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A Brief History of Khojas in Bagamoyo by I.I.Dewji

The Swahili word Bagamoyo ("bwaga moyo") means "lay down your heart". It is disputed whether this refers to the slave trade which passed through the town (i.e. "give up all hope") or to the porters who rested in Bagamoyo after carrying 35 lb cargos on their shoulders from the Great Lakes region (i.e. "take the load off and rest").

Bagamoyo has a long settlement history, with the Kaole ruins of Persian Shirazi origins dating back to the 13th century. However, it was only until the middle of the 18th century, when the relatives of Shamvi la Magimba of Oman made settlement and in the first half of the 19th century, that Bagamoyo became a trading port for ivory and the slave trade, with traders coming from the African interior, from places as far as Morogoro, Lake Tanganyika and Usambara on their way to Zanzibar.

According to Professor Walter Thaddues Brown, who, in 1970, stayed some months in Bagamoyo and Zanzibar, digging up old German and Zanzibari records for his Phd. thesis for the University of Michigan called "A Pre-colonial history of Bagamoyo"

"During the first three decades of the 19th Century, (Khoja) Ismailis gradually immigrated 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 Ismailis residing at the following towns:-

Place of Residence / Individuals

Zanzibar / 2100

Pemba / 57

Bagamoyo / 131

Marima Villages / 25

Dar-es-Salaam(Mzizima Village)/ 43

Kilwa / 176

Mungas / 18

Total / 2518


Professor Brown then concludes:- "Through the second half of the 19th Century, Bagamoyo's largest Indian Community was the Ismailis or as they were popularly known as Khojas"

"It is likely that some of the Zanzibari Khojas came to Bagamoyo before 1840" writes John Gray in his book called "Trading Expedition (1857).”

Kassamali R. Paroo, in a brief essay written in 1980 says that "One of the first (Khoja Ismailis) was Somji Khakhuani (connected with Amir Somji of Mombasa and Noordin Somji of Vancouver), who landed in Bagamoyo in 1848. His family was known as Kassamali Ismail & Co. During the late 1850's, the Hansraj brothers, Kanji & Janmohamed (connected with John Kanji) settled in Bagamoyo. They helped to build the town's Jamatkhana (community centre) and both in turn were appointed Mukhi"

John Kirk, the British counsel in Zanzibar, in his report on Bagamoyo in 1874, notes:-

"Yet all indications point to a most dramatic and economically important increase in the number of Khojas from the mid-1870's and through-out the 1880's - when they gradually eased the Hindus from their position of Bagamoyo's primary merchants. There were basic differences in their trading patterns. The Hindus were known as Wholesalers, while the Khojas as Retailers. During the mid-1870's, however, at least half a dozen wealthy wholesale merchants were Khojas. Certainly, the fact that they were the principal merchants and shop-keepers in Zanzibar, had direct consequence for Bagamoyo".

"During these decades, the Khojas outnumbered the Hindus, two or three to one; but the weight of numbers does not alone explain the former's rise to prominence. The increasing number of competent Khojas wholesale merchants operating in Zanzibar, provided the newly arrived Khoja immigrants with important and helpful business connections. These Khojas did not have to deal with the Hindus retailers. They could rely on their coreligionists. It should also be re-emphasized that the Hindus did not bring their families from India until the German period. The Khojas, on the other hand, frequently emigrated from India with their wives and children".

Ithansheri Mosque Bagamoyo.jpg

The Khoja Shia Ithnasheri Mosque,Bagamoyo, built 1885

Professor Brown further writes:- "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".

"...two most renowned Khojas", Prof. Brown continues, "who lived in the 19th century in Bagamoyo were Sewa Haji Paroo and Alidina Visram"

Bagamoyo served as the first headquarters of German East Africa between 1886-1891. Then the Germans established a new capital, Dar es salaam in 1892.

By 1900, however, both Dar es salaam and Bagamoyo had permanent populations of about 18,000) but Bagamoyo was considerably larger, when caravans were in town, surging to as high as 50,000.


However, in 1905, when the German's decided to build a railway from Dar es Salaam into the interior, Bagamoyo's importance declined quickly as many merchants moved out there See Habib Adat Dewji.

It has never recovered.

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

Stunning View from top of Bagamoyo JK.jpg

A stunning view of the Indian Ocean from the roof-top of the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana.

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 other’s 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 wasSewa Haji Paroo, the ‘Uncrowned King of Bagamoyo’.


A view of the historic town of Bagamoyo.jpg

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.


Famous Baobab tree Bagamoyo.jpg

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 Bagamoyo.jpg

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 guest book Bagamoyo.jpg

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.


Kaole ruins Bagamoyo.jpg

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.

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.


Jamaktkhana Bagamoyo.jpg

Bagamoyo Jamatkhana – exterior view.

Photo: Al-Karim Walli, Calgary, Canada. Copyright. Photo published in archnet.org.


‘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?’


JK Entrance Bagamoyo.jpg

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 marvelously 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.

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.

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 Gujarati.


Gujarati etched gravestones Bagamoyo.jpg

Gujarati 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.


Another Etched gujarati gravestone bagamoyo.jpg

A close-up of the Gujarati 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 Gujarati. I later discovered that Sewa Haji Paroo had also donated the land for the graveyard in Mombasa, and there are similar old Gujarati inscriptions.


Tejuri Bagamoyo.jpg

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.

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 Ocean Bagamoyo.jpg

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 langi langi and pink guavas, a rare species hardly ever sold in the market. Palm fronds waved fanning 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 langi-langi 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 beautuful ruins.jpg

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

Bagamoyo’s Beautiful Shadows, by Shariffa Keshavjee

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, Shariffa Keshavjee

View of barred windows JK Bagamoyo.jpg

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

Leaving

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

Epilogue by Shariffa Keshavjee

Weeping walls.jpg

Weeping Walls

Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee, Nairobi, Kenya. Copyright.


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..

Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2012.

Printed here in Khojawiki.org with the kind permission of the author.


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.

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