Jan 17, 2012

Who were these Bead Bais of East Africa who came to Canada as grandmothers?


From the early 20th century, Satpanth Ismaili family homes spanned the African geography - the forests, grasslands, highlands, the Great Rift Valley, plateaux and deserts. Often their homes had a courtyard behind the family store and often the home-store had a small room furnished as a jamat khana. Often their home-store was on the only street and they were the only Asian African family in the area.
In the stores on the savannah, the Bais worked sorting and stringing ethnic beads. Many Satpanth Ismailis started their businesses in East Africa selling beads like my great grandfather, Rajan Nanji Pachani. Every morning he used to line fist size heaps of beads on a grass mat, sit crossed legged under a tree at the market in Mombasa and wait for the ethnic people to view and hopefully purchase some of his beads. That was around the turn of the 19th century when Rajan Lalji’s bead shop (established in 1905, in Nairobi’s boisterous Jugu Bazaar) supplied the stock to the rural bead merchants. Fatma Bai, the wife of Rajan Lalji would have been among the first Bead Bais of East Africa. So huge was the trade in beads that the bazaar behind the stone jamat khana was called Moti Bazaar. Two of the well known Bais of the bead bazaar were known as Chak Bai and Puri Bai (surnames?). Moti in Gujarati and Kutchi, the native languages of Satpanth Khoja, means a bead. So many Satpanth Khoja merchants traded in African ethnic beads that the bazaar was also known as Khoja Bazaar.
Often it was the Bais who put the beads on display panels and racks in the stores where they would sit and chat with indigenous women and men who came to admire their colourful stock. They also prepared meals three times a day. In time, the Bais sewed dresses to sell and hemmed kanga and shuka sheets as they turned the hand wheels on Singer sewing machines while sitting on the veranda of the store. They also did assorted shop tasks when the men rested in the afternoon and they embroidered pillows and bedcovers, and mended clothes. The Bais had many children, from six to sixteen, and even more, but not all survived in the African hinterland. They taught the children the sacred songs of guru-pirs and told faith stories. They made the Satpanth family home in Africa at the equator.
The character of Moti Bai in the book is inspired by the lives of the Bead Bais I had met though not specifically about any one of them.
This book of fiction is about voyaging, losing India, coming to the new land, old worship styles, imagining, politics and life in the old shantytown of Indian Nairobi. I have brought together these layered stories I heard growing up and again when curating exhibitions about the coming of the Satpanthis to East Africa (Ma aging gracefully, 1994) and then the Asian African Heritage Exhibition (2000 -2005). The material culture in the book is about women’s historical memories. That is to say, events and stories are built around articles of embroidery and beadwork, stitching and cooking; the stone hand mill, the bandhani, pictures and pieces of jewellery like bangles and the nose siri, body d├ęcor we call saangar.We grew up with stories told around artefacts.


12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to your published book, please keep us updated

Sultan Somjee said...

Bead Bai will be released in Spring 2012. Meanwhile it would be nice to share memories of Bead Bais in all your families. A photograph of the Bead Bai or your bead duka in East Africa would be great.

Though my experience has been among Satpanth Khojah, there were also Bead Bais among other communties. Hope they can also write and expand our knowledge of our shared Asian African history. More importantly we will have the names and memories of the Bead Bais recorded for posterity.

What is not said in history is that the Bead Bais' industrious work helped the transport of Africa's most important art and aesthetic material i.e. the beads.

Sultan Somjee

Anonymous said...

Imagine a little storefront like that to sustain part of the family income in the African hinterland!

It makes one reflect on our journey and the strength and sense of adventure of our ancestor pioneers. I remember echos and the words Juggu Bazar being uttered in my household when I was just a little boy.

Thank you for writing this untold history, so neglected from textbooks.

Sultan Somjee said...

Yes there is a vacuum when it comes to how much we know about our pioneer ancestors, especially women pioneer ancestors.

Sultan Somjee

Kantilal said...

I found your contribution very interesting and illuminating.

I liked that display "Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari"

From the late 1930's my father operated a tailoring shop for ladies garments on Khimji Road off River Road - about a kilometer away from the Khoja Mosque. He had a very large Khoja/Ismaili clientele who came to him specifically on Khusali for their typical long dresses to be tailored by him. The shop name was Naranbhai Nagarbhai Tailor and Sons. He closed the shop in 1962. He passed away in Nairobi in 1991. Maybe you or your parents or some relation have memories of my father.

Kind regards

Kantilal

Anonymous said...

When your book is out ..about bead bias of e africa..!!
Many thanks. Would be very interested to read your account of our e african Kathiawar/kutch lot's history ..!
Cheers,
V C

Sultan Somjee said...

Hello VC:

The book is in the stage of cover design and then it will go to print. I would say Bead Bai will be out in two/three months. You could purchase directly from Amazon. I will be posting the details on the Blog http://thebeadbai.blogspot.com/

From early 1900s, it was the Kutchi/Kathiwari (Saurastrians, as my grandmother used to say) who carried the bead trade across Africa at the equator. Beads are singularly the most important art material of many tribal societies. My book, a historical fiction, is about African beads and a Gujarati rural family in Maasailand. Based on true characters and events, though a work of fiction.

Thanks for writing,
Sultan Somjee

Anonymous said...

Never knew we had Bead Bais among us. It must have been a big trade and a nice vocation for some of us. I was born in and grew up in Zanzibar. Never seen this kind of occupation undertaken by our khoja ladies there.

Do you have a definite date when this book will be up for sale to the public. Anyways thanks for the intro to this segment of our khoja involvement in the East African commerce.

Hussain
NY

Anonymous said...

Never knew we had Bead Bais among us. It must have been a big trade and a nice vocation for some of us. I was born in and grew up in Zanzibar. Never seen this kind of occupation undertaken by our khoja ladies there.

Do you have a definite date when this book will be up for sale to the public. Anyways thanks for the intro to this segment of our khoja involvement in the East African commerce.

Hussain
NY

Sultan Somjee said...

Hello Hussain:

Yes there were Bead Bais across the mainland in EA. Many of the Bead Bais were Khojah women. The men collected their bead stock from Nairobi's Moti Bazaar also called Khojah bazaar that was the street behind the main jamat khana on Government Road.

The book keeps on getting delayed. Now I estimate the publication in Summer this year. My apologies to the readers once again.

Soon I will be posting the cover design that took a while mainly because of my changing thoughts about this multi-layered story of the Satpanth Khojah Bai on the savannah.

Sultan Somjee

Atula Shah said...

Hi Sultan,
I just got the link to the post today. Well Juggu bazaar as it was known in those days is now known as Njugu lane. Around the 60's, 70's, 80's till up to 2000, the shops in the lane were owned by Indian gujarati traders, all wholesale shops dealing in textile fabrics. Well that has changed just one shop now dealing in textile fabrics, some have been turned into stores, few restaurants, a Cocacola distributor, few shops selling various items. We are family owned business still in Njugu lane for the past 50years, my grandfather & father retired some years ago. We are using the shop as an office. We had been talking of moving to Westlands area, however the charm of being in the CBD & in the lane is not anywhere else. You are most wellcome to visit us on Njugu lane.
Atula Shah

Sultan Somjee said...

Hi Atula:

How nice to read your email. In 1920s my mother's family lived in Jugu Bazaar where my grandfather sold dried fish. In my childhood I used to come to the Bazaar with my aunts and mother. There was a shop there called Atul's - famous for threads and buttons. Rajan Lajli's bead shop was on the opposite side. Would you know of other bead families?

I will certainly visit your shop when I am in Nairobi. Thank you for the invitation. I live in Vancouver now. If you are around this part of the world, please contact me so we can meet for coffee at least.

best regards,
Sultan Somjee