Early Ismaili settlement in Arusha,
BY SULTAN JESSA
Information on when and where Ismailis, followers of their spiritual leader the Aga Khan, came from to begin new settlement in the northern Tanzania town of Arusha is hard to come by.
Unless immediate steps are taken our early history may be lost forever.
This report has been put together by gathering and accumulating pertinent information for a while.
What we know for certain is it all began after the 1800s when Ismailis from Kutch and Kathiwar in Gujarat, India, ventured to the unknown and unexplored continent to begin a new life in East Africa.
Many Ismailis settled in Tanzania, formerly Tanganyika, after the country was put under British administration following the defeat of Germany, which had formerly ruled the territory.
It was under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah that Ismailis left Gujarat and other regions of India in large numbers in search of better economic opportunities as traders and merchants in unknown and unexplored Africa.
Being friends with and extremely close to the British raj, Aga Khan III, was one of the first world leaders to anticipate the scramble for Africa on the part of the European Imperial powers and the economic opportunities that would follow.
The Aga Khan’s vision was that his dedicated and devoted followers will be at the forefront of economic development to transform the lives of ordinary people who had long suffered slavery, servitude and abject poverty.
A series of devastating famines in India and plentiful employment opportunities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and other African countries prompted a huge exodus from India.
Apart from famine, there was high unemployment, religious persecution and political instability in India at the time.
Ismailis travelled by dhows and initially settled in coastal areas like Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam and Mombasa and then gradually made their way to the mainland.
Arusha, sprawling near the foot of Mount Meru, was cool, lush and green. This was a big appeal to many new settlers.
The Ismailis were shrewd and competent traders and enterprising merchant.
They promptly established themselves as the pioneering Asian group and made special efforts to assert their distinctiveness from other communities.
Unlike other ethnic groups, the Ismailis were more adaptable and brought their womenfolk.
Their intentions were to settle permanently which gave them an important commercial advantage.
After settling smoothly and establishing themselves, the Ismailis pushed for separate burial grounds.
They were also successful establishing Ismaili schools, dispensaries and hospitals which were open to everyone regardless of their race, colour, creed or caste.
This is the way it was and even today it is a religious duty and obligation to be loyal citizens of whatever country they live in.
The existence of a living Imam has meant the Ismailis have been more flexible in adjusting to rapidly changing and evolving conditions in the last century.
A letter, written on April 12, 1955 by Robert Gray to the Institute of Current World Affairs in New York, talks about the early Ismaili settlement.
Gray fondly wrote about visiting Indian traders and other villagers.
According to him, the small retail trade of Tanganyika was almost exclusively in the hands of Indian traders.
Some of these commercial families had become quite wealthy and possessed modern town houses and gave their children the best of education available at the time.
“But, in almost every case, their origins were humble,” Gray wrote.
The Ismaili settlement rapidly increased in numbers and wealth in mid 1930s.
The Aga Khan School and other institutions were established in Arusha.
A small Jamat Khana (prayer house) was built and many years later replaced by an ultramodern building.
At one time, there were as many as 900 Ismailis living, working and doing business in Arusha.
Today, the number has dwindled to less than 300.
But, many new immigrants continue to arrive from India and Pakistan.
Ismailis prospered in Arusha and many owned large businesses.
Many did quite well in their chosen professions after getting their higher education in universities in Europe and America.
A few played significant roles in the day to day running of the community.
Several became quite wealthy and contributed some of their wealth to charitable projects.
Arusha originally grew up as a German colonial town at the beginning of the 20 century.
Due to its pleasant climate and fertile soil, Arusha was an ideal respite from the humid malarial conditions of the coast and a great place to grow coffee and other crops.
After the Second World War, it shifted into British hands, retaining its colonial feel with a growing population and luxuries like golf courses and private clubs.
Since independence in 1961, Arusha has contrived to grow at a rapid pace.
It is a magnate for Tanzanians seeking their fortune in the Tanzanite mining areas and of course lured by the riches of the safari industry.
It had today become one of the most economically important cities in Tanzania.
When I grew up in Arusha, the population was around 35, 0000 inhabitants.
Some of the most prominent Ismaili families in Arusha then were Natha Hirji, Subzali Sajan, Nurmohamed Velshi Gilani, Moosa Janmohamed, brothers Kanji , Hassanali, Jamal, and Ebrahim Mohamed among many others.
Somewhere among them but not prominent was my family which thrived and prospered in Arusha running a coffee farm and a bakery.
Two other Ismaili families who also owned bakeries then were Abdulla Alimohaned and Gulam Haider.
Arusha’s population ha s now mushroomed to a staggering 500,000 people.
The Aga Khan is investing more than $1.1billion over the next several years to a fullyfledged university.
This is the largest investment in higher education in the history of the region.
Arusha is the headquarters of the East African community, host to the International Crime Tribunal for Rwanda and the African Court on Human Rights.
This is not the complete report. There are sections missing. We will be interested to hear from you as well. We will also welcome memorable photographs from you. They can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attempts are currently in process to write a similar story about Ismaili settlements in Moshi, which was to be the headquarters of our Aga Khan regional council.