BEAD BAI - those extraordinary khoja women of east africa

From Khoja Wiki

Professor Walter Thaddues Brown, writing about the 1840s in -A Pre-Colonial History of Bagamoyo- says "The Indians generally did not entrust any of their financial dealing to African employees. But the Khojas had a trusted, devoted, non-salaried, employee - his wife. Thus, while he operated the wholesale place of business, his wife remained in the shop handling retail trade. A Khoja female was wife, mother and business associate". [1]

The tradition of the Khoja women being full participants in the family business began early in the settlement in East Africa. Professor Brown again: "During the first three decades of the 19th century, (Khoja) Ismaili gradually emigrated from British Indiato Zanzibar. By the commencement of the fourth decade, there were 165 Ismaili families including 26 married women in Zanzibar. In 1866, there were 2558 Ismaili residing in East Africa.[2]

In those years(between 1820 and 1870), the fact that by tradition the Khojas had never adopted the “purdah”, gave them a crucial advantage - in contrast to the conservative Omani Arabs or Punjabi Muslims households, they showed confidence by having their women-folk working side by side and contributing in the growth of the family wealth. (in those early years, the Hindus traders did not bring family to Africa. " was only after 1910 that marriageable Indian women arrived making possible the establishment of ‘traditional’ households.")[3]

This liberal tradition the Khoja continued in the jamatkhana community centers, where men and women mixed relatively freely, except when engaged in actual prayer.

When a woman was married and if she had come from India, she quickly adapted to the local environment, learning the local language, Swahili on the Coast, Kikuyu on the Kenya Highlands or Buganda in forests of Uganda. If locally-born, she was exposed right from early youth, to the duka shop and to the sale of merchandise and payment. Until the early 1930s, formal education was limited and in any event, daughters were usually removed from schools upon puberty and were relegated to help mothers in the home and fathers in the shop (See Fatmabai Kasssamali Bhatia). The boys continued schooling but only for a few more years, for education as a rule was not highly valued in the mainly trading societies of the East African Khojas. (unlike Bombay, which was another relatively affluent Khoja settlement, where the first Khoja school was started in 1825! see Bombay)

The skills acquired by the women were varied. Besides actual retail sales, they made bead products (see remarkable book “Bead Bai” by Sultan Somji) [4], stitched garments for sale (See Daulatkhanu Hassanali Bhanji), made food products for sale,(See Dolatkhanu Alibhai Jiwani) dispensed herbal and other medicines(See Kulsumbai Abdulla Hasham), kept books of accounts and generally did any work that the business required.

In addition, due to high child mortality, the wives were required to raise large families often of six or seven children. In accordance with the Indian tradition, the parents of the husband (and sometimes, a widowed mother of the wife, as well) would live with the household. Another frequent family member was a spinster or widowed sister of the husband. The wife cared for this whole family - cooking, cleaning repairing and restoring-sometimes, there could be servants but the daily family chores plus helping in the business meant that Khoja wife was a super-woman.(See Kulsum Bai Wazir)

This web-site has many the stories of these so far unsung heroes of the Khoja success in Africa.

Iqbal I. Dewji (2018)


  1. Brown- University of Michigan Ph.D. Thesis 1970
  2. Brown- University of Michigan Ph.D. Thesis 1970
  3. Culture, Social Organisation and Asian Identity: Difference in Urban East Africa: By John R. Campbell Identity and Affect: Experiences of Identity in a Globalising World-Pluto Press(1999) pg 180)
  4. “Bead Bai” by Sultan Somjee –CreateSpace published 2012 (My gratitude to Sultan, firstly for undertaking the immense personal challenge in writing this beautiful book and secondly, for allowing me to use it)

New Book Review

Sultan Somjee's extraordinary writing talent has brought us his second novel "Home Between Crossings", continuing the fact-fiction odyssey of the now-married Sikina, as she traverses through the monumental changes within the Khoja Ismaili community, culminating in her "crossing" to Canada.

Somjee's warm lyrical style, sharp perception of the subtle changes affecting the soul of the community and deep empathy for the immense contribution of women in creating the Khoja global experience is at its highlight, in this 2nd offering from a trilogy that Sultan plans to present.

At Khojawiki, we applaud Sultan Somjee and all authors in our literature-starved community.

Order Here

Here is a new review of the book "Home Between Crossings"

File:Home between crossings kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake (1).pdf

Do you remember the smell of Ma’s pachedi?

By; Sultan Somjee

Ma’s home-pachedi had a wonderful faded mix smell of cloth
She used it to dry your tears when you were little
Not just below the eyelids one eye at a time
But the full face mopped over by her open hand on the pachedi
=====Do you remember the smell of Ma’s pachedi?=====

Ma held hot dishes with the edge of her pachedi
And quickly threw it over her head if a male relative entered, suddenly
She put you to sleep in her lap with the pachedi over you
Do you now remember the smell of Ma’s pachedi?

She covered herself to feed you when you wailed in public
You were hungry and wanted to be fed now now
And when you were with a pop bottle
 Filled with warm milk at your lips
You know now why no evil eye ever harmed you
Do you remember the smell of Ma’s pachedi?

When you were shy, you held on to Ma’s pachedi
Sometimes you even hid behind it
Fearful of strange guests on your territory
Do you remember the smell of Ma’s pachedi?

Ma’s pachedi had no pockets
She had no handy bags to carry eggs from Mama Mboga
And vegetables from the threshold to the kitchen
Quickly she made her pachedi into a basket