KHOJA SHIA ITHNA-ASHERIS IN LAMU AND MOMBASA, 1870-1930
BY ZAHIR BHALLOO - PART THREE

 
“Chittilesso”
 
Hanging on a wall at the entrance of the Mombasa Club there used to be a superb black and white photograph of a sailing dhow. On the dhow’s stern, you could read the legend “W. RAMJI & SONS, LAMU, L.58”. The dhow belonged to old Walji Ramji a leading Ithna-Asheri piece-cloth merchant of Lamu. He arrived on the island in 1885 along with his brothers Molu Ramji and Damji Ramji.
 
The three brothers built up a flourishing business retailing and wholesaling cotton cloth. When they were tired of sitting in their shops they used to go door to door to make deliveries. They became famous under the name “chittilesso”, a name which is still remembered by old residents of Lamu to this day. (Chit is the Gujarati word for cotton and lesso is a type of cloth wrap around worn by Swahili women)



Life in Lamu
From Interviews with Hussein Abdalla Jaffer Pardhan (AP)
 
Life in Lamu in the 1930’s was very simple. People would wake up in the morning and go for prayers. They would open their shops from 8:00-12:00pm and then go home for lunch and to sleep. The shops would re-open again at 3:00pm until 6:00pm when people would go for maghrib prayers. After dinner some people would open their shops at half past eight to do book keeping until around 10:00pm when they would go to bed. The chairmen of the Jamaat in those days were Jaffer Panju, Hassan Walji, Molu Ramji and his brother Walji Ramji. Molu Ramji used to bring grain and other cargo from Mombasa and would export boriti (mangrove poles).
 
Yes I remember Daya Kanji. He had a big shop in Lamu and was also into bringing cargo from Mombasa and shipping boriti and copra. Daya Kanji’s agent Abdulrasul Hirji Walji stayed in Faza where he would buy boriti. The Bohra Adamali Nurbhai and the Parsi Cowasjee were also in Faza. They used to come to Lamu once every six months for a haircut.
 
There was no electricity in the mosque; we had to use kerosene lamps. The imambara was upstairs. There were two ways of going up to the imambara; one way was from the bazaar and this was used by the ladies and the other was from the sea shore which was used by gents. Two staircases were built on either side. The local mullas were Mulla Jafferali Alibhai, Mulla Vallimohamed Merali Dewji, Mulla Mohammedali Nanji and Mulla Nanji Bhanji, who was a very old man at the time. The mullas would give waez and majlis in the imambara upstairs from the wooden minbar. Later on we used to have alims coming from outside Lamu. They would stay in the madrassa at the top which was converted into a guesthouse when there weren’t any children left.
 
The purdah was strictly enforced in those days in Lamu. There was a wall with a wooden door in the middle of the imambara that was always closed. Next to the door was a window like the one in our mosque in Zanzibar. During niyyaz which was always at lunch time if the ladies needed anything extra they used to tap the window’s sill. Mwalimu Yusufu and Mwalimu Faraj used to teach the students Qur’an in the madrassa. On Thursday nights we would all go to the Chungani. Majlises were held there in the small building (now in ruins) with barazas outside. This building was built during the time of Molu Ramji. The oldest graves you can see in the Lamu Chungani today are of Daya Kanji, Damji Ramji, Molu Ramji, Walji Ramji, Alibhai Panju and Jaffer Panju.

Dhows I Can Remember
From interviews with Hussein Abdalla Jaffer Pardhan (AP)
 
Walji Ramji was known as “chittilesso” and he was a big piece cloth merchant. He used to own a number of dhows. I remember “Sadat el- Khayr”; “Kheya” which disappeared while sailing from Lamu to Mombasa and “Violet” which also disappeared even though many inquiries into its whereabouts were made. The three brothers Hassan Walji, Rehmtulla Walji and Hirji Walji were into importing grain and taking cargo to Mombasa, Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam. Hassan Walji had dhows as well. I remember “Madina”, “Munawer” and “Rangoon”. Mulla Nanji Bhanji’s dhow was “Ruman”.

Two Brave Brothers
From the “Ithna-Asheri Trade Directory”
 
Not all Khoja families that came to Lamu actually lived on the island. A number of people were based in Kunumbi and Witu on the mainland; others in Faza and Siyu on Pate island. The leaders of the Bhimji Kanji family are an example. Hassan Bhimji and Hirji Bhimji lived in Mpeketoni on the banks of the Tana River. They would travel along the river in dug-out canoes or “hodis” to remote villages negotiating crocodiles, hippos and native tribes to trade.
 
Cosmopolitan Lamu
From interviews with Hussein Abdalla Jaffer Pardhan (AP)
 
Yes I do remember something about other communities. The Ismailis in Lamu in the 1930’s I remember are Velji Khatau, Mohan Amersi and his brother Remtulla (Remu) Amersi and Lalji Rajan. There were many Bohras. T. M. Jeevanjee had the biggest dhow in Lamu called “Queen Mary”. The dhow sank on its first trip to Kismayu loaded with boriti. Other Bohras were Ibrahimji Moosajee, Amijee Ismailjee, Sadiqali Nurbhai, Gulamhussein Nurbhai, Pirbhai Nurbhai, Gulamhussein Daya, Hassanali Zahabu who used to sell gold, Ismail Kichwa, Alibhai Mauritiuswalla who had a big building in Lamu and Gulamhussein “Belwed” who was lame and moved about on one foot.
 
Among the Sunni community I remember Haji Mohammed Karim Khatri and his brother Haji Gulmohammed Karim Khatri. There were two barber shops in Lamu, the oldest being Sidik Ahmed’s and the other one was Hasham’s. The old Hindus were Jevant Dossa, Vallabhdas Valji who was a Bhattia and his brother Morarji Valji. They would burn their dead in Kitau opposite Shela. There was a store near the Lamu Customs owned by a Goan, Mr. Vagasse. The Parsis I remember in Lamu were the two sons of Cowasjee Nowrojee Dastur, Keki and his brother Homi. Among Arabs I remember Shaykh Mohammed Maa’wy who had mango shambas, Salim Ahmed Basaida who worked with Smith Mackenzie, Hussein Shamuti, Abdalla Bathes and Mr. Yahya who was the only man in Lamu with a horse. He used to ride it on the main street along the sea shore.
 
Ivory and Sim Sim
 
There is an interesting letter in the Zanzibar Archives from the British Consular Agency in Lamu to the Customs Officer in Lamu. Dated 1890, it is a petition filed by one “Hemraj Luddha” complaining about extra charges he was asked to pay for a consignment of sim sim seed and ivory that he had brought by dhow from Mambrui. According to Luddha, despite paying full customs fees for the sim sim seed and the ivory at Mambrui, the Lamu customs had retained the ivory and demanded extra payment of duty.
 
Could Hemraj Luddha be the Ithna-asheri merchant Hemraj Ladhani? I am inclined to think so. Erratic spelling of tricky Indian names was common in the Consular Agency. If those inscrutable clerks could turn the famous Zanzibari merchant Fazal Issani into ‘Fazal Isa,’ Hemraj Luddha is probably none other than Hemraj Ladhani. In 1880 Hemraj Ladhani sailed with his family by dhow from Kutch to Bagamoyo. Around 1885 he moved with his family to Lamu. Hemraj Ladhani had five sons: Virji Hemraj; Abdalla Hemraj; Rashid Hemraj; Bandali Hemraj and Hassam Hemraj all of whom were well known in Lamu as ‘Bagamoyowallas’.
 

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