Ramzan Hasham Jamal

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Ramzan Hasham Jamal

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Bwana Mzuri-Memories of Hasham Jamal - A Pioneer in Kisumu

By Shariffa Keshavjee


At one point, while Bapaji (my grandfather, Hasham Jamal) was the president of the Ismailia Council in Kisumu, Mawji Esmail was the Mukhi of the jamatkhana and the two families lived on the same street The president’s elder son, Ramzan, was often dispatched to the Mukhi’s house with messages for him. But the mukhi’s wife was a very short woman, too short to reach up and unlatch the door. So she would send her daughter, Khatija. When Khatija noticed the president’s son at the house once too often, she remarked that she would not open the door! So began a romantic encounter.

At first, my father was reluctant to ask for Khatija’s hand in marriage as she was the only child in a small and wealthy household. What if she said no?' She was a girl who wore ribbons in her hair and high-heeled shoes, and since her father travelled frequently to Zanzibar, she had a plethora of exotic accessories. Furthermore Khatija was well educated, having attended the Aga Khan girls school when Freny Sidpra was the head teacher (an interesting person whose extraordinary story you will soon hear). To add to this, Khatija’s father had a motorcar and a motorbike and she often rode with him in the sidecar of the motorbike. They would drive all the way to Kibos where the Mawji Esmails had a farm. It was a daunting prospect for my father to ‘have his eye on' a girl like Khatija. It was my father’s youngest uncle, Ebrahim Chacha, who carried the proposal for my father to Mawji Ismail.

My mother remembers the day she heard of the proposal, she cried with her mother thinking "oh my god, I have to go away now! Has the time come, already? That I have to now leave the comforts of the home of my parents. To live in a house with a large family? What will my responsibilities be in such a big family'. And for my Nanabapa and Nanima they would feel the loss of their daughter — there would be only Kasuku, the parrot, to keep them company. How strange that when an eighteen-year-old girl was expected to get married to the boy who literally lived next door, the idea was met with such tears.

After the engagement was formalized, my father moved to Mwanza where business prospects were good. He and his cousin Abdulmalek Ahamed Jamal together with Amirali Fancy, Dhanji Jadavji Bhatia and Amir Habib Jamal formed a company called the Lake Province Cotton Company. My father kept in touch with his fiancee (my mother) by letter, sent by boat from Mwanza to Kisumu. When my father’s letter would arrive, Bapaji would give the letter to his daughter Sultan to conceal in her handkerchief and take it over to the Mawji Mukhi's house. If the boat was late, Bapaji would inform my mother that the boat was late, so that she would not wait unneccessarily for the letter. Such was the compassionate nature of Bapaji.

When my parents were married in Kisumu in 1936, it was a traditional nikka ceremony, but my father insisted that his bride did not hide behind her long pachedi shawl. After their marriage, they did even more novel things. They would stroll around town, walking side by side, and wearing colour coordinated outfits. Such public outings caused quite a scandal in the town. This was typical of my father to encourage the change of traditional habits.

Right after the marriage, my father took his bride with him to Mwanza where their first child, my sister Zeenat, was bom. His cousin’s young wife, Nurbanu, gave birth to her first child, Sadru, there too. In typical Indian fashion, the Jamals lived together as a family having their living quarters divided by a simple khanga curtain. There they lived for three years.

After they returned to Kisumu, their next child was born, my sister Amina in 1941. And in 1945,1 was born — on the ground floor of the Jamal Building, in a room that is now an office. Then in 1946, when I was just a year old, my father’s business, A.G Abdulhussein & Co. required that we move to Mombasa. So Mombasa is where I grew up and went to school. But Kisumu is where I spent my holidays — and where my heart is.


My mother remembers the train journey to Mombasa vividly, for having three little girls to look after, she had taken our ayah, Fatima, with her. But when the conductor came into our second class compartment and found an African woman there, he made her get off the train. Such was life in colonial Kenya. My mother was in tears.

But once in Mombasa we quickly settled in.

Of course, we had many relatives there as two of Bapaji’s brothers had settled there, Vali and Ahamed, and my aunts Jenabai and Sikinabai had both married there. Jenabai Fuibai organized everything for our arrival, all the mkokotoni handcarts and porters necessary to carry our furnishings to our new house. She was a very well-organized person!

Sadly I never met my Vali Chacha. After he had arrived in Kenya in 1912, he settled in Mombasa, first to work for Allidina Visram, and then as the Mombasa agent for Babaji’s family business, Messrs Hasham Jamal & Co. But he died during the war, before we arrived, so I never had the opportunity of knowing him, but apparently he was a clever man, and very friendly, very kind. He was also a successful community leader, for the Aga Khan had appointed him mukhi of the jamat for three successive terms.

Twenty years later my parents moved back to Kisumu, and took up the threads of their lives there.Unfortunately, one thread was cut short. In March 1967 their only son, my brother Abdul, dies of lupas erythematosus, a then incurable disorder of the blood. Although the family was devastated by this young death, it was the positive attitude of my parents and Bapaji that helped us to bear this loss. They taught us that life is the journey of the soul.

Three months later Yusuf and I were married.