The history of the Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust can be traced back about 150 years ago to the coming of Mohamedally Rattansi to Kenya. Mohamedally Rattansi was born in 1882 in Chavand, a village in Kathiawar, India. His father Rattansi Nanji, a Shia Ismaili, owned a small shop selling basic merchandise, such as salt, sugar, and dates to villagers and neighbouring farmers in India.
Sandwiched between the Great Raan (desert) of Cutch and the coast, Kathiawar suffers aridity and an extremely varying rainfall. A prolonged drought, which plunged the rural community into a state of crisis, occurred in that part of Northwestern India when Mohamedally was a boy. Crops failed, food was scarce, and the inhabitants lacked money to buy; even, bare necessities were lacking. Rattansi Nanji, did not only make money but he also lost it as well, through supplying his neighbours on credit. When his son, Mohamedally, began to earn an income, he always sent some of it home to sustain his father and his altruistic shop, however small the amount was.
Arising from the effects of drought and famine in Kathiawar, there was high migration from rural to urban areas. One of Mohamedally's uncles had already migrated and settled in the vast city of Bombay. When barely in his teens, Mohamedally left his village and moved to Bombay to join his uncle in search of a job to better his life.
So many people were continuously flooding into Bombay causing the jobs to become scarce. Mohamedally learnt, however, that there were opportunities in British East Africa (Kenya was part of it). In 1897 the British began to build a railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria to open up the hinterland for trade and administration. A great number of Indian indentured labourers, eventually numbering about 32,000, were recruited to build the line. The work started in Mombasa and soon, the small Swahili port became a bustling town. Mohamedally's cousin, Javer Kassam, had already migrated there and ran a small shop.
In 1899, the railway reached the swampy area which the Maasai called ‘the place of cool waters', or Nairobi, and a town was beginning to develop. At the same time, Asian traders, having established themselves on the East African coast, were following the rail line and penetrating deeper into the hinterland. It was those intrepid pioneers who introduced the exchange economy as the British administrators raised the flag of the Empire and established small administrative centres or bomas.
The Asian traders set up small shops, known everywhere as dukas (from the Indian word dukan). The first shops were no more than tents, sheets of canvas propped up on poles. They were soon replaced by thatched huts, and later by corrugated iron-sheet buildings, with the shop in front and living quarters at the back. As Sir Winston Churchill wrote: “It is the Indian trader, who, penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places in which no white man could earn a living, has more than anyone else developed the early beginning of trade (in East Africa) and opened up the first slender means of communication.” Such were the humble beginnings of every town in the hinterland.
The most enterprising of the Asian entrepreneurs was a Shia Ismaili by the name Seth Alidina Visram. By the turn of the century, Visram had established a chain of dukas stretching from the Coast to the Nile. There was a great demand for young and adventurous fellow Ismailis to steward the shops. Seeing this opportunity, Javer sent a message to his young cousin Mohamedally, telling him: to ‘Come to Africa. I shall help you find a job.'
Mohamedally's initial intention was to go to Bombay to find a job. However when his cousin called him to Africa, he departed without informing his parents. His parents were therefore, worried and his mother fasted for one month wondering where her son was. Finally, word arrived from Visram that their son Mohamedally was in Kenya with him.
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