Ebrahim HAJI

From Khoja Wiki
Ebrahim HAJI
Town of birth
Country of birth
Date of Birth
  • 1891
Haji Thawer 18631931

Born in 1891 Lalpur, Kathiawar

Haji's two older sons, Kassam and Juma Haji left Lalpar before the start of the First World War around 1912; they first went to Zanzibar. Their younger brother Ebrahim (b. 1891) followed soon after

Arriving in Zanzibar, Juma soon left for Dar-es- Salaam where he was joined by his brother Ebrahim.

Soon afterwards the two brothers went to Tabora, an important trading centre in Tanganyika—at that time a German Colony. Kassam the oldest brother had passed away at an early age. At this time Popat Rawji, the brother of Ebrahim's wife Mongibai was already in Tabora. He owned a successful oil-pressing mill, bought from the Pirbhais and was quite well off. Popat's wife, Rehmat, was called 'Mama Tabora' by the natives.

Popat employed Juma who became his manager for a short time. In later years Popat in turn worked forthe Hajis in Dar-esSalaam. Afewyears later when Popat fell on bad times he sold his mill to Juma.

After a few years in Tabora the 2 Haji brothers came back to Dar. Juma Haji initially worked for Sharif Jiwa in Dar es Salaam in his large export business. (In later years this business expanded significantly and Sharif probably became the first Isna Ashari millionaire in Africa!)

In 1918-19, towards the end of WW1 a 'flu pandemic swept through the world killing even morepeoplethanTheGreatWar. Ittook50million lives worldwide, more than the 4-year bubonic plague of the 1300's! In Dar es Salaam, Ebrahim and his wife Mongibai (sister of Popat and Merali Rawji) lost their first two children, Abdul and Shireen.

During the war years many people made good money; but many currencies failed and German banknotes became completely worthless when Tanganyika changed hands and became a British colony. Manyofour families, especially those who were in Tanganyika went bankrupt at this time; Karmali Pirbhaiwasoneofthefewexceptions.

Soon after the end of the war, around 1919, Juma and his brother Ebrahim opened their own shop in Dar es Salaam called 'Juma Haji & Co.' However, business for these recent immigrants in Dar-es- Salaam was tough as they had to compete with the larger and more established Hindu and Ismaili communities who had been there for decades and had very large establishments. So when the opportunity arose, Juma and Ebrahim decided to go to the Congo. Soon after the end of the war, The Belgian Congo began opening up to the Asian trader. Courageous pioneers left behind their modest but relatively comfortable homes with running water and electricity and ventured west into the unknown from a large, established British colonial city they went to small towns in the newly formed Belgian Congo, even though living conditions there were very basic.

The Congo

Juma left for The Congo in 1922. He went to Albertville, situated on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. This large elongated lake formed the divide between Congo in the west and Tanzania in the east. Soon afterwards he sent for his brother Ebrahim to join him here.

Their uncle Pirbhai was already in Albertville and helped them to start a small shop selling sundry goodsto the natives.

Rubab, theeldestdaughterofEbrahim recallstheir simple thatched huts at the bottom of the hills, lit by lanterns and petro-maxes. Cooking was done on firewood collected from the surrounding areas; and when it rained their homes were flooded with water that cascaded down from the hills! Clothes were kept in trunks supported on stilts. Most places were infested by mosquitoes!

Though domestic life was hard, sales were good in their general goods and sundries store where they sold necessities like candles, soap. lanterns, aluminium utensils, and other daily needs to the local, native population.

A favourite item was kitenge, sold by the metre and thereforeaffordable bythevillagers.

The business expanded and gradually the 2 enterprising brothers opened a chain of similar provision stores under the name of 'Ebrahim Haji' in other small towns and villages nearby, Kongolo, Kasongo, Kabalo, Kindu. At this time people were transported from town to town by 'tepoys', a kind ofpalki orsedanchair.

A few years later the two younger brothers, Nazarali and Fazal came to work here too. Nazarali settled in Kasongo and ran the shop in this small town. In Kongolo, another small town nearby, a small shop was run by 2 more cousins, Nasserali and Rehmatali, the sons of Thawer Mohamed's youngest son Visram. Their families lived in tiny quarters behind the shop.


In 1924-25 Juma left for Stanleyville. Armed with the capital the brothers had amassed from the successful chain of general stores, he opened a larger business house under the name of 'Ebrahim Haji Freres' This became their Congo Head Office. This enterprise was very ably managed by Abdullah Ismail (the father of Khairun, Asghar, et al.), who was given a partnership in the business. Prior to this Abdullah worked with an importantand very successful import-export business house of Haji Dawood Nasser in Dar; they also had an office in Japan and Haji Dawood Nasser was very highly regarded in the Isna Ashari community. Dawood Nasserwasfondlycalled'FakhreQom',Prideofthe Community, and schools were given a holiday every time he visited them. Abdullah was a good partner and manager for the Hajis. In 1927 he constructed a building that accommodated the shop and also provided a residence for the family.

A few years later, in 1931 Abdullah gave up his partnership and left Ebrahim Haji Freres. The partnership was then taken up by Merali Rawji, after his arrival from Tabora. (Merali's sister Mongibaiwasmarried to Ebrahim). A branch of Ebrahim Haji Freres was soon opened in Kindu, in Eastern Congo and was managed by Mohamedali Alibhai (Bapa). Kindu occupied a strategic location on the Congo River system which had long made it important for commerce and transport. Goods which arrived by ship from abroad at Dar were sent to Kindu, and then carried furtherto the other branches by road.

By 1927 the Hajis had built modest housesin all the small towns in which they had theirshops. In 1927 Juma left Congo and went to Dar-es Salaam. He took his brother Ebrahim's three older children, Rubab, Mohamed and Fidahussain, aged nine, seven and five with him and admitted them into school there. There were no schools for Asian children in the Congo. Asians were not admitted into the Belgian schools; nor into the schools run by missionaries for the local Congolese children, where instruction was given in the local dialects. Some Asian youngsters got a little schooling at homewheneveran Asian teacherwasavailable.

Otherwise girls spent their time helping in the home and the boys worked in the store where help was always required. However in Dar es Salaam the children could enroll in theGovernmentschool for Asian children. There was a large population of Asians in Dar, and many teachers from India were attracted here bythe highersalaries. In 1931 Ebrahim Haji took all his children to India for a visit to their ancestral home in the village of Lalpar, and from here they went to Syria and Iran for Ziarat.

That same year Ebrahim and Juma's father Haji went for Haj with his brother Pirbhai; Haji died there while still on pilgrimage, aged 68 years. Coincidently, Haji was born on Haj day, and had thus acquired his name.

Hajis in Dar es Salaam

Industry & Sisal Plantations

Juma Haji and Co. had been established in Dar-es- Salaam in 1919 before Juma and Ebrahim went to the Congo in 1922.

The Haji business in Dar-es Saalam had flourished. andin 1933-34the Hajistogetherwith the Pirbhais in a 50-50 partnership, put up a 2-storey building with shops on the street level and residential apartments above. This building is still a classic in Dar.

In 1934 the Hajis took a big leap forward into industry! Ebrahim came to join Juma in Dar where they purchased a ginning factory in partnership with a Hindu family and later they bought over the whole factory.

The factory was in Kilosa, a 5-hour drive from Dar- es-Salaam. The land in Kilosa was very fertile and manyrememberthe beautiful, fragrant, roses that grew abundantly in the region.

Around 1938-39 they had an unexpected opportunity to acquire a Sisal Plantation. A Greek businessman who owed the Hajis money went bankrupt and offered them his sisal plantation in lieu of cash. Very fortunately for them, the Hajis accepted the offer, which turned out to be a gold mine within a few years.

During the Korean War in the 1950s the price of commodities escalated exponentially and sisal was in great demand for various industries. Ropes and bales of sisal were made and exported in large quantities to Europe as prices rose astronomically. The Hajis acquired a fortune and from the bounty amassed they gave each employee a plot of land to build a home.

There is another heart-warming story that goes around about this time. At some earlier period one of the Hajis had taken money from some family to invest for them but the project failed and the money was lost. When times were better the Hajis went to return the money to the surviving members; but these people had no record of the incident and refused to take the money. However the Haji family insisted and the money was finally given back along with the accumulated interest!! Such was the business integrity in those days.

The sisal plantation, looked after by Nazarali Haji the youngest brother, and Mohamed and Shokat, the sons of Ebrahim, was extensive; and in Kirungu near Kilosa there was even a railway line within the plantation for transportion of the bales and other materials.

Gradually, as more ginning factories were acquired by the Hajis along with other partners, they became perhaps the 2nd richest Khojas in E. Africa, after the Kofkotes.

In 1937-38 Juma went back to Albertville where he took seriously ill with a gall bladder problem during which he lost 30 kilos! Having exhausted the limited medical resources available to them, Mohamed took Juma and his wife to India for treatment. (As a child Mohamed had been adopted by his uncle Juma).

In Bombay, they were helped by many Khoja families with whom they had business connections. (Later, in '41-'42 they sent ivory from all over Congo to E.A.K. Panju & Co.).They stayed in the Khoja Mohalla for 2-3 years for medical treatment, during which time Mohamed married Mariam Abdullah Sharif in 1941. This was the first marriage alliance with a Bombay family.

In spite of the long period of treatment in Bombay, Juma's condition did not improve significantly, and the family returned to Africa. Juma had his gall bladder removed several years later in 1960 in London.

Meanwhile, Ebrahim continued to expand the business quite aggressively in E. Africa. In 1945 his wife Mongibai succumbed to diabetes and within 6 months Ebrahim married again. Zainab Dhanji, his second wife was from Zanzibar