Part 4: A Journal of Life in Kathiawad, Gujarat & Buganda, Uganda: Habib Rahemtulla Lalani – 1910-1997

Habib Lalani was born in British India in 1910, in Bilkha, Kathiawad, Gujarat. He migrated to British East Africa in 1929, later migrating and settling in the Masaka area of Buganda, Uganda. Decades later, in 1972, he with his family had to flee their homeland – forever – given safe haven by Canada.

He tells us that his father wrote down “…writings from text books. Whenever he went out visiting and learned something new about religion he wrote it down. When I learnt how to read and write I used to read these…I too had writings in many notebooks filling up a suit case…

“I had written many old details in Uganda but having to leave the country, many of my papers and journals were left behind. Now I have to start afresh.” In Uganda, he had written his memoirs and historical account but his journals and other papers were left behind after they were forced to flee the country with just the bare minimum.

Habib Lalani however re-wrote from memory his journal here in Toronto. The quality of Habib’s writing reflects his long experience in it and is a good example of fine personal story-telling. Evidently, he was a talented writer.

Habib Lalani’s Journal – Installment 4

[Off to East Africa: 1929]


Installment 1: Towns near Bilkha; We all lived around a common yard; Plague, 1920s; The Barwatia (outlaw) Menace, 1923+.

Installment 2: Life in those days 1920s; Schooling; Helping dad; Crossing the Ozat; Playful but Obedient Child; Meals; Dad’s Work; Tobacco, ganja, …; Work; Ginans; Superstitions.

Installment 3: Life in those days 1920s (continued); Moved to Mumbai (Bombay); Different Communities of Naagri;

Off to East Africa, 1929

Naagri to Porbandar [Refer to maps for locations of places mentioned here]

As I mentioned before, there were 5 of us who prepared to go to Africa. We said our goodbyes in Naagri and left. My father and my younger brother Razak (10-years old) came to see me off until Porbandar port.

The night before we left Naagri we went to Junagadh where we spent the night at Jetbai’s. We met ben who gave us her benedictions. The next day we caught the train on our way to Porbandar. They all came to see us off at the railway station. Her husband and his brother were also travelling with us.

We caught the train at Junagadh, changing trains at Jetalsar (just outside Jetpur) for the Porbandar line. Having left Junagadh in the morning we arrived at Porbandar port at about 4 pm. On the way we passed Dhoraji, Upleta, etc train stations. In Porbandar we put up at my masi‘s, the other travelers at local inns. My masi whose name was Ratanbai was younger than my mother, the 4th sister. She looked after us very well and was very hospitable. My masa worked as a train engine driver. He had good connections. He also earned a good pay and a government-provided 3-room flat with good amenities. It was in the railway quarters. The accommodation was very good. Masi had 2 daughters and 1 son. The daughters were a couple of years younger than me, the son about 10 years old. The family was very happy. We had a layover of 4 days in Porbandar during which all safari work had to be completed.

Our companions were in down town. It was far from where I was. After staying 1 day at masi’s it was necessary for me to go down town because some of the journey arrangements had to be done with the travelling group. Masi being out of the way we too had to go put up at the local inn. But there too the facilities were good and JK was not far; from Masi‘s it was far. There was good attendance in the JK there. It was a Jamat of 400-500 of which many were daily goers. It being Friday the Mukhi gave me the opportunity to recite ghat paat dua. At the time Mukhi Saheb as per his wish would seek out any one for dua etc. There was no such thing as wara. Accordingly, he called me out for ghat paat dua. I was a little taken aback. Such a big Jamat! But father encouraged me and I went. At the time the custom was to wear a long coat and a turban to recite ghat paat dua. This 2nd dua was long (compared to the 1st dua) and I remembered the whole of it. In Naagri most of the time on Fridays I said it. I got the chance to say it in Porbandar which was very auspicious for the journey as my father remarked.

My masa‘s name was Ibrahimbhai who was very busy with his work and so only once he had time to sit with us for a proper chat. He had work duties both in day time and at night. Before coming here, we had sent information needed for passports to the agent in Porbandar with details of our steamer’s departure schedule. [Translator-Transcriber Note: The word steamer was written and pronounced in Gujarati as Steamber, similar to the month September. Some unable to pronounce this would say Eesteamber.] He came to greet us at the train station and to give us information. The next day we went to see him. He took our photos, fees, etc. We gave him the government fee to take care of. In 2 days he takes care of everything. Passport fee was 10 rupees and the sea passage 60 rupees.

Steamer was sailing on Saturday. Until then we toured Porbandar and saw everything including the customs. We procured whatever was necessary for our eating and drinking needs aboard ship. We had to be at the customs by 8 am in the morning where small pox vaccination would also be taken care of. The passport agent would also be there to take care of things and was there as arranged. On the Friday before sailing day we went to visit Masi who had prepared lunch for us. We stayed till evening. Masi had made very nice bhatu (packed food) for the steamer safar for me. She gave us a lot of dua and said to come visit her soon. This would be my last visit with her, God knows. We returned to our inn after stopping at the JK to do dua. We turned in early and woke up early to do our packing. At 8 am we were at customs. There the agent arrived at 8:30 am. He had arranged for small pox vaccination. We paid up the agent. Only small pox was required, no other injection was necessary.

The steamer was anchored a mile out. A port had not been built so small boats were used to ferry between shore and steamer. The sea was very rough with high waves. The luggage went ahead of us. Father gave us a lot of dua. This was the last meeting with father and Razak for me. We got into our boat and until we reached the steamer father and Razak stood port-side. The boat was tossed about in the rough sea. Many passengers were vomiting. We too were nauseated. Upon coming alongside the steamer, 2 crewmen lifted each passenger taking him up to the deck. It was dangerous as it was not possible for our boat to be steady and it was with difficulty we got on board.

There were 5 of us: Rahemtullabhai, Gulamhuseinbhai, Ismailbhai and his father Amersibhai who on account of his age found this hard. I too had difficulty but after boarding the steamer we were okay, although in rough seas even such a big steamer would rock. The steamer was named “Karagola” and at the time it was considered a big one among other steamers. Altogether it had capacity for 800 passengers. Our 3rd class ticket meant the accommodation was below deck in open space. We located our luggage and picked out sleeping spots and prepared for bed. We didn’t feel like having a meal. After the 2-hour boat ride our stomachs were not normal. Everywhere you looked people were vomiting. The steamer took off at 5 pm. Father wrote to me that until the steamer departed they had waited port-side. “We saw the boat rocking in the rough waters and we were praying to Allah.”

The steamer left at 5 pm but it too rocked in the rough waters. We immediately had gone on deck to see it go through the big waves. It made slow progress. It was a great sight to see but my stomach being weak at the time I could not move around much and it was very windy. There were many people there. 200 of them had boarded in Porbandar while the rest had boarded in Mumbai, all in all about 800 passengers. After 2 days I was still trying to get used to it.

Remembering Naagri Days

I was still recalling Naagri and all the people who I visualized in front of me. Where was Naagri, where Mumbai and where the sea! On board the steamer, between the open sky above and the vast ocean below, having never been on such a journey! In Naagri, in the morning, coming home from JK, hearing women singing songs in such beautiful voices that we stopped to listen. The women would be pulling the churning rope back-and-forth and you could hear the swishing of the buttermilk in the container as they sang and as we just kept on listening.

Though a small place it was – only 2,000 people – all the groups, lohars, suthars, were good at what they did. The fields were worked on by laborers the whole year and whenever people went by they brought them food. And everybody benefitted. The government taxes were also paid out of the food. In all villages there was a public enclosed area which was the granary with all kinds of grains and cereals. People obtained their supply from there and threshed them at home. This was a step in separating the grains from the husks. The husks were removed in the wind. A person would stand on a bench and pour it on the ground whereby the husks would be blown away by the wind. Debts would be settled by this and dasond (alms) given too. [Translator-Transcriber Note: Goes on to describe storage facilities including preservation methods and surplus storage for use during drought.]

Diwali was a big celebration with feast, rasda which you just stood there and gaped at. Now things must have changed. In 1973 we had wanted to go to Kathiawar but after visiting other places it was necessary for us to return to Kenya as soon as we could. So now I can only recall from my younger days. I recall some of the fields were used to grow sugar cane. [Goes on to describe the growing process and how they were juiced from which to make jaggery.] The large pots for making jaggery were also to be seen in Uganda. The people who grew and made juice and jaggery would invite acquaintances to come over for tasting. According to the harvest season, people went to eat (wheat or chick peas or…). There was poverty but there was joy. I remember these things.

Island Quarantine

I have strayed from the story of our steamer journey so let’s get back to it. There were different kinds of seas we encountered including where it seemed a single huge wave could engulf us. There was a stretch of 24 hours like this followed by calm. We were to arrive in Mombasa in 10 days but on the 8th day we heard that a native African had come down with sidel and all passengers had to go into quarantine.

Everyone was disheartened and worried what would happen there. Then we were told that instead of going to Mombasa we would head for an isle opposite Zanzibar [Translator-Transcriber Note: the isle is called Changuu after a popular fish, or Prison Island, or Quarantine Island] where everyone would be kept until cleared by the doctor. Everyone would be fed from the ship’s supplies. No one would be hungry.

Quarantined off Zanzibar, 1929

On the 9th day the steamer anchored there (Zanzibar). The isle was about 2 miles away. Everyone had to go there by boat which scared them from their experience during embarkation. But the sea here was calm. Everyone easily got on board and made it to shore, including their luggage. Everyone secured their luggage. The facilities on the isle were very good.

There were big camps built there. Everyone was free to move around. There were large cooking utensils. Whoever wanted to cook or eat cooked food, could borrow utensils, and go there. The arrangement was very good. On this steamer there were 400 Ismailis. After coming ashore, we found this out. All the Ismailis made a joint request for a tent where we could cook for the Jamat. We were given a separate camping area. There was good toilet, bathing and cooking facilities. People just lay down their bedding and were comfortable. Whatever rations you needed were supplied. We cooked different foods every day. A group of volunteers was formed. A group of ladies was all set to cook. Until the doctor could complete his inspection this is how we lived. He checked every day.

We enjoyed our meals just as if one were eating at a festival. On the island the breeze was very nice. Bathing in the sea was very enjoyable. People passed the time thus and playing games. It was like a festival. Our meals and drinks were all okay. Also, from Zanzibar people from our Association came by boat to ask how we were doing. Any difficulty anyone had, upon informing it the government took care of it. The steamer company had made great arrangements. We spent 10 days on the island very enjoyably.

After 10 days another steamer came to pick us up. We had wanted to go see Zanzibar. We could see the island from where we were. It was 10 (2?) miles away but no one was allowed to go there. Spending ten days playing and enjoyment I experienced something very foolish which even now I shudder at. The sea water in which we bathed everyday had 2 tides when boats would come. During high tide we could not bathe. But at low tide we all enjoyed bathing. We Ismailis had been given a good area with good facilities and all the rations we needed. The good reputation of Ismailis was indeed everywhere. We were well fed all the time. I went with other boys into deep water. I did not know how to swim but in company one has courage. The tide had begun coming in. I had been in the water for some time and when I turned about the tide’s wave came over me. But I made it to shore just in time. A little late and I would have been in danger. The water quickly rose. Allah’s mercy and forefathers’ prayers intervened.

Next day being the journey we had our dinner and stayed awake late into the night. We woke up early next day, packed our beddings and belongings. Tea, breakfast had been made for us. By 10 am we had to be on the steamer. Everyone handed over their luggage to the customs people and got on the boat and were taken to the ship for boarding. The waters were very calm. All the luggage was loaded too. The steamer sailed at 12 pm for Mombasa.

On this (quarantine) island worth seeing are their tortoises. [Translator-Transcriber Note: The tortoise population arose from a gift of 4 sent by the Governor of Seychelles Island. They still exist there, one being more than 150 years old!] They were so big that to this day I have not seen any as big. People said they live up to 50 years. The island had space for enjoying its nice breeze and bathing. It had good housing. There are also jails for convicts who would not be able to escape from the island. [Translator-Transcriber on a trip to East Africa in July 2015 – returning there after 42 years! – visited this island. Refer to photos of the island and quarantine log.]

Prison Island (also known as Changu Island and previously as Quarantine Island) where Bhai was quarantined in 1929.

Framed log showing the entry for Bhai’s ship: “1929 17-28 May. S. S. Karagola 792 passengers, 13 days”


Arrival in Mombasa, 1929

The steamer arrived at Mombasa port in the morning. Hassambhai, my sister’s husband came to fetch me. He had come earlier as per original schedule but was told the steamer had been quarantined and he returned home. He had been worried and was relieved to see us. There had been no indication of when we would be released but he inquired and found out our date of arrival and came on that date. We made our way to customs, got our passports stamped and disembarked. There were no problems at the time, everywhere it was British rule. We met Hassambhai and together went to Premjibhai’s boarding [Translator-Transcriber Note: This was a boarding house run by Bhagat Alijah Mohamed Premji “Ada”] where we all were to be lodged. It had good facilities. There were many boys living there. We had our lunch and spent the afternoon there. Afterwards Hassambhai and I went to his place in Mariakani and the others went to their relatives or acquaintances.

Two months in Mariakani, 1929

We arrived in Mariakani at Hassambhai’s place, met my sister and everyone was happy. After bathing and eating dinner we sat late into the night talking about everything. Then we went to bed. There were lots of mosquitoes there. Without mosquito nets it was impossible to sleep. Everywhere you looked you saw native Africans. Where India, where Africa? I stayed in Mariakani for 2 months. At that time Karmalibhai Premji was in Masaka. We maintained regular correspondence and from India had let him know. In Mariakani I made an effort to learn Swahili and learnt few words. Hassambhai would have me write them down in my book. I went many times to Mombasa with Hassambhai. Kulsumbai would go with him too on big majalis days and other celebrations. Mombasa has a big Jamat and JK. There was a JK in Mariakani also, a Jamat of about 150 but attendance was very low. Hassambhai and Kulsumbai went every day. They never missed. Mariakani was a railway stop. People in the evening went for walks to the station. Mombasa had a big railway station. Trains went to places in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika. Hassambhai’s shop sold items at the low end. Hassambhai’s business was sundry and low-end goods. He also dealt in gin. The Africans would bring it in bottles and (animal) horns. He also dealt in leather, also cloth. That’s how they made their living. Both were very good business people. I was just keeping an eye on things. I was fearful as to when I would understand the language.

After a short while Karmalibhai’s letter from Masaka said all arrangements for me had been made, instructing me to come. He had made arrangements with his boss Premji Walji to have me work in his nephew Nurmohamed Kara’s shop in Mbarara. Hassambhai too made arrangements for me to work in a shop in a place in the jungle nearby but Uganda was tugging my heart and Hassambhai’s advice was for me to go there and that’s what I decided. But sister worried that Uganda was far away and it would be better if I was here nearby. Mariakani to Uganda was the same in distance as Naagri to Mumbai but I had decided to go and shortly wrote to Karmalibhai advising him to come to Jinja station. From Mombasa, some days the train went all the way to Jinja, other days to Kisumu, other Eldoret. On the way was Nairobi but there were no acquaintances of mine there at the time – my brother Alibhai at the time was in Londiani, near Kisumu. [Translator-Transcriber Note: Londiani is half way between Kisumu and Nakuru which in turn is half way between Nairobi and Kisumu.] Mariakani to Jinja took 36 hours. I was a stranger to this journey. All other passengers were native Africans. I had only a basic knowledge of the language.

A close up of a map Description generated with high confidence

I booked a ticket on the Saturday evening train. After meeting everyone I took off. It turned out that the Saturday train was going to Eldoret and not Jinja! I passed the night and next morning at 11 am we arrived in Nairobi which was a 2-hour stop. It was a big and splendid station. We walked around on the platform. There were chai shops there but sister having given me enough food for the journey there was no need to buy any. The train left Nairobi and along the way there were many more stations.

Eldoret Sojourn, 1929

At 10 pm the train reached Eldoret where we were told this is the last stop and we all had to get off. What to do now? I took down my luggage and went inside the station. My luggage was one trunk and bedding. There I found out that 2 days later there will be a train to Jinja. Now where to go and what to do? But Mawla sends help. A Hindu who was familiar with Eldoret, seeing me looking helpless approached me and asked about it. I told him of my situation and that I would have to live here at the station for 2 days, what else can I do? He asked me where I was from and so on. I answered, adding I was an Ismaili to which he said there are many Ismailis and a JK here where you will find all kinds of facilities.

How to find the JK at this time of the night, the town looked quite big? He helped me out by taking me to the Mukhi Saheb’s home. The centre of the town was about one mile from the station. He was headed there on foot. I had my luggage released and went with him. I gave Mukhi Saheb all the details. We said Ya Ali Madad, Mawla Ali Madad and asked if there was a kotdi (closet) in the JK I would be able to manage. Mukhi Saheb was a very humble person and said there was no need to go anywhere, you will stay here. After 2 days I will drop you off for the Jinja train. When Allah comes to your aid… Mukhi Saheb gave me a nice room and arranged a meal and washing up. The next day after waking up we had chai and breakfast together. He had a big clothing store. He went to his shop. He had a son about my age, who was friendly. He instructed me to rest and left for the shop.

I stayed in my room when at 10 am Mukhiani Saheba came to call me for tea. We sat and had tea together. She asked about news of India. She too was a daughter of Junagadh. With the news I gave all kinds of mutual acquaintances were identified. She was very respectful. She arranged laundry for me. I stepped out to check out the town in the vicinity. It was a very nice town. I made note of the house location so as not to get lost. It was a very nice house with good facilities. At lunch time they all came home and I too joined them. It was a nice lunch. Mukhi Saheb asked of me – what do you do, where, … and gave me good advice. This was the 2nd day. It was Chandraat day. In the evening everyone took off for JK. I was the stranger. We all went in Mukhi’s car. The JK was full. I being a stranger everyone looked at me. Many asked about me. Mariakani’s system was different than here. The ceremonies here were conducted very well. All Jamati work was completed by about 10 pm and we returned home. We had dinner, Mukhiani Saheba being very hospitable, like I was her brother. Mawla’s mercy, my ending up here. After eating we all sat in the sitting room for quite some time, lot of conversation. They also knew my brother Alibhai. He had come twice to Eldoret.

The 2nd day passed very comfortably and on the 3rd day the Jinja train was expected at 4 am. That’s what he found out and informed me. In the morning after breakfast I went with him to his shop. It was a very big shop. It was a retail and wholesale business, with a good clientele. After tea at 10 am, I went walking in the town and returned home at 1 pm. After lunch everyone went back to the shop, while I rested. At 4 pm Mukhiani Saheba served tea. We went to JK in the evening. Mukhi Saheb said he would wake me up at 3 am to be in time to make the 4 am train. At exactly 3 am he woke me up and I was given a very nice breakfast. Also Mukhiani Saheba said a lot of prayers for me. Mukhi Saheb took me in his car to the train station. He found me a good spot on the train, said Ya Ali Madad and a lot of prayers for me and returned home. Mawla’s mercy, I a stranger in this land and getting such good service and help. I was very grateful for it. If I had departed 2 days later than I had, I would have been on this train! But I was destined to be on this journey to this place. I did not forget to express my gratitude to Mukhi Saheb.

On to Jinja, Kampala and Masaka, 1929

The train left Eldoret and was expected to reach Jinja the next day. They must have been worried about me because the appointed time for Karmalibhai to meet me at Jinja station had passed. I was worried if he would be meeting me this time in Jinja. What will happen? Masaka was far from Jinja. How to get there? I was with these thoughts sitting in the train, putting my trust in Allah. The train continued through the night going through a few stations and foreboding jungles. I could not see properly. Even the stations were small, one room buildings.

Soon it was morning and for breakfast I had enough food for 2 days which Mukhiani Saheba had packed for me. But having a habit for chai where, how was I going to get it? Those were my thoughts. My watch showed it was past 10 am. We came to a station, a little bigger than the others but I can’t recall its name. There people were coming and going. There also was a shop. It was an Indian tea-seller. Thanks to Allah! I got down to purchase it when accidentally I met an Ismaili lady. Thinking she was a stranger I asked her and it turned out they were a couple. I told them about my situation, that I wanted to travel from Jinja to Masaka. They too were going to Masaka. They asked me exactly where in Masaka I wanted to go and so on. They said there were heading there too and for me to come along. They knew the people I was going to there. I thanked Allah profoundly for sending yet another help.

When I got back aboard with my chai it was only then that I saw they were at the other end of the same rail car as I was in. I went over, said Ya Ali Madad to the husband and sat down near them. In the whole car there was just me and this couple who were foreigners. They knew the language and so did not have any difficulty, just I who could not speak it at all. But Allah presented someone I could converse with. We had tea. At lunch we shared our packed food. We continued our conversations – on India, on Masaka, … They also knew Karmalibhai very well. At the time Masaka was a very small place. There was only one line (of shops) and Premji Walji was the big businessman whom everyone knew.

We arrived at Jinja at 10 pm. Rolling up the bedding and packing up we got off. I learnt from the couple that near Jinja was a large fresh water sea called Victoria Nyanza. [Nyanza means lake in the local languages.] We would board a ferry to go across it from where a bus takes you to Kampala and on to Masaka. I was concerned, Ya Khuda, how will I go by myself. But where there is Mawla’s mercy everything works out. Leaving the station, they called 2 manual pagazis (porters). They instructed them to bring down our luggage and by foot we went to the JK, about 3 miles away. At the station there was no taxi service. At most you can get a hand cart that someone pulls along. Near the JK there was a guest house with old-style beds, mattresses, etc. We also had our own bedding. We went there, had dinner and went to sleep. The couple paid for everything. I tried to pay my share but they would not take it. The JK was nice and upon inquiring we found out that there was a Jamat of about 200 and often there would be out-of-towners and it being on the way to Kampala they built the guest house.

At the time the Jinja bridge (over the Nile) was not there and everyone took the ferry to the next shore and catching a bus from there. The next day we had to catch the 10 am ferry. Waking up early and getting a porter to bring down my luggage, we arrived at the shore. There were already people there. We boarded it and arrived at the other shore. It was a half an hour run. On shore we inquired about the bus and we found it. We got on the 11 am bus. There was no limit to the passengers they took. It was like so many goats caged in! In the front seat, besides the driver, they had 5 of us seating. Even next to the driver they had one passenger standing on the steps and who could not possibly sit. Stopping often to let people off and take more it reached Kampala at 4 pm. We were a sight to be seen after the dusty trip and as if tied up like animals. We walked around a bit. There was no such thing as hotels. We were to go on the same bus to Masaka. We boarded it at the bus station at 5 pm in the same conditions as before.

And it took off dukduk over potholed roads at 15 mph, making stops, people getting off and on. I was getting to see a new world. On the way we came to a big town which I later learnt was Mitala Maria. There the bus stopped for 1 hour. There were African shops there selling tea. The couple I was with knew the local Uganda language and so they were bantering away with them all along. It sounded like pebbles rattling in a horn. I kept thinking how does one learn such a language. We left, and about midnight reached Masaka. On the way, there were many patches of jungle that had been burnt and from time to time you could see flashes of light, I thinking this was some big place but of course there would be nothing there.


Author: ismailimail

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

3 thoughts

  1. Most of the Ismaili settlers of East Africa were from Kathiawar. My grand parents were also from Kathiawar but they settled in Karachi like many others. This journal is very well explained and written. Waiting for the next part.


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