21 September, 2011

The Hadhrami Influence in Eastern Africa

East Africa. That very scenic, very breathtaking and most enchanting of lands. That's where my late father, as fate would have it, migrated to, to seek his fortunes. Through his wanderings and adventures across four East African countries, he didn't make much of a fortune except to marry for a second and third time, and sire nine children; and he did help in preaching and spreading Islam. The same can be said about the thousands of other Hadhrami migrants who went to East Africa in the last century: they didn't all become wealthy. Going to green, very rainy and abundant with food East Africa, whatever the outcome, was much better than the Hadhramaut they left behind. The Hadhramout they left behind, then, was impoverished, insecure and full of hunger. The Hadhramaut they left behind was a place most of them did not want to return to. And many, never did return to.

On and off - in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Hadhramaut was plagued with famine and hunger. Thousands of Hadhramis fled. A few years ago, an elderly friend of the family, described to me the Hadhramout of then, that forced them to flee. He told me of how in Wadi Hadhramaut, he watched British military planes distribute food by air; the planes would fly and drop bags of corn or wheat or sorghum in large towns and wherever there were large crowds of people. When the bags would drop down, most would split and open the grains onto the ground. He saw people, especially men, running to the grains on the ground and grab the dry grains and eat them raw. That's how hungry people were.

The same elderly man, was one of those who fled in the late 1940s. By camels, for days, they trekked from Wadi Hadhramaut to Mukalla. It was not easy to get food in Mukalla; for he and his two very young cousins, they had to go around the town and do hard, menial jobs so as to get just a cup of porridge. A cup of porridge for the whole day and night. My late father's situation, who fled through Shae'her at about the same time, was no better; he too, had to do, for days, with very little food and very bad sleeping conditions as he waited to take a dhow in Shae'her - at that time, the main port of Hadhramout. It is the embarking port of Shae'her that made Hadhramis be called: washehere (mshehere for singular) on the coast of East Africa. The journey ahead for all these fleeing Hadhramis, was either to eastern Africa or southern Asia. The journey, by sea, was hard and treacherous. But flee, they did.

Wherever Hadhramis migrated to, they would settle down in a place and influence it, particularly by preaching and spreading Islam. In turn, whenever any of them managed to return to Hadhramaut, he would bring back home other cultural influences: architecture, food and cuisine, clothing, music and new ideas. That influence that Hadhramis took with them to foreign lands, is particularly visible on the many islands and coast of Eastern Africa; and many parts of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. And the influences the Hadharem brought back home, is there in Hadhramout too.

Once on the East African coast, the Hadhramis, if they had money - would start a small shop; or start selling whatever is in demand from door to door, street to street. Those who had no money, quickly found work. They would normally work for other Hadhramis who had migrated earlier. These Hadhrami migrations, to the coast of Eastern Africa and the islands close by, utterly transformed these areas. The Hadhramization of the coast of Africa, especially: Lamu Island and its environs, Mombasa, Zanzibar Island, the Comoros, Kilwa, Dar es Salaam, Tanga and many other parts of the East African coast - was no less than a revolution. The Hadharem, mainly through the sayyids (known as the sharifs in East Africa) from Tarim - brought into Eastern Africa: literacy, knowledge and Islamic culture; Islamic culture very much influenced by the sayyids.

As most of the migrant Hadharem did not bring their women to wherever they migrated to, the next thing they did after finding livelihoods, was to marry. Most of those who had migrated earlier, married indigenous, converted to Islam, Africans. Those who migrated later, married the daughters of these, who were of mixed Arab-African blood. Gradually, with time, most of the progeny of the Hadharem lost touch with the ancestral home: Hadhramout. Most, never learnt Arabic and spoke mainly Swahili or another African language; although most learned how to read the Noble Qur'an perfectly. In many parts of Eastern Africa, due to the intermarriage with Africans, the Hadharem now look very much African. Due to that, the Swahili culture and language - a mixture of Hadhrami and African, is now predominant. To date, there hasn't been a proper, detailed research on the Hadhrami migration and extensive influence in Eastern Africa.

To this day, Hadhrami influence is still very much evident, particularly along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coast, and the nearby islands; extending all the way to the coast of Mozambique and Northern Madagascar. Go to any of the main Eastern African towns on the coast: Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Mombasa in particular; or the nearby islands - Zanzibar and the Comoros in particular - and the Hadhrami influence is still very much there. Since the 1970s, due to the oil boom in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, many Hadharem and their progeny have migrated to these countries. And due to Hadhramout having improved very much economically and it being more secure; many of the Hadhramis or their descendants from Eastern Africa, have moved back.

Today, in Eastern Africa, Hadhrami communities are still there in all the major coastal towns and on the nearby islands. They are much better off economically, too, due to remittances sent back from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. And do not be surprised, to find this lone Hadhrami family in some very remote village or small trading center in Tanzania or Kenya or Uganda or even in Rwanda or the Congo (DRC) or Malawi. A Hadhrami family, whose menu still has dry salted, shark meat; who still highly value honey and dates. A Hadhrami family, with a father who still puts on a loins cloth.