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The Intrepid Dukawalla By: I.I.Dewji

Pioneer Merchant Traders, Indian Famines

Although Indian sailors and merchants were likely plying the coast of Arabia and Eastern Africa from the dawn of history and most certainly through the expansion of the Muslim Empires (see Mombasa), the term "dukawalla" (Swahili for "shopkeeper" and "dukan" Gujarati for shop) refers to the small homesteaders, who, during the Arab and European colonization in the 19th and 20th century opened the African hinterland from along the eastern seaboard to the Great Lakes, to connect the inhabitants to the ancient Indian Ocean trade routes and to international commerce through exports.

“The Nizari Khoja had been active as traders between western India and coast Africa at least since the 17th century: the early Indian Nizari immigrants came as well from Kutch, Kathiawar, Surat and Bombay, and settled on Zanzibar Island. By 1820, a small community of Khojas was present in Zanzibar: their affairs were administered by two local functionaries." (1)

Attracted by opportunities available thorough their connections to these early traders and forced out by the ravages of famines in India See Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations,these brave persons and their families, many peasants farmers themselves from rural Kutch and Kathiawar, had to look forward to a hardy life, often dying of disease and wild animals but universally welcomed by the Africans, who saw them as their windows to the world of new goods and inventions. (See Kersi's poem, "Ode to a Dukawalla on the East African Plain" (below).

Kala Paani-The Perilous Voyage

But,in order to land safely,these dogged fortune-seekers first had to endure, on ancient Arab dhows, a treacherous sea-voyage from the faraway ports of Muscat, Porbander, Mandvi or Bombay. Even the better constructed European ships were not safe.

“The coast of East Africa stretches some 4,000 miles from Cape Guardafui in Somalia to the Mozambique Channel. It is rugged and inhospitable, with few safe anchorages, miles of treacherous coral reefs and a strong northerly current. Over the years, it has become a ship’s graveyard, to the unlucky ones, and a dire warning to those that ran aground and were subsequently refloated. The earliest known recorded casualty is the Portuguese galleon San Raphael that grounded and was burnt at Mtongoni, near Tanga in 1499. Using records in Australia, Germany, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar and the U.K. as well as the library’s of Lloyds Register of Shipping, the Guildhall and the National Archives in London together with the Hydrographic Office records at Taunton, the author discovered the stories of over 200 merchant and naval ships that came to grief.” (2)

"Before 1914 and during the two world wars when steamer traffic was interrupted, almost all the Asians came by dhow. Life on these small ships of 80 to 350 tons, 40 to 60 feet long, with wooden hulls and lateen sails, was difficult. The passengers slept on deck and, clustered in groups representative of different religious communities, cooked their own food. They had no privacy and lacked any competent medical service. The ships bobbed and rolled off the monsoon seas even in calm weather, and seasickness was common. A storm — and rarely could one escape one or two during the voyage — was a frightening experience. To allay fears and while away the time, the passengers and sailors would recite religious verses or tales from folk literature. [Sultan Somji's "BEAD BAI" for a graphic, yet lyrical account of such a voyage.]

Under the most favorable conditions, the voyage of 2,400 miles to Zanzibar could be made in twenty-six days, but a storm or a calm could extend it by several weeks or even months. Nasser Virji's passage from Kutch in 1875 took nine months. The price of the fare was as little as Rs. 10, but some paid as much as Rs. 205. The cost by steamer was considerably more, Rs. 35 and up for third-class or steerage in 1900. Although a steamer offered more security and faster travel — usually seven to fourteen days — life aboard was rarely pleasant. Most Asians were unable to converse with the foreign crews, and on arrival in Africa they often faced a week of quarantine.

Beginning From Scratch

Once in East Africa, these early immigrants often went through several weeks or months of uncertainty and privation while determining their initial location and employment. Although some had a smattering of English, very few knew any German, Arabic or Kiswahili. Even among Asians they were strangers outside their own communities.(2A)

If these Khojas made it across the Kala Pani Black Waters (so-called because those who went rarely returned to India),most started their new life with no capital, having spent the family's meager life savings on the dhow fare.

"Most Asian immigrants arrived penniless - there is no example of a wealthy man transferring his business from India-and looked to relatives to find them jobs with established merchants. " (3)

Family & Community Links

However, the new immigrants did come equipped with some skills.

"They were, more than Swahilis, accustomed with a money economy and the concept of interest. In addition, they knew how to read, write and produce account books.." (4)

Their connection to their family and community was essential to their settlement.

For Indians, particularly recent migrants and those without capital, reliance on kin and patrons for shelter and shop work was an essential step towards autonomy, accumulating capital and establishing one's own business. While it absorbed many migrants, shop hours were long, conditions poor and incomes - though five to ten times more than for African shop workers — were ‘meager’ This period of ‘training’ was later followed by a small salary and perhaps credit or other assistance to set up a shop.(5)

They also relied on the networks set up by the earlier Indian merchant-traders, who had worked along the old Arab trading routes, inland of modern-day Kenya and Tanzania.

"Subsequently, the Indian Ismaili moved from Zanzibar to growing urban areas on the east coast of Africa, notably Mombasa, Tanga and Bagamoyo, where they acted as commercial agents for firms in Zanzibar or became petty merchants and shopkeepers.”(6)

"The South Asian Khojas, Tharia Thopan (1823-?), Sewji Haji (1851-1997), Allidina Visram (1851-1916) and Nasser Veerjee (1865-1942), were among the principal financers of caravan traders in the late nineteenth century. Most of them managed their businesses from the coast, but they gathered first-hand information on the inland trade routes. Pioneers like Allidina Visram explored the areas themselves. They established extensive upcountry duka (small shops) networks throughout East Africa and invested in real estate, plantations, shipping and ginneries. At that time, Hindus remained active mainly in the coastal cities, like Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lindi, Kilwa and Dar es Salaam. Even then, very few Hindus settled before 1900 (see Table 2.1). They were hardly known to travel into the interior until the Uganda Railway was built." (6A)

Veparais, Tenacious

It was these dukawallas, not the European settlers, who first moved into the unexplored hinterland, setting up mud and corrugated iron shops in tiny African villages, at the edge of civilization, providing rations and essentials of life to the African peasants and in the towns, to the British administrators. '(7)

Members of ancient Indian communities, these Khojas and other Gujarati dukawallas were able to endure the bush, gaining solace by providing for their families, serving their communities and faith. (see story of Fatmabai Kasssamali Kanji Bhatia. (Later, after political independence, this entrenched communalism, born out of necessity in a different era, became a ground for bitterness by some black Africans.)

"By the 1870, there were some 2,500 lsmaili Khojas in East Africa and their ranks swelled even further after the establishment of the British Protectorate in 1891.(i.e over Kenya and Uganda ed.) (8)

“Whereas in 1901 only 58 of 3,420 Asians are known to have lived in interior districts, by 1912 the figure was 8,591 out of 8,698. German administrative centres attracted storekeepers.(9)(see Gulamhusein Moloo Hirji)

"The immigration to East Africa was therefore a spontaneous one. An enterprising young man who wanted to emigrate had to find his own fare across the ocean or persuade a relative already established in Africa to pay it and help him on arrival. For this reason the poorest classes in India did not come to East Africa, nor did the rich and well-educated. In addition, only those living reasonably close to convenient ports were likely to make the journey. Consequently the Indian immigrants to East Africa were not usually unskilled labourers, as were the Indian settlers in South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, and the West Indies, who had been recruited for plantation labour in tropical agricultural colonies. The East African settlers were mainly petty traders and artisans, and though most of them came from a background of village and farm, almost none took to farming, in spite of the hope of the administration of the East African Protectorate at the beginning of this century that they might." (9A)

They also had the benefit of an established pattern - a period of work and apprenticeship with an well-off business-house, followed by a loan of goods on credit to start their own business somewhere in East Africa, not in competition with their benefactor.(see story ofAllidina Visram

"This apprenticeship-"service" in the derogatory Gujarati term-was endured until a man could break away, first as itinerant trader and then as resident shopkeeper, taking his stock on credit from a wholesaler" (10)

"Others worked as shopkeepers or clerks for wholesalers [mostly, but not always within the family or community] and started their own business elsewhere in Zanzibar, or one of the other islands, or in the port cities of the mainland. They usually left with their goods, which they had to repay in 90 days.” (11) See Hassanali Nanji Balolia

The Central Role of Trust & Credit

The dukawalla system relied on credit available to them from merchants - usually members of their own Khoja community.

“All Indian businesses.....relied heavily on credit systems. Supply-line credit from European and Indian merchant houses, often based on ninety-day terms, stretched from the docks of Dar es Salaam to the smallest rural shops. ." (12) (See also story of Dolatkhanu Alibhai Gulamhussien Jiwani)

“Therefore, the most important ‘security’ was a person’s ‘good name’. A ‘good name’ was gained by repaying debts in time, being known among credit worthy people, and being an honest and trustworthy businessman in general. If a family’s reputation was lost, it would be very difficult to obtain new credits." '(13)

But the Dukawalla's real success lay in offering similar credit facilities to their Africans customers and to bring them into to the cash economy, by creating a market for their produce and crops, at the same time opening new ventures for themselves.(see stories ofHasham Jamal Pradhan) or (Gulamhusein Moloo Hirji)

"In one common practice known as amana, Indian retailers extended credit in return for offering safe deposit of African goods or money, usually accumulated from a dowry or crop sale, which would subsequently serve as a surety for monthly store credit." (14)

Later, the business of "pawn-shops" became part of the retail nexus, providing the a necessary business service in the generally exploitative colonial system.

"...such shops also provided the nexus for the distribution of basic necessities such as food and clothing to those living month-to-month on credit margins." (15)

"Credit was universally available at pawnshops, which in Dar es Salaam were owned entirely by Khoja Ismaili Indians, and intimately connected with most African household economics. Pledges peaked from the twentieth to the end of each month, during siku za mwambo “tight-stretched days.” Upon wage payments on the first of the month, each pawnshop in town would attend to between three and four hundred customers who queued to redeem their goods." (16) (See Nurbanu Dharamsi Rawji for the ponee business in Dar)

Setbacks and Fallbacks

However, as Brennan points out, there were also substantial obstacles to success in retail for these businesspersons.

"The system functioned on high turnover and small cash margins—often as little as 10 percent — offering higher profits but greater risks and frequent bankruptcies among small Indian traders" (17) See Jina Madhavji for serial difficulties in establishing a successful duka.

"Retail trade was a brutal endurance test in which only shopkeepers with large capital stocks or secure access to credit could prevail." (18)

"Last but not least, (5) the success of South Asian businessmen in East Africa was the outcome of a ‘trial and error’ process." (18A) see Gulamali JIna Madhavji

And Oonk own study of bankruptcies in early Zanzibar show that as many as 50% of the businesses failed in the first instance and also that failure meant a very slow route up if they wanted to access the community network of credit again.

“Therefore, it is not surprising that family members would take the responsibility for the debts of fathers,brothers, or in-laws, even if they were not legally obliged to do so. In these cases, keeping up the family name was of high priority in order to attract new or future investors.” (19)

The East African dukawalla also suffered much deprivation at hands of the European colonisers.

''"In 1913, the Bombay Chronicle published an analysis and fierce criticism of the discriminatory policies in the British East African Protectorate. The article initially highlights the economic and political contribution of South Asians in East Africa, but then cynically stresses:

And now the Indian cannot acquire property in the uplands, cannot carry weapons, cannot enter the Market House in Nairobi, cannot travel in comfort on the steamers and railways, cannot have a trial by jury, in short cannot be anything else than an undesirable alien [emphasis added].

It is clear from the newspaper article that while the Germans and the British were colonising East Africa, they were also alienating the South Asians who lived there. Many South Asian traders and businessmen believed that due to discriminatory regulations, they were unable to compete with Europeans on an equal basis. At the same time, they were not able to defend their properties and protect their families, despite the fact that most of them were British subjects."''(19A)

"The writer's father, W. H. King, who fought here with the Indian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1918. used to say that the whole natural line of business communication between Tanga and Mombasa, Arusha and Nairobi, Kisumu and its southwestern hinterland was broken up. He described the sufferings of the lndian duka keepers who were merrily raided by both sides as the battle ebbed and flowed. The Belgians coming in from the Congo into Rwanda and Burundi and then crossing the lake to push towards Tabora treated the Indian traders in the same way as they advanced and the Germans retreated" (20) (See Mohamed Dewji, whose goods were confiscated by the Germans for the war effort.)

Yusufali Karimjee put it well: "The policy of the Government underlying this movement is to rob Indian Peter to pay British Paul"20A

"South Asians in East Africa are written out of history. They do not play an important part in the textbooks on Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ugandan history. In fact, if they are mentioned at all, they are seen as a part of people who were expelled and did not play an important part in the national histories. Furthermore, they are not part of the Indian national history as they migrated before India became independent. Finally, they are not part of the European colonial history, except for being ‘middlemen’ who could be employed for the colonial projects. However, they are not pictured as people who had their own agenda and their own strategies. In fact, the concept of middleman is Eurocentric in this context. In the eyes of many South Asian traders, the European colonisers were the ideal middleman between them and the European markets." 21

The dukawalla was a portrait of sacrifice, tenacity and an ability to endure setbacks. Rather crudely maligned by ungrateful colonials and opportunists African politicians,the dukawalla's story is, instead, a laudable tale of dogged endurance and intrepid entrepreneurship.(See Rahemtulla Walji Virji) See Gulamali Jina Madhavji for a complete tale of entrepreneurial tenacity.


(1) Chatterji, Joya. Routledge handbook of the South Asian diaspora.

(2) Kevin Patience-Shipwrecks and Salvage on the East African Coast 1499-2000 (Available from the author at:257 Sandbanks Road, Poole, BH14 8EY at £13 inc P&P to UK.saburi@hotmail.com;

(2A) Robert G Gregory-Asians in East Africa (pp 7)

(3) Iliffe, John. A modern history of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999. 139

(4) Oonk, Gijsbert. "South Asians in East Africa (1880-1920) with a Particular Focus on Zanzibar: Toward a Historical Explanation of Economic Success of a Middlemen Minority." African and Asian Studies 5, no. 1 (2006): 57-90. doi:10.1163/156920906775768282. 3

(5) John R. Campbell-Culture, Social Organisation and Asian Identity:Difference in Urban East Africa: (pg-180)--Pluto Press(1999)

(6) abid -Chatterji

(6A) Oonk, Gijsbert. "Settled Strangers- South Asians Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000)" SAGE (pp 83)

(7) Below- See Kesri's wonderful poem for a detailed description of the amazing array of goods and experiences they brought for the locals.

(8) abid Chatterji (pg-20)

(9) abid Iliffe-(pg-140)

(9A) Stephen Morris-Indians in East Africa: A Study in a Plural Society. The British Journal of Sociology, Volume 7, Issue 3 (Sep., 1956), pp 195

(10) abid Illiff (pg-

(11) abid Oonk-(pg-15)

(12) James Brennan- Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania (pg-72)

(13) abid Oonk (pg-13)

(14) abid Brennan (pg 72)

(15) abid Brennan (pg 72)

(16) abid Brennan (pg 72)

(17) abid Brennan- (pg-72)

(18) abid Brennan (pg-72)

(18A) abid Oonk (pg-30)

(19) abid Oonk (pg-15)

(19A) abid Oonk (Note 6A) pp 199

(20) King, Noel - Towards A History Of The Ismailis In East Africa - edited by Ismail Raji al Faruq(http://www.ismaili.net/Source/earlycol.html)

(20A) The Tanganyika Herald 15 December 1934 p.12

(21) Oonk, Gijsbert. "South Asians in East Africa (1800-2000) pg 4. (The author explains that he does not agree with these views)

The "Kuli" as a "Dukawalla" by I.I.Dewji

Another source of dukawallas was an indirect consequence of the abolition of slavery, which forced the British to devise a system of indentured labour to run their colonies. Under this system, inaugurated in 1834 in Mauritius, poor Indians, originally referred to as "coolies", were indentured to licensed agents who imported this labour to work in plantations or to build the railways. The labourers were however only slightly better off than the slaves. They were supposed to receive either minimum wages or some small form of payout (such as a small parcel of land or the money for their return passage) upon completion of their indenture, which largely never happened. The legal system did not afford redress to non-Europeans and the Indians were abandoned to fend for themselves in the new colonies.

Of the original 32,000 contracted laborers in East Africa, after the end of indentured service system, about 2500 died (mostly eaten by the maneaters of Tsavo) and about 4,000 stayed on to work on the railways employees as shopkeepers, artisans, clerks, and later lower-level administrators. Colonial personnel practices excluded them from the middle and senior ranks of the government and from farming; so instead they became commercial middleman.

Between the building of the railways and the end of World War II, the number of Indians in Southeast Africa swelled to 320,000. By the 1940s, some colonial areas had already passed laws restricting the flow of immigrants, as did white-ruled Rhodesia in 1924. But by then, the Indians had firmly established control of commercial trade — some 80 to 90 percent in Kenya and Uganda was in the hands of Indians — plus some industrial activities. In 1948, all but 12 of Uganda's 195 cotton ginneries were Indian run.

The humble "dukawalla" had regained the traditional position of the Indians as business elites of the Indian Ocean trans-circular trade.

Ode to the Indian Dukawala on East African Plains, a poem by Kersi Rustomji


Kesiru 1

Done the Mombasa Kisumu rail,

And of all the Indian rail men,

Many broken in mind and body,

Back to India in dhows sailed,

To their loved families and friends,

But some "majur" the workers,

And "suthar" the carpenters,

As well "luhar" the smithy and tin workers,

Stone masons and builders,

In the country they had laboured,

To commence a life new they remained.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Then soon a fresh and new Indian breed,

Of bold pioneering trading creed,

Sailed the Indian Ocean in creaky wooden dhows,

Along with the Indian crows,

If lost at sea to guide them ashore,

Towards ventures new to commence,

At places wild distant unknown and strange,


Braving malaria black water sleeping sickness,

Diseases fevers many and unknown ills,

Undeterred by lions leopards and snakes,

By hyenas owls bats and other nightly beasts,

Nor afraid were they of the mysterious mchawi,

The lionskin-wearing native magic man witch,

To strive and to pave a new way and life to be had,

Into Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika,

Where far inland they all spread,

Through scrubby lands jungles and terrain arid,

Across wide roaring rivers and muddy streams,

Settled at places isolated desolate and depressed,

Tsetse fly

Where mosquitoes tse tse flies bugs and vermin,

Infested the bodies and sucked their blood,

Jiggers the dudus under the skin their eggs laid,

Brought to many ill-health and fevers severely bad,

Malaria, dengue and black water fever,

Made not a few along their routes to fall dead,

On one hot sunny sultry African morn,

Such an Indian on foot he came,

To seek a little plot in the land so hostile and strange,

On the vast sprawling warm savannah plains,

Acacia Tree

Among grasses yellow and flat-topped thorn trees,

Near a brown barked flat-topped acacia green,

Just the right patch of empty reddish-brown earth he saw,

‘Perfect for a small duka-a tiny little store’ said he,

From the hard ground the duka slowly commenced,

The skin robed locals with spears arrows and bows,

Gathered close by and watched as the duka rose,

Daily from a distance they languidly appraised,

As hammer blows on the plain loudly thudded,

While sides and top of mabati the irons corrugated,

Onto a wooden frame with myriad nails were attached,

Now in the mvitu of the stark wilderness,

A small mabati duka a shop in the front,

With a couple of tiny rooms in the back,

Of the Indian dukawala’s a new,

A wilderness shop and abode it became,

In front a place from which to work and trade,

Then in the dark starry and chirpy African night,

A room to eat sit in and read by lantern light,

Then lay his tired aching body,

In another tiny room at rear to bed,

Watu, the bush people with the dogs spied,

And before long people of all tribes arrived,

To the strange mabati structure which they eyed,

Viewed the unknown iron sheet shed kibanda,

A novel structure so wondrous so maridadi,

Full of curiosity first with trepidation then cautiously,

They entered the duka somewhat nervously,

To scan to see to feel to taste and try,

The many new goods foods tools and wares,

That they had never before seen,

New kitamba cloths and nguo clothes,

kisu knives msumari nails implements and tins,

Sukari sugar njugu groundnuts chumvi salt,

Kunde and choroko pulses and grains,

Unga the ground maize dengu the daal,

Mchele rice legumes and a variety of adesi lentils,

Pili pili the hot dried chilli binzari various spices,

Strongly pungent mkarafu cloves aromatic,

Dried ground ginger the sharp tangawizi,

Manjano strongly pungent yellow turmeric,

Pili pili manga the black pepper berries,

Now to add to foods new and to make delicious curries.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Kesiru 2

Tumbaku the dark rolled tobacco,

To smoke in novel pipes the kiko,

The dark brown scented snuff the fine ugolo,

In fancy snuff bottles the tiny tabakelo,

The new sigara cigarettes in packets or readily rolled,

And amazing to wash with Indian sabu sabuni the soap,

Kesiru 3

The shiny small kioo hand mirrors on a pole,

For one’s face to look at and adorn,

For their belles and their many wives they saw,

Colourful beads baubles combs pretty,

Their necks and arms to decorate with,

Metal enamel and china containers held them all in awe,

Msusimeno the saw and shoka the iron axes,

For wood to easily cut and chop,

Wire for binders and long choir ropes,

Wire mesh for chicken coops strong,

The dukawala too from the locals,

Many needy things he required,

Milk honey skins and hides,

From them all he regularly acquired,

Makka the charcoal to cook with,

Mswaki the acacia tooth-brush stick,

Many other local produce and products,

A lot of different local stuff he bought,

In his duka too the locals he employed,

Sukuma sukuma push push,

Haraka haraka hurry hurry,

His employees to work he spurred on,

Paid for it all in the tinkling rupee rupiah shiny,

Of the Imperial British East Africa Company,

Then replaced by cents centi and shillings shilingi

Brought to the country,

By the new white government serikali,

Kesiru 4

Year by year and on and on,

The little duka it did so very well,

Glassware jars pots and pans,

Even an odd iron frying pan,

From long nails in the rafter beams hanged,

Needles buttons and coloured threads,

Scissors razor blades machete the panga and spades,

Bata shoes in leather and canvas,

Tough merikani the strong woven cotton cloth,

Kitenge wraps and various white and coloured cotton bolts,

By yard were there for all to be bought,

Also coloured beads necklaces,

Even iron and copper bangles and earrings,

For all the wanawake the women to wear,

Kesiru 5

With magic kiberiti the box of matches,

And amazing mafuta maji the clear kerosene,

Mshumaa candles and fanusi hurricane lanterns,

In hundreds of rustic grass huts,

Now every night they lit,


Amid the thick bushes and thorny trees,

The narrow earthen bush tracks and paths,

The hand-held lamps lighted,

To spot and avoid many animals wild,

As they walked in the dark African night,

mafuta new oil superfine and samli ghee,

Gave a flavour fine and different tasting,

So very rich so very food enhancing,

And very different from the old boring,

Unlike the old boiling way of cooking,

And not long after roti the Indian flat chapatti,

Fresh piping hot smeared with ghee,

Now replaced the old morning maize meal the uji.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

There were also now treatments new,

For ills and sicknesses of past and present,

That came with the many new dawa the medicine,

From India and white man’s patent remedies,

For the churning maradhi ya tumbo,

The crooked worm ridden tummy,

There was the yellow castor oil,

The foulest of all and smelly,

Not at all or the tiniest bit yummy,

None was there other bitterest any,

Than the malaria curing quinine,

For cuts bruises and lacerations,

A burning liquid in a dark glass bottle tiny,

The brown sharp smelling tincture of iodine,


For the muscles stretched aching and tired limbs,

The mustachioed Sloan’s yellow liniment,

Or the Indian Amrutanjan balm,

On the hurting aching parts to rub in,

As well Indian medicinal oils and salves,

The cotton cloth poultice of mustard or ground turmeric


Soon new aluminium sufuria pots and pans,

And other such metal utensils,

Sitting around the stone jiko the cooking fire,

Of the olden pots and the ancient wares,

Crafted from hollowed gourd wood and earth,

The end of these brought quickly,

Changing in bush and huts,

Of days of yore cooking habits,

The shiny small and big kijiko,

The gleaming metal spoons,

To stir and eat with into use daily,

Came so very quickly and so very early,

For tea the enamel pots birika

And the colourful kikombe the mugs,

With the many coloured enamel sahani the plates,

Of the old eating boards and banana leaf platters,

And the half cut drinking coconut shells and gourds,

Of it all brought demise rapid,

For now coffee the kahawa or chai the tea,

Brooke Bond Chai

Has become a morning ritual new,

A daily invigorating treat,

With a wheaten ghee smeared chapatti or two,

The red blue and yellow designed sinia,

The large round enamel platters,

Now in huts shambas farming plots and soko the markets,

Wanawake ya soko the market women and street hawkers,

On colourfully scarf-covered heads they bear,

With their loud cries of korosho kashew and tende dates,

Their various wares and produce they vend,

Nakupends Malaika

Impala and other skins also soon discarded,

For cotton shukas and kitenges as wraps,

Of designs and patterns in brilliant colours,

With limerick or a verse at the bottom hems,

Naku penda malaika yangu, love you my angel,

The attire new all women now adopted,

Even the Masai, the Samburu,

And the Turkana men of the plains,

On the nyika wilderness and everywhere else,

Their skin cloaks of old divested,

A fashion bold and new adopted,

A knotted drape of a red blanket blanketi,

Bought for mere two rupees rupia mbili,

At the small Indian shop duka ya mhindi,


But the mode of dress for many more across the countries,

Once more and again the attire changed,

Another fashion of apparel new now accepted,

Shati sleeved shirt and pants the seruali,

Almost all men in the land started wearing,


And wanawake the women too,

Their worn ochre robes and string skirts of past,

They replaced with colourful nguo nzuri ,

Pretty cotton drapes and dresses.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The hard dry digging sticks of old,

These too were of use not anymore,

Its place now taken by grey jembe,

A new strong iron hoe,


Together with panga, the metal machete,

Changes on the landscape wide these wrought,

With ardhi the soil now easily dug turned and aired,

Big shambas farms over the land,

Not before long stretched,

And now the village mwanamke the women,

From early morn till late in the day,

Long and wide they toiled on the soil,

For bigger cash crops to sow and raise,

Seeds from the Indian duka they bought and planted,

African shamba women

Lentils mung pulses and other beans,

Along with large cob bearing tufted maize mahindi,

Then soon potato cabbage and peas,

Coffee cotton millet and sorghum they raised,

Tomato onion garlic and chillies,

Beetroot lettuce and radish,

Karela bitter gourd and mbibringani brinjal,

Carrots cauliflower spinach,

Fresh green coriander, kakari cucumber,

figili, pungent white horseradish,

On their shamba plots they established,

For the many wahindi the Indians, and the wazungu the whites,

Who now in the three countries resided,


The trade at the little rusted mabati duka,

It prospered and did so very well,

The myriad goods spread on the counter,

Along with boxes of produce and grains,

In the midst of all an eye-catching weighing scale,

To weigh it all in pounds or ratli,

Beside on the floor in front of the counter,

Sat tins of ghee cooking oil and kerosene,

Ladled out with a long handle tiny scoops,

At only senti tano five cents each,


Varied coloured cloths and clothes,

From the roof beams hung,

All in hot dusty winds gently swung,

Over the tall shelves thickly loaded and stacked,

With pencils pens ink pots envelopes writing pads,

Needles reels of thread cards of buttons,

Safety pins ribbons and hair clips,

Combs hair pins safety razors,

Shoe polishes penknives and blades,

An accumulation of things myriad,

Only the dukawala knew what else the shelves held,

The long time Indian dukawala of old,

On many new deals and ventures big embarked,

Still filled with vitality vigour and pep,

He forged ahead in great big striding steps,

From the locals all and surrounds wide he bought,

Their labour produce and products,

In greater and larger and heavier lots,

Also bought some small farming plots,

And the donkey cart that hauled goods sundry,

Now in its place a big load-carrying lorry,

Painted in colour bright and wooden sides,

It hauled its load from towns and shops,

With the locals seated on top of goods piled high,

Went to villages and traversed the country,


Not long after the mzungu P.C and the D.C, [1]

In the loaded OHMS [2] lorries rolled in,

Indian contractors built their bomas offices,

And bungalows for the men of the government the serikali,

Followed by the farmers and settlers white,

And not unlike the pioneering Indian dukawala

With the silvery corrugated mabati tin,

Their early farmhouses and homes

They all also to start with built,

As the first National Bank of India in Nairobi,

Was built too of such corrugated mabati,

Its chief cashier a pheta [3] wearing Mr. Mehta,

One of the many pioneering Parsis,

Who too settled traded and worked,

In the three East African countries,

Now the white farmers with tinga tinga their tractors,

Vast farms and tracts they cut and cleared,

They ploughed and furrowed acres and acres,

On the African plains of fertile soil red rich,

Wheat maize oat coffee tea,

And many other crops they established,

Which only through many wazungu the white man’s,

Offices businesses and stores and boards,

Their crops and produce they exported and sold,

Exported to England and the countries abroad,


To the new white farmers and officials of the serikali,

And all other whites who now in three countries resided,

The Indian dukawalas to them all the supplies provided,

Yardley shaving stick Gillette shaving kits and blades,

Kiwi boot polish shining cloth with brushes,

Kesiru 6

Lux and Lifebuoy soap cotton towels and napkins,

Kolynos toothpaste tooth and hair brushes,

Vicks for colds and Vaseline for chaffed skin,

Balms and Gin

Haig whiskey tobacco cigarettes and Gilby’s gin,

Dry and tinned hard rations,

Butter jams and English pickles,

Huntley and Palmers biscuits,

Makeup and stir powders

Memsahib’s Yardley powder and Avon lipsticks,

Pure white gentle Ponds cold skin cream,

To sooth their sun parched white skin,

Quaker oats Cadbury cocoa and Ovaltine,

Under the counter a variety of printed cotton bolts,

From which to cut sew stitch,

With multi-coloured cotton thread,

House and farm work clothing,

And garden cocktail and sundowners dresses,

As well evening gowns for the Government House,

The Whites only Christmas garden parties,

Comparisons with English Sahib

But the wazungu white farmers,

Their families and friends,

As well all their bibis the wives,

And all the bwanas and the officers,

Of government the serikali and businessmen white,

For reasons not very sure,

But known to them only,

Disliked derided and mistreated,

The dukawala most unfairly,

He cheats and overcharges claimed they,

And his business account he writes yearly,

In a language ungraspable,

Using systems strange and uncanny,

Difficult to comprehend easily,

For the white taxman to assess clearly,

In such manner the white bwanas the men,

And at the clubs their memsabu the women,

Cursed gossiped and denigrated the dukawala constantly,

Shook their heads yet regularly for victuals ran to him,

Even as one arrogant white farmer Lord,

Debating the Indians called him a sucking Asia tick,

In one of the East African Legislative Council,

Yet when life times and seasons turned hard and mean,

And even the white man’s banks became unfriendly,

It was on the nastily gossiped dukawala Indian,

For their needs fads and even ready cash,

They leaned upon at such times heavily,

Yet the Indian dukawala to them provided all their needs,

On a risky unknown chancy sureties,

Written on flimsy paper pieces,

The ubiquitous and hastily wrote,

The bwana wazungu’s the white man’s notes,

Or the many unguaranteed I O Us and chithi the chits,

Irrespective of ugly taunts and jibes,

Without anger resentment or hate,

The sahibs and their wives supplied he,

With all their fancy needs whims and cash ready.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Years passed and the tiny scattered villages,

Into big towns and places grew,

And the towns into cities changed and bloomed,

And now for the inadequate little duka,

Its ripping tearing ignoble end loomed,

As the claw hammer thousands of nails,

With high piercing screech it pulled,

Dusty mabati sheets from the timber frame felled,

The small old duka on its spot no more dwelled,

In the old duka’s space now a swank shopping mall,

Broad sweeping and many storeys glassed plaza tall,

On the roof a neon sign wide and high it flashed,

Below it bearing high above the glassed wall,

Blinking day and night in light red,

Proudly for all to see it proclaimed,

Rustomji Plaza its name,

Rustomji plaza

Now the mall is the pride of everyone and all,

From distances great and far,

They all come to it behold,

In it to brows and stroll,

In the new air-conditioned comfort to loll,


Crowds roll in to saunter to buy,

Or to drink a long cold beer,

The sapping African heat and sweat to beat,

With freshly fried samosas to eat,

With its cool cafes restaurants and stores,

Novel speciality boutiques and shopping malls,

There was none other like it so new,

So cool clean bright and so very neat,

To beat this rustic dukawala muhindi’s,

New venture a modern business feat,

The Indian dukawala though,

Stopped not where he now was,

For on and on he went to build greater enterprises,

Arcades karkhana workshops and factories,

To make fabricated goods products and fineries,

Now needed ever more and more,

In the fast growing three East African countries,

Rusto Mfg Co

Like the little mabati shop of days long gone,

That now stood no more a part of history old,

Now high from the roofline of several storeys,

And on a steel side of his factory,

A coloured sign Rusto Mfg Co. Ltd.,

Proclaimed its new glorious story,

As through day and night it operated,

By men and women of the land,

Goods and products all now locally made,

Sent and sold around the country,

For all the people to be had.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The long forgotten Hara Ambe Hara Ambe,

The Indian railway builders’ working chant,

To spur them on to shift to carry loads heavy,

Now it became ‘Harambee, hei, Harambee hei,’

A working chant of the local cart men the hamali,

Pushers of laden handcarts heavy,

And of the high loaded two-wheeled cart the mkokoteni,

The front man while steering ‘Harambee’ he cried,

His pushing mates at the rear ‘Hei’ they replied,

As their heavily laden carts they wheeled,

Also at the railway yards quay sides and wharfs,

The same working chants was daily evoked,

By the pagazi the labourers and the stevedores,

As well at the constructions sites,

When men and women hauled their heavy loads.

Cart Pulling Years passed and the colonies now desired to be free,

Seeking fighting for nations new and free to be,

From fetters of colonial white man to be unchained,

‘Harambee Harambee’ one of the their leaders hailed,

‘Hei, hei’ his faithful multitude replied loudly,

Of a nation rich and thriving on the East African plains,

A nation of high yellow swaying savannah grasses,

With a sharp snow-clad peak and long strong rivers muddy,

Land of lions leopards cheetahs giraffes,

Wildebeests zebras and other wild animals many,

Among scattered green flat-topped acacia trees,

For thousands the rallying cry it now is,

‘Harambee Harambee’ again their leader loudly shouted,

‘Hei hei’ wanainchi the struggling people responded,

Through severe trials tribulation and deprivation,

Beaten shot and in harsh detention camps placed,

They stopped not nor for a moment tarry,

Even though their leader remained incarcerated,

At a faraway place desolate dry and isolated,

The country’s freedom the people demanded,

‘Harambee harambee’ they thunderously chanted,

Then as the sun rays Mt. Kenya peak lighted,

A glorious African day it heralded,

Thousands of the nation’s people,

Their freed leader they surrounded,

Kenyan flag

As a new flag bright black red and green,

On a high white mast unfurled,

With that and a resounding cry of uhuru,

The country’s liberation,

Of the East African nation of Kenya it declared,

All the hard-working people,

Of a new nation now free,

‘Harambee’ to pull together,

To spur them on they chanted,

And as the national motto,

For all it was finally adopted.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The pioneering dukawala Indian he is not young any more,

His work and efforts taken over by children now grown,

Gone his very busy rushing days of old,

And the complicated business roles,

Hair in a white fringe surrounds the head bald,

Silver Mercedes

In a silver Mercedes that sits before his modern home,

He drives past and observes all that he owns,

For deep within him fully well he knows,

When the time as it surely must come,

Alone bereft and empty-handed he goes,

Learned and read of two books only,

With schooling of only years two or three,

Only to read and numbers to note knows he,

Able not to write at length all,

Seeks he now a learned scribe,

Who in many words will describe,

The many tales of his hard long work and life,

Of his visions and of a great trading lore,

Of at least one Indian dukawala,

On East Africa’s dusty floor,

For unlike the forgotten Indian railway men,

He yearns to leave behind a name,

At least of one Indian trading pioneers intrepid,

Who to East Africa in dhows came,

To work long hours to toil and to trade,

Amid hardships fevers loneliness and pains,

To help to create countries rich on plains,

To become a proud yet modest,

Man of the tiny mabati duka fame.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains'

Kersi's Notes

[1] P.C. and D.C. After the Governor of the colony, P.C. the Provincial Commissioner was in charge of a large province of the country, and D.C. the District Commissioner of a smaller district of the province.

[2] OHMS – All East African the government vehicle bore this registration plate, which stood for, On His or Her Majesty’s Service.

[3] Pheta – A hard high headgear worn by Parsi men.

(4) Indian Women-It must be noted, that this tribute also extends to the many Indian women, who too braved the solitude, privations, and vicissitudes in inhospitable places, not only by accompanying their husbands, but also in many cases trading and running their dukas. Through the dint of hard application, many of these intrepid ladies also achieved commercial successes, and created entrepreneurial establishments and businesses of great value.

The Indian Duka painting

The image depicts on the rich red soil, a typical Indian duka, a small trading store, in small towns and remote country areas of East Africa. The signage is also typically hand painted work of the duka owners. These put up with any paint at hand, included some spelling errors. The man behind the counter is my paternal uncle Jehangirji Rustomji, who first opened a small watch repair duka in the old Indian Bazaar, now Biashara Street, in early 1906 in Nairobi, Kenya. He later moved to the then Government Road, now Moi Avenue, in the corner of a chemist shop, Chemitex, next to the old Alibhai Sherrif hardware shop, going towards the Ismaili jamatkhana, on the corner of Government Road and River Road. Later his youngest son Rati joined him, and after Jehangirji’s death, Rati carried on the little business until 2009, when he retired and closed the little duka after 103 years of its existence. Rati still lives in Nairobi. Copyright> Kersi Rustomji.

About the author

Kersi Rustomji, a Parsi, was born in 1936 at Kampala, Uganda. At age 3, his parents moved to Mwanza, Tanzania (then Tanganyika). In Mwanza, even as a child, he was interested in the flora and fauna and the people. Kersi roamed the countryside and observed all. A childhood fall from a tree, resulted in the loss of his left arm, but this did not deter him in any manner.

When the family moved to Kenya, Kersi’s continued forays into the wilderness, and love of the flora and fauna, resulted in him receiving the Silver Acorn, the highest award for Rovers, when he completed a 100-mile hike. During his many foot safaris on Nairobi-Mombasa road and elsewhere, he came to know the Indian dukawalla well. It is his deep regard for their unabating pioneering spirit, that led him to write this much needed tribute.

He had a varied successful forty years in teaching. He now lives in Australia, and continues to write stories with East African themes. He is also writing an autobiography.

All graphics unless otherwise indicated obtained from free public domains and reprocessed for the work by Kersi Rustomji. A number of thumbnails are from the Wellcome library, UK, and the US Library of Congress.

Bwana Kesi’s Duka By Zahir Dhalla

Bwana Kesi yumo dukani, I presume.

Pale Ukambani, I presume.

From neighbouring south

the Maasai come about.

To buy something or just for chatting?

Sure they ask “Bei?” or “Pilsener?”

But not, as billed, Tusker.

Kersi built here for the acacia shade.

No lounging leopard or suspended snake?

Maasai cloaks flap open – exposed groins?

Nah, it ventilates their loins.

Bwana Kesi ni Mzee sasa

sharp like eyes of paka.

In the Outback lazy

pining for his Kibwezi.

Mwalimu Rustomji wa Likoni wa jana,

kofia, ndevu, meno na macho yako ni maridadi sana.

No expiry date, I presume.

No worries mate, I presume. "

An extract from Zahir Dhalla's book: "Poetry: The Magic of Few Words. Definition & Some Genres." With background appendix on East Africa." https://www.createspace.com/5303982 (an Amazon company)

Zahir's Notes

1. Swahili words used above:

bei – price; duka – shop (from the Gujarati word dukan; Indians were frequently dukawallas, shopkeepers); jana – past; Kesi – Kersi (Kesi is his name in Swahili); kofia – hat; macho – eyes; maridadi – beautiful; meno – teeth; mwalimu – teacher; Mzee – elder (wise man); ndevu – beard; ni – in/at; paka – cat; pale – over there; sana – very; sasa – now; wa – of; yako – your; yumo – is in;

2. One-armed Kersi Rustomji (Kesi to his beloved natives) was born in 1936 in Kampala, Uganda near the north shores of Lake Victoria. He grew up at the other end of the lake in Mwanza, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). He finished his schooling in Kenya becoming a teacher. His love of hiking included trekking through Ukambani and Kibwezi village (coincidentally Hemingway was prowling on the other side of the Chyullu (Chullu) Hills at the time). Kersi currently lives in New South Wales, Australia, his itch of trekking still intact. His memoirs are at http://www.kersi.50webs.com/. He put together the beautiful collage above as a tribute to the dukawallas found in every town and village of East Africa. My maternal grandfather ran such a duka in Kibwezi, Kenya in Ukambani, which is the setting for my collage.

3. eBooks cost much less: search "zahir dhalla" on Amazon.com/.ca/.co.uk/etc. Net proceeds go to needy school children in Tanga, Tanzania.