Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris in Lamu and Mombasa, 1870-1930 by Zahir Bhaloo
In about 1870, Dewji Jamal, a rich Ithna-Asheri merchant of Bombay and Zanzibar established a branch of his company Dewji Jamal & Co in Lamu which was then the chief port of Kenya. Besides this solitary venture there is no record of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris on the island until 1880. The period 1880-1890 witnessed a large number of Ithna-asheri arrivals in Lamu.
Most of the new arrivals came from Kutch or Kathiawad but some also came from older Khoja settlements along the East African coast like Bagamoyo, Zanzibar and Kilwa. When they arrived most were already “Ithna-Asheri” and it is likely that only a very small number of Khojas actually seceded in Lamu. Late Hussein Abdalla Jaffer, a great-grandson of Dewji Jamal remembers that while his grandfather Jaffer Dewji was in Lamu he often used to help Ismaili Khojas and invite them for religious majlises. After some time a number of them left the jamatkhana and joined the Ithna-Asheris.(1)
In 1883 seven sons of Kanji Asani left Jamkhambalia (near Jamnagar) in Kathiawad and arrived in Lamu after a forty day journey by dhow. Of the seven, five, Dewji Kanji, Daya Kanji, Panju Kanji, Samji Kanji, Ramji Kanji became Ithna-asheris. Each of the brothers established shops in Lamu town from where they carried out a flourishing import export business. A great grandson of Dewji Kanji, Jafferali Merali, who was born in Lamu in 1919, describes the family business: “At that time Lamu did a great deal of trade, with Mombasa, Somalia and direct to India. The dhows anchored off Lamu town, and the steamers anchored off Shela. One of our main exports was the doum palm mat bags that were used in Zanzibar for packing cloves. Another was mangrove poles which went to the Gulf countries. We imported mainly rice, sugar, wheat and spices.” (2)
In 1885 one of Dewji Jamal’s sons, Nazerali Dewji, arrived in Lamu with his family from Zanzibar. A handwritten letter by John Kirk, the British Consul in Zanzibar, to his deputy in Lamu announces the new arrivals:
“I have been asked to mention to you that Nazerali Deoji [sic] and his family have gone to settle in Lamu, and to say that he is the Agent of Deoji Jamal [sic] of this place, a British Indian. Also I would say that the family of Deoji Jamal including his Agent now at Lamu have formally left the Khoja sect and joined that of the K.Shias. They are still however British subjects. For leaving the Khojas the family has sometimes been annoyed by their former co-religionists.” (3)
The ‘family’ mentioned in the letter probably also included two of Nazerali Dewji’s younger brothers, Nasser Dewji and Jaffer Dewji, who were sent to manage the branch of Dewji Jamal & Co on the island. In 1887 Nazerali Dewji moved to Mombasa to establish a new branch of Dewji Jamal & Co.
Because Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris arriving in Lamu came with their families by 1895 the population of Khoja Shia Ithna-asheris had increased to about three hundred. Initially the Ithna-asheris met at individual homes to perform the ‘majlis’, ‘matam’ and other communal observances. In 1896 Dewji Jamal bought land for building a mosque-imambara. The Jamat meanwhile established a fund to raise the capital required to erect the mosque-imambara. Nasser Dewji supervised the construction and played a leading role in the collection efforts.(4)
In the same year Jaffer Dewji left for Mombasa to manage the Mombasa branch of Dewji Jamal & Co. Soon after Jaffer Dewji’s departure, the Lamu Khoja Shia Ithna-asheri community plunged into a decade of communal discord. The internal factionalism which gripped the Lamu jamat in those days was not uncommon. The jamats at Zanzibar, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam all faced similar challenges. Often in such cases social conflict resulted in the acquisition of new land for use as a cemetery or the building of new mosques and imambaras. This in turn helped to meet the demands of an increase in the size of the community once the conflict was resolved and the jamat was again reunited.
In Lamu shortly after the conflict began, one faction, with the help contributions from Zanzibar, built a temporary new mosque outside the 1896 mosque-imambara. This was later re-built in the 1900’s with contributions from Jivraj Khatau, Jivraj Meghji and others who had left Mombasa’s “Bustani” (see below) into the splendid mosque that can be seen today on the Lamu the sea front. When the Lamu jamat reunited, this mosque became its main mosque, while the top floor of the older 1896 mosque-imambara was now used exclusively as an imambara. In the 1920’s and 30’s the population of the Lamu jamat began to decline steadily. By the end of the Second World War most Khojas had migrated to Mombasa. One reason for the migration was that Mombasa had displaced Lamu as the chief commercial port of Kenya. Another reason was the lack of adequate higher education facilities in Lamu, though it must be said the community did make efforts in this regard when Jiwan Visram established a school-madrasa on the island in the 1890’s.
(1) From an interview with Hassan A.M.Jaffer.
(2) Cynthia Salvadori, “Muharram in Lamu from an interview with Jafferali Merali”, We Came in Dhows v.1 ( Paperchase Kenya Ltd: Nairobi, 1996), 30-31
(3) Cynthia Salvadori, We Came in Dhows, pg 30
(4) In 1901 Nasser Dewji died onboard a German ship while returning from pilgrimage to Mecca and was buried at sea.