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» Memory and Identity of Asian Africans from the Lamu Archipelago

A new exhibition and meeting traced the history of Asian Muslims in Lamu

The Asian African Heritage Trust (AAHT) and National Museums of Kenya (NMK) sponsored a new exhibition and accompanying meeting at the Lamu Fort. The meeting was held on the 21st-23rd November 2011, at the beginning of the Lamu Cultural Festival.

Asian Muslims in Lamu have been trading since 1700 or earlier, coming in dhows from the north west coast of the Indian subcontinent to the east coast of Africa, extending from Kismayu (in modern Somalia) to Kilwa (off the southern coast of modern Tanzania).

Muslim families began to settle in the 1800s, when the Omani Sultan made Lamu his main port, and encouraged settlement there and in Zanzibar. They constructed the stone houses and shops along the sea front on Lamu Island, and numbers increased up to the 1930s. The Muslim communities included Bohoras, Ithnashris and Ismailis. Meanwhile single men settled in Faza, Siyu and Pate Islands, where they married Arab, Bajuni or Swahili women.

The exhibition details each community, and prominent families, as well as their lifestyles, homes, trade, cemeteries and mosques. Many families left in the last few decades, so it was important to preserve records and history of this community. Community records had been extensively researched and assembled, and the creation of the exhibition prompted several old families from the region to provide previously unseen original photographs and information. More information is still sought, notably about the lesser-known Goan and Parsee communities in Lamu.

The conference was an outstanding success, well attended and received locally, as well as by national media. It generated scholarly investigation and debate on the community in the Lamu archipelago, within the context of a Kenyan identity. It was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

The concept for the meeting and exhibition was conceived in early 2010 by one of the organisers, Prof. Jameela Hassanali, while tracing her family history with her maternal grandfather. At the same time, Prof. Goolam Mohamedbhai from Mauritius was tracing his family roots from Mandvi in India, via Lamu. Zahir Bhaloo also contributed his personal research and time to organise the event.

The conference had distinguished speakers including Prof. Goolam Mohamedbhai (former Vice-Chancellor, University of Mauritius), Dr. Idle Farah (Director General, NMK), Mr. Salim Bunu (Director, Lamu Museum), Ustad Mau, Maalim Husein Soud and Dr. Omar Bwana (former Director, NMK).

Mr. Ronald Minor, a close friend of Cynthia Salvadori, spoke of her life and work. The first keynote address was given by AAHT Chair Pheroze Nowrojee.

The exhibition will now be displayed at the Mombasa Fort.

Abdulhusein Ebrahimjee with a photograph of his father (left)
Prof. Jameela Hassanali speaks at the meeting, in front of an exhibition panel (right)