By Mohezin Tejani
(Special to Simerg)
I was born the youngest of nine children in Singida, Tanzania in 1951. Yet, I never got a chance to know the place because my family moved to Kampala, Uganda when I was just two years old. Both my parents are Ismaili of Indian ancestry, one born in Gujarat, the other in Kenya. I grew up speaking Swahili, Gujarati, and English until madman Idi Amin kicked out all 80,000 of us Asians in 1972. Exiled from the continent of my birth, I traveled the globe over the next four decades in search of a place to call home.
In America, they gave me a new passport. Yet everywhere I went people mistook me as an illegal Mexican or a Navajo. In India, even though my facial and hand gestures emulated local villagers, the people there eyed me rather suspiciously, wondering who this stranger was that looked like them but spoke with a foreign accent. In Canada, where most of my family eventually resettled, employers refused to give me a decent job because of my American credentials.
No wonder why Africa is still in my blood, my heart, my dreams.
In 1997, after twenty-five years of exile, I was finally able to visit my birthplace, with my nephew Arif, whose mother, Sultan, was ten years old when we left Singida and now lives in Toronto. By then, my mother had passed away at the age of 89. The letter below is one I sent to my family from an internet café in Arusha, the day after we left Singida so that my 92-year- old widowed father with failing eyesight, who was living with my brother Phiroz and his family in Pennsylvania, could relive a few memories.
Phiroz, please print this e-mail and read it tonight to Bapa and then, if you could, please forward it to everyone else in the family for me. Sukria Bhai.
Arif and I arrived in Singida around 5.30 p.m from Dodoma after a long dusty nine-hour train ride. At the railway station, a welcoming committee of African singers with drums and castanets (probably for some visiting politicians) made us feel most welcome. Arif told the taxi driver to “put the pedal to the metal” since we were trying to get to the Jamatkhana for the seven o’clock Dua prayer, in the hopes of finding people that might have known the Tejani family some forty years ago.
A quick shower and shave and a switch from dusty jeans to mosque attire. We got there just in time for the second Dua. At the entrance, we came across a wooden plaque with a list of all the mukhis and kamadias of Singida since 1928. A cry of joy slipped out of my lips when I saw Bapa’s name: Hadimohamed N. Tejani—Kamadia—1951–52. Why did no one in our family ever tell me that our father was the kamadia the year I was born? Arif and I decided the plaque would be our ice-breaking introduction to the strangers inside. Men on the right, women on the left. They all looked up, puzzled and curious when we walked in.
Arif and I were two Western fish out of Ismaili waters, not having attended Jamatkhana in years. Sitting cross-legged on straw mats during the second Dua, we emulated fellow worshippers on when to bow our heads, when to say Ya Ali, Ya Muhammad, and when to shake hands with our neighbors after the prayer was over. Around nine o’clock, after the Ginans were chanted and the nandi was over, Mukhisahib Salim Nagji came over to us. When he realized whose son I was, he introduced me and Arif to the whole jamat—all of whom were thrilled and welcomed us with Ya Ali Madat and bowls of fruit from the food auction.
One of the jamat members turned out to be a 64-year-old man named Amir Walji, who, can you believe, was Amir’s classmate during the 1950’s! He spoke so kindly of our brother. He also knows Singida history really well, since he never left the village. He promised to take us the very next day to the house where our family lived and also to the school where Bapa taught. Arif and I were ecstatic with anticipation. After nearly half a century since our family left this place, the youngest son and a grandchild have come back—not to find our roots, but rather to see for ourselves the place that was so often talked about with such a deep sense of longing at all those family reunions in Vancouver and New York City.
That night Salim, the Mukhisahib, invited us for dinner to his house and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Spontaneous Ismaili hospitality to the strangers from North America. We were served an Indian feast of kasori with tui, chicken curry and pilaf, followed by juisni mangoes for dessert. These two wandering gypsies, who hadn’t eaten a decent home-cooked Indian meal since Mombasa, pigged out till our stomachs couldn’t hold any more.
But wait folks, it gets even better…
Over dinner, the cook, Salim’s 84-year-old mother, Khadeeja, who, as it turns out, lives in Toronto but was just then visiting her family, regaled us with stories of Fatimabai and Hadibhai with crystal ball memory. She spoke in Gujarati (with me translating for Arif) of how she and Fatima used to cook up Khushali dinners for the jamat, how our sister Nisha was so helpful in babysitting her son Salim, and how the hyena howls and lion roars on the outskirts of town would keep Salim wide awake at night. After some more prodding from me, she revealed that the sundry shop next to our small house was turned into living quarters when Badru Uncle’s family of five and our grandmother, Dadima, arrived from Mumbai to start a new life in Africa. She and Khadeeja were close as two peas in a pod.
Khadeeja listened intently when I told her about my childhood with Dadima … about walking hand-in-hand with this amazing 82-year-old lady to the main Jamatkhana most evenings in Kampala, who was still agile enough to dry the family laundry up on the roof at Madras Gardens, our Kampala home. She broke into tears when I described Dadima’s funeral at the same mosque, a couple of years later.
The following day around eleven in the morning, jamat bhai Walji, took us around Singida for the whole day. First to our house where I was born. The front is now a shop full of goods, (the partition where Badru Uncle’s family once lived was torn down years ago). Daud, an Arab Muslim, lives in the back with his wife. He welcomed us with open arms when Walji explained who we are and why we wanted to tour the house. We were first escorted along a long corridor leading to the kitchen and the sakati, which now boasts a satellite dish, then into the two bedrooms that are still intact, but with paint peeling off the walls. Arif wanted to know which one his mother Sultan slept in. Nobody knew. I laid down on one of the beds imagining Fatmabai nursing me as an infant or our sister Gulshan rocking me to sleep in a wooden crib (if indeed there was one). Arif went berserk with photographs, capturing every nook and cranny for posterity. I incanted a silent prayer for Ma and the life she had to endure bringing up the nine of us in this simple home. We thanked Daud profusely for his hospitality. After we left, I turned to Walji and said to him in Gujarati Atlu bathu yaad awe che que maru toh dil fati gui — “This flood of memories has split my heart in two.”
Next, we went off to the primary school where Bapa taught classes and was also the headmaster. Walji led us through the new annex to the building where classes are now held. Students were off since it was some holiday. Empty desks and chairs and a clean blackboard stared at us. Walji was barraged with questions from both Arif and I. Who wrote the primary school curriculum: the Brits or Germans, the Tanzanians or the Ismailis themselves? Where did the teachers come from? What language was used in the classroom? Was Bapa a good teacher to Walji and some of our siblings? Did he cane students when they misbehaved?
Walji was at a loss for words. He said he wasn’t sure but he did recall that most textbooks were in English with some translated in German as well. He then took us to the very same classroom in the old school where Bapa had actually taught. A cracked blackboard faced the room. Broken chairs and desks were stacked up in a corner. Gunny sacks of maize flour with big red signs that blared unga wa mahindi were stacked up in the center of the classroom, where students once copied notes from their teacher’s lectures with no. 2 lead pencils. The classroom is now a storage facility.
Then Arif, ever the comedian, came up with this great idea. He cajoled Walji into rearranging some of the broken chairs and desks into classroom fashion. And we both convinced Walji to be the make-believe teacher at the cracked blackboard, chalk in hand. Arif and I sat cringed into the small chairs with desks in front of him. We were the students looking up to teacher Bapa in full rapt attention. Just then, the school janitor came by, a tall lean African man peering suspiciously through the open door. He saw Arif first and screamed Nanhi! Na fahya neenee hapo? Toka, Toka maramoja! Walji walked over to reassure him in Swahili that the two strangers were not thieves, and to explain the situation. He then persuaded the janitor to take pictures of all of us. Arif had to show him how to use the digital Canon. Class was now in session. Click, click. Laughter all round.
After the imaginary school bell rang, we moved on to the tallest structure in town, the clock tower. Climbing up the spiral metal staircase covered in cobwebs, we came to a kind of platform area that had a spectacular panoramic view of the town… a bustling market scene with vendors in kitenge basutis hustling their wares… slabs of skinned beef hanging from the rafters… dukawallah shops on every corner, some dotted with satellite dishes on the roof tops. Out in the distance, we could see Lake Singida seemingly nestled between limestone boulders, some as big as our Singida house. It was a breathtaking view of Tanzania’s natural beauty that I never got to explore as a child.
Over the next few days, it was Salim’s turn to show us around. He took time off from his transport business to show all of Singida’s marvels up close, including the ones on the outskirts of town… a swim in the lake in the dry African heat… a trip to the Kundai salt ponds… egrets and herons ambling around, looking for that elusive worm but settling for whatever scraps of food they could find… climbing a tamarind tree in a local shamba I thought of the “tree tag” childhood games we played at Madras Gardens… at the semi circle of jumbo rocks nearby, huge ancient geologic formations jutted out like an African Stonehenge… the three of us climbed up to a vantage point to watch the Tanzania sky shoot rainbow colors across the horizon as the sun dipped over the lake, bringing with it the jungle orchestra of night sounds.
But what’s so strange is that I don’t remember a single one of you guys reminiscing about any of this at our family reunions. How come? Surely our dearly departed mother must have asked some of you to go pick flowers at the lake for Khushali or Eid celebrations? Didn’t Bapa take you for swims in the lake? Was it out of fear that you never ventured out there? Scared that some ferocious animal from the savannah would attack? Or was it that ecology, geology, and a plethora of birdlife were just not part of the Ismaili community’s frame of reference back in the fifties? Arif and I need to know. Feeling slightly cheated about this oversight, we two nature lovers, nevertheless, explored every crevice of this gorgeous landscape. It’s now etched deeply into our brains so that we can tell you every last, minutest detail at our next family reunion, whenever that maybe.
We spent our last day in Singida hanging out with the locals at the market and taking digital photos of a fruit stand filled with custard apples and sacks of ambli. A group of Rastafarian boys were hovering around. One, clamoring to be in the picture, poked his head between two slabs of hanging beef behind the rest of the group. And, what a thrill to see Bob Marley’s face on blue gunny sacks of grain with “Redemption” written in Swahili below. I joked in Kiswahili with a female vendor about the old days while munching on pomegranates and jamburas. Her response was Rudi Jumbani upesi, upesi wanainchi. “Hurry back home countryman.”
After the farewell hugs with Salim and Walji and other Ismaili well wishers the next morning, just as we were about to get into the matutu headed for the train station, I spotted a rainbow-colored chameleon, hanging out on the front wall. I pointed it out to Arif. For a split second, it wagged its blue and purple tail as if waving goodbye.
On the train to Arusha we glimpsed our first view of Mt. Kilimanjaro—that serene dome of snow perched upon a rain forest in the skyline—whose climb was once a rite of passage for Phiroz, Bahadur, and myself, and our sister Shamim too. In another week, Arif, representing the new generation of Tejanis, will be next in line to scale its peak.
Singida remembers you all in its silent glory. Sweet dreams tonight.
P.S. After Kilimanjaro, Arif and I will explore Serengeti Park and Ngorongoro Crater and exit from the back entrance to Mwanza where we will take a ferry across Lake Victoria to enter Uganda and see our beloved Kampala Mukade. After a quarter of a century, I am antsy to relive Madras Gardens—the other house we lived in for 19 years with its own storm of memories.
Date article posted: June 1, 2011
© Mohezin Tejani
Dua – a prayer that Ismaili Muslims recite
mukhi – the person who presides over any local Jamatkhana
kamadia – the mukhi’s assistant
Jamatkhana – a congregational place for Ismailis
Ginans – holy hymns
nandi – a daily after-prayer auction of freshly prepared food brought by Ismailis to the Jamatkhana
jamat – the community
Ya Ali Madat –a traditional greeting between Ismailis
kasori – corn on the cob
tui – a sauce made of coconut milk for dipping the kasori into
juisni – small juicy ripe mangoes known for their sweet but slight tangy meat as opposed to the longer yellow ones known for their sweet juice
Khushali – a religious celebration commemorating the day His Highness the Aga Khan was appointed as Imam of Ismaili community
jamat bhai – the Jamatkhana custodian and gatekeeper
sakati – Swahili for verandah, back porch, or back garden area
unga wa mahindi – Swahili for Indian maize flour
Nanhi! Na fahya neenee hapo? Toka, Toka maramoja! – Swahili for “Who’s there?! What are you doing here ? Get out at once!”
kitenge basutis – traditional colorful Ugandan women’s dress made of tie-dyed cloth
dukawallah – a Hindi/Swahili word for shopkeeper
shamba – Swahili for a local crop or fruit plantation
ambli – Gujarati for tamarind
jamburas – a local version of the mulberry fruit
matatu – Swahili for the local van transport in East Africa
Kampala Mukade – Term of endearment meaning Old Kampala in Luganda language.
About the writer: Mohezin Tejani, an Ismaili Muslim of Indian origin, is a global nomad who has been roaming the world for over four decades now. Exiled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s reign of terror in the 1970s, he was suddenly left homeless, with little sense of his own cultural identity. He spent the next forty years traveling through all five continents, working with humanitarian agencies, and becoming involved in some of the world’s most significant historical events. Readers will be occasionally shocked and often amused by the rich panorama of experiences, insights, and revelations that this veteran traveler has to offer.
Tejani’s writings have been likened by international reviewers to those of Jack Kerouac, Karen Connolly, and Paul Theroux. Three of Tejani’s short stories won gold and silver awards in the Soles Awards Travel Writing Competition 2010, one of which was published in the anthology of Best Travel Writing, 2010. His first book, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee was a P.E.N. Award finalist in 2007. The essay “Singida” is part of a collection of essays, poems and letters written over four decades entitled “Reflections of a Globetrotting Peacenik Muslim.”
Tejani is a veteran of writers festivals on the Asia circuit—Ubud, Byron Bay, Melbourne—whose other literary endeavors include feature articles, poetry, and essays, as well as teaching world literature in Guatemala, Thailand, the United States, Uganda, and Ecuador. He currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His Website: www.motejani.com
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