Memories of Nairobi’s Majestic “Town” Jamatkhana, once the “Darkhana”

After moving to Nairobi, Kenya as a young boy in early 1964, I can vividly remember this Jamatkhana as it was where my family attended prayer services for over 10 years before immigrating to Canada.

On my arrival in Nairobi, just a few weeks after the independence of Kenya in December 1963, I can still recall the independence decoration banners, displayed in the colors of the new flag of Kenya – red, green and black with white stripes and the Coat of Arms depicted by the shield and spears, that our Ismaili community had built, outside the Jamatkhana building on Government Road, to symbolize its solidarity and commitment to the newly independent country.

The Jamatkhana building was commonly referred to as the “Khoja Mosque” by the public at large and it is still referred to by this name in many Kenya and Nairobi tourist guide books.  I recall many a time when boarding the pirate buses (matatus in Swahili) in Parklands, while going  to the Nairobi city centre/downtown area,  the conductors would shout “Khoja Mosque…Khoja Mosque” and while returning they would shout “Aga Khan…Aga Khan” referring to the Aga Khan Hospital situated on 3rd Parklands Avenue.  How ironic do those conductors choice of the location descriptive words sound today!  

In Canada, when I meet many fellow Ismaili and non-Ismaili immigrants from Kenya, the “Khoja Mosque” becomes the reference point to discuss many recollections.  Many non-Ismailis still remember the majesty and glory of the building on the evenings when all the light bulbs, that were placed all over its exterior walls and on the clock tower dome, were switched on to commemorate many a festive occasion. The Jamatkhana shined like an illuminated palace in the Nairobi night skyline.

This illumination of the building was prominently featured in a rare black and white 1962 documentary about His Highness the Aga Khan called The Living Camera.  Produced by Drew and Associates, the documentary contains footage of the building from the side of Government Road as well as a highly charged and emotional recitation by the Ismaili congregation inside the prayer hall of the ginan “Sahebji tu more mane bhave.”

 In the context of location, the Jamatkhana building was strategically located at the corner of the old Government Road (now Moi Avenue) and River Road and right across the old Indian Bazaar Street (now Biashara Street). In the colonial days, this location could be considered almost the axis of the old city centre core if one marks the boundaries by Government Road, Indian Bazaar Street, Harding Street and Victoria Street.  It is interesting to note that the Daily Nation newspaper, established by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1960, was first situated in the premises of a former bakery on Victoria Street and was only a very short walk from the Jamatkhana.  

As one notes while reviewing the foundation stone plaque, the Jamatkhana construction commenced in January 1920 and the building was officially opened in January 1922.  The completion of this solid stone Jamatkhana building within two years must have been an engineering and construction feat considering the equipment that was then available. It should also be noted that the Ismaili community, mostly migrants from the Kutch- Kathiawar area of present day State of Gujarat in India, had only settled in large numbers in colonial Kenya for approximately 20 years. Their population could not have been very large by any measure. In addition, we should also keep in mind many historical and economic factors relating to this time period.  The First World War had just ended in 1919. The war, as it was fought in East Africa too, had probably drained the colonial treasury. The Kenya-Uganda railway that probably was the mainstay of the colonial economy was only been completed around 1902.  Nairobi town, situated at an altitude of approximately 1,795 metres (5,889 ft) above sea level was only established 20 years earlier in 1899/1900 as a base camp to facilitate the construction of the railway across the Kenya highlands and Rift Valley.

Therefore, for a newly established community, to have constructed such a majestic building would have been considered an impressive accomplishment by other residents of the colony! It should be noted though that traditionally and historically the Ismaili Imamat and the Ismaili community, wherever they have settled, have always placed importance on supporting  the establishment and creation of Jamatkhanas. Then, as today, the contributions made by members of the community  played an important role in building this Jamatkhana. The names of names of some of the major donors are inscribed on the plaque marking the opening ceremony.

This is a very historical Jamatkhana for many reasons – it was prominently situated in the city center area of colonial Nairobi – its construction and opening made it a “high profile” building for its time and it symbolized the permanent settlement of the Ismaili community in colonial Kenya; and of course our present Imam, Shah Karim al Husayni, used to visit this Jamatkhana and recited the Idd Namaz in 1943 as a young seven year old boy during his residence in colonial Kenya in the World War II period. 

I was always fascinated by this building and its exterior and interior design.  The exterior Jamatkhana design of solid stone blocks made it appear like a huge majestic palace with massive front entrance doors and with a huge clock on its dome.  The clock tower is a British tradition that is found in almost every town/village in the Britain. The clock in the dome of the Jamatkhana buiding symbolized a fusion of Islamic/Ismaili and British architectural design.  From a practical point of view, the clock on the dome, was probably the main focal point for the surrounding residents and passers-by in the 1920’s to answer the question “What time is it?”  

The interior design comprised three levels – the ground, first and second. On entering in the ground level there were benches against the wall – there was a library to the right, on the left was a display that commemorated the March 1937 Golden Jubilee celebration in Nairobi, of our 48th Imam, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan and there was an office for Diamond Trus Company.  On the wall near this office was the foundation stone plaque (shown above) that always intrigued me as a young boy as it highlighted significant historical information about the foundation and opening ceremony dates, dignitaries who performed the ceremonies, the architects, the donors and so on.   There was also a wooden board listing the individuals who had served as Mukhis and Kamadias of the Jamatkhana. As one walked to the gents shoe stands, one passed the Mehmani (food offerings) receiving counter behind which there was a small elevator to send them to the higher floors.

As one entered the Jamatkhana  from the main entrance doors and looked straight ahead, there was an old fashioned elevator similar to those seen in 1930’s and 40’s movies.  Directly above the elevator was a red and green mural tracing the lineage of the forty-nine Ismaili Imams.  Again, the 1962 Living Camera documentary has footage of ground floor where there is a scene of Mawlana Hazar Imam stepping out of this elevator, walking past the scouts and volunteers lined on the ground floor hallway, and exiting from the main entrance front door after a visit to the Jamat.

I also remember the Somali askari (security guard), who was always smartly dressed in his khaki uniform and turban, and sporting the red and green colors of the Ismaili Flag (often referred to as “My Flag”) in his attire.  He was a devoted askari, who closely watched everyone who entered the building, greeting all the children and elderly jamati members jovially, and watching closely for strangers.

On the second level was the main prayer services hall and the third level was for the early morning prayers.  Sudents majlises were also held here. On festive occasions, these two levels were beautifully decorated by the Jamati volunteers to reflect the spirit of the events. Many visiting dignitaries were impressed by the décor and paid high compliments to the volunteers for the decorations.

The Jamatkhana, designated as a Darkhana, was a hub for all Ismaili activities in the Nairobi of the 1960’s and 70’s. On Fridays there would be a full house with hundreds of Ismailis convening outside the Jamatkhana building after prayer services which led to traffic jams and crowds of people on the adjacent streets.  There were many Ismaili owned restaurants in the vicinity of the Jamatkhana that did a roaring business on this evening – names that come to mind were  – the Ismailia hotel,  Curry Pot,  Chicken Inn,  Iceland Milk Bar, Kebys,  Exotica, Sans Shique, Tropicana and Sno Cream. 

The Jamatkhana was also where many a memorable didar took place.  I can vividly remember the didar of December 1973 when Hazar Imam was invited by the then President of Kenya – the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta – to attend the 10th anniversary of Kenya’s independence. Again Ismailis had constructed the same banners as those they had done for the Independence celebrations in 1963, displaying the colors of the flag of Kenya – red, green and black with white stripes and the Coat of Arms.  The number “10” denoting years of independence was now prominently placed on the banner. 

Since the 1970’s, the demographics of Nairobi and the area surrounding the Jamatkhana have changed significantly.  These changes along with security issues affected the attendance levels at this Jamatkhana. Thus in the 1990’s, there was a re-designation of Kenya’s Darkhana. The Parklands Jamatkhana became the new Darkhana and the former historical Jamatkhana was re-named the “Town Jamatkhana.” However, the memories of the former Nairobi Darkhana Jamatkhana are etched in the minds of thousands of Ismailis who can recall its majestic and palatial presence and setting in the 20th century history of the Ismaili community of Kenya.  

In about 11 years, in the year 2022, we shall be celebrating the centenary of this iconic Jamatkhana. It is hoped that a major celebration will be planned to recognize this milestone event with appropriate exhibitions,   lectures and festivities to  commemorate its 100 years of existence.

© Simerg.com
Date article posted: June 12, 2011

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Glossary:

Jamatkhana – Ismaili Muslim place of worship/prayer congregation

Khoja – means honorary convert in Persian – used to identiy the Ismaili Muslims originating from the Indian sub continent. 

Khoja Mosque – In Nairobi, this Jamatkhana came to be identified as the Khoja (Ismaili Muslim

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About the writer:  Zahir Dharsee grew up in East Africa. He spent some of his childhood years in Tanzania and then moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he completed his high school education. He is a CGA and lives in Toronto, Canada, where he works in the accounting field. He is a keen reader, and takes interest in history.

Dharsee has also contributed a very informative piece for Simerg’s “I Wish I’d Been There” series. Please click 13th-14th Century “Avatar” Discourses; 1885 – Aga Khan III Investiture; 1907 – Aga Khan III in New York

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We welcome feedback/letters and memories as well as unique photos from our readers on the above Nairobi Jamatkhana piece. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below.  Your letters may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Photos may be emailed to simerg@aol.com.

Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New. Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.

We invite your contribution to the Jamatkhana series. Please click The Jamatkhana: A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence for introduction and links to previous articles including 5 Palace Gate, Kampala Jamatkhana and the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre, Burnaby.

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