Zanzibar's Historical Religious Tolerance - her diverse communities
Among the Indians in Zanzibar the Parsees and Goans formed fairly average sized communities. We had earlier talked about the Parsees. We now bring up the Goans. They were hardworking and flamboyant people. In actual fact they did not consider themselves Indians as Goa then was under the colonial rule of the Portuguese. Also with their Christian background and fluency in English they could easily connect themselves with the colonials. No doubt the Barretos and Carvalhos featured prominently in Zanzibar’s banks and administrative set ups. Some were specialized as tailors. A Goan tailor shop in the stone town was a common sight. They had their twin towered cathedral with statues of Virgin Mary located in Vuga beside the Samachar Printing Press across Portuguese street. What comes to mind is the spectacle of their funeral procession in Zanzibar. There was somberness about it. The cortege would be led by a cross bearer followed by a black cart with wreaths laid over it, and then the relatives carrying the coffin over their shoulders. The mourners in their black attire walked behind in dignified manner.
Some of Zanzibar’s prominent doctors like Demello, Menezes, D’silva and Maitra were Goans. The Goans also excelled in sports. They had their ‘Goan Club’ and ‘Goan Institute’. The burly James D’lord was one of Zanzibar’s hardest hitter of the cricket ball. The Goans along with Hindus and Comorians were dominant in field hockey. Their school, St. Joseph Convent, run by the Catholic Mission was one of Zanzibar’s most prestigious school that admitted besides Catholic only selective non-Catholic pupils. The school was located behind the High Court which was on the main Shangani Road where many Goans resided. The road stretched up to the Post Office at the far end of Portuguese street where mainly the Hindu community resided.
The Hindus in Zanzibar were an enterprising community, and foremost among them were the Bhatias. It is said that the brothers Jeraj and Eebji Shivji were the first to settle in Zanzibar. Later their surname Shivji changed to Swaly which is derivative of the term ‘Swahili’. Narandas Swaly, a reputed contractor, whose expertise our forefathers sought in having their walls and ceilings bricked up, and Vinod Swaly, a very popular teacher at the Agakhan Secondary School, were the descendents of Eebji Swaly.
Here we need to point up a significant and historic incident. It was the visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Bhatia Mahajanvadi at Ziwani en route from South Africa to India. There is an interesting anecdote relating to this episode. Gandhiji refused to enter the Bhatia Mahajanvadi building as there was a notice saying 'Bhatia sivay koine andar aavavani raja nathi' (only Bhatias are allowed to enter) . That really embarrassed the committee. The notice was immediately removed and after persuasion Gandhiji consented to enter the building. Years later in 1948 Gandhiji was assassinated and sadly this time his ashes brought to Zanzibar when a large number of Asians gathered at the dock as a mark of respect for this great Mahatma. The ashes were then taken to Jinja (Uganda) to be scattered in the Nile.
The Hindus observed diwali with great pomp and ceremony. The diwali illumination brightened up Shangani/Portuguese/Hurumzi (Vaddi Bhajaar) streets and they burst with crackers. On the eve of Diwali ‘chopra puja’ was held in every shop. Even Muslim shopkeepers participated in this ‘puja’. Every Indian shopkeeper had his ‘namu’ (accounts) done in ‘Gujarati’ and he closed his books to transfer the balances into the new ones on the Hindu New Year. Also the rupee was Zanzibar’s legal tender. The Bhatias were held in very high esteem by the Sultan and some even acted as advisers to him. The Jetha Leela private bank located in Portuguese street may be recorded as one of the oldest financial institutions in East Africa. The street also housed the clinics of the well known Hindu doctors - Dr. Goradia, Dr. Mehta and Dr. Patel who were immensely popular with the settlers.
Zanzibar was indeed blessed with great professionals and formidable intellects. The round clock protruding from the building on Shangani signified Zanzibar's High Court. Its Chief Justice, Sir John Grey, formed an authority on Zanzibar's judicial system. Other prominent personalities included Judge Green, Magistrate Husain Rahim and Registrar Husain Nazarali. Zanzibar boasted a Secular Court and a Sharia Court. Sheikh Omar Smet and Abdullah Saleh Farsi were Chief Kadhi for the Sharia Court. The Talati brothers of 'Wiggins and Stephens' and the Lakha brothers were some of Zanzibar's leading lawyers. Wolf Dourado went on to become the Attorney General in the post Revolution phase.
Zanzibar's oldest newspaper was a weekly Samachar published by Fazel Master whose establishment dated back to 1903. The bilingual (English and Gujarati) paper was circulated on Sundays only. Such another was 'Zanzibar Voice' by Ibrahim Kassam. Also Rati Bulsara entered with his very own Adal Insaaf. The Government Press besides the gazette delivered Maarifa on Thursdays.
Portuguese street adjoined Sokomohogo/Mkunazini streets which were largely occupied by the Bohoras who were old settlers and dealt in hardware, crockery or had tin/glass cutting workshops. They had as many as three mosques which were situated at Kiponda, Mkunazini and Sokomohogo. Their gym/club was the finest with excellent facilities. The famed Karimjee Jivanjee family belonged to the Bohora community. Two of the Karimjee brothers were honoured with knighthood by the British Colonial Government, Sir Yusufali & Sir Tayabali. The late His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin paid a visit to Zanzibar in the late 1950s (or was it early 1960s?). On that occasion the Bohora Scout troop displaying their classic band marched majestically through the streets of stone town. At night Mkunazini and Sokomohogo were transformed into a glitter. The spacious Bohora School compound exhibited spectacular replica of the ‘Sefi Mahal’ (Syedna’s Bombay mansion). In adherence to the salutary advice by Syedna a great number of Bohoras staked their livelihood in Zanzibar. Presently theirs is the largest community abounding in prosperity..
There was great concentration of Kutchi Sunnis too in Mkunazini/Sokomohogo. They comprised Memon, Khatri, Sonara, Sumra, Surya, Loharwadha, Girana, Juneja, Sameja, Chaki, Kumbhar, Hajam, Bhadala and such Kutchi artisan/smith communities. There were also Sunni communities other than Kutchi such as Kokni (Muslims from Maharashtra) and Surti Vora (Muslims from Surat, Gujarat). Equally early settlers were the Kutchi Sunnis. As a matter of fact our forefathers were brought to Zanzibar in dhows navigated by the Kutchi Sunnis. In the instance of Kutchi Kumbhars (a pottery class) some inhabited Makunduchi. They built up contacts with the locals there, spoke fluent Kiswahili and attended school in Makunduchi where medium of instruction was Kiswahili. The owners of ‘Sura Store’ and ‘Muzammil’ who were destined to flourish in the post Revolution phase are the progeny of this ancestry.
Portuguese street also converged on Hurumzi (Vaddi Bhajaar) where the Hindu and Jain temples were located. The street extended up to Saleh Madawa's shop or the monumental Ismaili Jamaatkhana that stretched all the way from one road to another. It formed terminus for several by-ways and lanes that headed towards the Khoja dominated Kiponda/Malindi. In the early days the Ismailis had jamaatkhana even in Sateni, Bumbwini and Chwaka. Obviously the Khojas (Ithnashris & Ismailis) formed the bulk of the settlement (amply evidenced by the earlier days’ census)) and were scattered all over Zanzibar including Ngambu, Bububu, Mfenesini, Bumbvini, Chwaka and Makunduchi.