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By Ally Esmail

When one considers Ismaili settlement in Zaire, one immediately perceives this band of Ismailis who, following the guidance of Mowlana Hazar Imam and Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah, emigrated to the throbbing heart of Africa to give a hand in its development. Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo, is as big in area as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania put together, with the population presently around 25 million. Ismaili settlement in Zaire is as old as this century and Ismailis can be, proud of having played their part in the development of this country.


Around the year 1905, there are two recorded instances of Ismaili arrival in Zaire. One is that of a young man of 25 years called Ladha Ibrahim who, having sailed in a dhow from India, arrived in Zanzibar, crossed over to Dar es Salaam and set off for the interior. After travelling on foot for three months he arrived in Kigoma, a small village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika not far from the spot where had occurred, some decades earlier, the famous encounter between Livingstone and Stanley. Lured by the adventure and excitement of an unknown and unexplored frontier on the other side, the young Ladha crossed the Lake in a wooden dugout canoe and arrived in the village of Albertville, now known as Kalemie.

(This town has played a pivotal role in the immigration of Ismailis to Zaire. Just as Bagamoyo and Zanzibar were the first ports of entry for Ismaili emigrants from India to Africa, similarly Albertville was the first port of entry for Ismailis emigrating from Tanzania to Zaire. The similarity does not end there. Just as Ismailis then moved from Zanzibar and Bagamoyo to the interior of Tanzania, so did Ismailis move from Albertville to the interior of Zaire. Finally, just as Bagamoyo and Zanzibar lost their importance and became backwater towns, the same fate befell Albertville).

Ladha set up shop in Albertville, expanded his business to other parts of Zaire and Burundi and at the height of his career had branches in East Africa, the Middle East and India and had risen to a position of considerable influence. The descendants of Ladha Ibrahim are to be found in Zaire today and are settled in Kinshasa.

The other recorded instance of the arrival of Ismailis around this time was that of the Allidina Visram group. This great Ismaili pioneer, justly called in his time the "Uncrowned King of Uganda", extended his commercial empire from Uganda into Zaire and is said to have had about 200 shops in the area between the Uganda-Zaire border and Kisangani (ex-Stanleyville). In the absence of any roads, goods were brought across from Uganda through the dense Ituri forest on the backs of donkeys to supply these shops. However, with the unfortunate decline of the Allidina Visram empire after 1920, his commercial organization disappeared from Zaire without leaving any trace.

These two examples give one an idea of the fact that neither impenetrable forests with wild animals nor lack of transport or communications prevented Ismaili pioneers from playing their part in the development of Zaire.

Between 1905, when these two instances of Ismaili settlement occurred, and 1922, the author has not found any trace of Ismaili migrants. However, in the period between 1922 and 1925 one notes the arrival on the scene of the Wissanji, Dhalla Kassam and Alimohamed Karmali families. All of these settled in the Kisangani area and built up extremely prosperous businesses. During the following twelve years, front 1925 to 1937, the families of Alibhai Hemraj, Dhanani, Samji, Pirbhai Kassam and Abdallah Mohamed Sunderji also made Zaire their home.


The year 1937 could be said to be the watershed which marked the end of the pioneering period. During the second phase which lasted from 1937 to 1960, Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah constantly urged Ismailis to settle in Zaire. During the Golden Jubilee celebrations in Nairobi in 1937 Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah laid particular stress on this theme and again in 1952 further encouragement were given. One of the major obstacles to the emigration of Ismailis from East Africa to Zaire was the requirement of the then Belgian colonial administration that intending immigrants deposit a guarantee of the amount of Shs. 7000/ = in order to obtain permanent settlement visas. Since many Ismailis did not possess this amount of money at that time, the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust was directed to loan this deposit amount to Ismailis desiring to emigrate to Zaire. Many Ismailis took advantage of this facility.

Upto this time, Ismailis had mostly settled in eastern Zaire. In 1952, therefore, Mowlana Sultan Mohamed Shah urged Ismailis to go right upto the Atlantic and, in response, one notes the appearance of Ismailis in Kinshasa, which is on the western side near the Atlantic Ocean. The first Ismaili to settle in Kinshasa was Mr. Pyarali Shariff who came there in 1946 to be followed by other families in the 1950s.

However, in general, the attitude of the colonial administration was not very helpful and on the eve of independence in 1960 the total number of Ismailis in Zaire was about 200. Up to this period, Ismailis were engaged in the importation of manufactured goods and export of produce such as coffee, tea, cotton, ivory, hides and skins and in the wholesale and retail trades.


The post-independence phase, the third in chronology, started in 1960. The period from 1960 to 1965 saw grave disorder, rebellions and secessionist movements sweep over the country and the Ismailis were not untouched by all these. However the community withstood all these upheavals and with the establishment of stable government in November 1965, was able to expand in number, and pursue the task of national development. Also, in 1964-1965, at Mowlana Hazar Imam's behest, Ismailis from Burundi emigrated to Zaire. When the third phase ended in 1973, the Ismaili Population had risen to 1,300.

During this period, Mowlana Hazar Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni, graciously appointed the first Territorial Council for Zaire. Also during this phase Mowlana Hazar Imam established the Industrial Promotion Services (Zaire), in which the Zaire Government has a substantial shareholding. I.P.S. (Zaire) is at the moment associated with two manufacturing projects - aluminium hollow - ware in Likasi and nails and link fencing in Kinshasa. The services rendered by the late Vazir Abdulsultan Pirbhai Kassam to the community in all these activities will forever be engraved in the history of Ismailis in Zaire.


This phase started in November 1973 with an epoch-making event: the announcement by the Government to launch measures aimed at Zairianisation. By this measure, all economic activities in the hands of the foreigners were taken over and handed to the indigenous population. This law affected almost 95% of the community which was engaged in commerce. The only enterprises excepted were some in the manufacturing sector and the tourist industry. In fact, all the industries and restaurants owned by Ismailis were thus exempted. There is a lesson to be drawn from this: Mowlana Hazar Imam has for years been advising the community in Africa to diversify and move out of the commercial sector and into the manufacturing and tourist industries.What happened in Zaire in 1973 during the process of Zairianisation is a glowing example of how the farsighted guidance of Mowlana Hazar Imam has benefitted those members of the Jamat who have followed it.


Regarding the Jamati institutions, first of all there is the Territorial Council with headquarters in Kinshasa where most of the Ismaili Population now concentrated. The first President of the Territorial Council from its inception up to 1966 was the late Vazir Abdulsultan Pirbhai Kassam. From 1966 to 1971, Rai Shamshudin Ahmed was the President and from 1971 onwards this position has been held by Mr. Sultan Noorani.

As the Jamat is rather small in terms of absolute numbers, it has not been possible to create the type of welfare state that exists in East Africa with Ismaili schools, hospitals, insurance companies, investment trusts, saving banks, clubs and rest houses. In spite of this, the various departments of the Territorial Council are quite active in their respective fields. The Ismailia Association is running a religious evening school, a library and a reading room; the Education Board is monetarily helping the local and overseas education of Ismaili students whose families are not well-off financially; the Youth Union organises the youngsters of the Jamat for sports programmes and competitions; and social welfare is also not neglected. The Khushali programmes are similar to the ones in East Africa and in all these Jamati activities what we lack in numbers is made up for by the spirit in which they are, carried out.

As far as education is concerned, Ismaili children go to consular schools established by the various foreign communities-the Anglophone students frequenting the American school and the Francophone children attending the Belgian school, At this point, it is perhaps worth remarking that the Zaire Jamat is the first Jamat in the world to have a mixed population of Anglophone and Francophone Ismailis, the latter generally the older established families of the first and second phase and the former the later arrivals of the third phase. In this respect of bilingualism, the Zaire Jamat has now been joined by the Canadian one.


Today, most of the Ismailis in Zaire are working in commercial fields such as importation, wholesale and retail trades. However, some have branched out into consumer industries such as the manufacture of shoes, suitcases, ballpoint pens, aluminium hollow-ware, nails, chainlink fencing, aluminium doors and windows, ice-cream and lollipops. Some Ismailis have also established restaurants and one family is associated with a giant real estate group.

It could be said with genuine pride that, following Mowlana Hazar Imam's guidance, Ismailis in Zaire are working in sincere co-operation with the Zairian people. Relations with the authorities are excellent and three Ismailis - the late Mr. Jiwabhai Tharani, Mr. Zainul Ladha and Mr. Babu Merali -have been decorated by the Zaire Government for their services to the development of the country.

Politics and economics are perhaps more inextricably linked in Zaire than in other countries. This is further compounded by the fact that citizenship is not granted to non-indigenous groups and Ismailis are covered by laws applying to foreigners in general. The community, therefore, has to be, and is, more supple, resourceful and mobile and has learnt to bend with the wind, like the proverbial grass, and to rise up again when the wind has passed.

(The author is in the process of compiling a definitive historical record of Ismaili settlement in Zaire. He would be most grateful to receive any information, however trivial it may seem at first glance, which may assist him in this task. He can be contacted at the following address: B.P. 7569, Kinshasa, Zaire.)