Zera Hassam Mohamed Dhanji

From Khoja Wiki
Alijahbanu Zera Hassam Mohamed Dhanji
Town of birth
Country of birth
Date of Birth
  • 01/12/1925
Date of Death
  • 04/08/1973
Place of Death
Country of death
Name of institution of highest education achieved
  • AK Girls School
  • Kisumu
Place of longest stay
Profession or occupation carriedout for the longest period in life
  • Business
  • Administrator
Where-City or Country
Khatija Velshi 19081970

The quote below is taken from the book "THIS IS MY LIFE - Gujarat, East Africa, Canada - A FAMILY BIOGRAPHY ", a personal biography by Naznin Hebert which is also a lively, poignant life history of both sides of Naznin's large family.

Book Cover Naznin2.png

(The book makes great reading and is available for a modest price of $10 plus shipping from Naznin nazninh@gmail.com

Mummy was the eldest daughter of Hassam Mohamed Dhanji and Khatija Velsi. She was born in Kisumu, Kenya on Dec 1st, 1925. She had seven sisters: Sherbanu, Gulshan, Shiri, Zarina, Khatoon, Yasmin and Almas, and three brothers: Badrumama, Sultanmama and Aminumama. Two of her sisters, Gulshan and Zarina, died at an early age. All her siblings called her motibai (older sister). And Sherbanu was known as nanibai (younger sister). The childhood years of mummy in Kisumu were happy. There were lots of kids in the neighborhood who used to play around the house. The older children completed school at the age of eleven. That was the maximum period of schooling in those days.

In 1945, at the age of 20, mum my got married to the eldest son of Maherali Rahemtulla, Kamru who was 22 at the time, and liv ing in Mombasa. She moved to Mombasa with my dad and lived with his family. That is customary for the wife to move in with her husband’s family, help with the chores and take care of the siblings of her husband. At this point, dadima had already eight other children. In 1947, she gave birth to her first daughter Ferial, whom we call Feri.

Mummy in Mogadishu

The following year, the three of them travelled by boat to Mogadishu, Somalia for a possibility of starting business there. The journey took them six days in the rough seas of the Indian ocean. Mummy had always suffered from sea sickness. So, you can imagine that the journey was not a pleasant one for her, especially with a one-year-old baby. Luckily, Papa was there to help. Apparently, life in Mogadishu was unappealing for them. Mogadishu was at war with Italy. Periodically, food and water were rationed. There were power cuts, and besides, they were isolated with no friends, community, nor family. The only people they knew of was one Hindu family. In 1949, I was born there, in a good Italian hospital, according to papa. Since there was no possibility of doing business in Mogadishu, papa decided to return to East Africa soon after my birth and settled in Tanga, Tanganyika (at the time). That was the best move they made.

As much as mummy liked being a stay-at-home mom, she enjoyed even more working outside the house. So, when she found out that they were in search of a receptionist/assistant at the Aga Khan dispensary, she jumped to the occasion of working there. The dispensary was located on the ground floor of the Old JK in front of our house. It had council chambers, secretary’s office, a baby clinic, a medical clinic, and the doctor’s office. Dr. Torquato was the attending doctor. In the front, was the desk of the receptionist and benches along the wall for patients to wait. It was a part time job, and so close to home. I remember visiting her at the dispensary, and the aseptic, sterile smell of the treatment room. When I had hurt my knee from the fall, this is where mummy used to take me for dressing of the knee. This was mummy’s first paid job of her life until something bigger and better came along. Just before my fourth birthday, mummy gave birth to Mina. She was born at Bombo Hospital, the first hospital in East Africa, built by the Germans in 1901 in Raskazone, facing the ocean. We were now five in a small, one-bedroomed, tin roof house. Papa saw an opening as a foreman at Motor Mart and Exchange. He had some experience in the car business, he was educated, and spoke fluent English, Swahili, and Gujarati. He applied for the job and there was no problem for him to get it. With papa’s job, came a semi-detached house in Chumbhageni area on the west side not far from his work, and so we moved there. After our one-bedroom house in the town center, it seemed a big house. It had a veranda all around the house. A patel family were our neighbors.

Activities and schooling:In the neighborhood, there was an Ismaili family that Mummy, and Papa knew, who had children around our age. They offered to drive us to school. I must have been around 5 and in Nursery School, Feri was 7 and in primary school. This was another good example of community members helping each other. We only lived there for a couple of years before moving to the Aga Khan flats in 1956. And that became our home that we owned and lived for the rest of our time in Tanga.

Mummy's Business Life • House of Manji - Baring Biscuits

Before the Second World War, a bakery in Kenya manufacturing bread was flourishing quite well. It was owned by Mr. Madatally K. Manji, an Ismaili. Then came the war and there was rationing of wheat and consequently business declined. The founder saw the prospects and a market for biscuits, and so, the House of Manji was born. The factory was in an industrial area of Nairobi, Kenya. It was inaugurated by the governor of Kenya by the name of Sir Evelyn Baring. Incidentally, Sir Baring had saved an Ismaili girl from drowning in Malindi, Kenya. In his honor, some of the products made by House of Manji still bear his name Baring. The business flourished very well in Kenya and other parts of East Africa. They now intended to extend the business to Tanzania. They offered the job to one of their good salesmen, Isabhai, who was mummy’s cousin, living in Kisumu. The job required travelling by car, to the regions of Tanga to promote and collect orders of the products of the company. The products were then delivered by The House of Manji. Isabhai accepted the job and moved his family to Tanga in 1954. Four years later, there was a tragic car accident that took Isabhai’s life. He died at the age of 42, leaving behind eight children and his wife who was expecting their ninth child. I remember to this day the screams of his widow when she got the news of the death of her husband. I was nine years old. Two years after, she moved back to Kisumu, her hometown with her nine children. Isabhai’s brother, Kamru Giga, who had four sons, adopted Shaida, the ninth child of Isabhai. After the death of Isabhai, Mr. K. Manji visited Mummy and papa to discuss the possibility of taking over the business in Tanga and its regions. Mummy who always had an interest in working outside the home, and always ready to undertake a challenge, accepted his offer. Business has always been in our family blood.Papa also was keen to undertake this opportunity. He was after all a businessman like his father before him. And so, our business K. M. Rahemtulla Baring Biscuits was born. They opened a shop in Ngamiani, on Barabara (street) no 5, doing retail and wholesale business of only Baring Biscuits at first. They had the agency of the Baring Biscuits products of the House of Manji. They supplied these to a lot of shops in Tanga and the surrounding regions. Once every couple of months, on a Sunday, both papa and Mummy with a helper, would load up the truck with hundreds of boxes of biscuits and travel to the outskirts of Tanga, to deliver Baring Biscuits to the retailers. They would leave early morning and return in the evening. I used to accompany them in my older years.Businesses in Tanga, at that time, were dominated mostly by men. Women stayed at home, minding the children, since often they had large families. Business flourished under the management of Mummy and Papa’s help. They bought a huge truck that they used to deliver the products. Mummy used to drive the truck and was the first Ismaili woman in Tanga, and probably in the whole of East Africa, to drive such a truck. Mummy as a female, was a pioneer in running the business. Papa continued to work at the Motor Mart and Exchange. He would finish work at 4 p.m. and come to the shop to help. He also minded the shop on weekends, and mummy stayed at home. As business flourished, they took on the agency of other products like Cadbury chocolate, True Foods that manufactured juices and tinned fruits, Zesta and their products including tomato sauce etc. Mummy would stop by at the retailers’ shops, before going to her shop, to either collect money they owed or orders of any products they needed. I used to go with her at times, and I remember as we got to a retailer’s shop, the gentleman’s eyes would light up saying: Ahhh! Zerabai, welcome. Come and sit. What will you drink? Soda? Chai? Living in a tropical country, near the equator with all that heat, a soda was always welcome or even chai and bhajia when offered. It also showed that it was always pleasant to do business with Zerabai. She was fluent in Hindi, Gujarati, Swahili, and her English was pretty good. There was no problem in communication. Mummy was the only woman negotiating business in the man’s world, where she was well respected. The business continued until her death in 1973. Papa then left Motor Mart and Exchange and took over the business until his departure to Canada in 1983.

Our business was mostly wholesale. Regular customers would either call and put in an order for a number of boxes of the products they needed, which would be delivered at a later time by our driver Yusuf, or they would stop by at the shop to pick up what they needed. They either paid cash or had a pending account. Sometimes, the shop keepers from the regions around Tanga would come into town to pick up their supplies. Arabs were some of our customers. They would always pay cash, and they carried a lot of money on them. They would be wearing trousers and shirt with a long white cotton robe over it. I remember there would be a slit on the side of the robe and the money would be in their trousers’ pocket. I was always impressed when they would take out this thick pile of money held together with an elastic band. The transaction was always done in cash. I cannot ever remember seeing credit cards, maybe they did not exist then.

Few years later, they got built a “go-down” (warehouse) on the side of the house to store extra biscuit boxes. I think it was big enough to hold about 2000 boxes. It looked like a garage. When the supply went down, we would order more from the head office of the House of Manji in Nairobi, and a huge delivery truck would deliver them.

Mummy, liked life. She liked to spend her money on extras. She liked nice clothes, saris, perfume, travelling, cinema etc. She never had to ask Papa’s approval for anything, and he never complained about her spending.

Mummy In London

A letter :When I was in the first year of my nursing training in the UK, I received a letter from Mummy, saying that she was coming to visit me. I was thrilled. She planned to visit Feri in Switzerland first and then come to Bradford. She was brave to travel all that way by herself. She arrived in London and once again, Khatoon aunty picked her up at the airport. She stayed with her a couple of days and took the train to Bradford. I picked her up at the train station. I was delighted to see her. We came to the nurses’ residence. I showed her around. That evening, all my friends gathered in my room to meet Mummy. I think she was happy to see how well I had settled. It must have been reassuring for her. Time passed and we did not realize that it was getting late, and we must have been noisy with everybody excited and still in my room. Suddenly, a knock on the door. I opened it and there was the night warden: “Nurse, what is going on here?” And then she saw Mummy, “Who is this lady, may I ask?” I told her that Mummy was visiting me from Africa. She said: “Nurse, you know the rules, nobody is allowed in the rooms. Why did you not tell me? We would have made special arrangements for your mom.” I apologized and actually, she then was very pleasant, introduced herself to Mummy and said: “Come with me lady and I will give you a proper room for yourself where you will be more comfortable.” I went with Mummy, and the night warden took us downstairs to the sick bay which was empty. Mummy had the whole floor to herself with her own bathroom and a nice clean bed. The warden then notified the night sister, informing her of Mummy’s visit. British people are good with their protocols and rules. In the morning, we went for breakfast in the hospital dining room. Mummy was impressed with the setup. She then asked if it was possible for her to meet with the matron, Ms. Percy. I asked the sister at the reception for that possibility. She said that she will call her and make an appointment for Mummy. We met with Ms. percy that morning. The matron reassured Mummy that I was doing well and that I was well integrated and not to worry about me. Mummy gave her her address and asked her to communicate with her if needed. I was amazed to see how good Mummy was in her communication skills. But then I said to myself, why am I amazed? I have seen Mummy deal with so many businessmen at all levels, that it is not surprising that she is as good as she is. I was so proud of her. She left the following day for London. The next few days, all my friends talked about was of Mummy’s visit.

Mummy's Illness

Mummy’s wish was also to immigrate and join her children in Europe. Her bags were packed. Regrettably, her dream never materialized. In 1970, mummy noticed a discharge from her nipple. Since medical services were better in Kenya, she consulted with Lutuf Chacha who immediately arranged a medical evaluation for her in Mombasa. A diagnosis of breast cancer was confirmed. A mastectomy was performed rapidly, and radiation and chemotherapy were recommended. Her surgeon, Dr. Jewel, suggested an excellent hospital specialized in cancer, the Tata Hospital in India. A few months after recovery from her surgery, Mummy flew alone to India for the first time in her life. Khatoon, her younger sister in Kisumu, knew of some distant relatives living in India. She managed to link them both up. The relatives were a couple with two young children. They lived a simple life in a small house. They were very good to Mummy even though they did not know her and had never met her. They booked her a small room with a bathroom and a kitchenette in a very modest hotel, since they had no room in their house for Mummy to stay. The gentleman picked her up from the airport which was very kind of him. I know from personal experience that arriving in Mumbai for the first time, with its heat and the population of six million, can be overwhelming. Mummy’s chemotherapy and radiation commenced at Tata Hospital soon after her arrival.

Mummy’s routine was to go to the hospital in the morning for her treatment. Feri accompanied her. After her treatment, they would walk back and pick up some food on the way. Mummy would have something small to eat and rest in the afternoon. The heat and the treatment made her very tired. In the evening, the kind gentleman would pick them up and take them to his house for dinner. We are eternally grateful to that family who took such good care of Mummy. Tata hospital where Mummy had her treatment, was specialized in cancer. Mummy used to say that she would hear some people screaming in pain. She talked to the ladies there and befriended some of them. When she got back to Tanga, she made parcels with things that the ladies needed and sent it to them. That was Mummy, so compassionate, always helping people in need.

Mummy got back to Tanga and slowly recuperated. But the cancer did not leave her. In 1973, her condition deteriorated. That is when Lutuf chacha notified all of us of Mummy’s poor health. She had reached stage 4 cancer with metastasis in her liver. I immediately left England and arrived in Tanga. I was shocked to see how much Mummy’s condition had deteriorated. Feri had just arrived, and Mina arrived shortly after and so did Aziz. We were all together with Mummy. We talked, we played cards and just spent time together. July was Khushiali. Mummy dressed up in her beautiful white silk sari. Sherbanubai had arrived from London, Almas from Nairobi, Nanabapa from Kisumu, and Moti Mami (mummy’s brother’s wife) from Congo. Mummy was surrounded by a lot of her close family members and all of us of course. The whole Ismaili jamat (people) who were left in Tanga paid visit. Bapa would sit beside mummy’s bed and read to her every day. when Bapa arrived, mummy was so happy to see him. She asked him: “Bapa, what did you bring for me?” She asked that because Bapa never came empty handed. But this time he had left Kisumu so suddenly that he had not brought anything with him. He hesitated not knowing what to say. Papa, who was standing beside him, jumped in and said: “Bapa brought you some special apples from Kisumu.” Apples were rare in Tanga, but it so happened that papa had bought some just the day before from JK. Mummy said: “Ok Bapa, cut up some, and give them to me.” Papa had saved the day! And Mummy was happy to eat from Bapa’s hand. Those few months were very precious for Mummy and for us. On August 3rd, we were all together, Feri, Mina, Aziz, and myself on Mummy’s bed. She was weak and her whole body was yellow with jaundice. She hugged us all and said: “Mara dictra (my loved ones), I have one wish for you, subhan thi rejo ne ek bijano dhian rakjo (stay close together and look after each other).” That night, Maa came in her dreams with her arms wide open, calling for her. She told us that the next morning. In the afternoon, she went into heart failure and passed away at 6 p.m. on August 4th, 1973.

The hearse used in Tanga was our pickup truck since it was big enough for that purpose. That image made me so sad to think that it was Mummy’s own truck that they were using to take her away from us forever.

Mummy had touched so many people in so many ways that losing her was a great loss for many people. Although Mummy had a relatively short life, she lived it to its fullest. She may not have put years in her life, but she certainly put life in her years. Mummy, you will remain in our hearts forever. You have taught us so much, by example, how to love our family, work hard, and give back to friends and community. Your last words to us are ingrained into us, we will always be there for each other.

Goodbye Mummy and thank you. We love you and miss you every day!

A celebration of Zera Kamrudin Maherali Rahemtulla(nee Zera Hassam Dhanji)'s life in Photos