Rediscovering a Lost Piece of Ismaili History — First Steps in the Migration of Tanzanian Ismailis to Canada

By Sadru Meghji 

(Special to Simerg)

President Julius Nyerere and his fellow countrymen in a march following the announcement of the Arusha Declaration of 1967. Many such marches were held across the country to connect people with the Tanzanian leader's vision of socialism to develop the nation's economy. Over the years the Declaration became hugely unpopular politically and socially and was abandoned.

President Julius Nyerere and his fellow countrymen in a march following the announcement of the Arusha Declaration of 1967. Many such marches were held across the country to connect people with the Tanzanian leader’s vision of socialism to develop the nation’s economy. Over the years the Declaration became hugely unpopular politically and socially and was abandoned. Credit: www.JuliusNyerere.info.

This short piece provides a perspective on the immigration and settlement of Tanzanian (and Ugandan) Ismailis in Canada, and to recognize the significant role of various individuals in enabling and facilitating this migration.

The general perception is that Ismaili settlement in Canada took place after the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. However, this impression is not entirely accurate as many hundreds – if not a couple of thousand — of Ismailis from Tanzania had already arrived and settled in Canada well before the Ugandan exodus in October 1972. The immigration of the Tanzanian Ismailis was precipitated by Tanzania’s aggressive implementation of nationalization policies espoused in the Arusha Declaration of 1967. In fact, Tanzanians were among the pioneering Ismailis in Canada, and played a significant role in the establishment of the first Jamatkhanas in Canada. Notwithstanding, that the first Ismaili in Canada was from Pakistan – Safarali Ismaily, arrived in Canada in 1952. He was joined four years later by his younger brother, Guljee Ismaily. The extended Ismaily family currently lives in Ottawa. Another early Ismaili pioneer was Rai Nayaz Jethwani of India who settled in Canada during the 1960’s. He was the first Mukhisaheb of the first Ismaili jamatkhana in Toronto.

Kenya's Daily Nation reports the opening of the IPS buiding in Dar-es-Salaam. Image: Sultan Jessa Archives, Montreal, PQ.

Kenya’s Daily Nation reports the opening of the IPS building in Dar-es-Salaam. Image: Sultan Jessa Archives, Montreal, PQ.

In April of 1971, the Tanzanian Government as part of its policy of African socialism pursuant to the Arusha Declaration, announced the nationalization of Banks, Insurance Companies, major business enterprises, farms, and even schools. The announcement that the government had also nationalized homes and other buildings was particularly worrisome. The list of nationalized buildings started appearing in the Tanzanian daily, The Standard (later the Daily News) on a regular basis. The initial list also included the newly opened IPS building, which had been opened months earlier by President Nyerere in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan. A retraction statement was issued a few days later stating that the building would not be affected. In addition, a deadline also was established for everyone who had foreign assets to declare such assets and to repatriate liquid assets to Tanzania.

 The Arusha Declaration Monument, also known as Uhuru Freedom Monument is located on Arusha. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Arusha Declaration Monument, also known as Uhuru Freedom Monument is located in Arusha. Photo: Wikipedia.

It was the extent of nationalization, especially the take-over of homes and buildings that caused panic in the Asian community. Ismailis were particularly concerned as most of them adopted Tanzanian citizenship after the country, then Tanganyika, became independent in 1961.

The Aga Khan Schools, which provided a very high quality of education were also affected by the government policies. The nationalization of schools, the banning of foreign examinations like the widely known and recognized British Cambridge Certificate “O” and “A” levels, and the deterioration in educational standards meant that parents started sending their children abroad, particularly to the United Kingdom.

It is during these early months of 1971 that I became involved in facilitating the migration of Tanzania Ismailis to Canada.

At the outset, I would like to single out my friend Mr. T. J. Arcand, then a diplomat with the Canadian High Commission in Tanzania, for his invaluable and incredible assistance to settle the Tanzanian, and later the Ugandan Ismailis in Canada.

A rare photo of Arusha's Ismaili leaders with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere taken during a community donation in the late 1960's. (L to R) -- The late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, Hashim Mbita, press secretary to the president, Akber Natha Hirji, a member of Ismaili regional council, Mukhi Kamrudin Hasham Jessa, Kamadia Madat Vassanji, and Moosa Janmohamed, also a member of the regional council headquartered in Moshi. The photo was taken during at the guest house for the president in Arusha. The donation was for a local community project. Photo credit: www.Juliusnyerere.info

A rare photo of Arusha’s Ismaili leaders with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere taken during a community donation in the late 1960’s. (L to R) –The late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, Hashim Mbita, press secretary to the president, Akber Natha Hirji, a member of Ismaili regional council, Mukhi Kamrudin Hasham Jessa, Kamadia Madat Vassanji, and Moosa Janmohamed, also a member of the regional council headquartered in Moshi. The photo was taken at the guest house for the president in Arusha. The donation was for a local community project. Photo credit: http://www.Juliusnyerere.info

Numerous individuals, including some of our Jamati leaders, who had foreign assets left Tanzania immediately following the government’s nationalization measures. Those who had foreign passports also left for Britain, India, Pakistan etc. A few of our jamati members also proceeded to Canada and the USA where they were allowed to apply for Immigrant Status from there. The Indian Government had publicly announced that it would only allow Indian Nationals into the country, whereas the Pakistani Government heartily welcomed any Muslim who wished to settle there.

During this tense initial period, I decided to migrate to Canada, and filed an application at the Canadian High Commission. After a successful interview , I asked the officer if there was a way to assist other Ismailis to migrate to Canada. It is at this time that Mr. Arcand came into the picture.

Mr. Arcand immediately handed me with a pile of application forms for immigration to Canada. I did not hold any positions in our community or institutions, so I approached the Chairman of the Ismaili Provincial Council, Mr. Amirali H. Rehmtulla, and briefed him on developments at the Canadian High Commission. Mr. Rehmtulla applauded and appreciated my initiative but advised me that the Council could not directly be involved in this matter. But with his encouragement, as an individual I started distributing the application forms for Canadian immigration. Mr Rehmtulla, introduced me to Mr. Sadrudin Esmail (“Sadru Super”) who assisted me with the distribution of the forms and where necessary helped the members of the jamat in completing the applications.

In March, 1972, when Mawlana Hazar Imam visited Kenya, a large contingent of the Tanzanian jamat went Kenya for the Holy Didar. Mawlana Hazar Imam during his firman said: “For my Tanzanian Jamat, diversification, yes, yes, yes; exodus, no, no, no.”

This assuaged the fears of the jamat and the migration process continued smoothly and in an orderly manner. Then a few months later in August 1972, Idi Amin gave 90 days to all Asians in Uganda to leave the country. By this time, Ismailis from Tanzania had already started arriving and establishing themselves in Canada. Jamatkhanas were established in homes and rented halls.

Prince Sadrudin Aga Khan pictured with Ugandan Asian refugees at the Naples refugee centre. Photo: Vali Jamal Collection. Copyright.

Prince Sadrudin Aga Khan pictured with Ugandan Asian refugees at the Naples refugee centre. Photo: Vali Jamal Collection. Copyright.

When Idi Amin issued the expulsion order, we approached the Canadian Immigration authorities to take in our Ugandan jamat that numbered around 12,000. At the request of Mr. Arcand, a group of Canadian Senators, led by Senator Benedickson, came to visit East Africa and obtain first-hand information about the plight of the Asian community in Uganda. I was in direct consultation with the late Diwan Sir Eboo, who asked me to continue efforts and use my contacts to ensure maximum possible admission for our jamati members into Canada. After the conclusion of these consultations, Canada agreed to take in 6,000 members of the jamat immediately. Later, a family re-unification process was begun for those who had to go to refugee camps in numerous countries around the world, especially in Europe.

Simultaneously, again with the help of Mr. Arcand, a temporary Canadian Immigration Centre was established in Kampala to facilitate and expedite the process of migration, with a similar more permanent facility set up in Nairobi. Until then, the nearest Canadian Immigration Center was in Beirut, and the medical check centre was located in Rome.

While all this was taking place, the Tanzanian Jamat’s migration to Canada continued expeditiously, but my personal involvement ceased when I myself moved to Canada with my family in May 1973.

Date posted: Saturday,  February 16, 2014.
Last updated: Thursday, February 20, 2014, 11:25 EST.

Copyright. Sadru Meghji.

___________

Sadru and Yasmin Meghji

Sadru and Yasmin Meghji

About the author: Sadruddin Rajabali Meghji, pictured above with his wife Yasmin,  migrated to Canada in 1973, and currently lives in Toronto, Canada. Son of the late Vazier Rajabali and Khatija Meghji Visram, Sadru was born in Kilosa, Tanzania, in 1938, and served the Jamat in numerous capacities. As noted in his piece, between 1971 and 1973 he was involved in assisting members of the Tanzanian Ismaili Jamat in moving to Canada. He attributes this service to a family tradition going back to 1899, when his grandfather, Meghji Visram, at the age of 14 was asked by the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957)  to migrate to Africa from Kutch in India. Meghji Visram subsequently helped many more Indian Ismailis to migrate to Africa, and aided the new arrivals to establish themselves in small centres along the railway line that was being built. Sadru’s late father, Vazier Rajabali Meghji Visram, continued with the service to the Ismaili jamat and was gifted with a ring by the new Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan IV at a darbar held at the Upanga jamatkhana grounds in October 1957 during the 49th Imam’s takhtnashini (enthronement) visit.

Profile continues after photo – click for enlargement

Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, blessing Vazier Rajabali Meghji Visram during his visit to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (then Tanganuika) in October 1957. Phooto: Sadru Meghji Collection, Toronto.  Please click on photo to enlarge)

In this very rare photo, Sadru Meghji’s father, Vazier Rajabali Meghji Visram, is seen being blessed by the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Mulims, His Highness the Aga Khan, during his enthronement (takhtnashini) visit to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in October 1957. Photo: Sadru Meghji Collection, Toronto. Please click on photo to enlarge.

Sadru with his wife Yasmin also played leadership roles in Ismaili jamatkhanas in Tanzania and Canada, and has also contributed as a member on the Regional Council and the National Conciliation and Arbitration Board.  Between 1992 and 1997, Mr. Meghji set up English and computer classes at some jamatkhanas in Kutch and Kathiawad areas of India.

A significant moment in their lives took place when they were assigned the responsibility of having a chain made for presentation to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, at the 1983 Silver Jubilee darbar in Toronto. The chain represented the lineage of Mawlana Hazar Imam from Hazrat Ali (a.s), and also depicted the concept of Panj Tan Pak (the five Holy or Pure ones, that is, Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s), Hazrat Ali (a.s.), Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s.), Hazrat Hasan (a.s.) and Imam Hussein (a.s.).

They have two children — son and daughter named Ashrafali and Faryal. Their third child, son Raziyudin, passed away in January 2001.

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12 thoughts on “Rediscovering a Lost Piece of Ismaili History — First Steps in the Migration of Tanzanian Ismailis to Canada

  1. It would be good to know how and why our Indian and Pakistani Ismailis first migrated to East Africa? Subsequently, after the deportation of Asians, including Ismailis, from Uganada and many leaving Tanzania for economic reasons, I wonder what happened to them.
    Abdul Fatah Mohibi
    Afghanistan

  2. In July 2014 , my wife and I visited Tanzania to see the game parks which Naseem had not seen as she had left for London at a young age in 61/62. We also went to Mwanza , my home town and Iringa where Naseem was born. Fond memories and also deep regret about the general deteroration of the towns and also of Dar-es-Salaam. We saw the house where I was born and where my father was born a 100 years previously. My grandfather and grandmother passed away in 1918 due to the Spanish Flu global outbreak. My father, his elder and younger brothers were orphaned at a very young age and, thus, we do not have much knowledge of our family history on my father’s side. After returning from our holidays, I became curious about my grandfather, Esmail Nanji, as to how did he manage to own property and land in what was German Tanganyika and being in his 30s ? Did he bring wealth from India? I had to learn more and immediately drew Family Charts to capture the last 100 years and how the family of 3 brothers and their spouses developed in the century. In addition to Charts/dates etc., I intended to write about our origins in Gujarat, transit thru East Africa and now in the West. Our nephews and nieces need to know and also how they are related. When we grew up, the extended family were in the same neighbourhood >>> now they are across the world. In March 2015, to further our knowledge we went to Rajkot,Porbandar, Dhrafa and Jetpur/ Akala in Khatiawar for my side; and, to Kutch > Bhadreshwar, Mundra, Kera and Bhuj for Naseem’s side.

    My Nani was born in Porbandar and we went to Jamatkhana, met the man working in the Council and asked if they had records of Births , Marriages , Deaths >> to our surprise he said yes and going back to 1900 but we could not see on the day as the room was locked and he did not have the keys. When in Mwanza on 7th August, 2014 I saw the register of Births and saw my siblings names >> should have checked for my father but the thirst for knowledge only started in December 2014. The Council had records going back to 1900 .

    I thought that it would tells us so much about all our roots if all the records we have in Gujarat and East Africa were transferred from neatly written fat books to a Database[s] in the Computer and then provide access to those who want to look up. It will also preserve the records for more generations than otherwise >> and , it is not a monumental task BUT needs to be checked for error free transition from paper to computer. SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY >>> please initiate this work to preserve your, mine and our history .

    Shiraz Nanji and Naseem Nanji [nee Remtula]

  3. I was just 9 years old when my dad, the Late Sultan Habib Dewji Kassam of Tanga brought us to Vancouver in Dec 1971. I remember him helping many other families, the Ugandans and other Tanzanians to settle in Vancouver. There used to be a joke among them, those who found jobs/businesses stayed in Vancouver, the rest had to go to Toronto. I remember us being bussed to the first Jamatkhana on Edmonds Street in Burnaby. We also used to have JK in Pyarali Mukhi’s building. His brother, Amin Karmali has some amazing stories of how they helped the Jamat to settle in Vancouver in those early days. If you want to know more, I will be more than happy to share. My dad owned the Danish Tea Room and Restaurant at 1368 Robson St in Downtown Vancouver up to 1985. My mother, used to be known as Rosy Cut, (nee Vellani of Zanzibar) was employed with East African Airlines and used to travel the world for 10% of the ticket. My great great step Grandmother, Labai Vellani came to Zanzibar from Jamnagar in an Esteamber (steam ship). I have a couple of good stories to share about her and my other maternal line that was married to King Rana in Porbander too…Nusrat Hassam of Vancouver.

  4. Your contribution to the Ismailis in Tazania, Uganda, Canada, India via your setting-up computer classes in Kutch and Kathiawad, and of course, thus ultimately to our brethren under the guidance of our Imam, his uncle Prince Sadrudin Aga Khan who was the High Commissioner of Refugees for good 14 years with the United Nations who facilitated rehabilitation of expelled Ugandan Asians is remarkable. You and your family are engraved in our history for many generations to come. Articles like this that Simerg constantly gives us on this unique website is an excellent service to all, globally.

  5. Congratulations on writing this article. I was assigned to the Canadian Embassy in Beirut in November 1971which handled immigration from East Africa. By the time I arrived one of our officers was working almost full time on Tanzanian Asian applications. I interviewed Ismailis in Dar-es-Salaam in June of 1972 and a few months later was in Kampala with the Canadian team. I have always believed that the migration from Tanzania deserved more attention from immigration historians.

    Mike Molloy

    • Hi, Mike, Thank you for your comments. It certainly was a pleasure working with you and Keith Carter and the rest of your team during this difficult time for our community. My sincere Thanks to all who have either personally called, emailed or left warm comments in response to my article
      Sadru Meghji

  6. …And Mr Sadrudin Meghji continued to be an examplary, quietly serving, as an unbadged volunteer at Willowdale Jamatkhana for many, many more years! We salute Mr amd Mrs Meghji for their most unselfish service to the Jamath and the Imam. Bravo Bravo Bravo!!!

  7. It was very interesting to know our past history. Thank you very much.
    Best Regards,
    Huzurmukhi Ajit Sadrudin Bandali

  8. It indeed is a great joy to learn about our glorious homeland Tanzania where everybody was like a brother and a sister. The life was relaxed and easy and when Hazar Imam’s Talika came, our My Flag was hoisted and our Ismaili gentleman would walk on streets in Dar es Salaam announcing the arrival of Talika. I know Sadrudin Meghji was always occupied in his sewa. Thank you for posting this article.

  9. Honorary Service to the Imam and the Jamat or the public at large is a gratifying expression of serving one’s Lord. The Light in your heart is reflected in the warmth in your eyes in the photo in your profile. I would very much appreciate what your experiences were in setting up the English and computer classes in Kutch between 1992 and 1997.
    Kind regards.
    Abeed Fazal.

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