Dhanji Jadavji Bhatia
Born in 1896 Jamnagar
Extract from "Life Actually, My Memoir by Nargis Gercke-Bhatia- Friesen Press (2013)
“Father had two brothers, Lakhu, three years younger, and Ali, six years younger. He also had two sisters, Nuru and Rehmat, who were both younger than him too. Ali was the only son to access education and was sent to a boarding school in Botad in Kathiawar, India.
What separated father from the rest of the family was that he thought and acted differently from them, as he took risks and he was adventurous. Being the eldest son in the family, he was given a lot of responsibilities in the family business by grandfather. However, around 1909, Grandfather was going through a difficult time and had lost a lot of money in one of his business transactions. Things were just not going the way he had planned, and my father felt a great responsibility towards his parents. Just around that time, he had met a well-known Ismaili businessman from the renowned Lakha family, who was returning to Kisumu, Kenya, where he already owned a flourishing family business.
Mr Lakha was a notable example of this successful Ismaili business ethos- he told father about his success and the enormous potential there was to earn a good living in East Africa. He had also promised to give father a job, a roof over his head, and 250 rupees a year! Father was very tempted by this opportunity. As he did not have the courage to face grandfather, he decided to escape the humiliation by running away from home. The year was 1909 and he was only 13 years old!
‘Dhows’ sailed from the nearby port of Porbandar, India, and he jumped on a dhow with Mr Lakha, to Zanzibar, their first port of call and then Mombasa, Kenya, from where they took a road trip to Kisumu. Mr Lakha kept his promise and gave father a job in his company, which sold products such as groundnuts, sugar, flour, hides and skins to European firms stationed in Kisumu for export. He worked very hard and gained a lot of experience in the business.
After a couple of years, father felt the need to visit his family in India and make some serious decisions. So early in 1912, he returned home to discuss his African plans with his family, and that same year, he got married to Sonbai. When father was five years old, my grandparents committed to have him marry Sonbai who was only three years old then. In 1912, just as father turned 16, they got married. Infant mortality was very high in those days and she lost many children, some that were just a couple of years old - he had three surviving children with Sonbai. For a couple of years, he helped in the family business, but he could not concentrate because his restless mind was to go back to Africa, but how was he going to convince his family to make the big move?
The time came soon enough when he was ready to make the trip that he had been dreaming of since he returned home. This time he chose to venture out to Nairobi, Kenya, a place he had never been before but where there were ample opportunities. Traders and small businessmen then realized how rapidly the region was developing economically and decided to venture out there to do business. Ismaili traders especially were amongst the first to penetrate East Africa. When the railway opened, the Ismaili partnered with the British and established ‘dukas’ (shops), which offered banking facilities. They were selling local produce such as hides and skins, ground nuts, chilies, sesame and cotton. Following on in the footsteps of those pioneers, and brimming with ideas, father landed in Nairobi in early 1914 and seized the opportunity to open up his own business. Five miles up the hill in Halingham on Dagoreti Corner, father found his niche and opened a kiosk selling kerosene, sugar, ground nuts and flour. He worked day and night to make this business a success, but times were really hard and he did not make much profit. He could not even afford a home and had to sleep on ground nut bags to make ends meet. This was also the time when Karen Blixen arrived from Denmark and bought a farm at the foot of Ngong Hills. There were ample opportunities in Kenya at this time, but luck was not on father’s side. In August 1914, World War I began, and eventually, he sold his kiosk at a loss and decided to return to Tanganyika.
This time, he headed for Mwanza, which was the major port on Lake Victoria (located on its southern side) and a good commercial centre. The most lucrative business at the time was selling hides and skins, together with ghee, lentils and peanuts. So, father set up a little store in Mwanza, selling these products among other things which all came from the neighbouring towns of Musoma and Mobuki. His main help at store was Mr. Hasham Jamal who also looked after the business when father had to return to India on his routine visits.
In 1920, with the business doing well in the safe hands of Mr Jamal, he took the long and arduous journey back to Jamnagar. He had many stories to tell his family about his exciting adventures East Africa, and especially the flourishing store in Mwanza. He was bursting with ideas about expanding the store, and was excited about sharing his future plans with his family.
In 1921, father’s wife Sonbai gave birth to a son, who was named Jafferali, and in 1924, after a few miscarriages, a daughter was born and she was named Roshan. Soon after that, father arrived back in Mwanza with Sonbai and two children. Later, in 1928 when he was well established in Mwanza, another son was born who they named Nurally. However, with all the tragedies that Sonbai had suffered, she became very depressed, and unfortunately their marriage did not work out.
In 1924, before father left for Africa, his sister, Nuru, was to be married, and there was a lot of excitement in the family. Weddings in those times lasted up to three days, and they were large events that included family, friends and sometimes the whole community. Most of the marriages were arranged through friends and families, and they were very sociable occasions. Weddings marked the beginning of a new relationship, not just between the two individuals but also between the two families. Prior to the wedding ceremony, the women from both the bride and groom’s families would get together when the ‘mehndi' was applied. The groom’s family would supply the henna for the bride and her female relatives. The ceremony of carrying the henna over (involving candles and dancing) often served as an icebreaker between the two families. Whenever the Aga Khan III visited India, there would be a big gathering where wedding ceremonies would take place. So when He paid a historic visit to Jamnagar in 1924, father and the whole family travelled there to see him, and He performed Aunt Nuru’s wedding.
Later, grandfather received an offer of Rehmat’s hand in marriage to a fine man by the name of Gulamhusein, who had spent many years in Burma, present day Myanmar. They were to be married in Bombay (today Bombay) in 1927, and father was quite upset that he was not able to attend the wedding due to other commitments. However, while he was on a visit to India before the wedding, grandfather asked him to meet Gulamhusein in Bombay which he did. It was then that he asked Rehmat’s future husband to join him in the family business after they were married. Gulamhusein was appreciative of and excited about the proposal, and agreed to join father as soon as he could.
Meanwhile, father's brother, Ali, arrived in Mwanza in 1927 with his family to join the business, and father sent him to Nansio, Ukerewe, where he opened the first branch. Then, true to his word, after he and Rehmat were married, Gulamhusein arrived in Mwanza, and father immediately assigned him to a store in Malampaka, about 40 miles away- It was quite common for wives to stay behind with their in-laws when the men went away on business trips, but in 1930, Rehmat joined her husband in Malampaka, and a year later, their son Abdul Mehndi was born. Father’s other brother, Lakhu (the middle son), was a very good, responsible family man. Father made sure that he stayed with my grandparents and took care of them until the time came for them to also make the journey to East Africa.
Father continued to get as many members of the family as possible to come to Tanganyika, and he appointed them as managers of stores, he was setting up in various towns. Such extended family-run businesses had numerous advantages. It enabled information about the firm and its operations to be kept secret, thus making the most of new commercial opportunities, enabling the business to move quickly to profit. Also, large amounts of credit from loan offices could be given to a family rather than an individual, and father had very good connections in the business community. The family enterprise henceforth became known as ‘Bhatia Brothers’. Father became very popular, and with his fine business mind and a little luck, there was no stopping him from growing his little empire. He had a household store and a hides and skins business in Mwanza, and stores in Kisumu, Ukerewe, Tabora, Itigi, Malampaka, Musoma and Shinyanga. Things were going well for the Bhatia brothers!
Father decide then spread his business wing to Usumbura (now Bujumbura) in western Burundi’s Great Rift Valley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Bujumbura served as a shipping centre for hides, cotton and coffee, so he nominated a manager and opened an office there - another trading centre for his flourishing business. Father also travelled frequently to Kampala, Uganda, on business, and it was there he met my mother at a dinner party. The year was 1935. Father was not only handsome, but an astonishing figure with a great presence about him. He had received a primary education in Gujerati, and he could read, write and speak Gujerati and Kutchi, plus he had knowledge of English. Though he had limited education, it certainly did not show. He was a great storyteller too, as by now he had travelled extensively all over East Africa. When he visited Kampala, he used to stay with Count Hasan Kassim Lakha, the brother of the man who introduced the idea of Africa to father.
On one of his trips to Kampala, Count Lakha invited mother’s family to dinner so father could meet her. Even though father had been married before, as a Muslim, he was permitted four wives, and the situation with his wife at that time was getting poorer by the day. They were separated, and he was given permission by the Ismaili Council to remarry. However, father took good care of her up until 1964 when she passed away, and I vaguely remember the funeral we all attended at Nurally’s house in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania.
On meeting mother, father was convinced that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with this beautiful woman named Zerakhanu. Mother was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, on 10th of December 1919. Her family ran a printing press there but when she was 9 months old, they moved to Zanzibar where they established another printing company. Later, when she was 7 years old, they moved to Kampala, Uganda, where she went to school and her family continued with the same business. She was the fourth child (and eldest daughter) of a family of seven children, with four brothers and three sisters. She was only 16 when she met father, and he was 20 years her senior!.
At their brief meeting for dinner, mother was taken by this tall, well-dressed man in a suit and tie. She had heard a lot about him, as being a well reputed businessman from a good family. When she met him, she found him friendly and easy to converse with, which was very important to mother as she was a little on the shy side, and he made her feel comfortable. That evening, father told of the profound desire he had felt to come to Africa, and recounted endless stories about his trips back and forth to India on the dhow, and how he had worked hard to get to where he was. He said that he was very happy to have realized his dreams and to have come so far, hut he also expressed his passion to travel the world in the future. Mother was quite inspired by this man, who had so many great ideas and goals for the future. She felt lucky to have crossed paths with him and imagined herself being a part of his exciting life.
Before father left Kampala to return to Mwanza, he wrote a letter to my maternal grandparents requesting mother’s hand in marriage. In spite of it being an arranged marriage, which was very common in those days, mother recalls that she was very happy to have met him that evening and approved when he proposed marriage. Under full Muslim rites, they got married in Kampala on 21st of March 1936 and returned to Mwanza. They had their first child in 1937 and named her Zarina (Lucy).My parents in Mwanza for a while where another daughter, Gulzar (nicknamed Gula), was born.
A measure of father’s success was that, in 1937, he was the only man in Mwanza to have an imported car, which only the privileged could afford. My cousin, Abdul Mendi, who was just six years old then, related how he used to enjoy the days when father would take him for a ride in his fancy car. Of course, people used to stop and look at them as it was not common to own such a car. Abdul Mendi adored father, and had a special connection and respect for him. In fact, every older member of the Bhatia family has nothing but kind words to say about him. Father was forthright and honest about his feelings, and that is what they all remember of him most.
In 1938, grandfather arrived from India with the rest of the family, who had stayed behind with Lakhu and his family. By now, father had saved enough money to buy land in Mwanza where he decided to build a house. Grandfather laid the foundation for the building, and they built a store on the ground floor and a house to accommodate the family.
Father merged all the goods from the small store and expanded the business to a large household store in the new building. He acquired a Bata shoe agency, sold watches, dried foods, oils, nuts and hardware. Indians were prospering and Mwanza was flourishing. However, as Hindus did not eat meat, they would not touch the lucrative hides and skins business, and this hampered their economic development. Many Ismailis were dealing in these by-products of the meat industry and father had one of the biggest businesses. He started exporting to Dar-es-salaam and Bujumbura and it was so successful that he arranged for his brother Ali, to open a branch in Dar es Salaam, and nominated another manager for Bujumbura.
In 1941 (during World War II), father decided to leave the flourishing business in Mwanza to Rehmat and Gulamhusien as he had decided to open another office in Mombasa, Kenya. With two little girls, the family travelled to Jinja, Uganda and then took the long train journey from there to Mombasa. They settled down in Mombasa very quickly, and father was soon busy again. He started exporting rice, honey, sugar and timber.
In Mombasa, my parents had four more children. Rosina (nicknamed Rosie) was born at the end of 1940, and to mother’s delight, in 1942, she was blessed with the long awaited son she had always wished for, and who they named Allaudin (nicknamed Dino). She was elated when he arrived, and spoiled him to the utmost! After Dino was born, every effort to have another son ended up with another daughter! I was born on 16th of June 1944. Three years later in 1947, Parin (nicknamed Pali) was born. My youngest sister Yasmin (nicknamed Yashu) was born later in Dar es Salaam. I am assuming, by then, mother had given up the thought of having another son!
While things were going well for us in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam had become a hub for the Bhatia family, and most of the family members were settled there. Father was now the only one in Mombasa, while his sister, Rehmat and family, were still in Mwanza. Father was frequently travelling to Mwanza, Tabora, Shinyanga, and then more often to Dar es Salaam. I am sure father’s intuition was telling him something, and he was consciously planning on settling in Dar es Salaam, one day in the very near future. father’s long-term plan for his business (and for the family), necessitated that we were indeed to move to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. The year was 1949. Father arranged for a chartered aircraft to fly the family to Dar es Salaam on 5th of December 1949.
I was five years old when we moved from Mombasa to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, where father had decided to relocate his import and export business. Father radiated raw energy and was as tough as nails when it came to decision making in the business. In a matter of a few months after arriving there, father, together with his two brothers, Lakhu and Ali, had set-up a ghee, rice, flour and lumbering factory on Pugu Road. The businesses prospered, and later all three brothers had their own custom made houses built to accommodate their families. Our home on Oyster Bay Road faced the Indian Ocean, with palm trees lining the street along the beach. Lakhu had an identical house just behind ours, while Ali and his family lived just short of a mile away behind our house. Father’s sisters were also doing well: Rehmat and her family now lived in the family house in Mwanza, and operated the business father had started initially, while Nuru and her family had moved to Kisumu and had their own business.
Years later, the three brothers started their own business with their sons, and father continued on in the lumbering factory with his three sons. They principally exported the timber to Europe, but also made attractive Italian style furniture locally. I used to love visiting the factory where I had great fun running around the saw mill, among the machines that made never ending screeching noise cutting the logs, while workers piled them up, and packed them for export. Later they would be loaded on the trucks, and taken to customs before heading for the harbour. I loved the smell of the freshly cut timber and saw dust.
Eventually, in 1969, major economic institutions were nationalized to make Asian private enterprise redundant. Father’s lumbering business was nationalized too and problems were brewing in the political scene. Father was under pressure to make solid decisions for the future of the whole family. He left for England, then to San Francisco but he knew that they would be happier where there was a large Ismaili community.
He eventually retired in Vancouver, B.C. in Canada
He passed away on 7 January 1982, where he had a great ‘send off’ by family, friends and many business associates who came for the funeral.
Dhanji Jadavji Bhatia had lived a full and a productive life and he made sure to tell his family not to be sad when he leaves this world, but rather celebrate his amazing life!"