The Tanzania Times
Eastern Africa News Network

Ismailis in Tanzania: They came, saw and invested, but why did they leave?

The number of Ismailis in Arusha has plummeted down to just 110 from nearly 1500 residents who used to live in the Northern Tanzanian city back in the 1960s.

Members of the Ismaili community were responsible for the construction of nearly 90 percent of all buildings currently forming the Arusha Central Business District.

“The Ismailis pioneered Arusha Urban Center, its business, culture and even religious influence,” explains the city veteran, Aafeez Jivraj who is also a member of the community.

Mr Jivraj points out that the Ismaili population in Tanzania has also dropped from over 10,000 people in the 1960s down to less than 3000 residents at the moment.

Dar-es-salaam has around 1500 Ismailis today, while 300 others are found in Mwanza.

Nizar Kassam a pharmacist based in Arusha but hailing from Dar-es-salaam recalls his great grandfather of being among the pioneers of the Ismaili community in Tanzania

“My Great Grandfather arrived in Dar-es-salaam during the time when the area was known as ‘Mzizima,’ back in the 1800s,” Kassam stated.

That means the Ismailis could have migrated into the country in the late 1700s and early 1800s which was long before many local Bantu tribes moved here.

Some of the notable Ismailis that pioneered the developments in Dar-es-salaam City are Alidhina Visram, Tharia Topean and Sewa Haji Paroo, who has one of the wards at the Muhimbili National Hospital named after him.

For a community whose members have been the pioneers and main drivers of the country’s economy, this development may not augur very well with Tanzania’s future prospects.

Nizar Kassam explains that many of the Ismailis of Tanzania left the country to other places such as Canada, Europe, Australia and the United States of America.

There is a Facebook page dedicated to Ismailis who live or those that once lived in Arusha, formed in 2016 and which currently has 320 members.

But why should they leave the country after investing in it so much?

“During the wave of nationalization, following the Arusha Declaration of 1967, many Ismailis lost their farms, businesses and industries, properties that got confiscated by the state,” said Kassam.

But it was not just in Tanzania; the Ismailis also left Kenya when the country adopted the ‘Localization,’ policy through which all jobs and other positions were strictly being reserved for native residents.

Things were even worse in Uganda when the country’s former President, Idd Amin gave the Asian communities 24 hours to vacate the country leaving everything behind.

In other words it was a mass exodus of Ismailis leaving the East African Region between 1967 and 1973.

The late Sultan Jessa, an outstanding Ismaili Muslim and journalist born in Arusha before retiring to Canada, wrote in 2015 that the Ismailis migrated into the East African region more than 220 years ago

“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,” wrote Jessa.

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.

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.

The arrival of Ismailis

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.

Many Ismailis settled in Tanzania, formerly Tanganyika, after the country was placed under British administration following the defeat of Germany.

Germany had formerly ruled the territory, previously called German East Africa.

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 in the country.

According to Gray, 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 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.

 “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 merchants,” Journalist Jessa observed.

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.

The Ismaili settlement rapidly increased in numbers and wealth in the mid-1930s.

The Aga Khan School and other institutions were established in Arusha. The Meru Primary School was formerly known as Aga Khan School.

Across the Makongoro road from the school, there are graveyards also established by the Ismailis.

A small Jamat Khana (prayer house) was built and many years later replaced by an ultra­modern building.

But, many new immigrants continue to arrive from India and Pakistan.

Traders with a difference

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 Tanganyika’s independence in 1961, Arusha has continued to grow at a rapid pace.

It has today become one of the most economically important cities in Tanzania.

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.

Wazir Subzali Sajan founded the largest automobile garage in East Africa, known as ‘Subzali Garage,’ along the Goliondoi Road in Arusha.

The giant Subzali building now houses the Exim Bank and Toyota Motors, Arusha branches.

Then there were the bakers, including Jussa’s family, the Abdulla Alimohaned and Gulam Haider.

Arusha city center population has now grown beyond 500,000 people.

The Aga Khan Foundation plans to invest USD 1.1 billion to build a full-fledged university in Kisongo area.

If realized it will be the largest investment in health and higher education in the history of East Africa.

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