BEAD BAI - those extraordinary khoja women of east africa
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Professor Walter Thaddues Brown, writing about the 1840’s in -A Pre-Colonial History of Bagamoyo- says "The Indians generally did not entrust any of their financial dealing to African employees. But the Khojas had a trusted, devoted, non-salaried, employee - his wife. Thus, while he operated the wholesale place of business, his wife remained in the shop handling retail trade. A Khoja female was wife, mother and business associate". (1)
The tradition of the Khoja women being full participants in the family business, began early in the settlement in East Africa. Professor Brown again: "During the first three decades of the 19th century, (Khoja) Ismaili gradually emigrated from India to Zanzibar. By the commencement of the fourth decade, there were 165 Ismaili families including 26 married women in Zanzibar. In 1866, there were 2558 Ismaili residing in East Africa”.(2)
In those years between 1820 and 1870, the fact that by tradition, the Gujarati Khoja community had never adopted the “purdah”, gave them a crucial advantage - in contrast to the conservative Omani Arabs or Punjabi Muslims households, they had their women-folk contribute in the growth of the family wealth as reflected in their confidence in having them working alongside (in those early years, the Hindus traders did not bring family to Africa). "...it was only after 1910 that marriageable Indian women arrived making possible the establishment of ‘traditional’ households."(3)
This liberal tradition the Khoja continued in the community centers, where men and women mixed relatively freely, except when engaged in actual prayer.
If the woman was married and had come from India, she quickly adapted to the local environment, learning the local language, Swahili on the Coast, Kikuyu on the highlands or Buganda in forest wilderness of Uganda. If locally-born, she was exposed, right from early youth, to the sale of merchandise and payments systems. Until early 1930’s, formal education was limited and in any event, daughters were usually forcibly removed from schools upon puberty and were relegated to help mothers in the home and fathers in the shop (See Fatmabai Kasssamali Bhatia). The boys continued schooling but only for a few more years, as education as a rule, was not highly valued in the mainly trading societies of the East African Khojas.(unlike Bombay, which was another relatively affluent Khoja settlement, where the first Khoja school was started in 1825! see Bombay)
The skills acquired by the women were varied. Besides actual retail sales, they made bead products (see remarkable book “Bead Bai” by Sultan Somji)(4), stitched garments for sale (See Daulatkhanu Hassanali Bhanji), made food products for sale,(See Dolatkhanu Alibhai Jiwani) dispensed herbal and other medicines(See Kulsumbai Abdulla Hasham), kept books of accounts and generally did any work that the business required.
In addition, due to high child mortality, the wives were required to raise large families, often of six or seven children. In accordance with Indian tradition, the parents of the husband (and sometimes, a widowed mother of the wife, as well) would live with the household. Another frequent family member was a spinster or widowed sister of the husband. The wife cared for this whole family - cooking, cleaning repairing and restoring-sometimes, there could be servants but the daily family chores plus helping in the business meant that Khoja wife was a super-woman.(See Kulsum Bai Wazir)
This web-site is starting to fill up with the stories of these so far unsung heroes of the Khoja success in Africa.
(1). Brown- University of Michigan Phd Thesis 1970
(2). abid Brown- University of Michigan Phd Thesis 1970
(3). Culture, Social Organisation and Asian Identity:Difference in Urban East Africa: By John R. Campbell Identity and Affect: Experiences of Identity in a Globalising World-Pluto Press(1999) (pg 180)
(4). “Bead Bai” by Sultan Somjee –CreateSpace published 2012 http://thebeadbai.blogspot.ca/ (My gratitude to Sultan, firstly for undertaking the immense personal challenge in writing this beautiful book and secondly, for allowing me to use it)
New Book Review
Sultan Somjee's extraordinary writing talent has brought us his second novel "Home Between Crossings", continuing the fact-fiction odyssey of the now-married Sikina, as she traverses through the monumental changes within the Khoja Ismaili community, culminating in her "crossing" to Canada.
Somjee's warm lyrical style, sharp perception of the subtle changes affecting the soul of the community and deep empathy for the immense contribution of women in creating the Khoja global experience is at its highlight, in this 2nd offering from a trilogy that Sultan plans to present.
We, at Khojawiki, applaud Sultan Somjee and all authors in our somewhat literature-starved community.
Here is a new review of the book " Home Between Crossings"