Bagamoyo’s Historic Ismaili Jamatkhana Through Pictures, Poetry and Prose

By Shariffa Keshavjee
(Special to Simerg)

A stunning view of the Indian Ocean from the roof-top of the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana. Please click on photo for enlargement. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite pastimes was to be in the presence of adult company.

As the youngest in the family I was too often labelled as being too small to ‘do’ anything. Life would slip by in the innocence of childhood. To be part of a group of adults walking out in the warmth of a Mombasa evening in the moonlit night was therefore a special treat.

In those days, people were in and out of each others homes. This meant that families such as the Lakhas, the Fatehali Dhallas and the Paroos were like one big family. Conversation flowed. Very often the subject would turn to Bagamoyo. Kassamali Paroo told us that Bagamoyo meant ‘ I left my heart there’. This began to hold some magical lure for me as a child. Bagamoyo had a mysterious sound. It seemed so far away, exotic and unattainable. But Kassamali Paroo talked about the town as home — which it was because he had been born there. Kassamali’s grandfather was Sewa Haji Paroo, the ‘Uncrowned King of Bagamoyo’.

A view of the historic town of Bagamoyo, which lies 75 kilometres north of Dar-es-Salaam on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Bagamoyo District is endowed with an extraordinary historical and cultural heritage and was recently designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. This heritage is based on the 19th century slave and ivory trade between the East African inland and the Zanzibar-based sultanate. Caption and Photo: UN-HABITAT, 2009. Copyright.

Part of my fascination for the town was because Sewa Haji Paroo had employed young Alidina Visram when he first came to the coast of Africa. In turn, Alidina Visram had employed my grandfather, Hasham Jamal, as a trader in Kenya. It was in Bagamoyo that trade had begun and my grandfather had carried it on into Kenya, in 1901. It was in Bagamoyo that the Ismailis set up the first mainland Jamatkhana and the Aga Khan Council. My grandfather did the same in Kisumu.

A history of the famous Baobab Tree in Bagamoyo. The tree was planted in 1868 and has therefore a remarkable history.  Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya.

The mystery attached to Bagamoyo became more illusive when we moved to Kisumu and the magic of the coast, its baobabs and ever enchanting coast line with dhows became a thing of my past. No more boating on the Indian Ocean, singing the popular film songs and the old classics. Life in Kisumu had a different flavour.

Nevertheless, when in 2007 the opportunity arose for me to go to Dar-es-Salaam, I jumped at the chance. Finally, I might make it to Bagamoyo. All this time, I envisioned the old, thriving, lively town. After all, it was the most important trading port on the entire East African Coast and the starting and ending point for all the trading caravans going inland to the Great Lakes. (Dar-es-Salaam, ‘the haven of peace’, 60 miles to the south, only came into being in 1891.) When I romanticized about it to my friend Cynthia Salvadori, she laughed; she had visited Bagamoyo some forty years earlier, in 1967, and found it completely derelict and almost abandoned. The road leading there from Dar was just a sandy track, obviously impassable during the rains. She had not even been able to get to the famous ancient ruins at Kaole, just a few miles south, as the area was occupied by a training camp for freedom fighters from Mozambique.

At last I would fulfil a life-long dream and see for myself what the famous old town looked like, see who had left their hearts there. I was able to persuade Zulobia Dhalla to take me but as she could not understand why we had to spend a whole day there, I had to bribe her with a promise of the best seafood fondue in town. Besides, I told her, Bagamoyo had applied for a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A view of a street in Bagamoyo. Bagamoyo District has been one of the fastest growing districts in Tanzania. Photo: UN-HABITAT. Copyright.

The road was no sandy track. It was smooth tarmac and the scenery delightful. Many of the houses along the road were three-story buildings, often with bright blue roofs, a sharp contrast to the bright red of the flamboyant trees. There were indigenous trees too, festooned with creepers, everything was green and lush. The gardens were festive with Bougainvillea of varied colours and in no time we were in Bagamoyo. This was not the derelict town that Cynthia had described.

We found the tourist office where we hired a guide, a young university student. He first took us to the German Fort, a building which had been bought by Sewa Haji Paroo in 1894 and then taken over by the Germans. It is now a museum. He then accompanied us in our car to show us Kaole. Now we were on a sand track, but one that was well maintained as the German Government had financed the improvement of the road.

Shariffa Keshavjee signing the guest book at the Bagamoyo Museum. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

As we approached Kaole, we were aware of the restoration; it was well sign-posted and the grounds were neatly kept. There were several school buses in the parking lot and it was heart-warming to see the children sitting under the canopy of the huge sacred tree. While the children sat cross-legged on the sand, looking at the teacher in rapt attention, the teacher explained, in Kiswahili, the significance of the site.

A view of the grave site at Bagamoyo’s Kaole ruins. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

The whole area had the magic that surrounds old ruins. The silence, the starkness of the grey, aged stone of the tombs which are typical of this site. Some of men’s tombs have a pointed pillar, while those of women are simple flat structures. One tomb is noticeably different. There is a story that two lovers who were travelling to Zanzibar by boat had died at sea. When the bodies were found, the hands of the lovers were clasped, so the lovers were buried together and a tomb built with an arch uniting them. Like every visitor, we ended our tour of Kaole by walking to the sacred well where we let down the bucket into its depths, making a wish that peace and harmony pervade this coast.

As we drove back to Bagamoyo we noticed many schools. Children played in the grounds, laughing in youthful abandonment. Here it seemed that all children had the opportunity to go to school and get free education.

What was the reason that there are so many schools in Bagamoyo?

In 1896 Sewa Haji, an influential businessman, built this three storey interracial school in the heart of Bagamoyo. The school is one of the many social facilities provided by Sewa Haji in the late 1800. Today parts of the building are not in use because of the poor condition. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya.

One of the reasons was that some pioneers like Sewa Haji Paroo, and the Catholic Mission had promoted education. This they did by building schools, hiring competent teachers and developing the curriculum. As we drove along, we could see children joyful in the playgrounds of the school. The school built by Sewa Haji Paroo was freshly white-washed, with the blue roofing so popular in the region.

We asked our young guide to take us to the jamatkhana.

Bagamoyo Jamatkhana – exterior view. Photo: Al-Karim Walli, Calgary, Canada. Copyright. Photo published in

‘The what?”

Up and down the few narrow sandy streets of the old part of the town we went, asking about the jamatkhana.

‘Is there a mosque in this area?’ Of course we were guided to a mosque with a minaret.

The sun by now was nearly overhead, we were getting hot.

Finally I asked a young man, ‘Ko na msikiti ya Khoja?’

A shaded entrance to the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

He took us immediately to a plain stone two-storey building on the seaward side of the town, conspicuous only by its size, and its red roof. The facade was broken only by a large wooden double door, with a small door inset on one side. We clanged the handsome brass knocker, then gave a little push and the door opened. We bent down and entered. Suddenly it was marvellously cool.

Several local families seemed to be occupying their own small areas of the ground floor. Women were cooking the midday meals over charcoal jikos, while a few men and small children reclined in the cool of the yard. Bagamoyo is a siesta town. One of the women introduced herself as the caretaker’s wife.

Lella, the lady who looks after the Jamatkhana. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

We walked out into the garden infused with the fragrance of elang-elang, their narrow yellow petals so delicate that even picking them bruised them. There were guava trees too, laden with pink-fleshed fruits, and white-flowering jasmine climbing up the walls.

A passage from the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana leading upto the sea front. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

As we made our way towards the sea, we had to pass the graveyard. There were many tombstones here, all on land donated by Sewa Haji Paroo. Each stone had the name of the person, the date of the death and a small prayer, all hand-carved in Gujerati.

Gujerati etched grave stones at the Ismaili cemetery in Bagamoyo. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

Some tombstones began with Bismillah in Arabic; others began with Ya Ali Madad in Gujerati followed by the date of birth and death.


A close-up of the gujerati etchings on the grave stone shown at left in previous photo with the words “Ya Ali Madad” at the top. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

I had never seen tombstones etched in Gujerati. I later discovered that Sewa Haji Paroo had also donated the land for the graveyard in Mombasa, and there are similar old Gujerati inscriptions.

The tejuri (chest) in the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

We returned to the building and the caretaker’s wife led us up the broad stairs to the prayer hall, passing the sadris, the prayer mats, all rolled up, and the red and green flag of the Ismailis, that too rolled up. On the upper floor was a heavy old safe, a symbol that this had once been a flourishing wealthy large jamat.

As we stood out on the balcony, looking out over the azure of the Indian Ocean, we felt a sense of history, the voyage of our ancestors coming to this continent full of hope for the future and fear of the unknown.

Another hand etched Gujerati gravestone at the Ismaili cemetery in Bagamoyo. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

For example the town boasts a jamatkhana (a prayer place for Ismaili Muslims) which should be about 100 years old. It is the only grave yard that I have seen with hand in scripted grave stones. Not only is that but the epitaphs hand in scripted in Gujerati. The grave yard is tended by a family that lives in the double story building. The family lays sprawled on the ground floor, lighting fires to cook their daily meals on the sight that was perhaps once a prayer hall or a hall where people removed shoes to go up to pray. Perhaps it was a place where the bride and groom stood for blessings after the marriage. The families surrounding the newly wed. The mind can imagine so many scenarios.

As my life long dream came true and I stood on the balcony of the Jamatkhana, I was silenced by the beauty.

A view of the Indian Ocean from Bagamoyo Jamatkhana. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

The balcony overlooked the Indian Ocean, the azure stretching into the horizon as far as the eye could see. Under the balcony were exotic trees of elang elang and pink guavas, a rare species hardly ever sold in the market. Palm fronds waved fanning the us as we stood in awe.

I thought back to the formation of the first Aga Khan Council, the first births, deaths and marriages. Did the bride and groom bend as they entered this cool passage to their new life? Or did they approach the jamatkhana from the sea front, their marriage party, the jaan, behind them, singing and dancing? What were the real lives of the people who had stood thus looking over the elang-elang trees breathing in the scent of the jasmine and the aroma of the pink guavas, so rare and so sweet.

Many cultures have met, integrated, and have left their heart here, in Bagamoyo. And what about the Jamatkhana that I had visited?


Bagamoyo’s Beautiful Shadows

Bagamoyo’s Ruins. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

Shadows cast their
Umbrage always in motion
The very sun that makes shadow
Is barred from giving heat
The cool air remains
A God-given succor
In the streets of Bagamoyo

Each edifice casts
A cooling protection
Homes and people
For those who walk
Those who slumber
Sell and vend in the
Streets of Bagamoyo

The peeling wall
The weeping paint
The still air
Cannot rub out
From the walls
From the hearts
Of those in Bagamoyo

The very air is filled
With tales
Lore and grief
The wailing slaves
Merchants rich
Parading here
In the streets of Bagamoyo


The Barred Window

A view of the Indian Ocean from the balcony of the Jamatkhana, overlooking the building’s rooftop. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

The barred window
Gives a glimpse
A glance
At a vignette
The view of
Those who came
They lived
Then were away
Never to tell
The story of Bagamoyo

Those devout
Who came and prayed
The glory that reigned
The wealth that rose
Then it died
An engraving
On the one
Tomb stone
The story of Bagamoyo

Shinning silverware
Glossy tatami mats
Red carpets
Cushioning the tred
Of the rich and the wealthy
Those were hey days
The garlands of jasmine
Sweet scented rose
No more in
The story of Bagamoyo

Over the roof tops
Once gleaming red
Now rusted
Worn out
Too lazy to tell
The glory that was
The palpable life
The visits of the Imams
In the years gone by
In the story of Bagamoyo


I Left My Heart

The Ismaili Flag and sadri (floor mats) in the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.

Imagine the flag rolled up
Once was unfurled,
Rising high
With pride
Valour of those
Who dared to
Sail the shore of home
To come to

Imagine the flag
Red slashed
Into the green
The blood flowed
Of momins
Slaves shipped
Leaving their heart
In Bagamoyo

New families came
Following the flag
In the firmans
All will be well
So here I am
In Bagamoyo.

New lives
Born here
Raised in pride
Well fed
Hopeful and
They died
In Bagamoyo



The Weeping Walls

Now all is safe,
The pictures are sent, the sentiments felt.
What a grand jamat it must have been.
Now no one cares, no paint on the walls.
Who can save this lovely heritage?
So sad to see the weeping walls.

* * *

If I had the wherewithal
I would have liked to make a book of poems,
of lament, of sorrow, of joy of glory each pasted with a picture.
But alas.

Date posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2012.

Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2012.


The three poems were written recently by Shariffa Keshavjee for this website. Her original narrative first appeared in Old Africa Magazine,  issue 11, June – July 2007, and is published here with minor revisions.

About the writer: Shariffa Keshavjee is a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. She is the founding member and director of the Hawkers Market School and the Kigera Girl Guides Centre which provide educational opportunities for destitute girls in the country’s slums. Her Hawkers Market Girls Centre has been the recipient of the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2004 in which the centre was given $85,000. In addition, she is also the founding member of FONA (Friends of the Nairobi Arboretum) which is dedicated to preserving Kenya’s forest and preserved arboreta. Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching.

She has previously contributed a very good piece Inferno of Alamut for this website’s acclaimed series I WISH I’D BEEN THERE.


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53 thoughts on “Bagamoyo’s Historic Ismaili Jamatkhana Through Pictures, Poetry and Prose

  1. My paternal grandfather Merali Remtulla was a long time resident, trader of Bagamoyo In the late 1800’s until 1940’s, and also had shops in Tabora.

    He married my grandmother Jenabai Merali Remtulla, daughter of Ladha Mawji of Zanzibar, while her brother Musa Ladha Mawji moved to Mombasa in the 1940’s.

    The graveyard pictured in Shariffa Keshavji’s article is of my grandmother whose headstone carving are of my late father Gulamali Merali Remtulla.
    My maternal grandfather Abdullah Mohamed Dhanji and my grandmother Sikinabai Abdulla Mohamed Dhanji were also long time residents of Bagamoyo.
    My late mother’s siblings: Fatma, Zera, Roshan, Gulbanu (my mom) Yasmin, Malek and my only uncle Amir were all born in the same house near A. N. Kassam’s house.

    The two graveyards shown in the articles are of my grandparents.

  2. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has historic ties to Bagamoyo (whether you grew up there or your families came from there). If you’re interested in sharing your stories with me, please contact me at My name is Steven Fabian and I’m a history professor in New York state.

    • Hi Steven
      My name is Bharat Champsi. I was born in Bagamoyo. My Grandfather Champsi Mulji came to Bagamoyo I believe in early 1900 (before 1st World War).
      Happy to share with you my memories and knowledge of the historic town.

  3. Dear Shariffa,
    What a beautiful presentation. My dad, Abdulrasul Ramji Gulamani was born in Bagamoyo. I went as far as Zanzibar where my mother was born, Fatumasi, but never got to Bagamoyo. So happy you shared this article with us all.

    Gulshan Finnemore

  4. My grandfather was the magistrate (liwali) of Bagamoyo. We lived in a big house opposite the post office facing the ocean. We went to Agakhan Primary School in the late 50s. Bagamoyo is undergoing transformation and everybody is buying property there with the new harbor coming soon.

    • Dear Sher Kannar – My name is Steven Fabian and I would be very interested in corresponding with you regarding your grandfather. I’m an historian of Bagamoyo. Please message me at

    • Did a Rajabali Esmail also stay in the same building as you? My late father was a teacher at Agakhan Primary School Bagamoyo. His name was Pirbhai Valji Jiva.

  5. Having gone through previous comments and the new article of Tribute I’m tempted again to butt-in as my trip to East Africa in 2012 was far from satisfactory but the fact still remains that I’ve not got round to writing any article for Abdul Malik Merchant the Editor of I enjoy each one I get via my e-mail account. Thank you.

  6. Dear Sharifa
    I have already commented before and one more thing that attracted me was the photo of grave written in Gujarati of late Bhimji who was originally from Madhapur Kutch and incidentally my forefathers came from Madhapur as well.I visited Madhapur on 24th February 2015.It was wonderful to see the place and the cemetery where Jafferbapa is buried together with other family members.

  7. Shariffa,

    I love your Bagamoyo photos, description and poems. Wonderful.

    When we lived in Dar es Salaam (1965-1971 –for a while as neighbors to Cynthia Salvadori) we made several trips to Bagamoyo, once on our Vespa scooter!

    We fell in love with the place. On one occasion we hired a sailing jahazi and made a trip to Zanzibar from Bagamoyo. Wonderful.

    Many many years later we discovered a book with the title: The Evangelization of Slaves and the Catholic Origins in Eastern Africa by Paul Kollman. We met the author here in Nairobi and we have a copy of the book. Fascinating. It is the story of how a Catholic mission based on the island of Reunion came to Zanzibar, bought up slaves and trained them as Christians and then from there established the Bagamoyo Catholic mission as both a way of rehabilitating slaves and as a way of evangelizing the mainland!! It is a quite amazing story.

    Fascinating that Bagamoyo was also the first mainland cite for an Ismaili mosque! Uncanny.

    While we lived in Dar es Salaam we made our first visit to Zanzibar with BahadurKhaki as our guide. He was a brother to the media man Mohammed Amin’s wife Dolly who now lives in Nairobi and whose son Salim now operates the Camrapix business at the ABC Waiyaki Way complex.

    Strange world of connections!

    Harold Miller

    • Mr Miller: I was 17 years old when I came to B.E. Africa in 1957, with Pakistan Pipe Band to attend the Takhatnashinis of Hazar Imam. I remember Bahadur, Dolly, Aziz and their other brother, I think his name was Abdul. They helped all the 25 members of the band during our stay. A very lively family.

  8. One very important family that lived in Bagamoyo for many a years was Gulamhussein Mohamed Meghji’s family. They owned acres and acres of coconut plantations and cashew nuts trees. Jafferali, son of G.M. Meghji, was then the caretaker of the family’s business. The family played an important role in the Ismaili community. Jafferali had two sons. Alnoor, the younger son, passed away a few years ago. The older son, I forget his name still lives in Vancouver. Nick Meghji and Firoz Meghji, nephews of Jaferali, live in Calgary, Alberta. Nick was my friend and I visited Bagamoyo many times with him.

  9. Interesting stories of Bagamoyo. Where you are born and spent your childhood can never leave your heart and memory.During my visit I saw a secondary school which has the following inscribed on the entrance. HASSANALI DAMJI MEMORIAL TRUST SECONDARY SCHOOL BAGAMOYO. I am not originally from Bagamoyo but the board led me to think who was Hassanali Damji. Bagamoyons we hope to hear from you.

  10. Dear Shariffa and Editor Abdul Malik of simerg,

    Reading this article, with comments, a mixture of travelogue combined with invaluable history preserved (including when Africans were captured as slaves and what ‘Bagamoyo’ really means) I ask myself, will I be able to write as Sheriffa and make my own observations during our forth-coming 2-week Tour to Kampala in October 2012? I just paid my deposit not to miss this golden opportunity having come my way of a visit to my birthplace after 45 years of having left it since 1967. I did my schooling, teacher-training and University education there; I have taught both in Primary and Secondary Aga Khan Schools in Kampala. We hope to land on the very day of Uganda’s 50th Independence, followed by a special global event for 3 days, to mark the Expulsion of Asians in 1972 that happened 40 years ago.

    In order to do justice not only to myself, but also to readers of this blog, I shall have to master a few skills like photography, using a laptop etc. I am so inspired to work hard at it. Will I be fortunate to meet up with this marvellous writer Shariffa in Nairobi during a day’s stay there? We share common interests, I keep my fingers crossed! We hope to visit Mombasa for a few days, sadly Tanzania is excluded to complete the whole of East Africa we knew.

    I have repeatedly been urged by Abdul Malik Merchant the Editor, to write an article apart from just comments but have missed target dates. I need to fulfil my aim to write, if not a book, at least an article about what is precious to me, sharing my own first-hand experience through the Journey of Life wherever we live or come from.

  11. Wow!!! What a great job, just brought back the memories, used to go to Bagamoyo on my school holidays, with my friend Hanif Kassam who’s parents used to leave there, had a shop, dont remember much but the Jamat Khana brings the memory back, great job loved the your detailed information.

  12. Well done for bringing back memories of Bagamoyo. I was born there and went to School there and as kids, we used to play with all my Ismaili friends cricket, right outside the Jamat Khana. We also joined in the Khushali celebrations within the very close community of Ismailis, Vohras and Hindus. Beautiful photos of Bagamoyo to remind us of time we spent there. Thank you again

  13. Re – Bagamoyo’s Ruins Photo

    I have had a good look at the photo from all angels and think that it could be transposed at development / printing stage. The photo seems to be of The Customs House right on the harbour beach. At high tide, the seawater would come up and lash the ground floor walls pavement. The ground floor consisted of offices whilst the 1st floor was residential. Offices consisted of 2 rooms plus one small room housing a safe (tejuri) dating from the German times. The safe was used for safe storage of cash and dhow papers. The residential accomodation consisted of 3 rooms and separate bathrrom and toilet. Above the residential accommodation was a watch tower + water tanks. Facing the building from the beach, there was a huge yard for customs & excise purposes on the left of the building. The main entrance to the yard was at right angles to the main building.It comprised of two very large and tall iron gates with iron bars kept padlocked at all times as it stored goods and material awaiting customs clearance. The pillars that you see in the photo formed the front wall of the said yard. The front wall did indeed face the sea and had iron railings above the base wall rising right up to the height of the pillars. This front wall had lean to with corrugated iron sheets for roofing and shelter. Under this shelter, there were iron shackles on the inside of the base walls and pillars to tie down the African slaves brought in from the interior. They were kept there overnight or until they were ready to be shipped over to Zanzibar. This ofcourse was when the slave trade out of Bagamoyo to Zanzibar, was at its high. We used to climb up to the watch tower to observe the sea front and surroundings. A white dot on the horizon towards Zanzibar, in early afternoon culminated into an Arab type dhow in the early or late evenings. The dhows came in from as far as the Persian Gulf, North East Africa coast on their way all the way to Mozambique. The dhow captain came on shore first to surrender his papers (dhow log book and cargo and passenger menifesto) to my uncle or one of his assistants for inspection. If dhow came into Bagamoyo harbour at high tide, it would be no more than 10′ away from the Customs House. The captain and passengers would be carried ashore either piggy-back or carried on shoulders by the dhow crew. After disambarkation, the dhow would be anchored overnight at or very nearby harbour area. Before sailing off, the dhow captain had to have customs clearance. Customs clearance meant payment of charges, taxes, new passenger & cargo manifesto plus the return of surrendered dhow’s log book. In those days, there were a few local Asian dukawallahs that would assist dhow captains in filling in forms and charging them a fee. I as a young teenager, used to do that for free with the knowledge of my mama. I still remember one dhow registered in Bagamoyo under number B94 and called “Upesi”. Some days the Customs House would get a whiff of a smuggling scheduled for late that night in the vacinity of Bagamoyo or surrounding smaller ports like Kaole and Sadani. According, my mama and his assistants would get into Customs uniforms, blacken their faces and arms (just like military personnel) with some ointment and go out carrying a rifle in hand to apprehend the smugglers. At the back of the Customs house there was a dirt courtyard / compound with corrugated irons sheets as fencing. Within the said courtyrd, there was a well surrounded by a 3′ concrete wall and a metal frame with a pully attached at the top to facilitat fetching the water. The well also had manual pump (Dunky) to hand pump water into the storage tank/s on the 2nd floor watch tower area. The courtyard had a specific area (Chokdi) for washing the pots and pans and clothing

    During the late 50s and very early 60s my maternal uncle (Mama) Pragji Purshottam Bharadia, was based there as the chief Customs Officer with 2 African assistants. During our school December vacations, we spent a whole month living at the Customs House. Every morning at around 5 O’clock we would go for a swim with a few members of pioneering Bhatia Family of Champsi Mulji. After the swim, we would dowse ourselves with the well water to cleanse ourselves of seawater. After that we boys used to pump water into the storage tanks in the 2nd floor. This was repeated late in the evening to ensure adequate water supply overnight. After our baths, we would go and play nearby with boys who mostly came from the local Khoja families. How did we make friends with the said Khoja boys? One of the grandsons Bhagwatsinh (Bharat) of Champsi Mulji was my classmate and he too returned home during vacation. Prior to coming to Dar for his secondary education, he must have attended the local H. H. the Aga Khan Primary school and hence our playing with the local Khoja boys.

  14. Well thank you Shariffa and thank you to all for comments. Lets see if we can put some flesh on those bare bones. Doubtful if it will bring Bagamoyo to life and past glory, particularly as the town’s prosperity and riches were built on the slave trade and ivory which meant slaughter of hundreds of elephants to satisfy man’s desire to accumulate wealth. But of course lets start from the beginning. Bagamoyo does mean “left my soul” which really refers to those thousands of Africans captured and brought there as slaves, transported to Zanzibar, sold at auctions, kept in suffocating conditions where many died from suffocation. If any body needs to be remembered it is Sir Tharia Topan, a pioneer Ismaili, Knighted by Queen Victoria for services in abolishing the slave trade.

    Which brings me to the Ismailis of Bagamoyo. First of all Sewa Haji Paroo was not Count Kassamali Paroo’s grandfather. The late Count Saheb’s full names are Kassamali Rajabali Hasham Jaffer Paroo Pardhan Parapia. A well educated man, cultured, courteous and an orator of distinction who captured the attention of all those who listened to his wa’ez in jamatkhanas. Sewa was Haji Paroo’s son who was Jaffer’s brother. Sewa died childless. His second wife was his brother Sajan’s widow, he died from a shark bite.

    Lets talk about Allidian Visram. A prosperous merchant of the town but a generous benefactor who gave employment to many and whose statue in Mombasa was erected and paid for by Rajabali Hasham Paroo. In 1905, the Imam nominated him a member of the Mombasa, Bagamoyo and Dar Councils – a unique honour indeed.

    I will now write about the Bagamoyo jamatkhana. It pre-dates the Zanzibar jamatkhana. The Mukhi there in 1905 was Ibrahimbhai Remtullah who, in 1905, became the first President of the Bagamoyo Council and the Kamadia Virambhai Thawer the acting President. Yes Count Kassamali was born at Bagamoyo and served the Imam with distinction but then so did the Somji family of Bagamoyo and later Mombasa, but more about them some other time as one could go on and on. But it is doubtful if Suleman Verjee who landed at Mombasa, became Mukhi there and died and is buried there, visited Bagamoyo but then who knows.

    Incidentally I am through my mother’s side related to S. Virjee and on my father’s side to the Thawer’s of Bagamoyo and Zanzibar and through my nephew’s marriage to the other half of the Paroos, the Dossani’s of Zanzibar. This branch of the family became popularly known as Moloo, after Moloo Brothers of Zanzibar

  15. Dear Shariffa,
    Thank you for your note. My father had a coconut farm in Bagamoyo ,and we used to spend the harvest season in Bagamoyo. But unfortunately I do not have any photographs of
    historical value. Those days, we never thought of taking pictures. I think that, you have published a book recently. I congratulate you for that and also for writing so well. Yes, it is a nice way of leaving our memories for our younger generations.

    I was born in Pemba,and have spent all my life in Dar. We have witnessed the Colonial, as well as pre and post Independence times in Tanganyika -Tanzania. My husband K.L.Jhaveri has written,” Marching with Nyerere.” which was published in 1999. Presently I am writing my memoirs and enjoying it too!

    Wishing you all the best, Urmila

  16. A beautiful and touching article which made me feel I was there on the journey with you. At times I felt I was lost; the article gave me much needed solace. Thank you.

  17. Excellent article by Shariffa Keshavjee. The Ismaili Flag abandoned in the Jamatkhana, along with the ”tejuri” should be preserved as historical items. I was sad to hear about Cynthia Salvadori, her contributions to Indian migration into East Africa is priceless. Vali Jamal is documenting the history of the Asians in Uganda, I hope he does the same for the Asians in Kenya and Tanzania.

    • No, Zuli, I am not going to do a book on the non-Uganda East African Asians – don’t have the feel or feelings for them, except for Mombasa where I was born and uprooted from in 1946 when my father was sent to Kampala (by KR Paroo, no less) to open the branch of Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust. Since then Uganda is home. It’s also special since we were uprooted from it in 1972 and hence worth writing about.

  18. I studied in Bagamoyo for three years from 1952. The school was just opposite the jamatkhana. I think there were at least 300 Ismailies then. Two years ago I went there and I could not recognize the house I lived in. The place is finished. I was told there are only two families now.

  19. Heart breaking to see the jamatkhana in this condition. We have to take care of our historical buildings.

  20. Thank you very much. We used to go for picnics to Bagamoyo from Dar-es-Salaam. This article certainly brought back memories of the little town. In looking at the picrtures, I was sad to see the condition of the jamatkhana.

  21. Wow .. this article brought tears in my eyes and the ‘good old’ memories. Being in Canada for almost 30 yrs and having grown up in Dar-es-salaam; I had only been to Bagamoyo once during the ‘good old’ days. I remember it was a picnic or a visit organized by one of our Institutions and that was in the late 70’s. But as I read the article; I could exactly picture and follow this. I would love to go back and visit the site and only this time – with my family and show the children where we came from and the history behind it all.

    Thank You again for all the hard-work and putting this into percpective! Great article!

  22. WOW! It certainly brought back many fond memories! My Grandparents and my Parents originate from Bagamoyo, this town has a big impact on all of us! I noticed the cemetaries of my grandparents made of white tiles (side by side) amazing! The Jamat Khana where we used to spend our evenings, also the Social hall downstairs where we played dandia/Raas during Khushali. I haven’t been back – it’s been 31 long years! Shariffa you certainly brought my childhood back I must say. It’s a very detailed poetry and you haven’t missed any of the main details…AMAZING JOB DONE!!! Thanks so much for sharing and bringing back my memories.

    • I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has historic ties to Bagamoyo (whether you grew up there or your families came from there). If you’re interested in sharing your stories with me, please contact me at My name is Steven Fabian and I’m a history professor in New York state.

      Note: Steven’s feedback has been updated with his correct email address; please write to him at

  23. Wow what a beautiful write up Shariffa!! It also touched my heart as my dad passed away a few days ago, and he used to drive us to Bagamoyo as a treat during our school holidays and give us the best times. He lived to love life so he showed us many things in Bagamoyo and had some great friends there.

    I am so glad to read the article and thanks for sharing such a beautiful poetry. It really made my day.

  24. I, as seven year old Parsi boy recall even now visiting Bagamoyo. Temuras Alavia, a Parsi gentleman, worked on an estate and lived in a large stone house, which had some connection with slave trade. I recall the old town, the stone buidings, and the tales that Temuras related to my dad, during the evening ‘pombe nazi,’ coconut toddy, drinking. One of the town duka that lingers in my mind, had amazing array of glass beads. Shukas,and white khazus, hung on a stick, fluttered under the tin roof eaves. Walking the streets was like viewing time in reverse. And the sea, oh, so blue.Thank you Shariffa, for reviving the old moments.
    Kersi Rustomji.
    ex-Kenya. Australia.

    • Kersi is a gem. It’s people like that that will preserve our history. He’s contributed lovely stories about our traditional games – gili-danda, nagolyo, goma – for my book about Uganda Asians. a chapter about papad-making is by itself worth buying the book for. It seems to me we Uganda Asians were at the edge of pioneering East Africa – I mean we were far from the coast in the real jungle. The terrain became mountainous, the grass elephant-high, the root crops – cassave, sweet potatoes, and other ones – growing in such abundance far from the stem! That’s what I am writing about and if it seems I am intervening here to sell my book – baap re baap, I’ll be giving it away at cost when it appears.

  25. It is so nice to read articles which bring the past back to us. It is like we went along the journey with Shariffa and shared her experiences. Keep up the good work.

  26. Without any disrespect to people of, or from, Bagamoyo I suppose it is fair to say that most of us can go through life without the need to know about the place. That is, until we read an article such as this. Shairffa Keshavjee’s prose and verse brings Bagamoyo back to life in our minds and memories. Archivists, historians and diarists write about people and places. Whether they vilify or glorify their subjects, they unwittingly give their subjects the gift of immortality. For, as somebody has said, nobody is truly dead until they are remembered no more. Shariffa Keshajee’s essay ensures that Bagamoyo will be long remembered.

    • Many people won’t know but, just as Zanzibar was THE most important place in Ismaili history in East Africa, Bagamoyo is equally important as it was the main stepping stone from Zanzibar as Ismailis moved into the hinterland as far as the Congo…….and Bagamoyo was the capital of German East Afrika.

      • As Alnoor says Bagamoyo was it at 1870s when people strated trickling across from Zanzibar, Allidina Visram, Sewa Hajji Paroo and Suleman Verjee among them. I’d love to visit! A friend of mine Noordin Somji’s ancestors were there and got written up in a book about Baga.

  27. Shariffa writes beautifully in prose and poetry of a world heritage site visited five years ago and wrote up in prose then. She evokes the names of some famous Ismailis in East Africa’s history: Sewa Haji Paroo who brought in Allidina Visram who took in Hasham Jamal, her grandfather, my own grandfather Valli Jamal’s brother. (He reached Wadelai in Uganda by 1903 on behalf of the great Allidina.) In those days Ismailis were at the forefront of pioneering in East Africa, facilitated by our 46th Imam Hassanali Shah Aga Khan I’s friendship with the British Raj.
    She writes lovingly about the jamatkhana in the town, the first on the mainland, in decrepit condition. I hope it gets preserved as part of UNESCO’s World Heritage town, otherwise I worry it will fall to pieces. Isn’t this the jamatkhana built on a gravesite and when the Imam Sultan Mohamed Shah came to open it he simply refused to sleep the night in the bungalow and went back to his steamer?! I was talking about that only recently to Hon Sheralli Bandalli Jaffer. About the Gujarati inscriptions found on the gravestones, some exist in the Ismailia cemetery in Kampala near the mausoleum of Allidina Visram. They start with Bismillah, then evoke the Panj Tan Paak, and give the date of birth and death. I took some pictures and put them on the pages relating to Allidina in my book. I dare say such gravestones existed in the Mombasa cemetery too but have been razed over. Some recent big people in Kampala have built the graves of their departed ones in the 1960s over three graves – a kind of “grave grab.”
    Shariffa’s article itself has a long history: First published in Old Africa, with the collaboration of Cynthia Salvadori. It might be noted that Salvadori died by her own hands just last year, worth mentioning as Salvadori did so much to record our (East African Asian) history in her three books Through Open Doors, We came in Dhows, and Settling in a Strange Land. Such people should be recognized through an award system among East African Asians.

    • Vali, you are right. Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah was not happy about Bagamoyo Jamatkhana being built on the gravesite. Mawla never visited Bagamoyo again, and Bagamoyo never prospered like other German East Africa towns like Kilwa, Lindi or Mikindani, where we still have our Jamatkhanas nearly falling to pieces. Has somebody written about these coastal towns?

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