A Journey to the Bagamoyo Jamatkhana
BY SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE
When I was a little girl, one of my favourite pastimes was to be in the presence of adult company.
As the youngest in the family I was too often labelled as being too small to ‘do’ anything. Life would slip by in the innocence of childhood. To be part of a group of adults walking out in the warmth of a Mombasa evening in the moonlit night was therefore a special treat.
In those days, people were in and out of each others homes. This meant that families such as the Lakhas, the Fatehali Dhallas and the Paroos were like one big family. Conversation flowed. Very often the subject would turn to Bagamoyo. Kassamali Paroo told us that Bagamoyo meant ‘ I left my heart there’. This began to hold some magical lure for me as a child. Bagamoyo had a mysterious sound. It seemed so far away, exotic and unattainable. But Kassamali Paroo talked about the town as home — which it was because he had been born there. Kassamali’s grandfather was Sewa Haji Paroo, the ‘Uncrowned King of Bagamoyo’.
Part of my fascination for the town was because Sewa Haji Paroo had employed young Alidina Visram when he first came to the coast of Africa. In turn, Alidina Visram had employed my grandfather, Hasham Jamal, as a trader in Kenya. It was in Bagamoyo that trade had begun and my grandfather had carried it on into Kenya, in 1901. It was in Bagamoyo that the Ismailis set up the first mainland Jamatkhana and the Aga Khan Council. My grandfather did the same in Kisumu.
The mystery attached to Bagamoyo became more illusive when we moved to Kisumu and the magic of the coast, its baobabs and ever enchanting coast line with dhows became a thing of my past. No more boating on the Indian Ocean, singing the popular film songs and the old classics. Life in Kisumu had a different flavour.
Nevertheless, when in 2007 the opportunity arose for me to go to Dar-es-Salaam, I jumped at the chance. Finally, I might make it to Bagamoyo. All this time, I envisioned the old, thriving, lively town. After all, it was the most important trading port on the entire East African Coast and the starting and ending point for all the trading caravans going inland to the Great Lakes. (Dar-es-Salaam, ‘the haven of peace’, 60 miles to the south, only came into being in 1891.) When I romanticized about it to my friend Cynthia Salvadori, she laughed; she had visited Bagamoyo some forty years earlier, in 1967, and found it completely derelict and almost abandoned. The road leading there from Dar was just a sandy track, obviously impassable during the rains. She had not even been able to get to the famous ancient ruins at Kaole, just a few miles south, as the area was occupied by a training camp for freedom fighters from Mozambique.
At last I would fulfil a life-long dream and see for myself what the famous old town looked like, see who had left their hearts there. I was able to persuade Zulobia Dhalla to take me but as she could not understand why we had to spend a whole day there, I had to bribe her with a promise of the best seafood fondue in town. Besides, I told her, Bagamoyo had applied for a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The road was no sandy track. It was smooth tarmac and the scenery delightful. Many of the houses along the road were three-story buildings, often with bright blue roofs, a sharp contrast to the bright red of the flamboyant trees. There were indigenous trees too, festooned with creepers, everything was green and lush. The gardens were festive with Bougainvillea of varied colours and in no time we were in Bagamoyo. This was not the derelict town that Cynthia had described.
We found the tourist office where we hired a guide, a young university student. He first took us to the German Fort, a building which had been bought by Sewa Haji Paroo in 1894 and then taken over by the Germans. It is now a museum. He then accompanied us in our car to show us Kaole. Now we were on a sand track, but one that was well maintained as the German Government had financed the improvement of the road.
As we approached Kaole, we were aware of the restoration; it was well sign-posted and the grounds were neatly kept. There were several school buses in the parking lot and it was heart-warming to see the children sitting under the canopy of the huge sacred tree. While the children sat cross-legged on the sand, looking at the teacher in rapt attention, the teacher explained, in Kiswahili, the significance of the site.
The whole area had the magic that surrounds old ruins. The silence, the starkness of the grey, aged stone of the tombs which are typical of this site. Some of men’s tombs have a pointed pillar, while those of women are simple flat structures. One tomb is noticeably different. There is a story that two lovers who were travelling to Zanzibar by boat had died at sea. When the bodies were found, the hands of the lovers were clasped, so the lovers were buried together and a tomb built with an arch uniting them. Like every visitor, we ended our tour of Kaole by walking to the sacred well where we let down the bucket into its depths, making a wish that peace and harmony pervade this coast.
As we drove back to Bagamoyo we noticed many schools. Children played in the grounds, laughing in youthful abandonment. Here it seemed that all children had the opportunity to go to school and get free education.
What was the reason that there are so many schools in Bagamoyo?
One of the reasons was that some pioneers like Sewa Haji Paroo, and the Catholic Mission had promoted education. This they did by building schools, hiring competent teachers and developing the curriculum. As we drove along, we could see children joyful in the playgrounds of the school. The school built by Sewa Haji Paroo was freshly white-washed, with the blue roofing so popular in the region.
We asked our young guide to take us to the jamatkhana.
Up and down the few narrow sandy streets of the old part of the town we went, asking about the jamatkhana. ‘Is there a mosque in this area?’ Of course we were guided to a mosque with a minaret. The sun by now was nearly overhead, we were getting hot. Finally I asked a young man, ‘Ko na msikiti ya Khoja?’
He took us immediately to a plain stone two-storey building on the seaward side of the town, conspicuous only by its size, and its red roof. The facade was broken only by a large wooden double door, with a small door inset on one side. We clanged the handsome brass knocker, then gave a little push and the door opened. We bent down and entered. Suddenly it was marvellously cool.
Several local families seemed to be occupying their own small areas of the ground floor. Women were cooking the midday meals over charcoal jikos, while a few men and small children reclined in the cool of the yard. Bagamoyo is a siesta town. One of the women introduced herself as the caretaker’s wife.
We walked out into the garden infused with the fragrance of elang-elang, their narrow yellow petals so delicate that even picking them bruised them. There were guava trees too, laden with pink-fleshed fruits, and white-flowering jasmine climbing up the walls.
As we made our way towards the sea, we had to pass the graveyard. There were many tombstones here, all on land donated by Sewa Haji Paroo. Each stone had the name of the person, the date of the death and a small prayer, all hand-carved in Gujerati.
Some tombstones began with Bismillah in Arabic; others began with Ya Ali Madad in Gujerati followed by the date of birth and death.
I had never seen tombstones etched in Gujerati. I later discovered that Sewa Haji Paroo had also donated the land for the graveyard in Mombasa, and there are similar old Gujerati inscriptions.
We returned to the building and the caretaker’s wife led us up the broad stairs to the prayer hall, passing the sadris, the prayer mats, all rolled up, and the red and green flag of the Ismailis, that too rolled up. On the upper floor was a heavy old safe, a symbol that this had once been a flourishing wealthy large jamat.
As we stood out on the balcony, looking out over the azure of the Indian Ocean, we felt a sense of history, the voyage of our ancestors coming to this continent full of hope for the future and fear of the unknown.
For example the town boasts a jamatkhana (a prayer place for Ismaili Muslims) which should be about 100 years old. It is the only grave yard that I have seen with hand in scripted grave stones. Not only is that but the epitaphs hand in scripted in Gujerati. The grave yard is tended by a family that lives in the double story building. The family lays sprawled on the ground floor, lighting fires to cook their daily meals on the sight that was perhaps once a prayer hall or a hall where people removed shoes to go up to pray. Perhaps it was a place where the bride and groom stood for blessings after the marriage. The families surrounding the newly wed. The mind can imagine so many scenarios.
As my life long dream came true and I stood on the balcony of the Jamatkhana, I was silenced by the beauty.
The balcony overlooked the Indian Ocean, the azure stretching into the horizon as far as the eye could see. Under the balcony were exotic trees of elang elang and pink guavas, a rare species hardly ever sold in the market. Palm fronds waved fanning the us as we stood in awe.
I thought back to the formation of the first Aga Khan Council, the first births, deaths and marriages. Did the bride and groom bend as they entered this cool passage to their new life? Or did they approach the jamatkhana from the sea front, their marriage party, the jaan, behind them, singing and dancing? What were the real lives of the people who had stood thus looking over the elang-elang trees breathing in the scent of the jasmine and the aroma of the pink guavas, so rare and so sweet.
Many cultures have met, integrated, and have left their heart here, in Bagamoyo. And what about the Jamatkhana that I had visited?
Bagamoyo’s Beautiful Shadows
Shadows cast their
Umbrage always in motion
The very sun that makes shadow
Is barred from giving heat
The cool air remains
A God-given succor
In the streets of Bagamoyo
Each edifice casts
A cooling protection
Homes and people
For those who walk
Those who slumber
Sell and vend in the
Streets of Bagamoyo
The peeling wall
The weeping paint
The still air
Cannot rub out
From the walls
From the hearts
Of those in Bagamoyo
The very air is filled
Lore and grief
The wailing slaves
In the streets of Bagamoyo
The Barred Window
The barred window
Gives a glimpse
At a vignette
The view of
Those who came
Then were away
Never to tell
The story of Bagamoyo
Who came and prayed
The glory that reigned
The wealth that rose
Then it died
On the one
The story of Bagamoyo
Glossy tatami mats
Cushioning the tred
Of the rich and the wealthy
Those were hey days
The garlands of jasmine
Sweet scented rose
No more in
The story of Bagamoyo
Over the roof tops
Once gleaming red
Too lazy to tell
The glory that was
The palpable life
The visits of the Imams
In the years gone by
In the story of Bagamoyo
I Left My Heart
Imagine the flag rolled up
Once was unfurled,
Valour of those
Who dared to
Sail the shore of home
To come to
Imagine the flag
Into the green
The blood flowed
Leaving their heart
New families came
Following the flag
In the firmans
All will be well
So here I am
Raised in pride
The Weeping Walls
Now all is safe,
The pictures are sent, the sentiments felt.
What a grand jamat it must have been.
Now no one cares, no paint on the walls.
Who can save this lovely heritage?
So sad to see the weeping walls.
* * *
If I had the wherewithal
I would have liked to make a book of poems,
of lament, of sorrow, of joy of glory each pasted with a picture.
Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2012.
The three poems were written recently by Shariffa Keshavjee for this website. Her original narrative first appeared in Old Africa Magazine, issue 11, June – July 2007, and is published here with minor revisions.
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