Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Farm in Africa

Appachen and Lionesss: cropped

My grandparents had a farm in Africa at the edge of the Indian Ocean. It was in Mtwara, Tanzania --- right on the sea-shore, I am told. This faded photograph shows my grandfather with the carcass of a lioness that had been caught trespassing. Here's one that shows my grandmother sitting, uncomfortably and in a sari, on the same lioness. I'm guessing the posing with the lioness was my grandfather's idea.

I like these old photographs as they show my grandparents in a time and place and in circumstances that I am not used to seeing them. My grandfather looking dapper in a white suit and various interesting hats, my grandmother at a "sundowner" (I don't remember ever seeing alcohol in my grandparents house in Kerala), my grandfather on a motorbike, with the rest of his soccer team (who seem to have had a penchant for interesting headgear). And then there's this adorable (and nicely framed) picture of my mother and her two siblings:

Mikindani 1953 sibs

I'm in awe of my grandfather's spirit of adventure and perseverence that would take him, a high-school graduate, from the village of Kumbanad in Kerala to running a successful agricultural business in a far away land. It appears that Kumbanad, a village that I have visited precisely once in my life, has had an especially strong culture of emigration. This Outlook magazine article talks of how the village today is made up of old people whose children and grandchildren are in foreign countries.

Mikindani Poultry At the time the first step to finding a job overseas was to go to Bombay. Not long after graduating from high-school he did exactly that. It was in his office in Bombay that he met my grandmother (as I was surprised to find out, knowing how involved he was in his children's marital decisions). While in Bombay, after several attempts, he found a job with a company in East Africa.

Hasani 1948 football My grandparents' time in Africa, especially after the birth of their children, is quite well-documented in several photo albums. When I was at home recently I scanned in the oldest of those albums: faded pictures and all. It appears that his first appointment was in the Hasani Estates in Makanya (near the Tanga Railway Line), in the north of the country near the border with the Kenya. After a couple of years there they moved down to Mikindani in the south (near the Mozambique border) where my grandfather worked at the sisal estates. Sisal is a kind of plant fiber used for making rope. The Mikindani Sisal estate appears to be owned today by the same family that owned it then --- the Karimjee/Jivanjees. Here's a quote from a now-dead web-page that was cached by google :

Karimjee Jivanjee Estates Ltd was founded in 1939 to look after agricultural interests. The firm consisted of fifteen plantations growing sisal, coffee, coconuts, kapok, rubber, timber and fruits.

Mtwara East African Airways However acquisition of estates had commenced in 1921 with the purchase of Derema Coffee Estate in the Usambara Mountains. Derema is the oldest recorded estate in Tanganyika being formed in 1891 by the German East Africa Co. Production on Derema was changed from coffee to tea in 1933 following the damage inflicted by coffee berry disease and the 194o's saw the addition of Monga and Maramba Tea Estates in the Amani Forest.

Sisal estate acquisitions commenced in 1922 but the company's original Mtwara sisal estate was acquired by the British Government in order to create Mtwara township and harbour.

Karimjee Jivanjee Estates reached its peak in the early 1960's with sisal production at 12,500 tons per annum and tea production at 550 tons per annum.

In 1956, less than a decade after he got to Africa, my grandfather branched out on his own; starting his own estate in Mtwara (close to Mikindani) with cattle, poultry and cashews.

Mtwara Opening Of Estate Tanzania has had a particularly comopolitan history because of its indian-ocean coast. Starting as early as the 8th century, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Chinese (possibly this guy?), Portuguese, Germans and Brits played a role. The Sultan of Oman controlled Zanzibar and the Tanganyikan coast from atleast the 18th century. The Germans started colonizing the area in the 1880s, and the Brits took over after WWI. The Germans built railway lines and introduced Sisal.

Party There have been Indians in East Africa for centuries. The Karimjee-Jivanjee family got to Tanzania in the 1830s (!). I'm not sure exactly why so many people from one particular part of India (Gujurat/Cutch) moved to East Africa over the past couple of centuries. Names that end in jee: Karimjee, Vassanji, Verjee, Nagji, Tyabji, Bhanji are all from a particular ethnic/religious group --- the Bohra/Ismailis of eastern India.

When I was an undergraduate in Texas, I was sitting at lunch one day with a kid of Indian-East-African origin (with a -ji last name). And we found out, to our astonishment, that his family came from Mtwara --- the same small town that my grandparents built their estate in.

Mtwara Sundowner 1960My mother's Tanzanian past caught up with her when she worked in Oman for a short while in the 90s. As the Sultan Of Oman ruled Zanzibar until the 1960s, Oman has several citizens of Zanzibari origin who speak Kiswahili (rather than Arabic). So my mother was able to understand what her colleagues were saying even when they thought she didn't (though she owned up shortly).

When we were kids in Kerala my grandparents used to speak to each other in Kiswahili when they didn't want us to understand. And my aunt and my mom, though much less fluent, try that occassionally even today.

Unlike these other East-African Sepia Mutiny commenters, I can't claim much more of a legacy from my grandparents' east-african sojourn. They moved back to Kerala around 1970. Here's a set of some of their pictures.


Blogger Sunil said...

a very nice bit of nostalgia.....

the world's your oyster, eh?

12/02/2005 09:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this brings back so many memories...and the urge to really go through my family's old pics :) Thanks!

2/17/2006 07:41:00 AM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Nice to know, Kenyandesi :)
There was another nostalgic east-african-desi who found these pictures on flickr and recognized his uncle in one of them! A fair proportion of the (small number of) hits on this blog are by people searching for east-africa related topics.

2/17/2006 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, small comminities and have you ever been there? It's amazingly gorgeous :)

2/23/2006 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger ashvin said...

so have you ever been there? It's amazingly gorgeous :)

No, I haven't had the chance to. If I were to go I think I'd like to make the trip with my mom.

I presume you go back often ?

2/23/2006 09:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father Angelo (Italian) from 1948, worked for Karimjee Jivanjee in Mikindani and my elder brother was born there in 1949. I came to birth in Dar in 1951 and my parents were in Soga always for Karimjee. Who knows if your grand parents ever met my parents.
Sandy Legnani

1/13/2007 04:34:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

That's very interesting Sandy. My mother was born in Mikindani in Nov 1949 (!), so it's entirely possible that your parents and my grandparents interacted.

1/13/2007 04:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so sorry to bother you, but, I'm looking for a former flatmate from Finchley Rd, London, whose last name (before she married) was Jivanjee. Her family was originally from Kenya. She was an economist.

If you have any info, tell her one of her US tenants from 1979 says hello, and have her contact me at Thanks!

4/05/2008 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a family related to Mr. Josephu Gezep (Italian)who lived in Mikindani during that time. He was either Bishop or farther of the Church in Mikindani. The rest of the family is still living in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania.

My email is:

4/10/2008 11:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Im jeena . Looking at the photographs it reminds me of my grandfather and his tales.He was working as an internal auditor for Tanzania Sisal Corporation. He became 88 this year.You have not mentioned your grandpa's name anywhere.wud your grandpa like to meet him? my e-mail is

7/08/2008 07:37:00 AM  

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