From Khoja Wiki

The Intrepid East African Dukawalla

By Iqbal I. Dewji, Editor, khojawiki.org (2019)
Ocean Trade, Indian Famines
The Nizari Khoja had been active as traders between western India and coast Africa at least since the 17th century: the early Indian Nizari immigrants came as well from Kutch, Kathiawar, Surat, and Bombay, and settled on Zanzibar Island. By 1820, a small community of Khojas was present in Zanzibar: their affairs were administered by two local functionaries..
— Joya Chatterji


Though Indian merchants were plying the eastern seaboard of Africa from the dawn of history and certainly after the Arab-Muslim conquests (see Zanzibar), the term "Dukawalla" (shopkeeper-derived from the 'dukan'-Kutchi for shop) refers to the mainly Khoja/Gujarati migrants who during the Swahili, Omani and European rule in the 19th and 20th century, opened the African hinterland from the coast to the Congo, linking the indigenous inhabitants to the ancient Indian Ocean trade and exports.

Attracted by opportunities created by their jatis (occupational clan) and family connections and forced out by famines in British India in the mid 1800’s,See Gujarat Famines & Khoja Migrations, these Indians migrant families, some peasants themselves from rural Kutch, were looking at a hardy future in Africa, often dying of unknown diseases and animals attacks but lured by the stories of rich rewards on the 'Zanz' side of the Indian ocean.See Nathoo Hirji Nathani]

Notwithstanding mutual apprehension sometimes, the dukawallas were universally welcomed by the indigenous Africans who saw them as their windows into the world of fascinating new goods and inventions.

(Read the beautiful poem by Kersi Rustomji 'Ode to a Dukawalla on the East African Plain' below)

Crossing the Kala Pani

In order to create their own “rags to riches” life, the migrants first had to survive a treacherous sea-voyage on ancient Arab dhows, traveling from the ports of Gwadar,Mandvi and Muscat to the faraway Mombasa & Zanzibar. The rate of survival was so low and the costs of fare was so high that the Gujaratis' sorrowfully called this voyage 'Kala Paani' (Crossing the Black Waters)- because those who went rarely returned to India.

After 1914, most traveled from Porbander or Bombay by steamships but even those better constructed European ships were not always safe.

The coast of East Africa stretches some 4,000 miles from Cape Guardafui in Somalia to the Mozambique Channel. It is rugged and inhospitable, with few safe anchorages, miles of treacherous coral reefs and a strong northerly current. Over the years, it has become a ship’s graveyard to the unlucky ones, and a dire warning to those that ran aground and were subsequently refloated....Using records…., the author discovered the stories of over 200 merchant and naval ships that came to grief. [2]

Before 1914 and during the two world wars when steamer traffic was interrupted, almost all the Asians came by dhow. Life on these small ships of 80 to 350 tons, 40 to 60 feet long, with wooden hulls and lateen sails, was difficult. The passengers slept on the deck and, clustered in groups’ representatives of different religious communities, cooked their own food. They had no privacy and lacked any competent medical service. The ships bobbed and rolled off the monsoon seas even in calm weather, and seasickness was common. A storm — and rarely could one escape one or two during the voyage—was a frightening experience.

Under the most favorable conditions, the voyage of 2,400 miles to Zanzibar could be made in twenty-six days, but a storm or a calm could extend it by several weeks or even months. Nasser Virji's passage from Kutch in 1875 took nine months.Sultan Somji, author of "BEAD BAI" provides a more detailed, lyrical but terrifying account of one such a voyage in this book.

Clan, Family & Other Assets

If they made it across safely, most Indians started their new life with no capital, having spent the family's meager life savings on the dhow fare.

Most Asian immigrants arrived penniless…-and looked to relatives to find them jobs with established merchants.[3]

Once in East Africa, these early immigrants often went through several weeks or months of uncertainty and privation while determining their initial location and employment. Although some had a smattering of English, very few knew any German, Arabic or Kiswahili [4]

The Khoja & other Gujarati migrants had several advantages over other local entrepreneurs. For thousands of years, India has had a well-developed commercial economy and the migrants came equipped with basic skills that proved handy in the new land.

They were, more than Swahilis (coastal residents ed.), accustomed to a money economy and the concept of interest. In addition, they knew how to read, write and produce account books." [5]

Secondly, being members of ancient trading 'jatis' or clans, they had knowledge both of travel and trade. Since the early 1500s, the Khojas were led by veteran traders and later accomplished Bombay businessmen, whose networks spread from old Mughal ports of Surat, Mandvi & Porbander, the Omani ports of Gwadar & Ormara to Bander Abbas, Jeddah, Muscat, Bombay, Mombasa, Kilwa and Zanzibar. These strong connections of jaat (community) and family provided welcome familiarity and vital support to the Indians in their settlement in East Africa. Safder Alladina's book "Ties of the Bandhana" illustrates these connections.

For Indians, particularly recent migrants and those without capital, reliance on kin and patrons for shelter and shop work was an essential step towards autonomy, accumulating capital and establishing one's own business. While it absorbed many migrants, shop hours were long, conditions poor and incomes - though five to ten times more than for African shop workers — were ‘meager’ This period of ‘training’ was later followed by a small salary and perhaps credit or other assistance to set up a shop”.[6]

see Kassamali Hirji Jessani

see Hassanali Walji Kanji

This apprenticeship-"service" in the derogatory Gujarati term-was endured until a man could break away, first as itinerant trader and then as resident shopkeeper, taking his stock on credit from a wholesaler" [7]

see Madatally Manji

see Nurmohamed Jiwa Ukani

Others worked as shopkeepers or clerks for wholesalers [mostly, but not always within the family or community] and started their own business elsewhere in Zanzibar, or one of the other islands, or in the port cities of the mainland. They usually left with their goods, which they had to repay in 90 days.” [8]

For the migrants, the certainty of a path to success was crucial incentive to undertake the dangerous trans-oceanic journey - the established merchants needed outposts to distribute their stock and newly arrived migrants needed immediate work to subsist and send money back to their poorer family. They were motivated and worked hard to prove their worthiness for a loan. [[Allidina Visram|See Allidina Visram and his relationship to Sewa Haji Paroo]]

Subsequently, the Indian Ismaili moved from Zanzibar to growing urban areas on the east coast of Africa, notably Mombasa, Tanga and Bagamoyo, where they acted as commercial agents for firms in Zanzibar or became petty merchants and shopkeepers.”[9]

see Alarakhia Dossani;Maherali Rahemtulla

The Indian migrants in 1800’s were mostly Kutchis Khoja farmers and labourers lured by the success of merchants travellers such as Taria Toppan and Peera Dewjee and others from Bharapur, Kera etc. who frequently returned home marry etc. Early 20th century, it was their fellow clan-members, the mostly Gujarati-speaking Khojas of Kathiawar, who were motivated and sometimes recruited by merchants princes like Allidina Visram, Nasser Virji, etc.

Pioneers like Allidina Visram explored the areas themselves. They established extensive upcountry duka (small shops) networks throughout East Africa and invested in real estate, plantations, shipping and ginneries’.[10]

see Hasham Jamal Pradhan

These new migrants (so-called “Nangarias”–possibly because they were from Jamnagar) were better equipped small traders, retail hawkers, and artisans from cities like Jamnagar, Rajkot, Porbander and the many villages of Kathiawar where the Khojas lived in small colonies.

The immigration to East Africa was therefore a spontaneous one. An enterprising young man who wanted to emigrate had to find his own fare across the ocean or persuade a relative already established in Africa to pay it and help him on arrival. For this reason the poorest classes in India did not come to East Africa, nor did the rich and well-educated. In addition, only those living reasonably close to convenient ports were likely to make the journey. Consequently the Indian immigrants to East Africa were not usually unskilled labourers, as were the Indian settlers in South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji, and the West Indies, who had been recruited for plantation labour in tropical agricultural colonies. The East African settlers were mainly petty traders and artisans, and though most of them came from a background of village and farm, almost none took to farming, in spite of the hope of the administration of the East African Protectorate at the beginning of this century that they might." [11]

To find a suitable location for their own duka, they followed the tracks of the earlier Khoja merchant-traders, who had worked along the old Arab caravan trade inland from Bagamoyo.

The South Asian Khojas, Tharia Thopan (1823-?), Sewji Haji (1851-1997), Allidina Visram (1851-1916) and Nasser Veerjee (1865-1942), were among the principal financiers of caravan traders in the late nineteenth century. Most of them managed their businesses from the coast, but they gathered first-hand information on the inland trade routes. [12]

The earliest record of a Khoja dukawalla/trader in the interior is Musa Kanji (or Musa Mzuri – “Musa, the Good”, as he was called by the European explorers such as Grant), who was said have lived in Tabora from the 1840’s. Many Khojas can trace their recent ancestors to Bagamoyo, Tabora (known then as Kazeh) or Kigoma (known then as Ujiji) as well as Mwanza and Bukoba, which were old Swahili/Arab settlements in the interior.

After 1890, the German started to build a string of “Bomas” administrative centres across their new colony and the Dukawalla generally set up shop nearby so as have maximum security during the bloody colonisation period. It is reported that over 1,000 traders followed the German Major Prince when he moved to the Iringa & Tukuyu area.

see Gulamhusein Moloo Hirji,whose family moved to Tukuyu with Capt. Prince [[Kassam Walji Patel|Kassam Walji Patel, who is mentioned in the German Colonial Handbook 1908 who is mentioned as a businessman in Iringa. ] [[Bandali Visram|Bandali Visram, who is mentioned in the German Colonial Handbook 1908 as businessman in Mpwapwa

In 1905, the Germans started building the “Central Railway” and the dukawallas helped to create towns like Morogoro, Dodoma, and Kigoma. Arusha & Moshi were the results of the German-built Usambara Railway system.

Whereas in 1901 only 58 of 3,420 Asians are known to have lived in interior districts, by 1912 the figure was 8,591 out of 8,698. German administrative centres attracted storekeepers.[13]

Across the border in the East African Protectorate, when the British started building the Uganda Railway from Mombasa in 1891, the rail-head stations made convenient trading posts for the dukawallas, set-up by the merchant princes like Allidina Visram and others.

By 1870, there were some 2,500 Ismaili Khojas in East Africa and their ranks swelled even further after the establishment of the British Protectorate in 1891(i.e. Kenya and Uganda, Editor.).
— Chatterji


see Mohamed Manek

see Kassim Lakha

The Dukawallas also moved into the unexplored hinterland setting up mud and corrugated iron shops in villages at the edge of civilization providing rations and essentials of life to the indigenous peasants and in the towns to German & British administrators. See Kesri's wonderful poem below for a detailed description of the amazing array of goods and experiences they brought to the indigenous people.

see Mohamedali Remtulla Mulji

The Dukawallas were able to endure the lonely bush-life by taking solace that by escaping poverty & famine, they were able to provide for their families. The Omani Sultans who had first welcomed them in Muscat & Gwadar and later in Zanzibar were Ibadi Muslims, a minority sect with a centuries-old history of Indian Ocean trading and tolerance of the smorgasbord of the Indian faith systems. The Khojas and other Gujarati migrants, being members of ancient Indian occupationally-based spiritual communities, practiced their dharma (faith) through “sewa” volunteer service within their respective castes, in these small towns in East Africa. (Later, after Independence, this entrenched communalism born out of necessity, but from a different era, became grounds for resentment by some indigenous Africans, who nonetheless, continued practising tribalism in the newly independent countries)

For a detailed account of Khoja Dukawalla family life, read Sultan Somji’s two books, “Bead Bai” and “The Crossing”.

see Fatmabai Kasssamali Kanji Bhatia.

Earn Credit, Give Credit

The dukawalla's ultimate business success lay in continually seeking new opportunities in the expanding economies, resulting from the systemic exploitation of the natural resources of the colonies by the Europeans.

All Indian businesses.....relied heavily on credit systems. Supply-line credit from European and Indian merchant houses, often based on ninety-day terms, stretched from the docks of Dar es Salaam to the smallest rural shops."[15]

see Dolatkhanu Alibhai Gulamhussien Jiwani)

see Zerakhanu Rajabali Fazal Alidina

Therefore, the most important ‘security’ was a person’s ‘good name’. A ‘good name’ was gained by repaying debts in time, being known among creditworthy people, and being an honest and trustworthy businessman in general. If a family’s reputation was lost, it would be very difficult to obtain new credits."[16]

see Hasham Jamal Pradhan

(Interestingly, back in India in the 1870s, on the foothills of the Himalayas’ near Simla, Khoja itinerant traders were bringing merchandise from the Bombay & Delhi merchants and similarly distributing them to farmers on credit. The peddlers worked in groups and if one defaulted, the others were responsible for those debts. It would appear that a “good name” ethic was long entrenched in the Khoja business practices) [17]

The dukawallas’ genius was to create methodologies to extend similar credit to their indigenous customers and successfully bringing them into the cash economy.

In one common practice known as amana, Indian retailers extended credit in return for offering safe deposit of African goods or money, usually accumulated from a dowry or crop sale, which would subsequently serve as a surety for monthly store credit.[18]

Later, this spawned into the business of "pawn-shops" which became part of the retail economy providing a vital business service in the harsh colonial system.

...such shops also provided the nexus for the distribution of basic necessities such as food and clothing to those living month-to-month on credit margins. [19]

Credit was universally available at pawn shops, which in Dar es Salaam were owned entirely by Khoja Ismaili Indians, and intimately connected with most African household economics. Pledges peaked from the twentieth to the end of each month, during siku za mwambo 'tight-stretched days.' Upon wage payments on the first of the month, each pawnshop in town would attend to between three and four hundred customers who queued to redeem their goods." [20]

In the countryside, another growth opportunity was a consequence of the Khoja tradition of not adopting the Muslim “purdah” for their women. As soon a new Khoja bride became adept in KiSwahili, the Dukawalla was able to leave the shop to her and go on buying sprees for local produce & artisan products and ship them to the larger urban markets. This was an important economic advantage over other Muslims and Hindus traders whose tradition was of not involving their spouses in business.

see Maherali Gokal Versi

see Fatmabai Kassamali Kanji Bhatia

Business Failures Amidst Colonial Hostility

However, as Brennan points out, there were also substantial obstacles to success in retail for these small vyaparis businessmen (Later, this term was corrupted into the derogatory KiSwahili 'Bepari' exploiter and used against the Indians)

The system functioned on high turnover and small cash margins—often as little as 10 percent — offering higher profits but greater risks and frequent bankruptcies among small Indian traders."[21]

see Gulamali JIna Madhavji

Last but not least, (5) the success of South Asian businessmen in East Africa was the outcome of a ‘trial and error’ process. [22] see Rahemtulla Walji Virji for a detailed account of entrepreneurial tenacity.

Gijsbert Oonk study of bankruptcies in early Zanzibar shows that as many as 50% of the businesses failed in the first instance and also that failure meant a very slow route up if they wanted to access the community network of credit again.

Therefore, it is not surprising that family members would take the responsibility for the debts of fathers, brothers, or in-laws, even if they were not legally obliged to do so. In these cases, keeping up the family name was of high priority in order to attract new or future investors.” [23]

Underlying this struggle to succeed was the insidious racism of the colonial order. The East African dukawalla endured constant harassment from the European masters.

In 1913, the Bombay Chronicle published an analysis and fierce criticism of the discriminatory policies in the British East African Protectorate (present day Kenya & Uganda: Editor). The article initially highlights the economic and political contribution of South Asians in East Africa, but then cynically stresses:

And now the Indian cannot acquire property in the uplands, cannot carry weapons, cannot enter the Market House in Nairobi, cannot travel in comfort on the steamers and railways, cannot have a trial by jury, in short cannot be anything else than an undesirable alien [emphasis added].

It is clear from the newspaper article that while the Germans and the British were colonising East Africa, they were also alienating the South Asians who lived there. Many South Asian traders and businessmen believed that due to discriminatory regulations, they were unable to compete with Europeans on an equal basis. At the same time, they were not able to defend their properties and protect their families, despite the fact that most of them were British subjects [24]

The writer's father, W. H. King, who fought here with the Indian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1918. used to say that the whole natural line of business communication between Tanga and Mombasa, Arusha and Nairobi, Kisumu and its southwestern hinterland was broken up. He described the sufferings of the Indian duka keepers who were merrily raided by both sides as the battle ebbed and flowed. The Belgians coming in from the Congo into Rwanda and Burundi and then crossing the lake to push towards Tabora treated the Indian traders in the same way as they advanced and the Germans retreated" [25]

see Mohamed Dewji, whose goods were confiscated by the Germans for the 'war effort'

see Kassam HAJI - who was bankrupted due to German currency failure.

Sir Yusufali Karimjee, speaking for Indians in Tanganyika put it well: "The policy of the Government underlying this movement is to rob Indian Peter to pay British Paul"[26]

Visible Everywhere – Invisible In History

East African cities, towns, and villages show the large and indelible presence of the Indians in their market squares, in their commercial buildings, in their residential suburbs, in their foods and in their public infrastructure.

South Asians in East Africa are written out of history. They do not play an important part in the textbooks on Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ugandan history. In fact, if they are mentioned at all, they are seen as a part of people who were expelled and did not play an important part in the national histories. Furthermore, they are not part of the Indian national history as they migrated before India became independent. Finally, they are not part of the European colonial history, except for being ‘middlemen’ who could be employed for the colonial projects. [27]

For the last 150 years,the East African dukawalla has been a portrait of personal sacrifice and dogged tenacity. Equally maligned by ungrateful colonials and opportunists’ indigenous politicians, it is appropriate that as Africa finally writes its own history, this laudable story of human endurance and enterprise be properly told.

Notes & References

  1. Chatterji, Joya. Routledge handbook of the South Asian diaspora.
  2. Kevin Patience-Shipwrecks and Salvage on the East African Coast 1499-2000 (Available from the author at: 257 Sandbanks Road, Poole, BH14 8EY at £13 inc P&P to UK.saburi@hotmail.com;
  3. Iliffe, John. A modern history of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999. 139
  4. Gregory, Robert G -Asians in East Africa 7
  5. Oonk, Gijsbert. South Asians in East Africa (1880-1920) with a Particular Focus on Zanzibar: Toward a Historical Explanation of Economic Success of a Middlemen Minority. African and Asian Studies 5, no. 1 (2006): 57-90
  6. Campbell, John R - Culture, Social Organisation, and Asian Identity: Difference in Urban East Africa: 180--Pluto Press(1999)
  7. ibid Illiff (pp-
  8. ibid Oonk, Gijsbert. "Settled Strangers- South Asians Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000)" SAGE 15
  9. ibid –Chatterji
  10. Oonk, Gijsbert. "Settled Strangers- South Asians Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000)" SAGE 83
  11. Morris, Stephen - Indians in East Africa: A Study in a Plural Society. The British Journal of Sociology, Volume 7, Issue 3 (Sep., 1956) 195
  12. Oonk, Gijsbert. "Settled Strangers- South Asians Business Elites in East Africa (1800-2000)" SAGE 83
  13. ibid Iliffe 140)
  14. ibid Chatterji 20
  15. Brennan, James - Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania 72
  16. ibid Oonk 13
  17. Society and Circulation: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia ... pp 172 edited by Claude Markovits, Jacques Pouchepadass, Sanjay Subrahmanyam
  18. ibid Brennan 72
  19. ibid Brennan 72
  20. ibid Brennan 72
  21. ibid Brennan 72
  22. ibid Oonk 30
  23. ibid Oonk 15
  24. ibid Oonk (Note 6A) 199
  25. King, Noel - Towards A History Of The Ismailis In East Africa - edited by Ismail Raji al Faruq(http://www.ismaili.net/Source/earlycol.html)
  26. The Tanganyika Herald 15 December 1934 12
  27. ibid Oonk, "South Asians in East Africa (1800-2000) 4.

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

The railway "kuli" as a "dukawalla"

by Iqbal I .Dewji

Another source of dukawallas was an indirect consequence of the abolition of slavery, which forced the British to devise a system of indentured labour to run their colonies.

Of the original 32,000 contracted Indian laborers in East Africa, after the end of indentured service system, about 2,500 died (mostly eaten by lions, the so called man-eaters of Tsavo) and about 4,000 stayed on to work on the railways employees as shopkeepers, artisans, clerks, and later lower-level administrators. Colonial practices excluded them from the middle and senior ranks of the government and from farming; so instead, to advance their economic positions, they became commercial middleman.

Between the building of the railways and the end of World War II, the number of Indians in Southeast Africa swelled to 320,000. By the 1940s, some colonial areas had already passed laws restricting the flow of immigrants, as did white-ruled Rhodesia in 1924. But by then, the Indians had firmly established control of commercial trade — some 80 to 90 percent in Kenya and Uganda was in the hands of Indians — plus some industrial activities. In 1948, all but 12 of Uganda's 195 cotton ginneries were Indian run.

The humble "dukawalla" had regained the traditional position of the Indians as business elites of the Indian Ocean trans-circular trade.

Ode to the Indian Dukawala on East African Plains

by Kersi Rustomji


Kesiru 1

Done the Mombasa Kisumu rail,
And of all the Indian rail men,
Many broken in mind and body,
Back to India in dhows sailed,
To their loved families and friends,
But some "majur" the workers,
And "suthar" the carpenters,
As well "luhar" the smithy and tin workers,
Stone masons and builders,
In the country they had laboured,
To commence a life new they remained.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Then soon a fresh and new Indian breed,
Of bold pioneering trading creed,
Sailed the Indian Ocean in creaky wooden dhows,

Along with the Indian crows,
If lost at sea to guide them ashore,
Towards ventures new to commence,
At places wild distant unknown and strange,


Braving malaria black water sleeping sickness,
Diseases fevers many and unknown ills,
Undeterred by lions leopards and snakes,
By hyenas owls bats and other nightly beasts,
Nor afraid were they of the mysterious mchawi,
The lionskin-wearing native magic man witch,

To strive and to pave a new way and life to be had,
Into Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika,
Where far inland they all spread,
Through scrubby lands jungles and terrain arid,
Across wide roaring rivers and muddy streams,
Settled at places isolated desolate and depressed,

Tsetse fly

Where mosquitoes tse tse flies bugs and vermin,
Infested the bodies and sucked their blood,
Jiggers the dudus under the skin their eggs laid,
Brought to many ill-health and fevers severely bad,
Malaria, dengue and black water fever,
Made not a few along their routes to fall dead,

On one hot sunny sultry African morn,
Such an Indian on foot he came,
To seek a little plot in the land so hostile and strange,
On the vast sprawling warm savannah plains,

Acacia Tree

Among grasses yellow and flat-topped thorn trees,
Near a brown barked flat-topped acacia green,
Just the right patch of empty reddish-brown earth he saw,
‘Perfect for a small duka-a tiny little store’ said he,

From the hard ground the duka slowly commenced,
The skin robed locals with spears arrows and bows,
Gathered close by and watched as the duka rose,
Daily from a distance they languidly appraised,

As hammer blows on the plain loudly thudded,
While sides and top of mabati the irons corrugated,
Onto a wooden frame with myriad nails were attached,
Now in the mvitu of the stark wilderness,

A small mabati duka a shop in the front,
With a couple of tiny rooms in the back,
Of the Indian dukawala’s a new,
A wilderness shop and abode it became,

In front a place from which to work and trade,
Then in the dark starry and chirpy African night,
A room to eat sit in and read by lantern light,
Then lay his tired aching body,

In another tiny room at rear to bed,
Watu, the bush people with the dogs spied,
And before long people of all tribes arrived,
To the strange mabati structure which they eyed,

Viewed the unknown iron sheet shed kibanda,
A novel structure so wondrous so maridadi,
Full of curiosity first with trepidation then cautiously,
They entered the duka somewhat nervously,

To scan to see to feel to taste and try,
The many new goods foods tools and wares,
That they had never before seen,

New kitamba cloths and nguo clothes,
kisu knives msumari nails implements and tins,
Sukari sugar njugu groundnuts chumvi salt,

Kunde and choroko pulses and grains,
Unga the ground maize dengu the daal,
Mchele rice legumes and a variety of adesi lentils,
Pili pili the hot dried chilli binzari various spices,
Strongly pungent mkarafu cloves aromatic,

Dried ground ginger the sharp tangawizi,
Manjano strongly pungent yellow turmeric,
Pili pili manga the black pepper berries,
Now to add to foods new and to make delicious curries.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Kesiru 2

Tumbaku the dark rolled tobacco,
To smoke in novel pipes the kiko,
The dark brown scented snuff the fine ugolo,
In fancy snuff bottles the tiny tabakelo,
The new sigara cigarettes in packets or readily rolled,
And amazing to wash with Indian sabu sabuni the soap,

Kesiru 3

The shiny small kioo hand mirrors on a pole,
For one’s face to look at and adorn,
For their belles and their many wives they saw,
Colourful beads baubles combs pretty,
Their necks and arms to decorate with,

Metal enamel and china containers held them all in awe,
Msusimeno the saw and shoka the iron axes,
For wood to easily cut and chop,
Wire for binders and long choir ropes,
Wire mesh for chicken coops strong,

The dukawala too from the locals,
Many needy things he required,
Milk honey skins and hides,
From them all he regularly acquired,

Makka the charcoal to cook with,
Mswaki the acacia tooth-brush stick,
Many other local produce and products,
A lot of different local stuff he bought,

In his duka too the locals he employed,
Sukuma sukuma push push,
Haraka haraka hurry hurry,
His employees to work he spurred on,

Paid for it all in the tinkling rupee rupiah shiny,
Of the Imperial British East Africa Company,
Then replaced by cents centi and shillings shilingi
Brought to the country,
By the new white government serikali,

Kesiru 4

Year by year and on and on,
The little duka it did so very well,
Glassware jars pots and pans,
Even an odd iron frying pan,
From long nails in the rafter beams hanged,
Needles buttons and coloured threads,
Scissors razor blades machete the panga and spades,

Bata shoes in leather and canvas,
Tough merikani the strong woven cotton cloth,
Kitenge wraps and various white and coloured cotton bolts,
By yard were there for all to be bought,
Also coloured beads necklaces,
Even iron and copper bangles and earrings,
For all the wanawake the women to wear,

Kesiru 5

With magic kiberiti the box of matches,
And amazing mafuta maji the clear kerosene,
Mshumaa candles and fanusi hurricane lanterns,
In hundreds of rustic grass huts,
Now every night they lit,


Amid the thick bushes and thorny trees,
The narrow earthen bush tracks and paths,
The hand-held lamps lighted,
To spot and avoid many animals wild,
As they walked in the dark African night,
mafuta new oil superfine and samli ghee,
Gave a flavour fine and different tasting,
So very rich so very food enhancing,
And very different from the old boring,
Unlike the old boiling way of cooking,
And not long after roti the Indian flat chapatti,
Fresh piping hot smeared with ghee,
Now replaced the old morning maize meal the uji.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

There were also now treatments new,
For ills and sicknesses of past and present,
That came with the many new dawa the medicine,
From India and white man’s patent remedies,
For the churning maradhi ya tumbo,
The crooked worm ridden tummy,

There was the yellow castor oil,
The foulest of all and smelly,
Not at all or the tiniest bit yummy,
None was there other bitterest any,
Than the malaria curing quinine,
For cuts bruises and lacerations,

A burning liquid in a dark glass bottle tiny,
The brown sharp smelling tincture of iodine,


For the muscles stretched aching and tired limbs,
The mustachioed Sloan’s yellow liniment,
Or the Indian Amrutanjan balm,
On the hurting aching parts to rub in,
As well Indian medicinal oils and salves,
The cotton cloth poultice of mustard or ground turmeric


Soon new aluminium sufuria pots and pans,
And other such metal utensils,
Sitting around the stone jiko the cooking fire,
Of the olden pots and the ancient wares,
Crafted from hollowed gourd wood and earth,
The end of these brought quickly,
Changing in bush and huts,
Of days of yore cooking habits,

The shiny small and big kijiko,
The gleaming metal spoons,
To stir and eat with into use daily,
Came so very quickly and so very early,

For tea the enamel pots birika
And the colourful kikombe the mugs,
With the many coloured enamel sahani the plates,
Of the old eating boards and banana leaf platters,
And the half cut drinking coconut shells and gourds,
Of it all brought demise rapid,
For now coffee the kahawa or chai the tea,

Brooke Bond Chai

Has become a morning ritual new,
A daily invigorating treat,
With a wheaten ghee smeared chapatti or two,
The red blue and yellow designed sinia,
The large round enamel platters,
Now in huts shambas farming plots and soko the markets,
Wanawake ya soko the market women and street hawkers,
On colourfully scarf-covered heads they bear,
With their loud cries of korosho kashew and tende dates,
Their various wares and produce they vend,

Nakupends Malaika

Impala and other skins also soon discarded,
For cotton shukas and kitenges as wraps,
Of designs and patterns in brilliant colours,
With limerick or a verse at the bottom hems,
Naku penda malaika yangu, love you my angel,
The attire new all women now adopted,

Even the Masai, the Samburu,
And the Turkana men of the plains,
On the nyika wilderness and everywhere else,
Their skin cloaks of old divested,

A fashion bold and new adopted,
A knotted drape of a red blanket blanketi,
Bought for mere two rupees rupia mbili,
At the small Indian shop duka ya mhindi,


But the mode of dress for many more across the countries,
Once more and again the attire changed,
Another fashion of apparel new now accepted,
Shati sleeved shirt and pants the seruali,
Almost all men in the land started wearing,


And wanawake the women too,
Their worn ochre robes and string skirts of past,
They replaced with colourful nguo nzuri,
Pretty cotton drapes and dresses.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The hard dry digging sticks of old,
These too were of use not anymore,
Its place now taken by grey jembe,
A new strong iron hoe,


Together with panga, the metal machete,
Changes on the landscape wide these wrought,
With ardhi the soil now easily dug turned and aired,
Big shambas farms over the land,
Not before long stretched,

And now the village mwanamke the women,
From early morn till late in the day,
Long and wide they toiled on the soil,
For bigger cash crops to sow and raise,
Seeds from the Indian duka they bought and planted,

African shamba women
Lentils mung pulses and other beans,
Along with large cob bearing tufted maize mahindi,
Then soon potato cabbage and peas,
Coffee cotton millet and sorghum they raised,

Tomato onion garlic and chillies,
Beetroot lettuce and radish,
Karela bitter gourd and mbibringani brinjal,
Carrots cauliflower spinach,

Fresh green coriander, kakari cucumber,
figili, pungent white horseradish,
On their shamba plots they established,
For the many wahindi the Indians, and the wazungu the whites,
Who now in the three countries resided,


The trade at the little rusted mabati duka,
It prospered and did so very well,
The myriad goods spread on the counter,
Along with boxes of produce and grains,
In the midst of all an eye-catching weighing scale,

To weigh it all in pounds or ratli,
Beside on the floor in front of the counter,
Sat tins of ghee cooking oil and kerosene,
Ladled out with a long handle tiny scoops,
At only senti tano five cents each,


Varied coloured cloths and clothes,
From the roof beams hung,
All in hot dusty winds gently swung,
Over the tall shelves thickly loaded and stacked,
With pencils pens ink pots envelopes writing pads,

Needles reels of thread cards of buttons,
Safety pins ribbons and hair clips,
Combs hair pins safety razors,
Shoe polishes penknives and blades,
An accumulation of things myriad,
Only the dukawala knew what else the shelves held,

The long time Indian dukawala of old,
On many new deals and ventures big embarked,
Still filled with vitality vigour and pep,
He forged ahead in great big striding steps,

From the locals all and surrounds wide he bought,
Their labour produce and products,
In greater and larger and heavier lots,
Also bought some small farming plots,

And the donkey cart that hauled goods sundry,
Now in its place a big load-carrying lorry,
Painted in colour bright and wooden sides,
It hauled its load from towns and shops,
With the locals seated on top of goods piled high,
Went to villages and traversed the country,


Not long after the mzungu P.C and the D.C, [1]
In the loaded OHMS[2]lorries rolled in,
Indian contractors built their bomas offices,
And bungalows for the men of the government the serikali,

Followed by the farmers and settlers white,
And not unlike the pioneering Indian dukawala
With the silvery corrugated mabati tin,
Their early farmhouses and homes
They all also to start with built,

As the first National Bank of India in Nairobi,
Was built too of such corrugated mabati,
Its chief cashier a pheta[3] wearing Mr. Mehta,
One of the many pioneering Parsis,
Who too settled traded and worked,
In the three East African countries,

Now the white farmers with tinga tinga their tractors,
Vast farms and tracts they cut and cleared,
They ploughed and furrowed acres and acres,
On the African plains of fertile soil red rich,
Wheat maize oat coffee tea,
And many other crops they established,

Which only through many wazungu the white man’s,
Offices businesses and stores and boards,
Their crops and produce they exported and sold,
Exported to England and the countries abroad,


To the new white farmers and officials of the serikali,
And all other whites who now in three countries resided,
The Indian dukawalas to them all the supplies provided,
Yardley shaving stick Gillette shaving kits and blades,
Kiwi boot polish shining cloth with brushes,

Kesiru 6

Lux and Lifebuoy soap cotton towels and napkins,
Kolynos toothpaste tooth and hair brushes,
Vicks for colds and Vaseline for chaffed skin,

Balms and Gin

Haig whiskey tobacco cigarettes and Gilby’s gin,
Dry and tinned hard rations,
Butter jams and English pickles,
Huntley and Palmers biscuits,

Makeup and stir powders

Memsahib’s Yardley powder and Avon lipsticks,
Pure white gentle Ponds cold skin cream,
To sooth their sun parched white skin,
Quaker oats Cadbury cocoa and Ovaltine,

Under the counter a variety of printed cotton bolts,
From which to cut sew stitch,
With multi-coloured cotton thread,
House and farm work clothing,
And garden cocktail and sundowners dresses,
As well evening gowns for the Government House,
The Whites only Christmas garden parties,

Comparisons with English Sahib

But the wazungu white farmers,
Their families and friends,
As well all their bibis the wives,
And all the bwanas and the officers,
Of government the serikali and businessmen white,
For reasons not very sure,
But known to them only,
Disliked derided and mistreated,
The dukawala most unfairly,

He cheats and overcharges claimed they,
And his business account he writes yearly,
In a language ungraspable,
Using systems strange and uncanny,
Difficult to comprehend easily,
For the white taxman to assess clearly,

In such manner the white bwanas the men,
And at the clubs their memsabu the women,
Cursed gossiped and denigrated the dukawala constantly,
Shook their heads yet regularly for victuals ran to him,
Even as one arrogant white farmer Lord,
Debating the Indians called him a sucking Asia tick,
In one of the East African Legislative Council,

Yet when life times and seasons turned hard and mean,
And even the white man’s banks became unfriendly,
It was on the nastily gossiped dukawala Indian,
For their needs fads and even ready cash,
They leaned upon at such times heavily,

Yet the Indian dukawala to them provided all their needs,
On a risky unknown chancy sureties,
Written on flimsy paper pieces,
The ubiquitous and hastily wrote,
The bwana wazungu’s the white man’s notes,

Or the many unguaranteed IOUs and chithi the chits,
Irrespective of ugly taunts and jibes,
Without anger resentment or hate,
The sahibs and their wives supplied he,
With all their fancy needs whims and cash ready.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Years passed and the tiny scattered villages,
Into big towns and places grew,
And the towns into cities changed and bloomed,
And now for the inadequate little duka,
Its ripping tearing ignoble end loomed,
As the claw hammer thousands of nails,

With high piercing screech it pulled,
Dusty mabati sheets from the timber frame felled,
The small old duka on its spot no more dwelled,
In the old duka’s space now a swank shopping mall,
Broad sweeping and many storeys glassed plaza tall,

On the roof a neon sign wide and high it flashed,
Below it bearing high above the glassed wall,
Blinking day and night in light red,
Proudly for all to see it proclaimed,
Rustomji Plaza its name,

Rustomji plaza

Now the mall is the pride of everyone and all,
From distances great and far,
They all come to it behold,
In it to brows and stroll,
In the new air-conditioned comfort to loll,


Crowds roll in to saunter to buy,
Or to drink a long cold beer,
The sapping African heat and sweat to beat,
With freshly fried samosas to eat,

With its cool cafes restaurants and stores,
Novel speciality boutiques and shopping malls,
There was none other like it so new,
So cool clean bright and so very neat,
To beat this rustic dukawala muhindi’s,
New venture a modern business feat,

The Indian dukawala though,
Stopped not where he now was,
For on and on he went to build greater enterprises,
Arcades karkhana workshops and factories,
To make fabricated goods products and fineries,
Now needed ever more and more,
In the fast growing three East African countries,

Rusto Mfg Co

Like the little mabati shop of days long gone,
That now stood no more a part of history old,
Now high from the roofline of several storeys,
And on a steel side of his factory,
A coloured sign Rusto Mfg Co. Ltd.,
Proclaimed its new glorious story,
As through day and night it operated,
By men and women of the land,
Goods and products all now locally made,
Sent and sold around the country,
For all the people to be had.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The long forgotten Hara Ambe Hara Ambe,
The Indian railway builders’ working chant,
To spur them on to shift to carry loads heavy,
Now it became ‘Harambee, hei, Harambee hei,’
A working chant of the local cart men the hamali,

Pushers of laden handcarts heavy,
And of the high loaded two-wheeled cart the mkokoteni,
The front man while steering ‘Harambee’ he cried,
His pushing mates at the rear ‘Hei’ they replied,
As their heavily laden carts they wheeled,

Also at the railway yards quay sides and wharfs,
The same working chants was daily evoked,
By the pagazi the labourers and the stevedores,
As well at the constructions sites,
When men and women hauled their heavy loads.

Cart Pulling Years passed and the colonies now desired to be free,
Seeking fighting for nations new and free to be,
From fetters of colonial white man to be unchained,
‘Harambee Harambee’ one of the their leaders hailed,
‘Hei, hei’ his faithful multitude replied loudly,

Of a nation rich and thriving on the East African plains,
A nation of high yellow swaying savannah grasses,
With a sharp snow-clad peak and long strong rivers muddy,
Land of lions leopards cheetahs giraffes,
Wildebeests zebras and other wild animals many,

Among scattered green flat-topped acacia trees,
For thousands the rallying cry it now is,
‘Harambee Harambee’ again their leader loudly shouted,
‘Hei hei’ wanainchi the struggling people responded,
Through severe trials tribulation and deprivation,

Beaten shot and in harsh detention camps placed,
They stopped not nor for a moment tarry,
Even though their leader remained incarcerated,
At a faraway place desolate dry and isolated,
The country’s freedom the people demanded,

‘Harambee harambee’ they thunderously chanted,
Then as the sun rays Mt. Kenya peak lighted,
A glorious African day it heralded,
Thousands of the nation’s people,
Their freed leader they surrounded,

Kenyan flag

As a new flag bright black red and green,
On a high white mast unfurled,
With that and a resounding cry of uhuru,
The country’s liberation,
Of the East African nation of Kenya it declared,

All the hard-working people,
Of a new nation now free,
‘Harambee’ to pull together,
To spur them on they chanted,
And as the national motto,
For all it was finally adopted.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

The pioneering dukawala Indian he is not young any more,
His work and efforts taken over by children now grown,
Gone his very busy rushing days of old,
And the complicated business roles,
Hair in a white fringe surrounds the head bald,

Silver Mercedes

In a silver Mercedes that sits before his modern home,
He drives past and observes all that he owns,
For deep within him fully well he knows,
When the time as it surely must come,
Alone bereft and empty-handed he goes,

Learned and read of two books only,
With schooling of only years two or three,
Only to read and numbers to note knows he,
Able not to write at length all,
Seeks he now a learned scribe,

Who in many words will describe,
The many tales of his hard long work and life,
Of his visions and of a great trading lore,
Of at least one Indian dukawala,
On East Africa’s dusty floor,

For unlike the forgotten Indian railway men,
He yearns to leave behind a name,
At least of one Indian trading pioneers intrepid,
Who to East Africa in dhows came,
To work long hours to toil and to trade,

Amid hardships fevers loneliness and pains,
To help to create countries rich on plains,
To become a proud yet modest,
Man of the tiny mabati duka fame.

Hara Ambe Hara Ambe, An Indian dukawala, On the East African plains

Kersi's Notes
  1. P.C. and D.C. After the Governor of the colony, P.C. the Provincial Commissioner was in charge of a large province of the country, and D.C. the District Commissioner of a smaller district of the province.
  2. OHMS – All East African the government vehicle bore this registration plate, which stood for, On His or Her Majesty’s Service.
  3. Pheta – A hard high headgear worn by Parsi men.

(4) Indian Women - It must be noted, that this tribute also extends to the many Indian women, who too braved the solitude, privations, and vicissitudes in inhospitable places, not only by accompanying their husbands, but also in many cases trading and running their dukas. Through the dint of hard application, many of these intrepid ladies also achieved commercial successes, and created entrepreneurial establishments and businesses of great value.

The Indian Duka painting

The image depicts the rich red soil, a typical Indian duka, a small trading store, in small towns and remote country areas of East Africa. The signage is also typically hand-painted work of the duka owners. These put up with any paint at hand, included some spelling errors. The man behind the counter is my paternal uncle Jehangirji Rustomji, who first opened a small watch repair duka in the old Indian Bazaar, now Biashara Street, in early 1906 in Nairobi, Kenya. He later moved to the then Government Road, now Moi Avenue, in the corner of a chemist shop, Chemitex, next to the old Alibhai Sherrif hardware shop, going towards the Ismaili jamatkhana, on the corner of Government Road and River Road. Later his youngest son Rati joined him, and after Jehangirji’s death, Rati carried on the little business until 2009, when he retired and closed the little duka after 103 years of its existence. Rati still lives in Nairobi. Copyright> Kersi Rustomji.

About the author

Kersi Rustomji, a Parsi, was born in 1936 at Kampala, Uganda. At age 3, his parents moved to Mwanza, Tanzania (then Tanganyika). In Mwanza, even as a child, he was interested in the flora and fauna and the people. Kersi roamed the countryside and observed all. A childhood fall from a tree resulted in the loss of his left arm, but this did not deter him in any manner.

When the family moved to Kenya, Kersi’s continued forays into the wilderness and love of the flora and fauna resulted in him receiving the Silver Acorn, the highest award for Rovers, when he completed a 100-mile hike. During his many foot safaris on Nairobi-Mombasa road and elsewhere, he came to know the Indian dukawalla well. It is his deep regard for their unabating pioneering spirit, that led him to write this much-needed tribute.

He had a varied successful forty years in teaching. He now lives in Australia and continues to write stories with East African themes. He is also writing an autobiography.

All graphics unless otherwise indicated obtained from free public domains and reprocessed for the work by Kersi Rustomji. A number of thumbnails are from the Wellcome Library, UK, and the US Library of Congress.

"Bwana Kesi’s Duka",

an extract from Zahir Dhalla's book: "Poetry: The Magic of Few Words. Definition & Some Genres." With background appendix on East Africa." https://www.createspace.com/5303982 (an Amazon company)

Bwana Kesi yumo dukani, I presume.
Pale Ukambani, I presume.

From neighbouring south
the Maasai come about.
To buy something or just for chatting?

Sure they ask “Bei?” or “Pilsener?”
But not, as billed, Tusker.

Kersi built here for the acacia shade.
No lounging leopard or suspended snake?

Maasai cloaks flap open – exposed groins?
Nah, it ventilates their loins.

Bwana Kesi ni Mzee sasa
sharp like eyes of paka.

In the Outback lazy
pining for his Kibwezi.

Mwalimu Rustomji wa Likoni wa jana,
kofia, ndevu, meno na macho yako ni maridadi sana.

No expiry date, I presume.
No worries mate, I presume. "

Zahir's Notes

Swahili words used above:

bei – price; duka – shop (from the Gujarati word dukan; Indians were frequently dukawallas, shopkeepers);

jana – past;

Kesi – Kersi (Kesi is his name in Swahili);

kofia – hat;

macho – eyes;

maridadi – beautiful;

meno – teeth;

mwalimu – teacher;

Mzee – elder (wise man);

ndevu – beard;

ni – in/at;

paka – cat;

pale – over there;

sana – very;

sasa – now;

wa – of;

yako – your;

yumo – is in;

2. One-armed Kersi Rustomji (Kesi to his beloved natives) was born in 1936 in Kampala, Uganda near the north shores of Lake Victoria. He grew up at the other end of the lake in Mwanza, Tanganyika (now Tanzania). He finished his schooling in Kenya becoming a teacher. His love of hiking included trekking through Ukambani and Kibwezi village (coincidentally Hemingway was prowling on the other side of the Chyullu (Chullu) Hills at the time). Kersi currently lives in New South Wales, Australia, his itch of trekking still intact. His memoirs are at http://www.kersi.50webs.com/. He put together the beautiful collage above as a tribute to the dukawallas found in every town and village of East Africa. My maternal grandfather ran such a duka in Kibwezi, Kenya in Ukambani, which is the setting for my collage.

3. eBooks cost much less: search "zahir dhalla" on Amazon.com/.ca/.co.uk/etc. Net proceeds go to needy school children in Tanga, Tanzania.

4. I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to Zahir Dhalla and Kersi Rustomji for documenting the Dukawalla experience. I.I. Dewji, Editor

Why the dukan wallah (Indian Shopkeeper) is smarter than you? By Ted Malanda

From the Standard on 07 Sept 09'

(Malanda’s insightful writings are always a pleasure to read. His writings are some times “painful” to read for Africans, Indians and even the Brits but he always tells the “bitter” and “inconvenient” truth and makes them “digestible” by giving them a humorous touch. He always makes some very good points. His articles are usually short but to the point despite the touch of humor he inserts in them. This article is an example.)

In the unlikely event that the British decided to rebuild the Kenya-Uganda railway, rest assured that the man-eaters of Tsavo, if they still exist, would not be carting away Indian coolies into the boon docks for snacks and dinner. There would be no Indian coolies in the first place. Instead, the whole railway line would be bustling with youthful ­ and not so youthful ­ indigenous Kenyans under the Kazi kwa Vijana initiative.

Yet just over 100 years ago, the locals wouldn’t be caught dead doing such ‘menial’ work, to the extent that the railway line’s entire labour force had to be shipped in from India.

But if it was massive muscle drain for India, then, rounding up the descendants of those coolies today and throwing them out Idi Amin style would result in brain drain so severe that the national economy would be clobbered to its knees. How did they manage this transformation from sweaty labourers to captains of industry when locals are still doing what they were doing then ­ hunting squirrels, pretending to raise maize on barren land and engaging in tribal warfare every five years?

Strength to strength

Equally, the Brits who were lording it over everyone have virtually scattered. Grogan is gone; Egerton’s castle is in ruins while Lord Delamere now hawks mandazi and milk on the roadside in Naivasha. But the Kenyan Indian just seems to grow from strength to strength.

I could hazard two reasons for this: One, the Indian doesn’t give a hoot about land. All he needs is a roof over his head and a place to sell his wares.

Wazungu, on the other hand, will lease thousands of hectares of desert land and then pretend to make money out of it from tourists. How the hell do you do that when crooks are turning all the trees upstream into charcoal?

Africans, on the other hand, will steal and kill each other for land. But after that, they do absolutely nothing with it apart from walking around admiring farm boundaries and selecting burial spots.

The second reason is that the average Indian is more tenacious than a donkey. Note: A millionaire muhindi dukan wallah will own the same pair of shoes for years unlike a local man who changes wives with his first bank loan. It’s not easy minting money from a dukan walah, either, as the many locals who sink their retirement benefits into roadside shops can testify.

But I admire Indians most for their marriage customs. They are just brilliant, these Indian men. How did they connive to have women pay them dowry and still manage to sit on them?

In fact, as soon as they have eaten the dowry that the bride brought, they install her in the family home so that she can take care of their aging mothers as well. Would you believe it!

And to seal the deal, they cover those women from head to toe making it virtually impossible for wife snatchers to salivate.

Have you ever seen an Indian woman’s underwear?  Now contrast that with African women who seem hell bent on baring it all to the nearest passerby.

My ancestors thought they were smart yet all they cared about were useless gizzard rights. Why couldn’t they think up a scam like this? Here we pay dowry through the nose yet if one’s mother visits for two weeks, the wife issues an ultimatum: "Either that old hag goes or I’m out."

Life is, indeed, a circus!