Charity and Civic Society Through The Ages

From Khoja Wiki

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

Khoja Charities And Civic Societies Projects

Year Project
1856 Alarakhia Sumar and Khaki Padamsi extended the existing Dongri Khoja graveyard site by purchasing an adjoining plot of 6978 sq. yards from Nilaji Lakshamji for Rs. 11500/- in September 1856.
1870's Qasim Mohamed Mitha was the owner of Khoja Mithabhai Nathoo & Sons and was a man of means. He was born around 1872 & expired in the 1920s. Was a Philanthropist, started a girl's orphanage in Bombay "Khoja Mitha Girls 0rphanage", which later became "Habib Girls Orphanage" being named after Habib Ismail who was his sister's son and used to work for his Uncle Qasim Mitha Seth.
1864 Alidina Asani is said to have purchased a big plot in Lyari quarter, for the Karachi Khoja Kaberastan.
1887 Allidina Visram contributed handsomely to schools and to hospitals in Kenya and Uganda – Allidina Visram was ecumenical however: he contributed substantial funds to the construction of Namirembe Cathedral and to the Red Cross and the Church Mission Hospital in Kampala. and a mosque in Kampala.
1891 Muhammad Husayn Tharia Topan was the main driving force behind the first Indian school in East Africa - The Sir Euan Smith Madrassa, (SESM), which was founded in Zanzibar in 1891.
1894 Karim Ibrahim Kapadia opened many orphanages, notably Karim Ibrahim Khoja Orphanage, which was opened on Sunday, April 24, 1894 and the Ibrahimbhai Girls School in Mandvi, Kutchh. He also built in Mandvi a resting house for the tourists.
1900 Fazal Janmohamed Master set up East Arica’s first Indian newspaper, the weekly Samachar, which began as a single-sheet Gujarati paper and started coverage of politics in English in 1918. It published continuously until 1967.
1900 Nasser Nurmohamed bought a building from an estate of Tharia Toppan and left enough money in his legacy for his trustees set up The Old Dispensary on that site.
1903 Founded in 1903 as the Mombasa Public Library, it has been described as not only "oldest library” but also the oldest “inter-racial cultural institution" in East Africa. From the beginning it was open to peoples of all races and creeds. Endowed chiefly by two influential Asians, Jaffer Dewji and Allidina Visram,
1903 Ahmed Dewji :He also built the Khoja Sanitarium at Porbandar. On that occasion, he took 1500 guests with him from Bombay to Porbandar at his own expenses to witness the opening ceremony of the sanitarium.
1904 Janmohamed Hansraj, brother of Kanji Hansraj and Janmohamed's son, Muhammad Janmohamed Hansraj built a much-needed widows home facility in Zanzibar called "Janmohamed Hansraj Khoja Dharam Shala."
1905 Three businessmen—Valab M. Nazerali, Al Noor Kassum and Patalai Vellani—pooled their resources to build the first Khoja lsmaili School and Library in Zanzibar.
??? Datu Hemani left money for a girls' school which was known as Datu Hemani Kanya Shara.
1910 Sir Currimbhoy established a dharamsala at Mandvi, and another at Bhuj. It was at his instance that his brother, Mr. Datoobhoy, built a fine hospital at Mandvi, which WAS managed by the Kutch government. Of his recent public benefactors, his magnificent contributions to the Bombay Museum and the new institute of science may be mentioned. He also took deep interest in female education, and has opened a girls’ school in his native town (Mandvi), which is open to girls of all castes and creeds, and an average number of 150 pupils is receiving tuition. This school was the first of its kind in a district which, from an educational standpoint, was very backward. In the same town Sir Currimbhoy has established a madrassa, where some sixty' children are taught. Sir Currimbhoy has also established a dharamsala at Mandvi, and another at Bhuj.
1914 The Rahimtoola family gave a donation in Mohamad’s memory and in memory of Jaffar the youngest son of Rahimtoola who died in 1914, to the Bombay Municipality to start a Municipal Dispensary and School in Dargah Mohalla.The Dispensary and School opposite the Ismaili Burial Ground are functioning even today.
? Khan Muhammad Habib School , Bombay
1918 Allidina Visram’s son, Abdulrasul Allidina Visram, followed in his father’s footsteps, and as a memorial to his father, he established the famousAllidina Visram High School in Mombasa.
? Rajabali Hasham Paroo- Small hospitals were established in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.
1917-1918 The Social Service League was conceived in with financial support from Allidina Visram, Suleman Verjee, Walji Hirji and Dinshaw Byramjee. It opened Free Dispensaries to provide medical attention for the poorer Asians. The only medical facility available to Asians at the time was a thirty six beds wing in the Native Civil Hospital – formerly the King’s African Rifles Hospital. The hospital had no maternity ward with the result all Asian babies were delivered in homes with or without untrained midwives.
1920 Merali Rashid Kassim scholarships to the Kharadhar School, Karachi and also built the third floor of the Kharadhar Jamatkhana for Rs. 25,000/-
1921 Virji Premji Parpiya built a boarding, called Virashram, near the race-course ground in Baroda on August 21, 1921, where all people were allowed irrespective of cast and creed. It was supervised by the President Krashanrao Vinaik Sarangpani. This noble project made him eminent among the masses.
1921 Manji Ghulamhussain Padamsee built a school for girls as he strongly believed in the education of women.

He also built a community centre in Sathan, near Surat, Gujarat.

1923 Jessa Bhaloo Walji Maternity Home at Mkunazini opposite the Cathedral Church, Zanzibar. Mukhi Merali Manji opened it on March 21, 1923
1923,October 29 Bandali Kassim is reputed to have built a poor house at the cost of one million rupees, known as 'Seth Kassimbhai Vali Khoja Ismaili Poor House Musa Lane, Karachi' in the old locality of Musa Lane, near Kharadhar, Karachi. It was built on a site of 439 square yards, accommodating about 18 families. These houses were allotted to the destitute families at the rent of one rupee per month.
1924 'Janbai Kassim Vali Khoja Ismailia Maternity Home' - Bandali Kassim', a farsighted philanthropist obtained a plot of 3227 square yards for a maternity home and donated Rs. 1,50,000/- for it, It was completed within four years and was inaugurated by J.L. Rieu, the Commissioner of Sind on April 15, 1924.
1925 Moolji Nazarali community service which dates back to 1925 helped establish a school and JK in Moshi, Tanzania.
1928 Daya Punja Library, Dar es Salaam-Upon his passing, his son Jaffer Daya, bought the land and erected Dahya Punja Library in 1928 to honour his father and give back to the community.
??? Ismail Rahimtulla Walji Hirjihad left 60,000 pounds in his Will for two rest houses and a donation to a hospital but because of a legal technicality it could not be used towards the Social Service League Hospital but was used to build an addition of an Asian wing at the Native Civil Hospital.
? Ismail Rahemtulla Library Mombasa
1927 Rahimtulla Trust supported a dispensary in Mombasa.
?? Naivasha Indian School, established by the Ismailis (by whom)
1930's Habib Esmail Memorial Trust
1930's Habib Hospital
1930's Habib High School;
1930's Khoja Mitha Girls 0rphanage names after Seth Qasim Mohd Mitha.
1930's RAHMATBAI HABIB HIGH SCHOOL: dedicated to the memory of HIS BELOVED WIFE; 1931
1932 Fai-e-Panjtani-This institution was subsequently made into a TRUST by a Deed executed on 27th February 1932 by the then Trustees consisting interalia of Haji Dawood Haji Nasser Mowji, Hasanali Peermahomed Ebrahim, Doctor Rajabali Kasamali Nathani, Goolamhusainbhoy Jaffer, Haji Sheriffbhoy Hassam, Esmail Abdulkarim Panju, Haji Datoobhoy Jetha Essa Thavar, Haji Goolamhusein Valimahomed Ladiwalla, Goolamhusain Allarakhia Soomar, Hasanalibhoy Allarakhia Thavar, Haji Sheriffbhoy Hassam and Haiderali Haji Bachubhoy Ali, J.P.
1933 Mohamed Hamir helped to build the Iringa Khoja Jamatkhana in 1933
1936 in Kisii, the Ismailis, Hindus, and Goans together formed a primary school (Names?)
? Jimmy Sayani’s family which made a substantial donation towards a cancer centre in Agakhan Hospital,Nairobi
? The Moti Daman Jamatkhana, Damman, donated by Maanbai Jaffer
1949 John Shamsudin Karmali, The Karmalis’ School, the first truly multiracial institute East Africa, opened as a nursery school in Pant’s home in 1949 six Asian and four European children.
1950's Mohamedali Sheriff, an Ithnasheri of Moshi, during the 1950s before losing his money in a futile contest for a legislative seat, subsidized the construction of several Sunni mosques in Tanganyika.
? Shiraz Sorathia Family built kindergarten and pre-school in Ranavaw, Kathiwad.
1960 Amir Fancy- His family's benevolent fund came into existence in 1960 with a capital of Rs. 16,00,000/- known as the Fancy Foundation. He was its Chairman since its inception. This foundation provided scholarships to deserving students. It also donated a large library to the Staff College at Quetta.
1960's Abdul Karim Popat of Simba Motors donated generously to a number of philanthropic causes which include a medical clinic at the Lions Eye Loresho Hospital known as the Abdul Karim Popat Medical Clinic- a state-of-the-art clinic which offers medical service to low income earners and a cataract operation theatre named after his late son Zulfikar.

1964 In Kenya, as a similar transformation began during 1964. & government assumed a prominent role in social welfare by establishing the Kenya National Council of Social Services Asians encouraged to participate, and the Ismaili advocate Rajabali Suleman Verjee (“Jimmy”), beginning in 1%'- long term as chairman. Through Verjee’s efforts Kenya member of the International Council on Social Welfare.
2010 Wife of Karim Popat and mother of Adil, Shelina and Shenaz. She is in charity and the Sh25 million Gulzaar Popat Medical Clinic bankrolled by her family at the Lions Sight First Eye Hospital in Loresho in 2010, is named in her honour.
2015 Zarina and Naushad Merali Foundation. Naushad Merali’’s family has set up with his wife the Zarina and Naushad Merali Foundation which was a major contributor to the Daily Care Centre at Kenyatta Hospital. The Foundation also supports 100 students at Starehe School, and the Cataract eye programme of Rotary Club of Nairobi and several other causes which include hospitals, health centres, old age homes, and educational funds for the needy. The Foundation sponsored the building of a spinal unit at Kenya’s leading spinal injury hospital.
2018 Shirin Merali Foundation. Pandju Merali has set up a Foundation with a gift of US $20m for the education of women from the developing world.

Contact Us HERE If You Wish To Honour/Record Your Elders Contributions For Future Generations

What Wall Plaques tell Us About The Khoja Civic Society

by: Sultan Somjee June 2019


When my long lost third cousin, Arif Rawji, brought back the wall plaque of our great grandfather Rajan Bapa (1853 -1929), carrying it in his rucksack from Juno Savar in Gujarat ( to Calgary in Alberta, many stories ran through my mind. The immediate ones were family and migration stories about the ancestor we call Rajan Bapa that the Mombasa Jamat knew as Mukhi Rajan Nanji. Mukhi Rajan Bapa’s involvement in the building of Jamatkhanas led me to reflect on the Ismaili Khoja tradition of giving, which created properties for communal benefit and planted the roots of the civic society in both Africa and India.

Rajan Bapa

For over four generations, stories about Rajan Bapa’s industry and piety have been passed on to his descendants. At the turn of the 20th Century, he came in a dhow from India to Mombasa to meet his only daughter Mariam Bai. Mariam Bai, they said, ‘was given’ as we say in patriarchal Gujarati, to the Suleiman Virji family of Diu in the Portuguese colony of Gujarat. Mariam Bai was just fifteen years old when she married and came to Africa. This is all I know about my great aunt. I have not even seen her picture.

Another story is about the voyage. One night when the storm raged over the Indian Ocean, Rajan Bapa’s dhow got lost. Next morning, the captain released a crow. The crow showed where the nearest land was. That’s how my ancestor landed in Kismayo on the Somali coast. Being a merchant himself, Rajan Bapa purchased some beads as an investment at the famed bead market of Kismayo where camel caravans from the sand dunes of the interior and dhows from the Indian Ocean met and traded. In the first decades of the 1900s, Kismayo was a vibrant trading port with a sizeable settlement of Khoja merchants. Among them was the family of Lalji Mangalji, the name that is associated with the building of the magnificent Darkhana in Vancouver. It is probable that my great grandfather stayed with his family because Laji Mangalji, so the story goes, was the Mukhi of Kismayo.

Rajan Nanji.png

રાજનભાઈ નાનજી ૧૮૫૩ -૧૯૨૯ Rajan Bhai Nanji 1853 -1929[1]

Lost Khoja travelers like my great grandfather, itinerant merchants, and penniless young men would often find their way to the Mukhi's house. Arrangements were then made for meals that the local Khoja jamat was obligated to provide for their caste men, and they slept in the Jamat khana. That was how it was done in those early pioneer days. Visiting merchants and newly arrived made long term friendships and contacts at the jamat khanas and learnt to know the land from the earlier settlers. The jamat’s hospitality was spoken about as partly religious and partly as the caste custom of brotherhood known as panjebhaiyo that brought barakat meaning blessings. This was the time when dhows with Khoja merchants on board plied between India, Muscat and Zanzibar and the inland trade routes were laid.

My great grandfather’s story then moves to Mombasa keeping the beads in the thread. This is what I learnt from one of Rajan Bapa’s grandson. They called him Meshnari Madat Bhai. Meshnari Madat Bhai was interested in finding family roots and had in fact visited the ancestral village of Juno Savar in Gujarat. He said that every morning Rajan Bapa was seen spreading his straw mat under a palm tree at the old market in Mombasa. Rajan Bapa measured the beads in his cupped hands and arranged them in heaps in lines on the mat. The Mijikenda from the nine village communities around the old slave port came to admire and buy the beads that would resonate with their norms of beauty, social values, and adornment.

Rajan Bapa’s initial investment in beads like that of other Khoja merchants later expanded to textiles and he became a wealthy man. In fact, wealthy enough to be blessed to be able to contribute to community charities and building of two jamat khanas in his birthland. So, the story connects back to the origin in India through the practice of giving what we called sewa and dharma. Sewa and dharma are mentioned in the earliest of scriptures like the Bhagvat Gita, the longest poem ever written in an ancient language. It is still recited as an oral tradition, recalling the ethics of giving and serving.

What I remember from incidental anecdotes in family talk is about Rajan Bapa’s act of giving to the community. This is what brings pride to his descendants and is remembered. Stories of giving were memorialized on wall plaques and told as oral histories about migrations, origins and family genealogies. Growing up in Kenya and travelling around in East Africa, I enjoyed reading the names and dates on plaques on our community buildings - schools, clinics, libraries, social halls and the jamat khanas. They told me about our forefathers, the history of the settlement and making of the community. The plaques became immediate and meaningful when I could associate them with family names.

Nowadays, when meeting my second and third cousins, who are generally in their senior years as I am and are descendants of Rajan Nanji’s five sons - Ratansi, Chagan, Rehemtulla, Somjee and Husein, our conversations invariably lead up to the pedhi, meaning the family genealogy in the patriarchal line. The pedhi helps us to locate our precise descent and hence how we are related to each other when meeting for the first time. Amazingly, many of them can recite the pedhi going back to nine names of the Rajan Nanji ancestry. This is not unusual. Memorizing the pedhi used to be a common family practice. Children were taught the names of their ancestors at an early age. Genealogies traced family origins and therefore roots bearing identities in a complex society that marked one by one’s aatak, meaning the lineage name which often ended with ણી (written as ni in English) in the Gujarati and Kutchi Khoja traditions. Some families have stepped aside from this tradition in favour of middle-eastern names as aataks and thus faded from the Khoja lineage consciousness.

The Juno Savar Jamat Khana

The jamat khana in Juno Savar was built at the time of severe political and communal unrest. This was the era of rising Hindu and Moslem nationalisms while the devastating Chapan yo Dhukar was killing millions in Gujarat[2] . There was also the brutal suppression of numerous rebellions collectively known as the Indian Wars of Independence and the Freedom Movement. Gandhi had returned to India from South Africa and was mobilizing a mass resistance to British rule. In such a situation, a three-way rift among the Khoja caste was deepening over the ownership of their communal caste properties in India. The rifts among the Sunni Khoja, Ithna Asheri Khoja and Ismaili Khoja essentially became pronounced and, in fact, were made official at the Bombay High Court cases popularly called the Aga Khan cases in the second half of the 19th Century. Also, concurrently, the British had started the process of simplifying, re-naming and ‘formalizing’ the complex Indian societies into distinct religious categories for facilitating the first all-India population survey in 1877. Census taking has been a way of containing, monitoring or mobilizing a population during emergencies. The British sought to rule using British standards, cannons and understanding of how a society ought to be composed. However, being non-indigenous, they were baffled by the religious and custom overlays especially the Hindu-Moslem overlaps. Thus, they needed to change the socio-religious-cultural compositions of India to fit into their worldview, perceptions and codification of law.

The Aga Khan cases resulted in intense disputes, bitter enmities and sharp divisions among the Khojas. Worst of all they split families. This had a devastating effect on blood relationships that lasted for the next three generations. In fact, the divides were so stark that social interactions, communal caste meals, joint celebrations and inter-communal use of the shared spaces such as burial grounds and the jamat khanas, were suddenly demarcated by faith boundaries. This was painful because separated faith loyalties hurt each other. When Imam Hasan Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) won the court case of 1866, he was accordingly recognized not only as the rightful Imam of the Ismaili Khoja but also legally an heir to the entire Khoja caste’s common properties.

Thus, the Juno Savar jamat khana, like other jamat khanas at the time, was significant as a gathering place that anchored the community in its Satpanth faith and oneness affirming ethnic-cultural ties during the turbulent days. It was a place for the rural folk to offer prayers, practice meditation and have peace. It was a venue where communal meals were shared. Eating a morsel together is a central rite for a community that holds the sacredness of food while offering prayers for the departed, at funerals and during festivity rituals.

The Khoja migrations happened during such stormy times and they carried the dissension to the east coast of Africa. Each group then built prayer and social halls that helped them grow roots as separate communities in the new land. The Mombasa stone jamat khana was built in 1898 in Kuze near the dhow harbour. My family memories are of Rajan Bapa Nanji as the mukhi of Kuze jamat khana in the old town. Thereafter, he built two jamat khans in India as already mentioned. Some would even vouch that there were actually three. No one, however, had anything tangible to prove this. Now that his picture and memorial script have been removed from Kuze jamat khana library with those of the other early sewdaris (community benefactors), it leaves a vacuum in the continuation of remembrance and the passing of community stories of our civic endeavours and leaders. Such visible signs as pictures, citations and plaques inform future generations about migrations, early settlements and the making of community in the arrival cities of the Khojas of the Indian Ocean. However, most importantly, public memorialization, like family heirlooms, hand down memories of the place and people.

Juno Savar Jamat Khana plaque held by Veljibhai Narshibhai who had kept it with him. In the background is the Juno Savar Jamat khana building that was opened in 1923. Notice the Gujarati door and recesses for holding lamps- Photo Arif Rawji

Arif obtained the plaque from a neighbour who had, for whatever reason, gratefully preserved it. The marble tablet was chiseled out of the jamat khana wall where Rajan Bapa had it installed with the hope, I would think, that his descendants would see it one day and remember their lineage, the family tradition of giving and the ancestral village of Juno Savar. Obviously, Rajan Bapa had affection for all three. In 1923, when the new stone jamat khana of Juno Savar was opened, there would have been the usual celebratory majalis and sherbet. My ancestor never would have expected that the plaque would be removed and put away one day. It happened so soon, even before celebrating the hundredth year of the opening of the stone jamat khana in Juno Savar which will be in 2023.

Dhan, Sewa, and Dharma

As I said earlier, I have been reading the plaques on community buildings. I was curious about the origin of jamati funded institutions in the new country. ‘When? What? Who?’ I had simple questions in my mind that would tell me about the seeds of the civic society and history of the community in a particular place. There appeared some legendary names such as the Rahimtulla Waljee Hirjee family, who built the present-day Aga Khan Academy building on Limuru Road in Nairobi, as well as the old Ismaili Rest House on Park Road. Both the buildings are historically noteworthy in terms of the role they played in community life. The first one provided boarding for upcountry students and education for girls in the 1930s. The second was a house with a guest room or rooms for the traveling merchants to stay. This was around the 1950s when trade was picking up again after the post-war depression. The traders came from small rural towns like Kisii, Homa Bay and Bungoma on business visits to the big city and needed a place to stay.

Photo credit [3]

Then there were others like Rahim Jivraj who built the present-day Parklands Jamat Khana in Nairobi. And there were many more. Some like Allidina Visram (1851- 1916) and Sewa Haji Paroo (1851 – 1897) addressed various community needs on their own volition in keeping with the beliefs of their forefathers. Suleiman Virji’s grants built the stone jamat khana in Nairobi (1920) and a school in Mombasa (1918). Sewa and dharma were also called to the responsibility of the affluent, which Khoja social ethics required of them. Later, some broadened out to include the greater society crossing over the religious and racial boundaries in apartheid East Africa by establishing Public Trusts. As early as 1937, The Rahimtulla Trust was the first to do so among the Ismaili Khoja, followed by R H Paroo Charitable Trust in 1942, and Saleh Mohamed Trust in 1956. In the same year, Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust was launched. The Rattansi Trust has been hailed as ‘a historical landmark of the first publicly acknowledged acts of philanthropy in Africa’ [4] For over more than half a century, the Rattansi family has upheld the sacred duty of dharma that the founder Mohamedally Rattansi explained to his sons before he died. Dharma, he said, was his obligation calling him to ‘give back’ after he had everything he needed in life. This is a family story that is written in the opening chapter titled ‘Dharma, the Last Duty’ in A Legacy of Giving: The Story of Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust (Lukalo-Owino, R. 2008). The Trust was Mohamedally Rattansi’s ‘final returning of the happiness he had borrowed from the world’ (p. 4) in that, his act of dharma.

To this day, dharma imbibes the spirit behind the running of the Trust that is devotedly managed by Vijoo Hassan Rattansi. Her exemplary, almost single-handed work to sustain the dharma tradition, is for the entire Khoja caste to reflect on, honour and speak about. Dharma is that act of giving back what one has acquired from the goodness of the Earth and people of the land. That is possible when the person feels that he/she has had a contented life. A life filled with shukhar that we pray for and say on many occasions, especially when burying loved ones in gratitude for life lived in contentment.

Unfortunately, when we erase the benefactors’ names from the walls in communal spaces, as I later noticed at Parklands Jamat Khana in Nairobi, we also erase them from the community’s memory and local history. Consequently, stories of early migration and development of towns that inform our origins and identity, diminish. Such an erasure of memory is not right when it’s done without the approval of the family and the government department that works on the preservation of heritage buildings. These structures may not be monumental, but they are symbolic. Removal of memorial signs is like eradicating the past. In the case of the Ismaili Khoja people, it’s a loss of the visible heritage lodged in the legacy of the concepts of sewa and dharma – the combined civic and religious ethic of the obligation of giving from the times of the Vedas. Moreover, remembrances as in plaques honour memories of the patrons as role models and keepers of the best of our social ideals. One reason for the de-memorialization, and in some cases defacement, that has been going on quietly, without the consultation with the families of the benefactors, maybe a lack of appreciation of how architecture can be an expression of social aspirations, ethics and principles of faith and service. Another reason may be simply the lack of awareness of the vital role that the early founders of the civic society played in the making of the community. The third reason, perhaps, could be that the antique plaques do not seem to fit in the modern and renovated looks that are given to the old buildings. Or it may be simply due to neglect. There may also be other reasons.

Photo Tameezan wa Gathui

The top plaque on the wall of the Amreli Jamat khana in Gujarat has been defaced in an attempt to erase the writing.

You may ask why the founders of the civic society need to be respected and remembered anyway? When there was not enough support from the colonial state for raising the standard of living of fellow kinsmen and women, our forefathers built the first jamat khanas in almost all the small towns in East Africa where they had settled. Then, often attached to the prayer hall, they had a library, a social hall, a room for the religion school and a few benches outside for the elderly to rest and chat. Often, though not always, there was a room within the jamat khana building kept as a guest house. Such houses played a central role in creating a network of upcountry traders and for expanding their businesses. So great was the need for rest houses that in time they grew into buildings with dozen or more rooms with an employed caretaker and cleaning staff. Then as time went by, they also erected health clinics through both individual and collective involvement. That was the pattern. The donors’ names were carved on the wall plaques. Had Arif not rescued the plaque and carried the discarded 12 square inch marble piece in his rucksack from Juno Savar in Gujarat to Calgary in Alberta, my larger family would have lost a proud moment of our heritage to a fading myth of Rajan Bapa Nanji. Memories not recorded become obscure even within the families before we begin to say with diminishing certainty, “True or not true, I don’t know. But this is what my father told me …” and then that too vanishes.

Giving dhan (wealth), sewa (mainly used for social service requiring time and effort), and performing an act of dharma (onus of returning to the Earth and society) have been ancient Khoja cultural practices based on social ethics. These practices have a place of honour in the larger Lohana Khoja caste that’s today divided into three separate sub-groups, as mentioned earlier, bearing separate religious identities as Sunni, Ithna Asheri and Ismaili Khojas. The evidence of this tradition is in the records in the law courts of Bombay dating back to the 1840s. When Imam Hasan Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) came to India from Persia, there already existed well-established and maintained community properties of the then one Khoja caste. These properties were for communal welfare and use managed by elders and volunteers. Though we don’t hear much about each other today because of the dense walls that we have built around us as religious entities, all Khoja hold the obligation to give to the jamat as sacred. Often speaking in English, as we do nowadays, we use the Gujarati and Kutchi terms like sewa that put a religious meaning to community service as in the ancient literature of India and as spoken about among the temple, derasara and gurudwara communities in various Indic languages.

Finally, rescuing, repairing, preserving or re-installing the tablets is the responsibility of the families because we do not have a Community Heritage Register that records civic contributions prior to the AKDN. Some descendants in the sewadaris’ families may remember what their ancestors had built and the locations. This would be a good place to start to enquire into their memories. Sadly, nowadays not all know or want to know the history of the community that made us what we are as a people. Consequently, often we find that there is little or no awareness of the earlier civic activities in small towns and villages of Eastern Africa. These were the places where our ancestors had first settled as pioneers. That’s where the next two, three and even four generations of African Khojas were born and raised. This is where our families lived for two hundred years, and where we made a home, built a Jamat khana and looked after each other on both sides of the equator stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.

Sultan Somjee

Vancouver, June 2019

PS: The tradition of sewa and dharma held sacred by the forefathers, continues today among small independent groups of Ismaili Khojas in the Western diaspora. These groups work quietly as civic societies to uplift education and health standards of the underprivileged in Africa, especially in Uganda, and the Ismaili Khojas in India.

Sultan Somjee

is a writer and an ethnographer. He is the great grandson of Rajan Nanji. He has written two historical novels, Bead Bai (2012) and Home Between Crossings (2016), about migrations and settlements of Ismaili Khojas in East Africa. He gathers stories from oral traditions and tangible culture of the community such as the photo album, bandhani (bridal silk shawl), the kanga, tribal beadwork, siri (diamond studded nose button) and other items of material culture.

Sultan Somjee recorded some of the stories in the novels from two community exhibitions that he curated. The first was ‘Coming of the Satpanthis to Africa (Ma aging gracefully)’ in 1994 at the Aga Khan Complex, Parklands, Nairobi when he was with the Aga Social Welfare Board. It was a participatory exhibition with the Seniors and Seniors Chairperson Gulshan Bai Fazal. The second was ‘The Asian African Heritage Exhibition’ that ran for five years (2000 -2005), at the Nairobi National Museum while he was the Head of Ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya.

  1. Spelt as written in Gujarati on the plaque in the old stone Jamat khana in Nairobi built-in 1922.
  2. This has been recorded with photographs by the British Gujarat Agency as written in the award-winning book, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. (Verso London, 2000) by Mike Davis.
  3. The Rahimtulla Trust, 1986.A Unique Kenya Legacy: The Rahimtulla Trust
  4. Dr. Tade Aina of Ford Foundation in the Foreword to A Legacy of Giving: The Story of Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust by Rose Lukalo-Owino, Allavida, Surrey, England, 2008.- This, however, is not entirely true. Recorded Khoja philanthropy in Africa goes back to the 1800s. For example, in 1887 Tharia Topan (an Ismaili Khoja 1823-1891) commissioned a health clinic for Zanzibar but he died before completion. Haji Nasser Nurmohamed (an Ithna Asheri Khoja) later bought the building and completed it in memory of his son. Today, the building stands as an architectural monument to combined Khoja philanthropy. Another example is that of Sewa Haji Paroo (1851- 1897). He built a school, a hospital, a Sunni mosque and several wells for people of all races in his native Tanganyika.