Published June 1, 2018

Kulsum Esmail Alibhai Shariff nee –Kulsum (Khursa) Rajan
Born in 1905, married in 1917 and died in 1972.
Esmail Alibhai Shariff
Born approx 1900, married in 1917 and died in 1942.

Ma in 1963 in the house’s front garden with the author and Hussein Ramji.

I look at a framed black and white picture of Ma that hangs on the wall. Ma’s black hair is pulled back into a bun. Her thick eyebrows frame big, almond shaped eyes as she looks calmly at the camera. She doesn’t wear any make-up, just a dab of powder. She had no time for such fripperies. The picture gives no clues about why we all loved her so much. She had a spirit that drew animals and people alike to her.
Ma is wearing a long flowered dress as always. Our Imam, Sultan Mohammed Shah, wanted Ismailis to modernize and ordered the women to wear Western clothes. He was a friend of Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and they influenced each other in their drives to westernize the Muslim peoples they ruled. Ma and her contemporaries gave up their five yard saris and wore long dresses that kept their legs covered… When they went out they covered their heads with matching, transparent patchedis.
I remember when Ma first told me about herself; it was a weekday afternoon and the house was resting from the African sun. I went into my grandmother’s room as she sat up reading a Gujerati newspaper.
“Ma, I have to learn all these spellings for a test tomorrow. One hundred words! I wanted to go outside and play and climb the loquat tree but Mummy says I have to learn the spellings first. Will you help me Ma?”
“Shela, I can’t help you.”
“Why Ma?” I was surprised Ma had never said no to me before.
I don’t know how to read English. I can’t help you,” Ma said and looking away from me at the wall.
“But Ma you are so clever, you know everything, how come you don’t know how to read English,” and then I realized that she only read Gujerati. She read the newspaper “Africa Samaaj” and Gujerati novels but never the “Daily Nation”.
Ma drank some water from the glass near her bed.
“You are so lucky you are in school. You should never complain about your homework. Do it with a good heart. I was very smart and I learned Gujerati and Maths in school. I was going to start English the next year; but they took me out of school to get married. “
“How old were you?”
“I was twelve.”
“Twelve. How could you get married when you were twelve years old?” I was nine and couldn’t imagine getting married in three years.
“I was twelve. In those days girls got married very early. I had a good magho so Nanabapa accepted it.” Her husband and my grandfather, Esmail was the heir of the Alibhai Shariff family.
“Tell me all about your life Ma. Where were you born? Here or in India? I asked her as I sat on the bed next to her.
“I was born here in Nairobi, in 1905. We were two twin sisters, I was called Kulsum and my twin sister Khati Maasi was Khadija. I had had ten other brothers and sisters. Gulamali, Hyderali, Mohammedali, Hassanali, Kassamali and Sultanali, were my brothers. Dualatkhanu, Roshan and Gulbanu were my sisters.”
“So many brothers and sisters to play with. You were so lucky Ma!”
“Actually there was another one, Noordinali but he died when he was small.”
“How did he die?”
“He fell into a pot of hot cooking oil and he got burnt, he died then and then,” Ma said. My eyes filled with tears as Ma went on hurriedly,
“But we were so happy as children. We played together and never had fights. Even now I am so close to all my brothers and sisters.”
Ma told me her family, the Rajans were a wealthy and highly respected family, always very involved in the Community. Nanabapa, the kindly patriarch managed the brood of children and set up a shop selling hardware and beads in Indian bazaar. To be a Rajan was to be someone important and respected in East Africa. They were khandaani, imani people. People, who literally went to jamaat khana regularly and were pious and God-fearing,
“After I got a good magho, my three sisters also got married into good families,” Ma said and she told me more about their families.
As she said, Ma’s three sisters Khatidja, Daulat and Gulbanu made “good” marriages. The families they married into were not that well off. But the sisters were like Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. All the families they married into eventually became rich. It was as if they brought blessings into the family. Fortunes change, so one family even outstripped the Rajans.
The irony is the sisters were not materialistic or that interested in being rich. They ran good homes, brought up the children and supported their husbands. And of course they brought connections. Since a lot of business was done with a handshake and trust, the Rajan name and connections were invaluable. But they also brought some kind of luck to their families. I doubt any of these families would have prospered without the steely Rajan sisters at the core.
“But Roshan Maasi was unlucky. She was the youngest and got the highest marks for the Form Four exams. She was very clever and the star of the family. But she became depressed and her husband divorced after a few years. She had two children,” Ma said. Roshan Maasi was often at Ma’s house and loved children. She was thin and slight with grey hair she wore in a bun and sad, sad eyes. She once knitted Tazmin a big Humpty Dumpty, a stuffed toy made with purple and yellow wool.
“What about Daddy’s side Ma? Where were they from?”
“Your great grandfather Alibhai Shariff came to India from Jamnaagar as well. He and his wife sold their small shop in Gujarat and with that little money in their pockets they set out for Africa. Alibhai worked for a little while with the firm of Walji, Hirji and Sons a leading wholesaler in the Indian Bazaar Street in Nairobi.”
“What about India Ma?”
“India, I don’t know anything about India. I was born here Shela.”
She wouldn’t tell me anything about Gujerat. It was forgotten, done and over with. Our lives began in Africa. Alibhai had three sons and three daughters. We used to visit the Kabrastaan – the shady, tree filled graveyard in Kariakoor on Sundays. We would walk around the graveyard putting incense sticks and flowers on all the relatives’ graves while Dad would tell us stories about each person. We always ended up at Alibhai Shariff’s grave. He had a big, white marble tombstone
I never saw a picture of him. He helped the community to build a magnificent three story mosque in the center of town on what was called Government Road. The mosque is now a Kenyan heritage site and still used for daily prayers.
“What about Dadabapa Esmail? What did he do?”
“He was very clever. He set up the present hardware store in 1922. The rent was seven pounds and ten shillings a month. When Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah visited; he saw the shop in Indian bazaar and he told them to move to Government Road, a better area. They listened to him and then they made money,” Ma said.
Ma talked about her marriage to Esmail. “We saw each other from far in jamaat khana. He had a kind face and I liked him, so I didn’t say no when Nanabapa told me I was going to marry him. I never talked to him before we were married.”
“Not even once?”
“No, Shela. In those days you couldn’t talk to the boy before the marriage.”
“After my marriage I had to look after the house, cook, clean and do everything. My mother-in-law, Ruddi Ma, was very mean. My saas was always shouting at me and giving me more and more things to do.”
“She was so horrible! Just like Cinderella’s stepmother! Didn’t Esmail Dada say anything?”
“Well, he busy was at the Shop all day. But even if he was at home, he wouldn’t have interfered. His mother was the boss, she ran everything. That’s how it was for years. I had to wash all the clothes in a bucket and hang them up to dry in the mornings. Then I had to sweep the house and make all the beds. When I was finished, I was in the kitchen peeling onions, chopping vegetables, rolling chapattis and helping my saasu cook.”
“But she didn’t even give me enough food to eat. We would eat after all the men had finished eating. Sometimes, I would be so hungry that I would steal an egg from the kitchen and fry it and eat it,” Ma said.
“What did she look like Ma?” I said picturing a witch with matted locks and jagged teeth.
“She had very fair skin, red hair and blue eyes. She was beautiful…”
“But mean..”I chimed in. “When you ate in the kitchen, wouldn’t she catch you?”
“No, she would be sleeping in the afternoons, so then I could do what I wanted. But then I had a son and then she treated me better. After that I had more power,” Ma said. Ma had eight children. Sakina (Saku) was the oldest followed by Kabiru, Sultan, Amirali (Chottu), Abdulla (Pilu), Gulshan, Zohra, (Julie) and Amir Mohammed (Amir).
“In those days we didn’t go to the hospital to have babies. All of the children were born at home in my room. But the midwife came and nothing went wrong,” she continued.
“Now Shela you had better go and learn your spellings. Ask Julie Aunty to help you. I am going to rest now,” Ma said as she gave me some precious toffees from the stash in her cupboard. But I was in no mood to study and I climbed up onto the loquat tree to eat my toffees and think about Ma’s story.