What marked him as different from others was a belief in justice and fairness to all, writes Mahmood Mamdani
Yusuf Karmali Alibhai was born on August 30, 1922 in Dar-es-Salaam. His family had migrated to East Africa from a village near Jamnagar in Kathiawar, India, the same area from which came such prominent historical figures as Gandhi and Jinnah.
In 1945, he married Kulsum Panju, born in Kigoma on the Tanganyika – Congo border. Her family came to East Africa even earlier- towards the close of the 19th Century. The young couple moved from Dar-es-Salaam to Uganda in 1951 with their two sons, Mahmood and Anis.
Alibhai embraced life fully, in all its dimensions, serving his family and community, and always mindful that each was part of a larger humanity.
I draw three big lessons from his modest life. His first job was as manager of the Cotton Ginnery in Nyendo, near Masaka, in 1951. He lost the job in a year. The owner of the ginnery had asked him to follow what was then a common practice among ginners: to falsify weights when purchasing raw cotton from neighbouring peasants. When Alibhai refused, he was fired.
He then moved to Kampala and found work in Nabugabo. From that modest beginning, Alibhai moved forward, first to become a connoisseur of Persian carpets and then to set up a foam factory on Kampala-Masaka Road.
The characteristic that marked him as different from others was a strong belief in justice and fairness to all, regardless of colour, faith or age. A gender consciousness, which would be my mother’s contribution to his development, was yet to come.
The second big lesson of his life was his refusal to compartmentalise it and so to live it fully. Outside of employment, Alibhai was a poet, writer and community organiser.
He became active in the Shi’a Ithna’asheri community and joined two friends to start a Gujarati magazine called Manzil – destiny. The magazine was the first in combining creative writing with current affairs. The Manzil magazine became a popular monthly.
Among his memorable poems was an obituary of a bench that lay in the foyer of the mosque and had given rest and relief to many over decades. One day, the legs gave way.
Alibhai’s obituary became a way of giving a third party view of the community, of different types of people over the years that sat on the bench, the conversations the bench was privy to over those years. The obituary became a popular critique of the powers that controlled the community.
Not surprisingly, the community turned to Alibhai when it came to writing a new constitution to correct current ills. He chaired that effort, meeting over 26 times, going over each provision and coming up with a constitution that earned wide support. In the community, they called him Father of the Constitution.
Simplicity, combined with subtle critique, was the hallmark of Alibhai’s poetry. This poem, Bekasur Bankdo (the blameless bench) began: Sidhi saral aa waat che, jem chaar ne tran saat che (this is a simple story, as simple as four plus three is seven). The logic could not but appeal to a community of shopkeepers and shoppers.
Alibhai combined acute observation and gentle representation with action as a community organiser, once again learning from his wife.
As an organiser, he addressed concerns of the poor members of the community. After the expulsion from Uganda in 1972, the couple settled in London for a few years.
He began organising the elderly in the community, first to make representations to the borough local council, so the elderly may receive facilities to make their life meaningful at an advanced age.
Alibhai and Kulsum returned to Uganda after the fall of Amin to join their two sons. Alibhai is survived by a daughter and two sons, a daughter-in-law and a son-in- law, three grandsons, a great-granddaughter and a great grandson.
The daughter, the youngest, Masuma, is a public health specialist in Dar-es-Salaam. She remembers him as a loving father. Even if he sometimes forgot his daughter at school in the hustle and bustle of his many concerns, at the end of the day, he was always there for her.
The middle son, Anis, is a businessman in Kampala and Dar-es-Salaam. He has remained closest to his father’s combination of business and social concerns.
As the eldest son, I, Mahmood, currently a professor and executive director of Makerere Institute of Social Research, together with the rest of the family, we learnt much from the creative and organisational legacy of our father.
Yusuf Karmali Alibhai died in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2014, at the family home in Buziga.