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Bead Bai

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Who were Bead Bais

From the early 20th century, Satpanth Ismaili family homes spanned the African geography - the forests, grasslands, highlands, the Great Rift Valley, plateaux and deserts. Often their homes had a courtyard behind the family store and often the home-store had a small room furnished as a jamat khana. Often their home-store was on the only street and they were the only Asian African family in the area.

In the stores on the savannah, the Bais worked sorting and stringing ethnic beads. Many Satpanth Ismailis started their businesses in East Africa selling beads like my great grandfather, Rajan Nanji Pachani. Every morning he used to line fist-size heaps of beads on a grass mat, sit crossed legged under a tree at the market in Mombasa and wait for the ethnic people to view and hopefully purchase some of his beads. That was around the turn of the 19th century when Rajan Lalji’s bead shop (established in 1905, in Nairobi’s boisterous Jugu Bazaar) supplied the stock to the rural bead merchants. Fatma Bai, the wife of Rajan Lalji would have been among the first Bead Bais of East Africa. So huge was the trade-in beads that the bazaar behind the stone Jamat Khana was called Moti Bazaar. Two of the well known Bais of the bead bazaar were known as Chak Bai and Puri Bai (surnames?). Moti in Gujarati and Kutchi, the native languages of Satpanth Khoja, means a bead. So many Satpanth Khoja merchants traded in African ethnic beads that the bazaar was also known as Khoja Bazaar.

Often it was the Bais who put the beads on display panels and racks in the stores where they would sit and chat with indigenous women and men who came to admire their colourful stock. They also prepared meals three times a day. In time, the Bais sewed dresses to sell and hemmed kanga and shuka sheets as they turned the handwheels on Singer sewing machines while sitting on the veranda of the store. They also did assorted shop tasks when the men rested in the afternoon and they embroidered pillows and bed covers and mended clothes. The Bais had many children, from six to sixteen, and even more, but not all survived in the African hinterland. They taught the children the sacred songs of guru-pirs and told faith stories. They made the Satpanth family home in Africa at the equator.

The character of Moti Bai in the book is inspired by the lives of the Bead Bais I had met though not specifically about any one of them. This book of fiction is about voyaging, losing India, coming to the new land, old worship styles, imagining, politics and life in the old shantytown of Indian Nairobi. I have brought together these layered stories I heard growing up and again when curating exhibitions about the coming of the Satpanthis to East Africa (Ma ageing gracefully, 1994) and then the Asian African Heritage Exhibition (2000 -2005). The material culture in the book is about women’s historical memories. That is to say, events and stories are built around articles of embroidery and beadwork, stitching and cooking; the stone hand mill, the bandhani, pictures and pieces of jewellery like bangles and the nose siri, body décor we call saangar. We grew up with stories told around artefacts.

An interesting novel by Sultan Somjee

The review of the book could be traced on