TANGA KHOJA ISMAILIS:
Late 1800s and the 20th Century-A brief survey of the community.
By Zahir K. Dhalla, August 2015.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Khoja Ismaili Settlement
- 3 Khoja Ismaili Profile
- 4 Exodus
- 5 History Gaps
- 6 COMMUNITY SEWADARIS (MUKHI & KAMADIAS) OF THE KHOJA ISMAILI JAMAAT, TANGA
- 7 TANGA TOURISM ELECTRONIC BROCHURE
About? This write-up is about a community, the Khoja Ismailis, in an important coastal town, Tanga, in north-eastern Tanzania.
Tanga means “sail” in Swahili (as in a boat sail) being a nod to safe sailing in Tanga Bay and its sandbar/archipelago-protected coastal waters. It is located only 5⁰ south of the Equator, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, being the second-most important ocean port in the country after the commercial capital. Physically it is flat land, 115 feet above sea level. The Sigi and the Mkulumuzi rivers from the East Usambara Mountain drainage flow into Tanga Bay. It has one of the highest rainfalls in the country. While it gets very hot in Tanga town and the surrounding plains, it is cool / cold / frosty in the Usambara Mountains. Just about any tropical produce can be grown in the region, plus cash crops like sisal fibre (for making ropes, twines) and tea – with sisal being the mainstay and East Africa producing half the world’s total sisal production, the majority of it from Tanga region. The population is made up primarily of the Digo and the Sambaa tribes, with many Zigua and Bondei, plus a smattering of Asians and Europeans. At independence (1961) there were almost 50,000 residents, second largest population in the country, whereas when Khoja Ismailis first began settling there near the end of the 1800s there would have been only about 5,000 people. Today (2015) there are about 300,000 people!
Khoja Ismaili population size: The first permanent jamat khana (congregation place) opened in 1929 having a prayer chamber of about 1,000 square feet. About 150 people could sit in that space. But the decade of the 1930s saw a huge growth spurt and at the end of the decade a bigger prayer chamber was built connected to the original, with a little more than double the square footage. Almost 500 people could be seated and perhaps another 100-150 in the corridors and in the courtyard below. Again within a decade and a half more space was needed and this time a grand jamat khana was built in the Aga Khan property in Usagara with almost double the seating capacity. The Tanga Khoja Ismaili population peaked at 1,100 (including those in towns of the region) in early 1960s. [The total Khoja Ismaili population of East Africa peaked at about 50,000.]
The Tanga jamat khana sitting capacity can be tabulated as follows:
1929: 150-200 – 1st permanent JK, mukhi Alibhai Karmali, kamadia Bhimji Nathoo
1940: 700-750 – 2nd permanent JK, mukhi Gulamali Merali Jiwa, kamadia Hussein Dharamsi
1962: 1,200 – Grand JK, mukhi Mohamedali Shivji, kamadia Abdulsultan A. E. Jetha
The population at the beginning of the century was very small, perhaps no more than 75. Today (2015) it is less than 50. [See Exodus for explanation.]
Khoja Ismaili Settlement
Whither? In the early going, one of the first stops for Khoja Ismaili immigrants to East Africa was the island of Zanzibar. In 1840’s Zanzibar became the seat of the Omani Sultanate and much of the East African trade flowed through it. As Khoja Ismailis were already settled there, more followed suit. With the European “Scramble for Africa” in 1885, colonization began and more and more Khoja Ismailis came, largely because they could do so freely within the vast British Raj and were encouraged to do so, even by the Germans in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Many who came to Zanzibar went on or were sent on, by pioneers like Alidina Visram, to coastal towns like Bagamoyo, Pangani, Mombasa and later on to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Kilwa, Lamu and later still, further and further into the interior of East Africa. Thus, Tanga’s settlement first began in Pangani, some 50 kilometres south down the coast. Tanga rose to prominence due to German colonial development which included sisal and tea plantations, a railway to Moshi (at the foot of Kilimanjaro), a port.
By turn of the 19th/20th centuries, early Khoja Ismailis had settled, first in Pangani, then later in Tanga and later still in regional towns like Pongwe, Muheza, Korogwe, Handeni, Lushoto. Some of the earliest and big families were the Somjis, the Ladhas, the Alladinas, the Nathoos. The first mukhi (chief of the prayer congregation) was Abdulrasul Somji in 1905. His kamadia (the mukhi’s assistant) was Suleman Ladha.
Khoja Ismaili Profile
German period (1885-1918): The country was then known as Deutsch Ost Afrika (DOA). Khoja Ismailis, especially men - as women stayed at home - spoke three languages: Cutchi or Gujarati in the community, Swahili with the natives and German with the colonists. Some worked for the Germans, in the government and in private companies, and of course many ran dukas (shops) as everywhere else in East Africa.
British period (1918-1961): The country was known as Tanganyika Territory, a British mandate under the League of Nations (the precursor to the present day United Nations). Again the Khoja Ismailis spoke three languages except now instead of German it was English. And again some worked for the British, in the government and in private companies, and continued to run the ubiquitous dukas. But over time, besides doing nokri (service, i.e. being employed) and keeping dukas (selling sundry goods, kanga-kitenge which were colourful printed cotton sheets from Holland later from Asia, spices, fish, toys, clothing), they diversified. In Tanga, you found among the Khoja Ismailis: the accountant, the auctioneer, the baker, the butcher, the caterer, the grocer, the hotelier, the lawyer, the miller, the miner, the perfumer, the photographer, the planter, the printer, the restaurateur, the salesman, the tailor, the teacher - and even the magician! They were also into selling hardware, furniture, they ran agencies of brand name products, insurance, and they got into automotive businesses of fuel, parts, repairs, sales, scrap and transport. However, a noticeable absence was artisans. This was possibly due to their ancient (pre-Khoja) caste heritage in which your caste and sub-caste determined what work you could do!
Independence period (1961 onwards): The country came to be known as Tanzania. The Khoja Ismailis continued in their diversification especially in the professions as they became more and more educated. Tanga produced its first graduates around independence. But soon came major upheavals – see Exodus.
Wealth: Approximately half of the Khoja Ismaili families owned their residences around the middle of the 20th century, the other half renting. Half of them owned cars, all had bicycles, some had motor cycles or scooters. Collectively this community of about 1,000 raised funds to build a grand jamat khana at a cost of 800,000 shillings. To get an idea of how much that was, a small 4-door sedan cost just over 10,000 shillings at the time.
In the 19th century and much of the first half of the 20th, the sedentary Asian’s life expectancy was much less than 60 years, with a significant infant mortality rate. This was due to lack of medical services and hygiene, (including dental – flossing was unheard of and by their 50s and 60s many had lost their teeth and wore dentures and/or having had to eat mashed food). Adding to that were obesity and its attendant illnesses, tropical diseases like malaria and outbreaks of plague, smoking and lack of physical activity.
Obesity began to be addressed by firmans (instructions) from Aga Khan III to Khoja Ismailis on reducing the quantity of food devoured, on not using ghee, on eating more vegetables, on minimizing frying – and on exercising. These were made for the most part during the first half of the 20th century.
But long habits, especially with eating being a most enjoyable – and easy - pass time with all Asians, obesity did not disappear. Nor did heart ailments and diabetes.
On the plus side, a dispensary with a resident doctor, Dr Torquato, later Dr da Silva, with a pharmacy in it, was established on the ground floor of the original jamat khana, which contributed to improvements in health. [It was said that Dr Torquato used a big syringe (sooyo in Gujarati) of World War One vintage which he had found on the battlefield in Ras Kazone and which left your arm ‘paralyzed’ for days - actually, hurting for days, which was the same thing – either that or he was just heavy-handedly clumsy! Children would nervously watch him after they had been examined to see if he next reached for his prescription pad – phew! – or headed for the fridge to get a penicillin vial – oh no!] In bigger towns, Aga Khan Hospitals were established. By the 1960s all children were being vaccinated.
All in all, life expectancy and infant mortality rates slowly began to improve.
The majority of the Khoja Ismailis being of Cutch-Gujarat extraction their diet reflected these origins but also showed modifications influenced by East African cooking.
The items most guaranteed to be found on a Khoja Ismaili dining table* in Tanga were:
[*The early Khoja Ismaili settlers ate – as they did in India - on the floor, sitting on small, low wooden benches, the food laid out on a mat, but later on dining tables became the norm.]
- Chai, of the sweet, milky kind. The proportion of milk to water varied from 100-0 to about 20-80. As for sugar, the minimum was 2 teaspoons per cup. The most common brand of tea was Brooke Bond.
- Butter or margarine on toasts of thick slices of bread (bought whole or half the night before from Rahim Hasham Moloo’s small store near the old jamat khana, and later on from Nurdin Kaba’s Central Bakery where sliced bread was also available). Some topped it with jam or marmalade.
Not necessarily every breakfast:
- Tropical fruits: bananas, papai (pawpaw / papaya), mangoes, oranges.
- Eggs: sunny side up, omelette or boiled – rarely scrambled. Part of the ritual for fried egg was using the corner of your toast to pierce the yolk head and scooping. [A few people kept chicken coops for their egg supply.]
Also to be found but not on all breakfast tables and not everyday:
- Maandazi na mbaazi kwa tui (maandazi: cinnamon-cardamom-nutmeg flavoured fried pastry; na: and; mbaazi: pigeon peas; kwa: in; tui: coconut juice extract, curried).
- [much later, post World War II] Corn flakes and milk.
Sunday breakfast specials:
- Mithai (sweetmeats – a variety of fudges and pastries).
- Puri (spicy fried puffs) with an aathano (pickle) or chutney and/or a dry curry and/or kheer (yam pudding).
- Bhajia (fried fritters of two types: ground lentils, or potato slices dipped in chick pea flour, the latter also known as nylon bhajia) with chutney.
- Mkate wa kumimina – or simply mkate mimina (mkate: bread; mimina: to pour).
- Vitumbua (banana fritters).
- Kahawa (black coffee), optionally with tangawizi (ginger tea), served by ambling street vendors with their birika (copper kettles) on charcoal braziers and vikombe (small porcelain cups) two of which they used dexterously to click out a trademark tattoo by the fingers of one hand while they lugged their goods with the other, including a water bucket for washing their cups!
- Or chai (dispatched in Thermos flask from home, if nearby).
- Optionally, kashata (confection, often with crushed nuts, coconut flakes).
- Some took an actual break (instead of continuing to work) and went to Blue Room for their famous lentil bhajia and typically passion fruit juice, to Patwas, to Central Restaurant, to Bombay Sweet Mart, to Maimun’s, etc.
- Mahogo (cassava, fried and topped with lemon, salt and red chilli powder).
- Or bher / bhel (spicy soup of potatoes and chick peas) with chevdo and ambli jo ras (ambli: tamarind, jo: of, ras: juice).
- Or karanga (peanuts, roasted in mchanga: sand!).
- Optionally, a cold Healtho (Tanga’s soda made by Anjari Soda Factory, famous throughout East Africa), many opting to put some of their karanga in their Healtho to slurp and chew!
- Curries: lentil, veggie, gos (gos: meat, most commonly goat, but also chicken), mahogo (cassava); machhi (fish; Tanga had an abundant supply of a wide variety of seafood); sonia (prawns / shrimps). [Prawns / shrimps were obtained in a quintessential way. During season a vendor - a Msheheri (an Arab originally from Yemen, sherio as he was called in short) - would go door to door, taking a week or so to do the rounds around town, announcing "Kamba! Kamba!" (Prawns! Prawns!), two basketfuls - and hand scales for weighing! - hanging off his shoulder sling pole. Anyone in a home hearing it would alert the mother "Maa! Kamba-waro watai to!" (Ma!, The kambaman is passing by!)]
- Maani / roti and/or rotlo (a thicker version of roti made with gram flour, which being quite dry went well with moist spinach curry).
- Rice. On the coast it used to be common to cook it in tui: coconut milk, but later on coconut usage was decreased for – dubious? - health reasons.
- Tropical fruit juice.
- Chaas (buttermilk).
- Green salad.
- Khichri, kadhi ane papad (khichri: a mash of split lentils; kadhi: a thin soup of sour milk and chick pea flour; ane: and; papad: super thin lentil flour wafer).
Sunday lunch specials:
- Pilau (pilaf).
- Khichro (a medley of grains, potatoes, meat in a thick curry).
- Muthia (a medley of small veggies, meat in a thick curry with pieces of fist-kneaded gram flour; muthi means fist).
- Kuku paka (kuku: chicken; paka: to smear; a chicken, potato and boiled egg curry made with tui with a yellow tinge).
- Kebabs and/or samosas as appetizers.
- Kachumber (veggie condiment) on the side.
- Eating out in restaurants often meant eating grilled food: chicken fillet, mishkaki (skewered meat pieces), sheesh kebab, steak.
Tea with a snack of one or more of:
- Chevdo (a mix of spicy rice puffs and peanuts and/or cashews and/or lentils, sometimes with currants / sultanas / raisins).
- Spicy roasted or fried lentils.
- Gantia (fried crisps of lentil flour).
- Lunch leftovers.
- Naandi (food offerings brought to jamat khana).
- Desserts, being most commonly puddings.
- (Children after jamat khana): Snacks bought from Rudi Masi opposite the old jamat khana or at the new jamat khana from Pakodi’s cart (whose bell was sounded by Pakodi as he pushed it across the Princess Margaret Bridge and which sometimes, when he rang it unaware that jamati ceremonies were not over yet, was heard right inside the prayer chamber, especially during silent praying, and which got children drooling a la Pavlov’s dog!
Nutrition: As can be seen from the above, the diet was high in nutritional value, containing a lot of proteins, vitamins, minerals, omega-3, fibre, etc from all good groups, albeit the sugar, starch and fat content was high. But what also needs to be kept in mind is the quantity devoured versus physical activity which lopsidedly weighed towards quantity eaten. Thus, the nutritional value was generally over-ridden by too much of the bad stuff and lack of physical activity.
Literacy was measurably high, albeit only in their mother tongues. Almost all males and many females read and wrote Gujarati, some also Khojki (a script unique to Khoja Ismailis), and a few in German or English. [A peculiarity unique to Khojas was that they had TWO mother tongues: Cutchi if one's origin was the Cutch province of the State of Gujarat in India, or Gujarati if Kathiawar province. But the amazing thing was that if a mixed group were chatting the conversation would smoothly flow in BOTH languages! And it was not uncommon to find both languages being spoken in one household because the husband and wife had different origins - the children would speak say the mother's or the father's language while husband and wife spoke the other!] The level of education in the early part of the 20th century was very basic with an average completion of about five chopri (standards, which is the same as grades) which included hisab (arithmetic). Again, as with health, things began to change with firmans from Aga Khan III, including that most famous one instructing Khoja Ismailis that if a family could only afford to educate one child let it be a female. And for extra emphasis, it was explained that a male could always, as a minimum, carry bricks on his head to earn a living. And so, early on, in the 1930s, the Khoja Ismailis of Tanga set up a primary school in a rented building near the east end of Market Street. And then, beginning in the mid-1940s Aga Khan School construction began. In 1945, the foundation stone of the primary school was laid by Aga Khan III. A dozen years later, the succeeding Aga Khan IV laid the stone for the nursery school next door, this within months of becoming the new Imam. By the end of the 1960s, there were several university graduates and all Khoja Ismaili children were expected to finish at least 12 grades. A major shift in education policy occurred after the Second World War. The medium of instruction was changed from Gujarati to English, and Gujarati as a subject was dropped. This had a lasting impact on the then and future generations, for it eventually made all Khoja Ismailis fluent in English, opening doors to the vast world of information, leading to advancement in many different careers.
In the very early days, Khoja Ismailis settling in coastal towns would either reside in stone towns (where buildings were constructed of coral stone, lime mortar and mangrove poles) or, in the out-lying villages of mud-wattle-&-thatch huts. Certainly those settling deep in the interior of East Africa in the early days resided in such huts. But with the European colonization beginning in the late 18th century came housing of modern material namely cement, corrugated iron, tiles and glass.
In Tanga town proper were found cement buildings whereas in the Ngamiani area, immediately to its south, there was a mixture of cement buildings and many mud dwellings. But housing for the Khoja Ismailis was not easily affordable and it was not uncommon for one or more males in a family to sleep at the jamat khana in Tanga town, mosquitoes abuzz all night!
The turning point in affordable housing came post-Diamond Jubilee. The Diamond Jubilee was the celebration of the 60th year of Aga Khan III as the Imam. It took place in Dar-es-Salaam in 1946. [The actual 60th anniversary was in 1945 but because World War 2 had not quite ended and it certainly continued on for another year in south-east Asia the jubilee took place a year later.] The Aga Khan announced that the huge sum of money gifted by the community on this occasion be used for a number of major ventures including building schemes all over East Africa, Tanga being a typical case. [The first housing scheme was Makupa Flats in Mombasa, in neighbouring Kenya, which was highly successful.] In Tanga, an estate of detached, semi-detached and a few two-storey housing was built accommodating nearly 70 families, representing over a third of the jamat. In addition, those who could put up about half the capital needed, with the other half being financed under a Diamond Jubilee scheme, constructed their own buildings. About 20 such buildings were built, for commercial, residential and commercial-cum-residential purposes, up to five storeys high, the main street of Ngamiani - Akida (now Mkwakwani) Street - being dotted with most of the multi-storey ones. This was a substantial number for the size of the jamat then. Prior to the scheme there were only a couple of such buildings owned by Khoja Ismailis.
The Tanga Khoja Ismaili Welfare Society saw to it that no one went hungry or was homeless. Donations channeled through it went to buying grocery, clothing, paying rent and so on. The Tribunal Council counselled on and arbitrated domestic issues. The Marriage Committee was active in match-making, in marshalling proposals and helping generally with the marriage process. [And woe to any bachelor among visitors coming to town. He would be a marked man, hounded until they got him engaged – or until he secretly fled town! Much of this ‘enthusiasm’ was – again – due to firmans by which Aga Khan III, upon seeing too many unmarried daughters in the jamat, had exhorted the community to get them married as early as possible, to young-adult Ismaili males (who otherwise might get tempted by bad habits)!] There were other organizations too, such as Women’s Association, Ismailia Association, etc.
The Khoja Ismaili pass time was highly varied. (It has to be kept in mind that there was no TV, much less DVDs!)
Boys and girls joined the scouts, guides, cubs and brownies; guides leader Mrs. Roshan Vellani went on to become Guides Commissioner for Tanga. Adults – young, old, males, females – volunteered for community service through the Volunteers Corps, through various committees such as safai (cleaning), gusal (funeral) and so on, as well as through appointments as jamat and religious service mukhi-kamadias and as council members, all such work being considered sewa (volunteering). Aga Khan Primary School pupils, upon leaving for secondary education, joined the Former Students Association under which they organized debates, produced printed magazines, organized social events and so on. On the purely diversion side, they flocked to Bollywood movies on Sundays (after an excursion to the Ras Kazone sea-view area), while the younger generation were partial to Hollywood movies. They played cards, with satio (seven set) and rummy being popular. Picnics to Mwambani beach to the south, just outside town, were popular.
Organizing and running annual jamati festivities involved many members of the jamat. There were four major events in the year with Imamat Day (Imam’s ascension) the prime event, the others being Idd-ulFitr, Salgirah (Imam’s birthday) and Navroz (Persian New Year). All four involved congregating where everyone dressed in their finest and they were fed, at least confectionary and sherbet, but also at important festivities, a feast. Two of them - Imamat Day and Idd - involved outdoor festivities, dandia (sticks, being a stick dance) played on Imamat Day and a fete (carnival) during Idd. [In Tanga, only after Amir “Ami” Murad opened his accordion and played “Koi mere saponon mein aaya” (Someone came into my dreams) – a Bollywood blockbuster number – the dandia began in earnest!] In pre-Independence days, a sargas (parade-procession) used to be held on Imamat Day and whose centre-piece was a manwar (a float in the form of a ship, constructed by S. Amirali outside his canvas sewing shop) and if anyone dressed up in naval togs, they were allowed to get on board. Also in pre-Independence days a taak (an archway over the road) was erected congratulating the Imam. Post-Independence, the sargas and taak were discontinued so as not to be seen as competing with national celebrations.
And – of course - they played sports.
Traditional volleyball was very popular. It was a stationary version of the common athletic variety. Some of the accomplished players over time were Aziz Dharsee (centre), Badru Jamal (net centre), Abdul ‘George’ Hasham (centre), Karim S. Amirali (net centre), Nurali ‘Chabho’ Ibrahim (serviceman). The Tanga Khoja Ismaili teams became dominant in town! They also played cricket, badminton, table tennis, tennis, soccer. Some of the very good players were Gulu Kaba (cricket, his Googly being nasty), Jamalu Nanji (cricket, badminton), Nurali ‘Chabho’ Ibrahim (cricket), Farida ‘Gulabai’ Bhanji, Shoki Nanji, Nazir Jamal Poonja, Hadimohamed Jiwa and Shokat Kaba (badminton), Vazir Kassam (tennis). And being a coastal town, they all swam in Tanga Bay’s calm, warm waters.
A good number of Tanga’s Khoja Ismailis developed skills in the fine arts especially the Alladina clan. Karim Alladina became an accomplished playwright, his brother Shariff Alladina a great classical vocalist, Karimbhai’s sons Sadru ‘Tarimbho’ and Mehboob ‘Meblo’, pop-singers, Shariffbhai’s son Safder, an artist and author. Younger generations produced more good singers: Nasim (Suleman) Bhimji, Rozy (Karmali) Karim, Rubina (Bhanji) Harji, Karim Moloo and many others.
The first decade of Independence in East Africa saw major upheavals. There was a revolution in Zanzibar right after Independence and seemingly overnight the 10,000+ Khoja Ismaili population there emptied out on to the East African mainland, including to Tanga. Hot on its heels came nationalization by government of properties and big business, accompanied by political scape-goating of Asians to divert attention away from political corruption and incompetence, followed by Africanization and one party rule, which all led to economic collapse. In Uganda, brutal dictator Idi Amin expelled Asians from the country and now it was Uganda’s turn to empty out its Khoja Ismaili population. All these upheavals and attendant uncertainty was seen as the proverbial ‘hand-writing on the wall’.
By the 1980s, Tanga too seemingly emptied of its Khoja Ismailis. Today (2015) less than 50 hardy souls remain.
Like all Asians, Khoja Ismailis notoriously lacked in, for the most part, recording their history and so, not surprisingly, gaps abound. What to do?
Oral history: These can be requested of family members or collected first hand from, especially, senior members of the jamat. And they can be even in point form as seen in the following profiles from Tanga:
Research: Council records*, public records*, passenger ship logs and rosters, newspaper archives, etc. [*birth, marriage, death, business registration]
Maps, Counts: Every town that had at least one Khoja Ismaili family needs to be identified on maps. Wherever possible one or more people of these towns need to be tracked down to, as a minimum, come up with profiles of Khoja Ismailis by town.
Personal Journals: Some – albeit few – did keep journals. The task here is two-fold. The first is discovery and cataloguing. The second is translation/transcription if allowed to do so.
Zahir K. Dhalla is a Toronto author and freelance writer His book: "Poetry: The Magic of Few Words. Definition & Some Genres." With background appendix on East Africa." is available through Amazon.com