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This essay and others like it on Khojawiki are written to provide context for the life and migration stories of individual Khoja families. We would like to add more such family histories of those who lived here, so our collective history is more complete. Please Click Here To Add Your Family And More Information To Our History


by: Iqbal I. Dewji, Editor,

(I wish to record my thanks to historian Fabian Steven whose work 'Curing the Cancer of the Colony: Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Socioeconomic Struggle in German East Africa'-The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 40, No. 3 (2007).), I have used here extensively}

Under Swahili & Zanzibari Rule

The Swahili word Bagamoyo ("bwaga moyo") means "lay down your heart". It is unclear whether the name comes from the enslaved who passed through the town (as in "give up all hope") or to the Nyamwezi porters, who rested in Bagamoyo after carrying 35 lb cargos on their shoulders, from the Great Lakes region (as in "take the load off and rest").[1]

Bagamoyo has a long settlement history, with the Kaole ruins of Persian Shirazi origins, dating back to the 13th century. However, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that the Swahili descendants of Shamvi la Magimba of Oman made settlement and not until the first half of the 19th century that Bagamoyo became a trading port for ivory and slaves, with traders coming from the African interior from places as far as the interior of the Congo,Lake Tanganyika and Usambaras on their way to Zanzibar.

It is likely that some of the Zanzibari Khojas came to Bagamoyo before 1840.[2]

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.[3]

See also Janmohamed Hansraj for his brave role in Abushiri Revolt.

Bagamoyo was a thriving place by the 1860s. In 1863, the town had at least 3,000 permanent inhabitants.....Furthermore, a sizable number of Indian merchants had settled in Bagamoyo by 1866, occupying around twenty “rather lovely homes” in town, in order to conduct business with peoples from the interior.The merchants, predominantly Indian but not exclusively so, bankrolled enterprising Arab or Swahili businessmen who wished to lead caravans into the interior to acquire ivory and other goods. Indian and Arab traders had also been establishing themselves at key resting points along the central caravan routes in the interior since the 1820s, assisting in the founding of such important towns like Tabora in Unyamwezi and Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. [4]

By the commencement of the fourth decade, there were 165 (Khoja) Ismaili families including 26 married women in Zanzibar. In 1866, there were 2,558 Ismailis residing at the following towns.

Place of Residence Individuals
Zanzibar 2,100
Pemba 57
Bagamoyo 131
Mrima (Coast) Villages 25
Dar es Salaam (Mzizima Village) 43
Kilwa 176
Mungas 18
Total 2,518


Through the second half of the 19th Century, Bagamoyo's largest Indian Community was the Ismailis or as they were popularly known as Khojas. [6]

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..[7]

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. ....They could rely on their co religionists. 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.[8]

See Hemraj Ladhani whose family came to Bagamoyo from Kutch in 1880 with his family.

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". [9]See FATMA PIRANI

See Khatija Juma Alarakhia

"....two most renowned Khojas", Prof. Brown continues, "who lived in the 19th century in Bagamoyo were Sewa Haji Paroo and Alidina Visram" [10]

See Sewa Haji Paroo- a very successful merchant and philanthropist from Bagamoyo. See also his nephew, Nasser Virji - who went to establish over 70-72 firms across German East Africa.

Oscar Baumann reported in 1890 that “one can identify the tastes of the Wanyamwezi in the countless Indian shops of Bagamoyo which are laden with many glass beads, wire, and other objects treasured by the Central Africans. Like in Zanzibar, there are little food stalls erected everywhere…..Yet Bagamoyo, by 1870, had the largest number of Asian merchants living along the central stretch of the East African coastline, numbering approximately 191 people living in seventy-six homes....Germans have noted that, for the porters of the interior, Bagamoyo was like a “little Paris” or “El Dorado” of East Africa.[11] Kindle Location 223-225</ref>

Bagamoyo, by the turn of the century, was still the leading import and export town of the colony; even more interesting, the town’s character persevered: In Bagamoyo, life is akin to that in the smallest watering place, trees and the country creep up to the main street, officials are there but they escape your eye, work is done unobtrusively, refreshments are served you within doors, or a chair and table are planted down by the side of the road, and you attract no attention thereby. It is life going easily without the stream being stagnant: it is the life which runs the longest course in Africa.[12]

In this way, Bagamoyo grew year after year, its permanent population increasing from around 3,000 in the early 1860s to roughly 18,000 by the turn of the century.[13]

Under German Colonial Rule

Bagamoyo was the principal town on the coast, and there on 16 August,(1888) with great ceremony, the company's flag was raised and the transfer of the administration to the company took place in the presence of its agent-general.[14]

Overall, the transition to German control was violent although Bagamoyo's initial takeover was relatively docile as it went on to serve as the first headquarters of DOAG, the German East Africa Company, between 1886-1891. The Khoja traders, in line with their vyapari ethos, adjusted to the new reality in their lives and choose to cooperate with the Germans authorities.

A large, strong building which had belonged to the Indian, Sewa Haji, formed the basis of the fort itself.[15]

A contemporary description of its pre-eminent status is provided by its first German Government administrator.

The first and most important of these stations was of course Bagamoyo. It lies on a fertile plain in Uzaramo, near the mouth of the Kingani River. Even before the rebellion it had achieved the status of being by far the most important of the coastal towns. It is there that the great caravan road from Tabora and the lakes, via Mpwapwa, reaches the coast. Every year about eighty thousand porters reach the coast at Bagamoyo, before returning inland. This gives the town a lively, commercial air. Even at that time the town was to a large extent made up of stone houses, some of them of considerable size..... The population of the town consisted, firstly, of distinguished, wealthy Arabs, whose shambas (agricultural plantations) were located just outside the town. Then there were a much larger number of Indians (both Hindus and Muslims), who are principally small traders and shopkeepers. They also serve as agents for the Indian wholesalers in Zanzibar, who hold a monopoly of the caravan trade, which supplies trade goods to the interior and purchases the goods brought to the coast from the interior, of which the most important are ivory, sesame, copal, and groundnuts. As to the native population of Bagamoyo, only a tiny proportion of it was made up of the indigenous Zaramo people. The majority were crossbreeds of the various coastal and inland tribes, or a mixture of Arab and native, or Swahili people, or something similar. [16]

In 1888–1889, an Arab (Abushiri) revolt against German rule nearly wiped out decades of Khoja traders prosperity in Bagamoyo. Interestingly, the episode also demonstrated the centuries-old pluralistic ethos of the Khoja veyaparis (traders) to live in peace wherever they did settled, saved their lives but not their homes or business properties.

..a major battle with the Bushiri rebels in Bagamoyo on 22 September destroyed much of the town. More than 4,000 inhabitants sought refuge at the Catholic mission.[17]

Bushiri informed the South Asians of his plans in advance, allowing them to move to Zanzibar and take most of their portable property with them.....A good relationship with indigenous rulers in an unstable regime was an important way in which South Asians could try to protect their presence[18]

The Khojas were requested by the Germans to return as the Germans had no supplies to set up their new colony, which they rapidly did with the assistance of their kinsmen in Zanzibar. This did not prevent the German company DOAG to soon set about to undermine the traders fraternity in Bagamoyo in order to advantage it's own business.

The busiest of these trading posts was in Bagamoyo, with its huge caravan trade. The company set about erecting a large caravanserai in Bagamoyo, to give it immediate access to the caravan trade. ....This caravanserai was to be the central point where all arriving caravans would deposit their goods, and from which the caravans travelling to the interior would depart.[19]

The Khojas prevailed and the DOAG lost its monopoly as the country was formally taken over by the German government.

In 1899, there were 401 brick houses in the town of Bagamoyo, belonging almost entirely to members of the Ismaili community. In addition, there were 2431 native houses with makuti roofs, built along streets which were already comparatively straight in those times. Besides, there were two large and magnificent houses which had been given as a present to the German administrative authorities by the Indian Sewa Hadji.[20]

See: Janmohamed Hansraj: Janmohamed Hansraj owned at least five stone houses with plots in Bagamoyo.

Five years later, the following Khoja traders are listed in the German Colonial Handbook for 1904 as resident traders in Bagamoyo.

Samji Kanji Asani

Somji Khakhuani Mawji Bhimani

Ismail Ranmal

Ibrahim Lila

Bandali Remtalla

Merali Remtulla

Husein Ladha Dhanji

Dossa Thawer

Jaffer Dossa Thawer

Ali Visram

Kanji Hansraj

Among the prominent Indians of the (Khoja ed.) Ismaili community, I remember a number by names, and I shall enumerate some of them. Bandali Remtullah as Mukhi was their representative. Others were Alidina Visram, Ibrahim Lila, Kanji Hansraj, the heir of Jan Hansraj, Dhalla Bhimji, Daramsi Haschem, and Jaffer Dossa Thawer, Jaffer Remtullah, Pardhan Mohamed, Abdullah Allarakia, Merali Remtullah, Jaffer Somji, Ali Siwji, Ismail Jiwani, Ali Somji, Ibrahim Hasim, Saleh Siwji, and many others.[21]

See Dharamshi Hasham who is listed in the the German Colonial Handbook 1903 together with his brother Ibrahim Hasham as merchants of utensils and canned goods, resident in Bagamoyo in 1903.

By 1892, the Germans decided to establish Dar es Salaam as the new capital of their colony but the Khoja (and other Indian) traders would not consider leaving their decades-old settlement for another 10 years. The reasons were well summed up a German trader.

Bagamoyo is not only the largest trading center of German East Africa, but also the most valuable one on account of its profits which are derived almost exclusively from products received from the natives without any major inducement by German colonization efforts…. Bagamoyo’s trade … is in no way the kind of trade that has its roots in buying and selling; rather, it is for a good part dependent on consultation, power, incentive, enterprising spirit and personal effort. It can not be undertaken by Europeans on account of its high expenses, since the available goods are scattered across the various regions. This trade is carried out by Indians in each region. It demands experience and bonds that can be trusted…. Furthermore, trade is, of course, entirely dependent upon the porters. These people have been used to coming to Bagamoyo annually for almost a century. The cheap food provided from the rich hinterland of Bagamoyo offer them a greater attraction than the poor countryside around Dar es Salaam. [22]

Like the porters of the African interior who had become attached to Bagamoyo, so the Indians had, too. This strong sense of community solidarity had proved itself difficult for the Germans to break.[23]

The resistance to the gutting of Bagamoyo also came from other commercial players.

The Hanseatic merchant companies like O’Swalds and Hansing were European middlemen, importing both German and non-German goods to East Africa and exporting East African products to Germany and elsewhere. They were not interested in colonization. They used Indian firms as their “agents and commercial go-betweens” and did not think twice about putting profit above patriotism.[24]

The German government's frustrations grew and the gut reaction of the militarist regime was to destroy Bagamoyo and its commercial power by government decree.

The plan to deliberately destroy Bagamoyo was clearly outlined: From the moment that steamers run directly to the best port, Dar es Salaam, and deliver a large assortment of goods to the natives at a cheaper price than could be delivered from Zanzibar—and this will occur on account of the direct import—as soon as the independent caravans from the interior begin going to Dar on account of this and are fitted out there for the return trip; as soon as the Indians who supply the caravans follow the natives to Dar, then Bagamoyo will fall.[25]

But instead in 1905, after the bloody Maji Maji rebellion, the German's decided a different strategy.

The construction of a railway from Dar es Salaam into the interior began in 1905 and, with each kilometer of track completed, gradually replaced porters as alternative means of transport for goods from the interior.[26]

At the same time, the German companies and banks also moved from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam, bringing opportunity and credit for the incoming traders. The Khoja merchants, seeing the clear danger to their livelihood and the futility of challenging the ambitions of a rising European industrial power, gradually drifted out of Bagamoyo over the next 5 years.

See Habib Adat Dewji,HASSAM KASSAM,Alarakhia Kheraj

Others merchants left Bagamoyo upon the establishment of boma (fort) towns in the interior that the German were forced to build to enforce their brutal regime. See Nazaralli Remtulla who arrived in Bagamoyo in 1894 and very soon decided to move to Tabora, which was a rail stop on the new German Central Railway.Moloo Hirji moved with the German soldier and colonizer, Major Tom Prince, who set up the fort in Tukuyu in 1910.[27]

See also Ismail Jaffer Somji who travelled by foot and rickshaw from Bagamoyo to Tanga in 1916 after the Germans built the Usagara Railway.

The government attempted to draw the merchant population of Zanzibar to German East Africa by instituting a 5 percent customs duties charge on all imports to the German coastline, including those from the nearby island of Zanzibar. The British, having made Zanzibar a protectorate in 1890, were anxious of losing the island’s merchant middlemen to the German mainland. To avoid having to pay customs duties twice—once for Zanzibar and again for the mainland—the Zanzibar merchant community would shift to Bagamoyo, the most lucrative trading entrepôt on the mainland and where many merchants had long placed their representatives.118 The British, therefore, persuaded the Sultan to declare Zanzibar a free port in 1892. In response, the Germans declared Dar es Salaam a free port in 1892, but not Bagamoyo, the intention being to draw Zanzibar’s traders to its capital.119 This did not have its intended effect— Bagamoyo remained a thriving town. The German government declared Bagamoyo a free port in 1895.[28]

However, the scramble for East Africa was over. The British focused their attention the new settler colonies of Uganda and Kenya and built a railway from the modern harbour at Mombasa to Kisumu on Lake Nyanza - Zanzibar lost its position as an entreport to became a lame-duck protectorate. The Germans dredged the channel at the mouth of Dar es Salaam's safe natural harbour to turn it into a deep sea port - And with no porterage business and no useable harbour, Bagamoyo lay bleeding for another 15 years before it became an inconsequential small coastal town.

Becher states that, according to trade statistics, Bagamoyo’s trading heyday was over by 1912.[29]

The German British rivalry in East Africa continued back and forth for a few more years until the local campaigns of the First World War, with catastrophic repercussion for the Khojas.

And after the War, the British held on Tanganyika as their trophy but as a League of Nations Mandated territory and not a colony for settlement, they devoted minimal attention to it. Some Khoja families remained Bagamoyo in petty retail trade and low-level coconut farming but once the major traders left, the community institutions also lost interest as well.

.. the Asian merchant community donated funds to build interracial hospitals, schools, and clinics in Bagamoyo and Dar es Salaam. They also contributed significantly to the construction of roads in the colony.[30]

See Sewa Haji Paroo Abdullah Ratansi

During this early period of Tanzania's recent history, the Indian community and in particular, the Khojas, played a significant and proud role in the opening up of the country through trade and social development.

References & Notes

  1. The allure of Bagamoyo amongst the interior Africans is summed up the Nyamwezi porters caravan song: "Be happy, my soul, surrender all worry, Soon the place of your desires will be reached: The town of palms—Bagamoyo. From far away, how my heart was aching When I was thinking of you, You pearl of the ocean, you place of happiness—Bagamoyo. There the women wear their hair parted, There you can drink palm wine all year round In the garden of desires—Bagamoyo. The dhows arrive with fluttering sails And unload the treasures of Europe In the harbor of Bagamoyo. Oh, what joy to see the dances Where the lovely girls sway In the evenings in Bagamoyo. Be still, my heart, all worries are gone; The call to rest thunders out, and with jubilation We reach Bagamoyo.
  2. Gray,John - 'Trading Expedition (1857)'
  3. Paroo,Kassamali, Community Historian. "Pioneering Ismaili Settlements in East Africa" Unpublished essay in the possession of author.(1980)
  4. Fabian,Steven. Curing the Cancer of the Colony: Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Socioeconomic Struggle in German East Africa-The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 40, No. 3 (2007), pp. 441-469 (29 pages)Published By: Boston University African Studies Centre.
  5. Brown, Walter Thaddeus - "A pre-colonial history of Bagamoyo: aspects of the growth of an East African coastal town." Thesis--Boston University. Bibliography:.
  6. Brown, Walter Thaddeus - Ibid,
  7. ibid-Kirk, John
  8. ibid - Kirk, John
  9. "ibid Brown Bibliography: p. 316
  10. "ibid - Brown, Walter Thaddeus 316">
  11. Fabian,Steven. Curing the Cancer of the Colony: Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Socioeconomic Struggle in German East Africa-The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 40, No. 3 (2007), pp. 441-469 (29 pages)Published By: Boston University African Studies Center.
  12. ibid Fabian Steven Kindle Location 551-556
  13. ibid Fabian Steven Kindle Location 260-262
  14. Schmidt,Rochus. ibid. Kindle Location 732-734.
  15. Schmidt,Rochus. A HISTORY OF THE ARAB REBELLION IN EAST AFRICA (GESCHICHTE DES ARABERAUFSTANDES IN OST-AFRIKA) An Account of the "Abushiri Rebellion" in Tanzania and its Aftermath, 1888-1891. Translated (with an introduction) by John W. East. Kindle Location Location 2838-2838
  16. Schmidt,Rochus. ibid. Kindle Location 2838-2838 .
  17. Aldrick, Judith. The Sultan's spymaster: Peera Dewjee of Zanzibar. Naivasha: Old Africa Books, 2015. pg 205'
  18. Oonk, Gijsbert.An entrepreneurial minority caught in a ‘Catch-22. Unpublished paper-Ebook location 166-173
  19. Schmidt,Rochus. ibid. Location 4042-4048
  20. Mahnke, Otto (German Colonial Official) cited in
  21. Mahnke, Otto ibid
  22. Bundesarchiv Berlin (hereafter BAB) R1001/641, Hansing and Co. to Auswärtige Amtes, Kolonial Abteilung (hereafter AAKA), 23/3/1907. See also BAB, R 1001/641, O’Swalds and Co. to AAKA, 20/3/1907. Author’s translation, as for all documents in foreign languages hereafter. Fabian, Steven. Curing the Cancer of the Colony: Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Socioeconomic Struggle in German East Africa. Fabian, Steven-The International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 40, No. 3 (2007), pp. 441-469 (29 pages).Published By: Boston University African Studies Center
  23. ibid Fabian, Steven Location 573-574
  24. ibid Fabian Steven Kindle Location 309-312
  25. ibid Fabian, Steven Location 455-458
  26. ibid Fabian, Steven Location 578-579
  27. Reportedly, about 1000 Indian traders and their families moved to the Southern Highlands region around this time but in his extensive memoir, Prince fails to name a single Indian person. Such disdain was typical of the German colonial establishment towards the indispensable Indians traders. The Germans also imported fellow Europeans from Greece, who did not stick to trading, preferring instead to go into farming. Their descendants still live around Tanga and Arusha.
  28. ibid Fabian, Steven Kindle Location 524-531
  29. ibid Fabian, Steven. Kindle Location 581-582
  30. ibid Fabian Steven Kindle Location 7-72

Photo Gallery of Bagamoyo under Swahili & Arab Rule

Photo Gallery of Bagamoyo During German Colonial Rule 1890-1917

All photos courtesy of The Bundes Archives, Germany & Other Listed Sources.

Bagamoyo through the eyes of Shariffa Keshavjee, Community Historian

Historic Khoja Ismaili Jamatkhana Through Pictures, Poetry and Prose

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘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?’

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 façade 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 marvellously 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.

Some tombstones began with Bismillah in Arabic; others began with Ya Ali Madad in Gujarati followed by the date of birth and death.

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.

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.

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’s Beautiful Shadows

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

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
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


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 with the kind permission of the author.

About Shariffa Keshavjee

Shariffa 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 Kenya'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.

Re – Bagamoyo’s Ruins Photo

During the late 50s and very early 60s my maternal uncle (Mama) Pragji Purshottam Bharadia, was based there as the chief Customs Officer with 2 African assistants.During our school December vacations, we spent a whole month living at the Customs House.

I have had a good look at the photo from all angels and think that it could be transposed at development/printing stage. The photo seems to be of The Customs House right on the harbour beach. At high tide, the seawater would come up and lash the ground floor walls pavement. The ground floor consisted of offices whilst the 1st floor was residential. Offices consisted of 2 rooms plus one small room housing a safe (tejuri) dating from the German times. The safe was used for safe storage of cash and dhow papers. The residential accommodation consisted of 3 rooms and separate bathroom and toilet. Above the residential accommodation was a watch tower + water tanks.

Facing the building from the beach, there was a huge yard for customs & excise purposes on the left of the building. The main entrance to the yard was at right angles to the main building.It comprised of two very large and tall iron gates with iron bars kept padlocked at all times as it stored goods and material awaiting customs clearance. The pillars that you see in the photo formed the front wall of the said yard. The front wall did indeed face the sea and had iron railings above the base wall rising right up to the height of the pillars. This front wall had lean to with corrugated iron sheets for roofing and shelter. Under this shelter, there were iron shackles on the inside of the base walls and pillars to tie down the African slaves brought in from the interior. They were kept there overnight or until they were ready to be shipped over to Zanzibar. This of course was when the slave trade out of Bagamoyo to Zanzibar, was at its high.

We used to climb up to the watch tower to observe the sea front and surroundings. A white dot on the horizon towards Zanzibar, in early afternoon culminated into an Arab type dhow in the early or late evenings. The dhows came in from as far as the Persian Gulf, North East Africa coast on their way all the way to Mozambique. The dhow captain came on shore first to surrender his papers (dhow log book and cargo and passenger manifest) to my uncle or one of his assistants for inspection. If dhow came into Bagamoyo harbour at high tide, it would be no more than 10′ away from the Customs House. The captain and passengers would be carried ashore either piggy-back or carried on shoulders by the dhow crew. After disembarkation, the dhow would be anchored overnight at or very nearby harbour area. Before sailing off, the dhow captain had to have customs clearance. Customs clearance meant payment of charges, taxes, new passenger & cargo manifesto plus the return of surrendered dhow’s log book.

In those days, there were a few local Asian dukawallahs that would assist dhow captains in filling in forms and charging them a fee. I as a young teenager, used to do that for free with the knowledge of my mama. I still remember one dhow registered in Bagamoyo under number B94 and called “Upesi”. Some days the Customs House would get a whiff of a smuggling scheduled for late that night in the vicinity of Bagamoyo or surrounding smaller ports like Kaole and Sadani. According, my mama and his assistants would get into Customs uniforms, blacken their faces and arms (just like military personnel) with some ointment and go out carrying a rifle in hand to apprehend the smugglers. At the back of the Customs house there was a dirt courtyard / compound with corrugated irons sheets as fencing. Within the said courtyard, there was a well surrounded by a 3′ concrete wall and a metal frame with a pully attached at the top to facilitate fetching the water. The well also had manual pump (Dunky) to hand pump water into the storage tank/s on the 2nd floor watch tower area. The courtyard had a specific area (Chokdi) for washing the pots and pans and clothing.

Every morning at around 5 O’clock we would go for a swim with a few members of pioneering Bhatia family of Champsi Mulji. After the swim, we would dowse ourselves with the well water to cleanse ourselves of seawater. After that we boys used to pump water into the storage tanks in the 2nd floor. This was repeated late in the evening to ensure adequate water supply overnight. After our baths, we would go and play nearby with boys who mostly came from the local Khoja families. How did we make friends with the said Khoja boys?

One of the grandsons Bhagwatsinh (Bharat) of Champsi Mulji was my classmate and he too returned home during vacation. Prior to coming to Dar for his secondary education, he must have attended the local Aga Khan Primary school and hence our playing with the local Khoja boys.

I studied in Bagamoyo for three years from 1952. The school was just opposite the jamatkhana. I think there were at least 300 Ismailies then. Two years ago I went there and I could not recognize the house I lived in. The place is finished. I was told there are only two families now

For, as somebody has said, nobody is truly dead until they are remembered no more.

Naren Valabh Kanji Varambhia. Mill Hill, London

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