Nairobi early 1900s: It was at night. Possibly pitch dark. The car stopped and illuminated the gates of a Khoja Mosque. Two inebriated shadowy figures emerged. Slowly, they staggered to the dimly lit mosque. Here, they picked the two idols erected at the gates and disappeared towards Chiromo.
The two were a Nairobi-based American millionaire Northrup McMillan, he of McMillan Library, and his friend Captain Theodore Roosevelt. According to published account by John Carver, an American farmer who used to know the duo, the two idols were put at the fireplace in McMillan’s house as Nairobi’s Khoja community went into uproar the following day.
But that account says the theft took place before Roosevelt became US President and that could mean that it could only have happened before the modern-day Khoja Mosque was erected in 1922.
As police started a search, recounted Carver, the District Commissioner visited McMillan’s house and found the two sculptures and asked the billionaire to dispose them “as quietly as possible”.
“Nothing more was heard of them until about 1937, when some thorn trees were being removed from (McMillan’s) Juja Farm and the idols came to light. At first, they were thought to be the missing Ju and Ja but were later identified by the British Museum and exhibited,” Carver writes in Pioneer’s Struggles, a book edited by Elspeth Huxley.
McMillan was an old-fashioned antiquary, with a hobby collecting idols, sculptures and images. That is how he had arrived from West Africa with his Ju and Ja sculptures and put them in the farm he named JuJa Farm on the outskirts of Nairobi and straddling much of the modern-day Juja constituency. Later, due to the superstition, real or imagined, his wife took the Ju and Ja sculptures and buried them in the nearby Ndarugu Valley. They have never been found.
Every time I pass by Khoja Mosque – which is now celebrating 100 years – that theft of some community totems not only reminds me of the early struggles of the diaspora Khoja community but also the identity challenges they faced. It also tells us there could, perhaps, have been another Jamatkhana before the present Khoja mosque was built – for as John Carver writes, the District Commissioner feared that the theft could jeopardise Captain Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential candidature.
Khoja, an enterprising Ismailia community, had boarded dhows from Kutch and Gujarat in northern India to come and seek new opportunities in East Africa from the late 18th century. How they prospered in their new country has been one of the success stories but it has been a long story of enterprise.
Ultimate business test
It was in Nairobi’s Bazaar Street, now Biashara Street, where the Ismailia community would face the ultimate business test and it is said that the Town Jamatkhana became the inspiration for the business community during hard times. As a result, Town Jamatkhana had not only had a significant impact on the history and settlement of Ismailis in Nairobi, but also in how commerce –both retail and wholesale was structured.
Two years ago, an Ismaili friend, Farrah Nurani from the Aga Khan Development Foundation, invited me and a colleague to have a glimpse of this Town Jamatkhana – that is its actual name. For those excited about history and its vestiges, you will find some relics that signify the mercantile spirit associated with this Ismaili community. For a first timer, you are struck by the natural lit glass dome-shaped structure at the courtyard, which serves as a prayer hall. This kind of architecture has emerged as a common feature in various East African Ismaili buildings.
Inside, you will find some wrought metal seats and I saw two Ratner bank safes on the ground floor. These ancient safes, with an easily identifiable brass plaque, are still regarded as the best in the world.
So central to the national history is this building that it was gazetted as a monument in 2001.
It is interesting that when HH Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan – the grandfather of the Aga Khan – commissioned this building for the Ismaili followers shortly after Kenya became a colony in 1920, the architect, Khambaita Virji Nanji, designed a Victorian-style building with a clock-tower instead of a minaret, like in the nearby Jamia Mosque. There was a reason for this according to some historians:
“Without Indian features, the Khoja mosque architecturally articulates the Aga Khan’s opinion that Ismailia in East Africa should fit into the (new country),” writes Steven Nelson in a paper that sees this skewback stone structure as representing a new form of identity for the Khojas. “This edifice, built between 1920 and 1922, stayed clear of external elements that would be identified with India or the East…the three storey mosque looks more like a British bank or administrative building than a place of Muslim worship.”
According to Nelson, “The Aga Khan did not want his followers to simply fit in, he wanted them to become fully assimilated, cosmopolitan subjects who, like him, would be as comfortable in London or Nairobi as they were in Delhi or Lahore. A westernised mosque, then, is the architectonic sign of the leader’s embrace of modernity.”
There is also another view that this structure represented the post-reform realities in the British colony and that such efforts helped redefine India’s place within the British Empire-Commonwealth as Dr Robert Blyth puts it in his book, The Empire of the Raj. It also epitomised Khoja’s reaction to Western modernity and that could be the reason why the building turned into a centrepiece on the evolution of what historians call the African Khoja as a distinct Ismaili Muslim community. Here, as Prof Iqbal S. Akhtar notes, “the African Khoja evolved a primary loyalty and identification to their local jamat.”
The early 1920s had seen a bitter struggle between the white settlers and the Indians – with the settlers resisting the Indian push for representation and equal opportunities. It is this ‘Indian question’, as it was known, that led to the declarations in the Devonshire White Paper.
But amidst these challenges came opportunities of philanthropy and this Jamatkhana, a symbol of religious and cultural identity, is one of the earliest Harambee projects in Kenya.
On the wall of the Khoja Mosque, but hidden from the public view, is a list of the top donors who contributed to the erection of this building. The most unique donors were both Madatally and Husein Suleman Verjee whose contribution totalled 546,000 Florin, the then East African currency. The cost for the entire building was 700,000 Florin. Others were Walji Hirji, Allihbai Ahamed, Abdulrasul Alidina Visram and Wallibhai Hassam. This philanthropist spirit was running in the community which was setting up schools and hospitals in the country.
One of the trailblazer was Alidina Visram, the boy who had sailed to Zanzibar aged 12 in 1863 and ended being one of the wealthiest Khoja in the region. He had followed the footsteps of Haji Paroo Pradhan, and his brother Jaffer Paroo Pradhan, who had first ventured to Zanzibar.
Besides setting up a chain of businesses, Visram was known in the entire East Africa for his philanthropy spirit. He encouraged many young men and peasants to take the dhow and sail to East Africa and establish businesses – long before British engineers brought in thousands of labourers to help construct the Uganda Railway between 1889 and 1891.
It is these two who started the chain that grew into the modern day Ismaili Muslim community in the region.
The impact of the likes of Visram is yet to be appreciated but his legacy still lives on in the schools established in his honour, and the philanthropy spirit he inculcated into those he inspired. It is said that when he died in 1916 at the height of the First World War, all Indian-run businesses in East Africa were closed in his honour.
But it was due to their giving spirit that the Ismaili Khoja became a respected community in the Kenya colony that the foundation stone for the Jamatkhan was laid by acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring on January 14, 1920 and opened January 14, 2022 by the Governor Sir Edward Northey – perhaps an indicator of the cosy relationship between Government House and the Khoja and the respect they had on the Aga Khan as the Ismaili Muslim community leader.
The East African Khoja faced their first test in Uganda after Idi Amin decided to throw out the community. It was the Khoja Mosque in Nairobi which became a crucial ground as the community organised for a path to Canada where there is a strong African Khoja community.
Today, at 100, Khoja Mosque represents that initial spirit but the bigger picture is how a small community could make a lot of impact in the development of a country and that spirit is now associated with many philanthropic projects and inspired setting up of institutions such as Aga Khan University, Aga Khan health services, the network of Aga Khan academies, Diamond Trust Bank, Jubilee Insurance Company, and Nation Media Group among others.
What has usually interested historians is how the Khoja identity has been eclipsed by the transnational Ismailia Muslim identity. As Khoja Mosque celebrates 100 years, there will certainly be reflections and lessons.
[email protected] @johnkamau1