East Africa: Celebrating the Leadership of a Friend of Humanity

All told, the description made by German Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier at an award ceremony in honour of the Aga Khan in Tutzing Germany last year perfectly fits the spiritual leader who has dedicated his life to serving the world.Paraphrasing Dr Steinmeier’s remarks, many will be celebrating the leadership of a huge friend of humankind. They will be honouring a person dedicating his life to building bridges between societies and who has been a fortress for democratic progress.

The Nation (Nairobi)
11 July 2007
Posted to the web 10 July 2007

Today marks the beginning of the Golden Jubilee of the Aga Khan, who took over as the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, at the age of 20, succeeding his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan.


The Aga Khan together with President Kibaki tour the creche facilities at Alltex, an AKFED textile manufacturing enterprise. Photo/AKDN, GARY OTTE

The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.


His Highness the Aga Khan visiting a health care project in Kwale district.

The Ismailis, who the Aga Khan leads, constitute the second largest Shia community in the Muslim world and are found in more than 20 countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and America.

It is not only the Ismailis who will be celebrating, however, but also millions of non-Ismailis who have benefited from the work of the spiritual leader.

Daily Nation

His Highness the Aga Khan visiting a health care project in Kwale district.

In observing one of the core doctrines of Islam of being mindful of the needy, the Aga Khan established the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a group of agencies each operating in different areas, but who work in close partnership so that their diverse pursuits can interact and reinforce one another with the common goal of improving the livelihoods of disadvantaged people in the developing world. The AKDN comprises social, commercial and cultural components.

Africa has benefited immensely from programmes initiated by agencies under the AKDN in education, health, architecture, culture, microfinance, disaster mitigation, rural development and private sector enterprise, among others.

The AKDN’s involvement in education has been through the Aga Khan Education Services (AKES), which aims to help unlock the potential of young people in poor countries and to diminish the many obstacles to educational access, quality and achievement.

It operates more than 300 schools and advanced educational programmes at the pre-school, primary, secondary and higher secondary levels in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, the Kyrgyz Republic, Uganda, Tanzania and Tajikistan.

The education tradition can be traced back to Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, who established more than 200 schools during the first half of the 20th century. The first institution was started in 1905 in India and another in Zanzibar, followed by others in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, Pakistan and Syria. Historically, the presence of AKES in Kenya goes back seventy years, when the first Aga Khan Nursery School was opened in Mombasa.

The other international agency close to the heart of the spiritual leader is the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). Its mission is to initiate local solutions to problems that impede social development, primarily in Asia and Africa.

Created as a private, non-profit organisation under Swiss law, it has branches in 15 countries mainly in the developing world. The foundation has been a major success story, transforming lives of thousands of vulnerable populations in the world irrespective of their race, religion, gender or political inclination.

In Kenya, one of its projects is the Coastal Rural Support Programme, which borrows from the community-driven approach to development credited for transforming the lives of thousands of inhabitants in rural communities in northern Pakistan.

The programme focuses on two of Kenya’s poorest districts of Kilifi and Kwale and to date, has supported the construction of dams, small farm reservoirs and water pipelines from which 40,000 villagers benefit both from increased water supply as well as the food security that comes with it.

AKF has also trained villagers in community planning and has developed village development organisations that help coordinate community development and income generating initiatives. In total, more than 130,000 of the poorest of the poor have been helped by the Coastal Rural Support Programme.

In the mid-1980s, Muslim leaders from the Coast requested assistance in improving the overall educational standings of their youth. AKF responded by initiating studies that revealed the problem stemmed from inadequate preparation for primary school.

The Foundation’s suggestion that appropriate early childhood education might be the key was well received by community leaders, and although resources were scarce, physical facilities were available in traditional madrasas.

Using an innovative programme that integrated traditional religious and cultural teaching, as well as by preparing children to meet primary school entrance requirements, AKF helped communities and parents develop the skills needed, supported by three Madrasa Resource Centres (MRC) that AKF established for them.

Due to its success the programme was replicated in Zanzibar and Uganda. To date, more than 200 madrasa schools are currently part of programme that serves Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that has helped train more than 4,500 teachers and parents, impacting 54,000 students.

Studies found MRC children consistently rank among the top pupils in Standard One and generally in the upper twenty percent up to Standard Four, performing better than children from other “normative” pre-schools. The MRC pre-schools are sustained without need of ongoing donor support and prove that communities can be trained to deliver quality education to their own children, even in low-income settings.

The newest kid on the list of Aga Khan Schools is the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa which has been launched as the first of a network of academic centres of excellence, where deserving students will have an opportunity of benefiting from quality education irrespective of their economic backgrounds. Twenty centres of excellence will be established in Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among other countries in Africa and Asia.

In explaining the reason behind the establishment of the academies, the Aga Khan says: “The key to future progress in the developing world will be its ability to identify, develop and retain expert and effective home-grown leadership.”

He adds that the goal will not be to provide special education for a privileged elite, but to provide excellent education for the truly exceptional and even recruit its students.

Aga Khan University (AKU) is another crucial project in education. The University was chartered in 1983 in Pakistan and has since grown to become an international University with teaching sites in Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Afghanistan and the United Kingdom.

The University’s primary focus is to train and educate physicians, nurses, and teachers in the developing world, to conduct research that addresses health and education problems in developing countries and to work with governments and institutions as an agent of change.

It currently runs the Advanced Nursing Studies and Postgraduate Medical Education programmes in East Africa and is rapidly becoming an international institution with affiliate colleges abroad. The Aga Khan Hospital was also recently upgraded to a tertiary level teaching hospital affiliated to AKU.

Health, just like education, being a major pillar of development in the modern world is catered for in the AKDN through Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS), which targets developing countries where the health status is below the international standards as defined by the World Health Organisation.

The agency is one of the most comprehensive non-profit health care systems in the developing world, providing primary health care and curative medical care in many developing countries. It also provides technical assistance to government in health service delivery in Kenya, Syria and Tajikistan.

The best known institution under the agency in Kenya is the Aga Khan Hospital network, whose history can be traced back to a simple maternity home established in Mombasa 62 years ago. Today, Aga Khan Hospitals are some of the highest rated health institutions, providing top quality care in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and their environs through hospitals, dispensaries and community clinics.

AKDN has also helped create employment opportunities for thousands of people in Africa and Asia, playing a critical role in poverty reduction. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED), which consists of “for profit” enterprises that fund the development work of the other agencies, are household names not only in East Africa but also in other regions. In Kenya, for example, AKFED includes companies like the Nation Media Group, Diamond Trust Bank, Jubilee Insurance, Serena Hotels and Lodges and Industrial Promotion Services.

“AKFED is ready to take justified investment risks – to a greater extent than many other investors. We are ready to be patient investors, with a far-ranging vision. We are long-term players, maintaining our presence even during periods of economic or political turbulence.” says the Aga Khan.

“We seek ways to transfer knowledge and technical capacity to local citizens and to the national economy to generate an economic ripple effect,” he notes.

AKFED’s agro-processing ventures such as Frigoken serve as an excellent example of achieving AKFED’s objectives of encouraging socially and environmentally conscious sustainable development, while adding significant value by bringing together local farmers with international technological and marketing expertise. Frigoken was established in 1989 to grow, process and pack hand-picked quality French beans into cans, jars and frozen bags, marketed directly through a network of top brand names, in supermarket chains and to distributors across Europe.

The company now processes a variety of vegetables grown on small-scale farms, thus providing income-generating opportunities at the grass-roots level and ultimately spurring rural development. Frigoken provides direct employment of over 2,700 people, mainly women, supports over 30,000 small-scale farmers in rural areas, and represents a direct cash injection of over Sh563 million (over $8 million) annually into the economy of rural Kenya.

In partnership with other AKDN partners, Frigoken has worked towards the establishment of a micro-finance operation in the rural areas of its operations, which provide financing facilities that enhance further the income generating capacity of the farmers.

AKFED focuses on building enterprises in parts of the world that lack sufficient foreign direct investment like Africa, which continue to experience stagnated economic growth and high unemployment rates. Worldwide, AKFED operates a network of more than 90 project companies employing over 30,000 people, churning out annual revenues in excess of Sh100 billion ($1.5 billion). The fund is active in 16 countries including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) focuses on the physical, social, cultural and economic revitalisation of communities in the Muslim world. It manages several programmes, among them the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme and the Music Initiative in Central Asia.

The promotion of the unique architectural designs by the agency in some of the world’s oldest cities has helped enhance the quality of life and fostered understanding of community values in the world. AKTC, founded in 1988 and registered in Geneva, has encouraged exchange of ideas and understanding of the intimate connection between culture and built-up environments in contemporary Muslim societies.

Al Azhar Park, one of the AKDN’s largest area development projects together with AKTC, was inaugurated in 2005, and transformed a once 500 year old mountain of decaying debris to the most spectacular gardens in Egypt’s capital, Cairo. The Park is also at the epicentre of an historic, social, economic and cultural rejuvenation project that will have far reaching consequences for the residents of the neighbouring districts.

All told, the description made by German Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier at an award ceremony in honour of the Aga Khan in Tutzing Germany last year perfectly fits the spiritual leader who has dedicated his life to serving the world.

Paraphrasing Dr Steinmeier’s remarks, many will be celebrating the leadership of a huge friend of humankind. They will be honouring a person dedicating his life to building bridges between societies and who has been a fortress for democratic progress.

Daily Nation

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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