For our fabric needs in Masvingo, a town in southern Zimbabwe, Anneliese and I were told to look no further than Ali & Co. Located on Josiah Tongogara Street, Masvingo’s principal shopping artery, the shop is packed-solid with cloth and sewing accessories suitable for pretty-well every conceivable taste, budget and purpose. Judging from the number of customers who were shopping while we were there, it was hard to believe that Zimbabwe is in such economically dire straits.
Ali & Co. is owned by Ali Lambat and his son Zubair, Zimbabweans of Indian origin. Soon after the start of the 20th century, Ali’s grandfather, Ebrahim Lambat, left his village of Chasa in Gujarat, some 230 km north of Bombay (the present-day Mumbai), in search of new opportunities in Africa.
Ebrahim landed in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and then trekked inland, making his way to the British territories of Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). Like most Indians in these parts of Africa, the Lambat family initially made a living as merchants in rural communities, the larger towns and cities being effectively off-limits to non-White business owners.
Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest town, was founded (as Fort Victoria) in 1890. From its early years, Hindu and Muslim Indians have been a small, but significant, presence; like the Lambat family, most members of the community were Gujaratis. It was here where Ebrahim’s son, Ismail, opened a general store. Ismail died in 1968 and in the same year Ali started up Ali & Co.
Zubair explains the success of Ali & Co. as being due to his father’s hard work and his natural ability to make friends and entertain his customers. Early on he made his mark on the local community when he identified a niche in cutting and making curtains, then growing his business by taking his products to schools in the largely ignored rural areas.
Southern Rhodesia had its own version of apartheid. As early as 1924 the British legislated against Asian immigration to the colony, a restriction that remained until the emergence of Zimbabwe in 1980. At this time officially just one percent (200 people) of Masvingo’s 21,000 full-time residents were Indian.
Unlike in South Africa, there were no legal restrictions on where Indians or mixed-race (for the most part African/European, but also African/Indian – in particular Muslim Indian) “Coloureds” (who, for administrative convenience, officialdom were often lumped together with Indians) could live. That said, key public services operated a colour bar: as the only school in Masvingo for Indians and Coloureds – Helen McGhie Primary – was located in Eastvale, it was natural that these culturally very different communities congregated in this middle class neighbourhood. For secondary education, Indian children were usually sent to Salisbury (as Harare was then called) or Bulawayo, with the non-racial schools of the Marist Brothers being popular choices.
According to Zubair, just eight Indian families (four Muslim and four Hindu) still live in Masvingo, a town of around 100,000 people. Even though a large proportion of the town’s commercial properties, as well as key retail and wholesale businesses, are said to be Indian-owned, Zimbabweans claim that there has never been resentment directed towards them.
As with Black Zimbabweans, it is accepted that Indians were victims of the discriminatory practices of colonial rule. I was told by a former militant of the ruling party, ZANU, that some Indians discretely channeled funds to the liberation movements. But as a small – though economically strong – community, Indians have wisely steered clear of getting involved with politics….one of the undoings of White Zimbabweans in the years that followed independence.
Despite their accepted place in Zimbabwe, since independence – and especially during the economic crisis and hyperinflation that gripped the country from 1999 to 2009 – many Indians have left the country. Like other Zimbabweans, some went to South Africa, Australia or Britain, but many were attracted to neighbouring Botswana or Zambia. I asked Zubair whether he had ever thought of joining them. “Of course”, he said, “but I decided to stay – the grass is not always greener elsewhere.”
Like many other Indians with business interests in Masvingo, Zubair is based in Harare. Not only are business opportunities greater in the capital, so too are educational and social provisions. But even as a part-time resident of Masvingo, Zubair remains a prominent business figure. He is also a pillar of Masvingo’s small Muslim community, helping to support the local mosque and providing employment to fellow Muslims, mainly Malawians and Mozambicans.
As for our shopping, we explained to Zubair that we were looking for African designs, preferably fabric that was made in Zimbabwe. There was some Zambian and Tanzanian, but perhaps predictably most came from China – made with African tastes in mind. The economic crisis had wreaked havoc on Zimbabwean industry, including the once important textile sector. Sadly only a few bolts of Zimbabwean-made fabric remained in stock: modernist designs of the Lancashire-based company David Whitehead that started operations in Southern Rhodesia in the early 1950s.
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