A rare 100 year old family photo fills in a few blanks of Ismaili Khoja history in East Africa

Author Zahir Dhalla’s Preamble: Khojas, and Indians in general, were not known for keeping personal journals. Thus, there is a dearth of records documenting our history. However, the practice of keeping family photo albums was quite widespread. Photos can fill in some of those blanks, provided someone can tell the stories behind them. This would be a valuable series, people digging into their memorabilia and writing the stories behind them. Below then, is my attempt to do so, hoping it can also serve as one of the templates that others may want to use or adapt as preferred.

Huseinali Harji (with sword) historical Zanzibar wedding photo
Photo 1: Huseinali Harji (with sword) wedding photo. In the Ismaili Club’s courtyard, Zanzibar, early 1920s. It used to be the British Club where Dr. David Livingstone stayed in the late 1860s. Photo: Safder Alladina, Zerabai’s {10 in photo} youngest son. Captioning: Marhum Kassamali Tejpar, Roshan’s {3} husband. Please click on photo for enlargement.

By ZAHIR K. DHALLA

Gulamhusein Harji Sumar Walji Jendhani* was a pawn broker in the Soko Mahogo neighbourhood of Zanzibar’s Stone Town. Gulamhusein had a large brood, as was common at the time, of 9 sons and 3 daughters, by three wives, the eldest son, Ali {17 in top photo}, being my paternal grandmother Sakarbai’s {16} father. This wedding photo is of Gulamhusein Harji’s third son Huseinali’s marriage to Rukiya.

{1} Hassanali (Hasina){2} Saleh{3} Roshan Abdulhusein Alidina Saleh (Mrs Kassamali Tejpar)
{4} Hamdu Wali Dilgir{5} Badru Ali Harji{6} Kasu Ali Harji
{7} Mohamedali Ali Harji{8} Abdulmalek Ali Harji{9} Gulibai Hassina Harji
{10} Zerabai Hassina Harji{11} A G Abdulhusein{12} Sherbanu Hassina Harji
{13} Hussein “Tumbo” Harji{14} Kanu{15} Rahim Husein Dilgir
{16} Sakarbai Ali Harji{17} Ali Harji 
A guide to individuals in the annotated wedding photo. Dilgir {4} composed the Ismaili anthem.

These are their stories:

All elders and a few toddlers are wearing hats, while youngsters are bare headed, the groom and his eldest brother Ali {17} are wearing ceremonial turbans. By the 1950s, hats were no longer in vogue!

Of the Gulamhusein’s nine sons, Haji (see photo 4, below) and Noorali “Mamma” are not in the above wedding photo. “Mamma” chacha is possibly in the photo, just unidentified.

The Harjis spent, all told, a couple of decades or so in Tanga, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) where at one time they ran a grocery-wines-spirits store called Planters Store. All then left Tanga: Ali {17} going to Mombasa; Haji to Lushoto (see photo 4 below); Hussein {13} to Dar es Salaam; Saleh {2} taking over the grocery business under the name Korogwe Stores, with a branch store in Korogwe, a small town west of Tanga — he also ran a petrol station in Tanga; and Huseinali (the groom) running a chai, toast, maandazi, etc. restaurant called “Karaketa” at the Korogwe railway station, which his widow Rukiya ran after his death.

Story continues after photo

Khoja Ismaili family photo, Tanga, Tanganyika.
Photo 2: Khatibai and her three sons, right to left, Mohamedali {7 in top photo}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8}, Tanga, early 1950s.

KASU {6}: Younger half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, his is a touching story.

His mother Khatibai (nee Jiwan Lalji, Itmadi, of Zanzibar), a most beautiful lady, became demented (during WWII) and was hospitalized in Nairobi. Her three sons, Mohamedali {7}, Kasu {6} and Abdulmalek {8} (in decreasing order of age; see photo 2, above) conferred and decided that they would buy a native bride in Tanga for Kasu, who would settle there as a fishmonger. His bride, Chausiku, was a fine lady, devotedly looking after Khatibai. Khatibai, despite her condition, could always remember faces. Whenever we visited her, she would smile at each one of us, lighting up the whole room! When both Kasu and Khatibai passed away, Mohamedali sent support money to Chausiku. Before he passed away, he instructed son Zul (a fine guitar player in Nairobi, now in Tri-Cities, British Columbia, Canada) to continue support payments, which he did until one day he received a letter from Chausiku’s family, informing him that she had passed away, so not to send support money any more!

ABDULMALEK {8}: Youngest half-brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the youngest of Khatibai’s sons. There was a comical vignette he told me: In 1940, he and three friends decided to enlist in the army (WW II). Mother Khatibai was against it, while father Ali {17} was okay with the idea. They headed for Nairobi for interviews, and along the way one of them dropped out! In Nairobi, someone questioned them as to what they thought they were doing: Didn’t they know they would get only black tea and burnt roti?

Part of their enlistment interview was an examination of their education:

Q. 7 + 5? A. 11. Wrong.

Q. 14 + 9? A. 22. Wrong.

They all came up short and were told, “All you Mombasa guys are hopeless” and were given tickets to return home. Actually, Abdulmalek’s whole class in Mombasa had failed Cambridge, except for one solitary student! Abdulmalek returned to working at his old job at Fatehali Dhala Grocers for 60 shillings a month, filling candy jars, opening and displaying crates of fruit from South Africa. Once he was in the middle of enjoying a nice peach from South Africa, when in walked Count Fatehali who remarked, “It is good that you are tasting and approving these fruits because only then will customers buy them!”

ALI {17}: Father of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, he was the eldest of the 9 brothers, born in Zanzibar in c1890. In the late 1920s, he worked at a cotton ginnery in Entebbe, Uganda, alongside my paternal grandfather, Gulamhusein, Ali’s son-in-law to be. His last job was as a detective with the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in Mombasa. He was engaged by the head of the department, an Abdallah Mzee. But soon Ali crashed his motor bike, badly hurting his leg. He retired! Before he died, he told youngest son Abdulmalek {8} that he would be reborn as his son. Sure enough, within a year of his death, a son was born, Gulamali, named by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III. Gulamali would go on to play up his grandfather role to maximum advantage –- yes, he was untouchable!

Story continues after photo

Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.
Photo 3: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar residence in Zanzibar.

GULIBAY {9}: Lady Gulibai, first cousin of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}, was very well known in Nairobi. She married Ramzanbha of the K. B. Jamal family, owners of Tropicana bistro on Hardinge Street (now Kimathi Street), as well as of Keby’s restaurant further north of Tropicana.

SAKARBAI {16}: My paternal grandmother was very independent, not wanting to be a burden on anybody, even in death, for she had a small briefcase under her bed, which she showed everyone over time, containing everything necessary for a funeral and its rites: a shroud, cotton wool, holy water tablets (made from the earth at the well of Zam Zam), rose water, etc plus enough money for the prayer plate! Her independence also showed in how she addressed my paternal grandfather, her husband: she called him Dhalla, something unheard of in those days when a wife never called her husband by name, resorting to something oblique like “Are you listening?” or simply “Listen then”.

ZERABAI {10}: Born in Zanzibar, she moved to Tanga when she was 12/13 years old. She lived in Tanga the rest of the time until moving to Vancouver. She married Shariffbha Aladin Giga Patni. The Aladin clan adapted this name to a Muslim one: Alladina. This was around the time of the Indo-Pak hostilities after the partition. The Patni refers to people of the town of Patan in Gujarat, India, it having been built on the banks of the mythical river Saraswati.

Zerabai too, like her grandpa Gulamhusein Harji, had a large family of 5 sons and 3 daughters. She herself was of a large family; she was the eldest of a brood of 4 brothers and 6 sisters. When her mother, Khati Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji, died while most of her children were still growing up, her uncles Saleh {2} and Haji  stepped up and adopted all the young ones, each picking up 4 children! Zerabai herself was married off to Shariffbha when she was in her early teens.

BADRU {5}: He was the younger brother of my paternal grandmother Sakarbai Ali Harji {16}. He and his family lived in two places, in Tanga first, where most of his children were born, then in Mombasa.

Story continues after photo

Photo 4: Chacha Haji with adopted children Sherbanu, Gavar and Dolat, Lushoto, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), c1930s.

Any still around? To my knowledge, none of the identified people above are alive today, although Gulibai’s {9} younger sisters, Dolat (in photo 4 above), and Lily are alive and live in Vancouver and Toronto respectively. The Harji clan today is huge, of several hundred!

Readers may be interested in viewing a collection of Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam, and learn more about Gulamhusein Harji Sumar.

Date posted: April 23, 2020.
Last updated: May 1, 2020 (added 1905 historical photo in author’s footnote, see below).

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* Author’s footnote: Gulamhusein Harji Sumar (father of the groom, with the sword in the wedding photo) was a member of the first Supreme Council for Africa, 1905, Zanzibar. Itmadi Jiwan Lalji (father of Khatibai, photo 2) was a member too. Please see Noorali Harji’s historical family photos with Mawlana Hazar Imam.

Gulamhusein Bhaloo Kurji (maternal grandfather of Zerabai, number 10 in the wedding photo) ditto.

All the above three are also in the classic photo of Imam Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III with the Supreme Council; see photo 5 below.

Aga Khan III 1905 Zanzibar historical photo with Ismaili leaders
Photo 5: Zanzibar 1905 — Aga Khan III, 48th Ismaili Imam, with Ismaili leaders. BACK ROW (left to right): Mohamed Bhanji, Gulamhussein Harji Sumar, Mohamed Rashid Alana, Ali Valli Issa, Gulamhussein Karmali Bhaloo; CENTRE ROW (left to right): Peermohamed Kanji, Visram Harji, President Varas Mohamed Remtulla Hemani, MAWLANA SULTAN MAHOMED SHAH, HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN, Varas Salehmohamed Kasmani, Fazal Issani, Gulamhussein Bhaloo Kurji; FRONT ROW (left to right): Mukhi Rajabali Gangji, Varas Kassam Damani, Varas Janmohamed Hansraj, Rai Mitha Jessa, Juma Bhagat Ismail, Itmadi Jivan Lalji, Salehmohamed Valli Dharsi, Janmohamed Jetha, Kamadia Fazal Shivji. Photo Credit: Nashir Abdulla Collection, Ottawa, Canada. Please click on photo for an annotated version.

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Zahir K. Dhalla is a retired GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and IT (Information Technology) freelance consultant in Toronto, Canada. He is a graduate of the University of Nairobi, Kenya (mapping science) and the University of Toronto, Canada (computer science). In addition to his non-fiction writings (see list below) he has also written many private biographies as family keepsakes. He is also the editor of Ismailis of Tanga.

Zahir Dhalla’s books available from Amazon: 

  1. My F-word Plan: How I Routinely Maintain Low Weight & Good Health
  2. Poetry: The Magic of Few Words (Definition and Some Poetry on East Africa)
  3. Nine Ginans of Nine Ismaili Pirs: A Brief History of Khoja Ismailis
  4. Learn Good Swahili Step by Step: A Complete Language Textbook in 3 volumes:
    • A Complete Grammar
    • Swahili-English Dictionary (5,750 words)
    • English-Swahili Dictionary (5,750 words)
  5. The Willowdale Jamat Khana Story
  6. Writing [Auto] Biographies: Demonstrated by author’s early autobiography
  7. From Kibwezi to Kensington: Sherbanu K. Dhalla’s Memories of East Africa
  8. My Tanga Days: 1950s & 60s
  9. Learn Urdu: اُردو: Read, Write, Speak, includes 4,000-word Tri-directional Dictionary
  10. Naked Eye Astronomy: How to Read the Heavens
  11. Two Short Stories: I. Happy Phoebe, II. Troglodytes
  12. Khojo Aawyo! The Khoja has Come! A Story of Migrations
  13. Editor: http://theismailisoftanga50s60s.blogspot.com/

Also, read Zahir’s piece in Simergphotos Bagamoyo Beach Landing, where Aga Khan III was the first Ismaili Imam ever to set foot on East African soil in 1899.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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Book Review of Mansoor Ladha’s Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West

By NIZAR MOTANI

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Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West
By Mansoor Ladha,
252 pp. University of Regina Press,
CDN$ 23.15 (at Amazon), Kindle Edition CDN$ 11.19
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Memoirs of a Muhindi by Mansoor Ladha

Memoirs of a Muhindi by Mansoor Ladha

Since the word Diaspora is encountered in many written accounts and conversations, the author has, thankfully, shed light on it.

“In Greek, the word diaspora means “to scatter,” but today we use the term to describe a community of people who live outside their country of origin or ancestry but maintain connections with it. A diaspora includes both emigrants and their descendants. While some people lose their attachment to their ancestral homeland, others maintain a strong connection to a place their ancestors may have left generations ago.”

As most of the Africa-born Asians reside in the West and their numbers are dwindling through natural causes, Ladha has taken upon himself to relate his own personal experiences and historical events about life in colonial and independent East Africa. And he has done a splendid job using his multiple journalistic skills.

I wish I had read and discussed his memoir with my family and friends much earlier.

The first generation in the West will see themselves in Ladha’s story; the diasporic generations born outside East Africa will learn about their parents’ unsustainable situation in East Africa and their dispossession, displacement and resettlement in North America and Western Europe.

Surprisingly, Ladha does not explain – for the benefit of the Western-born generations and other potential readers – “who is a muhindi?” until page 16! Muhindi is a Swahili word to describe a person of Asian descent. Simply put, it refers to a brown-skinned person.

To this reviewer, a Uganda-born third generation muhindi with a doctorate in African history, expelled by the notorious Idi Amin in 1972, Ladha’s memoir is replete with unusual personal experiences and less-known historical events.

An excellent discussion of the three-tier colonial, racially-structured system, which controlled, segregated and shaped race-relations, attitudes, behavior and opportunities in British East Africa, sets the stage for his story of navigating it hurdles. Under this racially segregated system, during and after the colonial period, Ladha takes the readers to places where most muhindis could not or would not go.

He is a self-proclaimed man with pride and principles. So when things turn out according to his expectations, he is happy; when they don’t, he is furious. Through this rather unorthodox muhindi, we get to visit: the palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar for an audience, while still in primary school; the British-controlled newspaper, The Standard, where he was the only Asian reporter and a copy editor; President Nyerere’s State House as the only Asian in the University of Dar-es-Salaam’s student executive committee, which went to protest the terms of the National Service (which he calls national servitude), resulting in their arrest, expulsion from the university, and deportation to their hometowns; the Nation House in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was given an expatriate   white person’s most privileged status employment package as a copy editor; his refuge in a British pub in England to narrowly escape a lynching by a mob of skinheads shouting “Paki go home,” and many more such unpredictable or gratifying occurrences.

His brothers had similar unusual experiences. Shiraz, a Makerere University educated doctor wanted to escape his government employment in Tanzania. So he fled to Uganda, only to find himself assigned to Idi Amin’s home town to take care of his prisoners with a possibility of becoming the brutal murderer’s personal physician. He had to flee again, this time to the United States.

The Aga Khan being interviewed by Mansoor Ladha, one of the few Ismaili journalists who has had the privilege to interview the Aga Khan.

1970: Mansoor Ladha interviewing His Highness the Aga Khan for Tanzania’s daily, The Standard (now Daily News). Photo: Mansoor Ladha Collection. Copyright.

Mehboob (Mebs), the youngest brother, was sponsored by Shiraz and his Catholic wife to study in America. The poor chap ended up in a Catholic school where he had to “confess” his sins every week and attend mass. He left with no verdict on his sinfulness but an abiding love of wine.

Ladha himself left his beloved Tanzania as he could no longer live in the post-independence Tanzania where nationalization had rendered his family financially emasculated and Africanization had closed the doors of employment at the highest echelons for all the muhindis. Such elite positions were reserved for Africans, as they were for Europeans in the colonial period.

He did visit his beloved Tanzania twice as a tourist and also made two journeys to his grandparents’ ancestral homes in Gujarat. Canada became his new, permanent home but the barriers facing non-white immigrants surfaced often. Through determination and even daring, he became the editor and publisher of several weeklies in Alberta. Later he retired after selling his newspaper business, making Calgary his home.

Suffice to say, this interesting and enlightening memoir should be worthy of consideration by diasporic book clubs. Most of the fifteen chapters contain experiences, episodes and opinions likely to generate animated exchanges.

Besides being a valuable addition to one’s own library, it would be a suitable gift for your colleagues and neighbors who often ask the diasporic muhindis: “What is your nationality?” But they actually are curious about your country of origin, why you are not black if you came from Africa, and reasons for being in “their” countries.

Finally, many readers may be inspired by Ladha‘s memoir to tell their own stories in their own memoirs.

Date posted: December 27, 2018.

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To acquire Mansoor Ladha’s book including the Kindle Edition please click https://www.amazon.ca/Memoirs-Muhindi-Fleeing-East-Africa/dp/0889774749.

Nizar Motani on the Aga KhanNizar A. Motani has a doctorate from the University of London (SOAS) in African history, specializing in British colonial rule in East Africa. He has been a college professor at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) and Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI). He was the first Publication Officer at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (London, UK). He now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Readers will be also be interested in the following pieces by Dr. Motani that were published on Simerg and Barakah: 

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Additional reviews of Mansoor Ladha’s Memoirs at:

Thank You Letter to Ismaili Pioneers Kassam Ali Paroo, Lutafali Maherali and Aziz Esmail, by Salim Kanji @Simerg

Salim Kanji’s Thank You Letter to Three Ismaili Pioneers in East Africa

“…When the early Ismaili immigrants began arriving in East Africa from the Indian Sub-Continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much work needed to be done in the socio-economic factors of the community’s life…..you are among the ones I particularly wish to particularly thank for the roles you played in securing the future of the Jamat in East Africa…”

Please click for “Thank You” Letter

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