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Karimjee family: 'Merchant princes of East Africa'
By ThisDay Reporter
1st March 2010
President Jakaya Kikwete (right) receives Karimjee Jivanjee family book from Hatim Karimjee, Chairman of Karimjee Jivanjee Ltd during a ceremony to launch the book in Dar es Salaam recently.

IT is well known that to achieve continuous success and growth, families must pass on the entrepreneurial mindsets and capabilities that enable them to create new streams of social and economic wealth across many generations.
The keys to growing a family business and maintaining healthy family relationships are trust, strong family values and effective communication.

Successfully balancing the differing interests of family members and or the interests of one or more family members on one hand and the interests of the business on the other requires the people involved to have the competencies, character and commitment.

Often, family members can benefit from involving more than one professional advisor, each having a particular skill set needed by the family. Some of the skill sets that might be needed include communication, conflict resolution, family systems, finance, legal, accounting, insurance, investing, leadership development, management development, and strategic planning.

This is true to what is described by the term "merchant princes" in the Karimjees family book “The Karimjee Jivanjee Family Book, Merchant Princes of East Africa 1800-2000”. The Karimjees might not be regal in the real sense of the word but they have always aspired to nobility in its broader sense.

Yusufali Karimjee's personal belief that "wealth imposes obligations" was an echo of the ancient watchword of high-born Europeans, “noblesse oblige”, and the Karimjees not only adopted this motto but lived by it. The list of their charitable deeds is long and impressive. It includes the Karimjee Hall, various schools, a hospital and two maternity homes.
This generosity is all the more remarkable considering the astonishing number of properties that were expropriated from the family in post-revolution Zanzibar and as a result of the Tanzanian government’s nationalisation policies in 1971. The period from 1964 to 1990 was a difficult and damaging one for the Karimjee Jivanjees but as the writer observed, “That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger”.

It is this ability, to survive adversities and rise above them, that has distinguished the family (and the East African Asians in general) and that has helped to bestow upon the "merchant prince" Karimjees a nobility of character and purpose.
 
Gijsbert Oonk's book is a fine and important testimonial to this quietly amazing family, enhanced by many beautifully printed photographs. It was intended primarily as a tribute to the family's ancestors, and to inform or remind present-day Karimjees of the eminent achievements and individuals of their collective past.

But, the book goes far beyond this objective, for it reflects the triumph over hardship of the East African Asians in general, and the great contribution they have made to the region. No one who remains ignorant of these much-misunderstood, much-underrated people can ever hope to understand the history of East Africa.

Gijsbert Oonk discusses the family in general, from its founding father Buddhaboy Noormuhammed, small scale hardware merchant in the Gujerati port of Mandvi, and his son Jivanjee (whom Buddhaboy sent off to seek his fortune in Zanzibar in 1818) to present-day family members, but he focuses on four of the more exceptional Karimjees, the “four historical champions”.

Yusufali Karimjee, born in Zanzibar in 1882, when Barghash was Sultan and when Henry Morton Stanley was still in mid-career as an explorer, led a life "characterised by unexpected moves, adventures and hard work. Amongst the "unexpected moves" was his marriage to a Japanese woman, far more unusual then than it might be today.
 
Abdullah Mohamedali Karimjee (1899-1978), "the sisal baron of Tanga", was another fascinating man, with "a natural charm and charisma". At home in the African bush, a prestigious Swiss ski resort or when escorting Princess Margaret of England, as well as on the family sisal or tea estates, he too was unconventional enough to take, as his second wife, a foreign bride, the daughter of a German planter.
 
Abdulkarim (1906-77) who married conventionally but whose life story otherwise "reads like a long tale of special occasions, nominations and interesting, influential jobs and positions". Last of the outstanding Karimjee "free spirits" is Tayabali (1897-1987) whose life revolved around “family business, politics and charity”

These four Karimjees embody the entrepreneurial, independent-mindedness that seems to crop up in the family from time to time but they also embody the traits that would once have been referred to as "good breeding". The Karimjees acquired "class" as well as estates and businesses and conventional or not, every Karimjee was (and is) expected to behave as a gentleman or lady, as the case may be.
 
Much has been said and written about the Pilgrim Fathers who founded modern-day America, yet so little about the equally brave, determined, adventurous, hard-working and God-fearing Gujeratis (as most of them were) who eventually helped to transform a desperately poor and undeveloped region into today's East Africa.
 
This situation is changing, thanks in no small part to Cynthia Salvadori, whose impressive book Through Open Doors (1983) opened a more metaphorical door upon the Asian cultures in Kenya, giving non-Asians, in East Africa and beyond, a long-overdue opportunity to see the Asians in a more balanced, less stereotyped way.
 
Since then several other books have been written about East Africa's Asian communities or distinguished individuals. Gijsbert Oonk's The Karimjee Jivanjee Family - Merchant Princes of East Africa, is an important addition to this growing list. The fact that it concerns a family, rather than communities or specific persons, is significant, as the family is at the heart of Asian life; behind every successful Asian is a supportive family.

Several Asian families have made their mark in East Africa, none more worthy of a published history than the Karimjee Jivanjees, whose remarkable nineteenth century ancestors arrived in the region after crossing "the kali pani”, the 'dark waters'...at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many years, it is worth remembering, before the first of the famous European explorers set foot in what they knew as "the Dark Continent"

East Africa's "Asian" communities form a far more heterogeneous and complex group than is generally realised, and their huge contribution to the region, in terms of its economy and cultural diversity, has largely been woefully underestimated.
 
In fact the Asians have frequently been treated unfairly (by whites and blacks alike) and occasionally, as in Idi Amin's Uganda, with callous severity. Such abuses persuaded many Asians to leave East Africa but many also chose to stay on, at least in Kenya and Tanzania, to rise above discouraging circumstances yet again, with all the characteristic optimism, perseverance, stoicism, self-discipline, self-resourcefulness and strong sense of community that allowed their forefathers (predominantly poor and in formal terms uneducated) to cross the seas in simple dhows and flourish in an alien and sometimes inhospitable land.
 

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