I Wish I’d Been There
By Zulfikarali M. Khoja
My grandfather, Ali Velji, packed in a lot of living in his short 43 years of life. He was born in India in 1873. Very little is known of his early life. Sometime at the turn of the century he migrated to Tanganyika or German East Africa. Did the people of the time celebrate the turn of the century? Was this of any significance to them? Did Ali Velji use this as an excuse to migrate to improve the quality of his life and other family members? And, what about the two rare notebooks that he penned in 1906 that I now have in my possession?
He had two brothers, Rhemtulla Velji and Jinah Velji.
Ali settled in Dar-es-Salaam where he married into the family of Jiwa Daya. It can only be assumed that this was an arranged marriage. Soon after the marriage his wife died, name unknown. Living relatives do not remember her name, age nor can they remember the cause of death.
His spirit of adventure then took him to Mozambique and he settled in Lourenco Marques-Delgoa Bay (Maputo) in 1905. Original documents show his residence permit in Portuguese. Did he learn to speak Portuguese? How did he get around and get into business with his partner, Devji Damji? This partnership lasted only two years!
In 1907, my grandfather moved to South Africa at the age of 33 (height 5’6’’ with a scar on his left hand). The cost of the immigration fee was 25 pounds.
In Pretoria, South Africa, he re-married, this time to the daughter of the Ismaili pioneer, Jeevan Keshavjee. The document dated 22 March, 1909 indicates the name of his wife Hirbai. He probably moved back to Lourenco Marques with his wife where my father was born August 25, 1912. They then moved back to Pretoria in 1913, documented!
During World War I, Ali Velji died in 1916 at the age of 43, when my father was only four years old!
The trials and tribulations of Hirbai, a single mother, bringing up her son through two world wars and during two Imams is another story.
These stories of Ismaili settlers in Africa contribute to understanding our rich history of migration and settlement. Yes, I Wish I’d been There as a nametag on my grandfather’s suitcases to follow his spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship in those early days when Africa was unknown to much of the world.
One very interesting discovery I made in the books inherited from my father are prized possessions of Ali Velji: Two note books. These contain in his own fine handwriting, dated 1906, the ginan Buj Niranjan, other ginans and very rare firmans of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah as well as other information which I have yet to decipher. At the back cover he humbly requests that if the books are lost, they kindly be returned to Ali Velji of Delgoa Bay. Where and when did he learn to write in such fine style? Was it his schooling in India?
These antiques in my possession are designated for the Library of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, thus contributing to the legacy of Ismaili literature. Being a nametag on his suitcase would have enabled me to learn so much more about my remarkable grandfather.
About the writer: (Alijah) Zulfikarali M.A. Velji Khoja born in Pretoria, South Africa, is a skilled trainer, facilitator, educational consultant and mediator. His experience and training is diverse: with a post-graduate degree in Radio Chemistry from Carleton University, Ottawa, and professional designations from the Universities of Birmingham, Queens, Ottawa, Windsor and the London School of Economics, he has been worldwide on many consulting assignments as a Mediator. These include: The Canadian Human Rights Commission, Better Business Bureau, Ottawa-Carleton Dispute Resolution Centre,and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
As an administrator, educator and trainer, Zul has worked at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. He has also been headmaster, educator and trainer (Professional Development) to The Aga Khan Development Network, both in Bangladesh and Kenya. Zul’s voluntary service with the Ismaili Community include several countries (South Africa, Kenya, Bangladesh and Canada). The services in Canada include training Management Auditors and conducting Management Audits. He presently serves as the Convener for Donor Services for the Aga Khan Foundation committee in Ottawa, where he resides with his wife, Khairunissa.
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