covered the army mutiny in Tanzania. My first job was with the Nationalist, which was started by and owned by Tanzania’s ruling party. The Standard was initially independent but later nationalized and renamed as the Daily News. Now, there are many more newspapers in East Africa but I wonder if they really enjoy freedom of the press as we know in Western nations.

Simerg: Which of the African papers did you enjoy working the most as a journalist? Who was your favourite African columnist.

Sultan Jessa: The Daily and Sunday Nation were my favourites because of the very wide circulation in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and other African countries. The Nation group ran in-depth features, numerous columns and news from around the world. Philip Ochieng was my favourite. I loved his columns. He was funny and very entertaining.

Simerg: As far as I can recollect, I knew of only you and Mansoor Ladha being Ismaili journalists during the 1960’s. Were there others? What about the present calibre of Ismaili journalists in the UK and Canada?

Sultan Jessa: Both, Mansoor Ladha and I worked together with what was then the Tanganyika Standard and later for the Nation group in Kenya. Karim Hudani owned and worked for the Kenya Mirror. Today, there are scores of Ismaili journalist and they are all doing wonderful and admirable work. I didn’t know why journalism did not appeal to Ismailis in East Africa.

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Sultan Jessa in another moment with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Simerg: Are you a fan of the digital media? Do you lament the closure of print newspapers? For example, The Independent of England recently became strictly a digital newspaper.

Jessa: I was not a big fan of the digital media at first. But, I am now convinced the digital media is the way of the future. More and more newspapers, both large and small community newspapers, are closing doors. I used to subscribe to many newspapers and magazines. Newspapers has been my life. I recently gave up several newspapers and magazines. Initially, I missed holding a newspaper in my hands but now I surf the web for my favourite newspapers around the globe. Also, if you look at the youth, they are not avid readers of the print media because of busy lives they live and, when they read, they get all the news from around the world at a press of the button on their cell phones.

Simerg: Do you follow the African Media which you worked for, and what changes have you observed in journalism standards among African reporters and editors?

Sultan Jessa: I still read newspapers from Tanzania and Kenya. It is becoming tougher for African journalists remaining independent and offering their opinions without fear. This is sad but a fact of life. The standard of journalism in Africa has improved and I would say comparable to what we see in Canada.

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Prince Amyn Aga Khan in conversation with Sultan Jessa’s parents during a brief visit to the family’s coffee and mixed farm known as the Letizia Plantation, near Arusha, Tanzania. Photo: Sultan Jessa Collection, Montreal.

Simerg: You were awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal a few years ago. Were you surprised when you learnt about the honour that was given to you? How did you react and describe that particular day for you when the Governor General David Johnston gave you the medal.

Sultan Jessa: When I first came to Canada I experienced open discrimination and insults. No one would sit next to me on a city bus. I was often asked if Africa was infested with lions and snakes. But, things changed after I joined the mainstream and started doing community work to help the less fortunate. Six years after I arrived in Cornwall, I was made the city’s top citizen and in 2005 was bestowed with Canada’s top and most sought after Order of Canada. In 2010, I was selected as Canada’s top 25 immigrants. I have received numerous honours from municipal, provincial and federal governments. Yes, I have Queen’s silver, golden and diamond jubilee medals. On top of this, I have been honoured by the Jewish community with a college bursary in my name and the Sikhs have presented me with a Saropa, their top honour.

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Sultan Jessa’s travels have taken him to more than 50 countries. This photo of the Iguassu Falls was taken by him during his visit to Argentina. Photo: Sultan Jessa.

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Photo of the Machu Pichuu citadel in the Andes Mountains in Peru, captured by Sultan Jessa during his South American visit a few years ago.. Photo: Sultan Jessa.

Simerg: With so much service that you have given to this nation for which you have been deservedly honoured, tell us the activity that gave you the greatest amount of satisfaction and why?

Sultan Jessa: There are a number. Serving for six years on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s diversity committee was the highlight. It give me an opportunity to see and experience the entire country from coast to coast. Also, helping the poor, the unfortunate and the downtrodden has touched my heart. Being president of the Service Clubs Council of Cornwall and District, we provided food to needy families during the festive Christmas season. Thrice, I was honoured to chair the annual Santa Claus Parade.

Simerg: What about your own community, the Ismaili community.

Sultan Jessa: Our own community is not heavy on recognizing individuals who have rendered valuable services to others and to the country. This hopefully may change in the future. I honestly don’t know why this is so.

Simerg: Tell us the role your wife, Rosila, has played in your success in numerous endeavours.

Sultan Jessa: My wife Rosila has been a tremendous support. She looked after the two girls when I was serving others and doing community work. She is a trained seamstress and still enjoys her work and gardening. She reads and is aware of my journalism work.

Simerg: What advice would you provide to any student who wishes to pursue journalism?

Jessa: Journalism is a wonderful profession. It can be frustrating at times. But, it is a noble profession and you are helping others get better informed.

Simerg: Tell us one or two instances in your journalistic career that were perhaps dangerous or funny or thrilling?

Sultan Jessa: Meeting kings, world leaders and Hollywood and Bollywood stars is exciting. Every single day, you learn something new. Roy Rogers, the famed American cowboy, was my hero. I used to play cowboys and Indians when I was very young. Never did I ever dream, I would one day interview my top hero. I met Roy Rogers when he was visiting national parks in the Arusha area, and I met Bing Crosby when I worked in Kenya.

Simerg: What is your favourite book and why? And since you have travelled so much tell us also a place that will absolutely remain unforgettable and which you would recommend to others.

Sultan Jessa: I am not an avid book reader. I have never completed reading an entire book…strange as it may sound. We love travelling around the world and have so far visited more than 50 countries. Both, Rosila and I simply love New Zealand because of its size, natural scenery and people.

Date posted: April 22, 2016.
Last updated: April 26, 2016 (typos).

Copyright: Simerg/Sultan Jessa.

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