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:

Triumphal Moments in Ismaili History: Jawhar’s Conquest of Egypt and Imam al-Muizz’s Resplendent Darbar in Cairo

“I WISH I’D BEEN THERE”

1970: Mansoor Ladha, veteran award winning journalist, writer and author, interviewing His Highness the Aga Khan for Tanzania’s daily, The Standard (now Daily News). Photo: Mansoor Ladha Collection. Copyright.

BY MANSOOR LADHA

As a journalist, a writer and an author, what better time to be than reporting milestones and significant events during the Fatimid Period or the “Golden Age” of Ismailism, when Ismaili Imams ruled over a vast empire and when Ismaili literature, philosophy and law flourished. It was during the Fatimid Period that the Ismaili scholars and authors produced what were to become the classic texts of Ismaili literature dealing with a multitude of exoteric and esoteric subjects. I think I might have made Ismaili fiqh (jurisprudence) my area of specialization, because it had not existed during the pre-Fatimid period. It was codified and became catalogued during the early Fatimid period. It was during the Fatimid period that Ismailis made their important contributions to Islamic theology and philosophy in general and to Shia thought in particular. Modern recovery of Ismaili literature clearly attests to the richness and diversity of the literary and intellectual traditions of the Ismailis.

Egypt became the center of the Fatimid empire that included at its peak North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen and the Hejaz. Egypt flourished as the Fatimids developed an extensive trade and diplomatic network and ties which extended all the way to China. Map: Wikipedia; click to enlarge

But, I think, for me of all the events that I would have reported, there are a number of related incidents that stand out, and which I would have liked to witness in the company of Imam Muizz’s trusted commander, Jawhar al-Siqilli. He was of Sicilian descent.

He had been entrusted by the Imam to conquer Egypt. With a 100,000 men assembled and equipped at a cost of 24 million dinars, he set out for Egypt on February 5th, 969.

Embedded I would be, like the modern journalists in this vast army, alongside my hero! The road to Egypt had been well ascertained, forts had been built through the route at specific places. Jawhar was carrying with him a thousand caskets filled with silver. Camels carried gold ingots in plain sight, cast in the shape of millstones, to impress the crowds and the local peoples through which the army passed. Then four months later, in June of the same year, I would arrive with Jawhar in Egypt, and hardly witness any resistance!

As the first measures after the conquest, I see him issue a proclamation promising financial reforms and an end to injustice. He reached out to Sunnis, Jews and Christians and offered them protection.

Then I had been with him as he crossed the Nile, and on July 6 of the same year, he marched through Fustat, and established himself north of the city in the plain that would become his new capital – a capital that Imam Muizz had expressed a wish would rule the world.

Fatimid Cairo with an outline of Jawhar’s wall shown by dashes (Please click to enlarge)

This site was empty except for a monastery and a castle. On the very night of Jawhar’s arrival in this empty spot, I would have seen the Sicilian mark the perimeter of the city with wooden stakes strung together with belled ropes. A crow would land on the rope and set the bells jingling. The ground breaking work would commence at that spot for what would eventually become known as al-Qahira (“The Triumphant”). I would see the birth of what is now modern Cairo!

But the epochal incident, the Grand Darbar, would come four years later. During this interim time I would see Jawhar establish the new capital, pacify the provinces, institute financial reform, defeat the Qarmats in December 971, and introduce new religious observances in conformity with the Shia Ismaili faith. This would include a call to prayers containing the Shiite invitation to “come to the best prayer.”

Now that all had been done, no further time would be spent. There was nothing left to do but to invite Imam al-Muizz.

In 973, the Imam leaves the Maghreb on his way to Egypt with his sons and relatives with him, along with coffins of his ancestors. One of his stops is Alexandria, where the Imam resolves to dedicate his life in the exercise of good works. He then preaches to them in a manner which draws tears from many who are present.

He departs after spending three days in Alexandria, and on June 6, 973, he reaches a place known as Mina. Jawhar is there to receive him. I see him go forth to meet his master and I witness him drawing near the Imam, dismounting from his horse and kissing the ground before the Imam in a show of loyalty, humility and submission to the Amirul Muminin. This is affection and love for the Imam I see at the highest and deepest level. It is a profound experience and a joy to behold, which I would report.

The Imam would then cross the Nile on the Rawdah bridge, bypass Fustat, and proceed straight to Cairo and take possession of the palace or fort that Jawhar had constructed for the Imam.

It is Ramadhan – year AH 362. The feast marking its end is underway. I’d see Imam Muizz conduct his prayers at the new mosque in Cairo, and then ascend the pulpit to give his sermon, with Jawhar on the steps of the pulpit. I would feel the emotions as the crowds weep and sob at hearing the Imam’s sermon.

Outside, the Imam would then mount his horse surrounded by his four armoured and helmeted sons, while two elephants led the procession. Destination – the fort, and I on my heels to get there for the Darbar!

Then, at the fort, all the citizens eagerly await to pay their allegiance to the new Caliph. Jawhar would be within my sight, and very close to the Imam, to his right.

I would witness the Imam majestically seated on his golden throne as he received all the nobles, Qadis, Vazirs and Ulemas of his city. They would present the Imam with their beautiful gifts as well as a robe made from a rare yarn that is known to grow only in Tunis. The material has a special shine and is gilded with gold and silver. The Imam would then be presented a Turban of a similar material and he would adorn the robe and the Turban. A resplendent Darbar for me to record and report as a journalist!

My friend, Jawhar, would get his turn. I would see him present the Imam, al-Muizz, with the best breed of 150 horses gilded with saddles and bridles of gold and diamonds as well as camels and ponies, saddled with boxes filled with all rare items in Egypt.

Then the Imam Muizz in a remarkable gesture of magnanimity and forgiveness would announce the release of about 1000 of his prisoners and present robes and Khalat to all his nobles and officers.

Would Jawhar be forgotten in the sight of the Imam? No. I would be exuberant to see my beloved Imam’s immense love for someone responsible for conquering Egypt some four years earlier. Jawhar would be honoured as he is presented with a golden Khalat and a turban. Imam Muizz then would tie a sword on Jawhar’s waist and present him with 20 horses with golden saddles, 50 thousand dinars and 200,000 dirhams.

With this Darbar, Egypt and Cairo enter a new era that would last almost two centuries and constitute one of the most brilliant periods in Ismaili history and Islamic Civilization.

Indeed a monumental and epochal event to witness and report! What a story and I Wish I’d Been There with Jawhar.

© Simerg.com

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Front cover of Ladha’s work

About the Writer: Mansoor Ladha is an award-winning journalist based in Calgary, Canada. He has held several senior editorial positions with daily and weekly newspapers in Canada, Kenya and Tanzania, which included the Edmonton Journal, Morinville Mirror, Redwater Tribune, Daily Nation, Kenya, and Daily News, Tanzania. Currently, he freelances for the Calgary Herald, the Vancouver Sun, and the Calgary Senior newspapers and travel magazines. He has also published a book entitled A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims and is currently working on memoirs on his life in East Africa and in Canada. Last year, he was one of the several writers, scholars and journalists invited to contribute a chapter in the book called, The Story That Brought Me Here. He has served on several public and voluntary bodies in Canada. His complete profile can be viewed on his Web site www.mansoorladha.ca.

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This piece by Mansoor Ladha is one of 32 succinct pieces on Ismaili history that appeared in this blog’s highly acclaimed first anniversary special series, I Wish I’d Been There.

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Narrative references:

1. Cairo by Andre Raymond, translated by Willard Wood, published by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000.

Also note: Cairo map shown is from this book

2. Jawhar as-Siqilli by Zawahir Nooraly in book Great Ismaili Heroes, Pakistan. The complete article is also available on-line at:  http://www.amaana.org/heroes/note010.htm