Winter 1990

When Charity Begins Abroad

Inside the clinic it's 90 F. Wrapped in a patterned shawl, a baby lies on its back on a spring scale, his arms and legs flailing in the air. His mother watches anxiously. She has brought her child to be weighed, to see how much weight he has lost in the past few days. Her little boy has chronic diarrhea. And diarrhea, Richard Juma, the medical orderly, explains as he adjusts the child's position on the scale, is the number-one killer of children in the Third World. If Ruth Mogisani's child loses any more fluids, his chances of survival are slim.

"In Kenya, child mortality among children under five is around 10 per cent." Richard Juma continues. "They die of cholera, malaria, polluted water and other bacterial and viral infections. But what they actually die of is fluid loss caused by diarrhea. Stop that, and they have a chance."

It isn't the first time that Ruth Mogisani, from Kakamega near Lake Victoria, has heard all this. How much of it she understands is a different matter. She is a simple woman. At home, her husband tills the corn field behind their mud hut. That's what the family lives on. and that is what she is concerned about - how high the maize is this year, how much it will rain, whether there will be enough helping hands to bring in the harvest. A sick child simply means she has to stay at home, and can't help in the fields. That's all there is to it.

Richard Juma tells her to go home, boil a pan of water over the fire, stir in a can of maize flour, add a bottle cap full of salt, let cool and then cram as much of the porridge into her child as possible. No magic powder, no expensive packet like the white man's medicine men prescribe. Ruth Mogisani seems disappointed.

"The method is brilliant." Richard Juma enthuses. "Everyone can practise it, and the success rate is much higher than with the sugar and saline solutions provided by Unicef and the World Health Organization." It makes more sense, too. What African peasant has a refrigerator to store medicine in a cool place, as the small print requires?

The Oral Rehydration Solution, as the recipe is known was discovered in Bangladesh. Ruth Mogisani doesn't know that, though. When her little boy's health improves she will give the credit to President Moi's health service. In truth, her child's life will have been saved by none other than the 49th Imam if the Nizari Ismaili Muslims, direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Prince Karim al-Hussain Shah, the Aga Khan IV.

The Aga Khan? For most people, the name conjures up a glamorous world of fast cars, beautiful women, racehorses and French chateaux - a super-rich, hedonistic worldout devoted to money and fun. It is true that the Aga Khan is fabulously rich, owns a chateau at Chantilly near Paris and a stable of some of the finest racehorses in the worldout, but that is only half the picture. The "other" Aga Khan is a hard-working, socially committed man who is both spiritual head of the Ismaili community and director of a host of business concerns and philanthropic organisations - among them, the Aga Khan Foundation, which propagates the Oral Rehydration Method that may save Ruth Mogasani's child near the shore of Lake Victoria. "The Imam of the nuclear age," as the Ismailis like to call him, has both feet firmly planted in the realities of today's world.

The Aga Khan was born in Geneva in 1936, brought up in Paris, Switzerland and London and educated at Harvard and Lausanne Universities. In 1957, in a glittering ceremony in Versoix, Switzerland, he was invested as the fourth Aga Khan and spiritual head of the Ismaili community. In all, though even their Imam does not know exactly how many, there are about 15 million Ismailis scattered throughout the worldout. They are Shi'ite Muslims, mostly of Asian origin. Five thousand of them alone live in Kenya.

That figure belies the importance of their community for the economic development of Kenya. As His Highness, Prince Karim, the Aga Khan IV, took over the reins of power from his grandfather ln 1957, at the tender age of 20, Kenya was still a British colony and Nairobi, the capital, a torrid outpost of the Empire. Today, it is the commercial centre of East Africa.

Nowhere is the scale of that transformation - and the role that the Aga Khan's Ismailis have played in it - more visible than in the shimmering neon that crown Nairobi's skyline. The company names typeset in green, red and blue capitals across the star-studded night sky are not just hieroglyphs spelling out the myths of modernity to the impoverished rural hinterland. Names like Nairobi Serena Hotel or Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust are also coded symbols of the Ismailis' commercial presence in Kenya.

Intentionally, it is a discreet presence. And to the causal observer strolling around central Nairobi, company names like Kenya Jojoba Industries or Leather Industries of Kenya suggest indigenous concerns. In truth, they flourish under the auspices of His Highness the Aga Khan and his global financial concern, Industrial Promotion Services (IPS)

When it comes to philanthropic organisations like the Aga Khan Foundation or the Aga Khan Educational Service, institutions which build Aga Khan schools, Aga Khan hospitals or kindergartens, His Highness is happy to openly declare his presence in Kenya. These social-welfare organisations are there not just for the Ismailis, but for all Kenyans - who can afford them, it must be added. And even tough, profit-oriented institutions like the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) retain an aura of philanthropy. "His Highness, real passion is to further the development of people and nations." emphasises Alnashir Visram. director of the Aga Khan Foundation in Nairobi. He is not in Kenya to make a quick buck.

Strangely, though his influence in Kenya is ubiquitous, few Kenyans have any idea who the Aga Khan actually is. The shoe-shine man I spoke to near the hotel had once seen His Highness drive past in a motorcade accompanied by the presidential guard and a cacophony of wailing sirens. He knew that "this Asian," as he called him, was a bigwig, that he owned The Daily Nation, the newspaper read by his customers as he spit and polished their shoes. He knew that he was very rich and was sure that "half of Kenya" belonged to him. But he wasn't sure whether the Aga Khan was a general, a president or a rich tycoon. Whatever he was, the Aga Khan, like all Asians, was sure to be a bad thing. "They just fleece our country. Take me: I'd like to run my own shop, But I didn't have a chance; the Asians wouldn't let it happen," the shoe shine man complained. (As a matter of fact, the fourth Aga Khan is a British Subject, by extraction three quarters English.)

Among Kenya's leadership the Aga Khan enjoys enormous prestige and popularity. When Price Karim and his English-born wife, the Begum, jet to Nairobi from Aiglemont, their residence near Paris, the Guard of Honour is always waiting on the runway and Daniel arap Moi is free. The once Aga Khan is involved at every level in the economic development of the country.

Not that his financial interests are confined to Kenya alone. His legendary wealth is distributed around the globe, above all in those countries where his Ismailis reside - in India and Pakistan, especially, and in the citadels of the capitalist West" New York, Paris, London, Geneva.

Wealth, of course, is more conspicuous in Nairobi than on Fifth Avenue or the Champs-Elysees. In Kenya, the percentage of people with money is far lower and the resentment of those without wealth that much keener. Most of that resentment falls on the heads of the Indians. For the man on the street in Nairobi, the colour of money is "brown" - the colour of the Asians, of the foreign companies, traders and businessmen that dominate Kenya's economy. And the Ismailis are top of the pile.

As a result, the situation in which the Aga Khan's people find themselves is fraught with contradictions. "I was born in Kenya," Asnashir Visram insists. "We have helped to develop this country and feel ourselves to be Kenyans. That's something we're proud of. Naturally, the Indians are first and foremost a business community. They are here to make profit. But we Ismailis give much in return. We build schools and hospitals. We stimulate economic growth. In that sense, we are different from the other Asians."

Different they were from the start. The Ismailis came to East Africa in the wake of the 30,000 labourers shipped from Bombay to Mombasa by the British at the turn of the century to help build the railway to Lake Victoria. The didn't come as track-layers, however. Enjoying the favour and respect of their colonial masters, they quickly established themselves in business. First, in trade; then, in administration, as bank clerks, in the education and health sectors; finally, in industry and high finance. As a result, you are unlikely to find an Ismaili standing behind the cash-register of one of the numerous corner-shops which, in Kenya, account for two-thirds of the retail trade and 100 per cent of the racial antagonism. Their place is behind vast mahogany desks in the glass and steel towers of central Nairobi, and they are immediately recognizable by their appearance and manner. The Ismailis are self-assured, elegant, worldly wise with a hint of studied casualness. They have that unmistakable touch of class, that VIP style which you encounter on the first-class section of an Air France jet or at the pool-side of the Ismaili clubs in Nairobi. The Ismailis are Kenya's upper-class, the creme de la creme, and they don't disguise the fact. Family gathering can easily turn into full-blown banquets. At Ismaili weddings it is not unusual for a thousand guests to be wined and dined at the expense of the bride and bridegroom. Their children study at the best universities in the world, buy their rackets at Harrods and their suits in Milan.

The Ismailis stand apart from the other 80,000 Asians in Kenya in another way. They practice their Muslim faith in a refreshing pragmatic and unfanatical way. While speaking to a secretary at the Aga Khan Foundation on Nairobi, she pointed out of the window of her eighth floor office to the nearby Jamia Mosque and told me: "That's where the Muslims pray." Though I knew what she meant, she said it in such a way as to imply that the Ismailis were themselves not Muslims at all.

The building she pointed at, with its three silver domes, two minarets and canopied roof over the entranceway, looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. The Ismaili mosque, wedged 300 yard away between a petrol station and an African souvenir market, looked more like a provincial railway station from the turn of the century, a fact the Ismailis are proud of.

For the Ismailis a mosque is less a place of stern religious dogma than somewhere in which to meditate, to while away a few hours chatting with friends or seek intellectual diversion on the Aga Khan library. They come here to release from business. New Ismaili mosques these days often come equipped with adjacent squash courts. The Holy of Holies is also a fitness centre. Articles of faith, like fasting, are not narrowly enforced. One commandment is however, binding absolute fidelity to Mola Baba, His Highness Prince Nonce, the once Aga Khan IV.

To hand over ten per cent of one's annual net income, as every Ismaili does, naturally requires a fair bit of fidelity - particularly as ten per cent of a Kenyan Ismaili's income is a lot of banknotes. The greater part of that money goes directly into the Aga Khan Foundation. From there it is channelled into the Foundation's various social welfare projects. These benefit not just the Ismaili community, though. The whole of Kenyan society gains from them.

Without appreciating the depth of the spiritual bonds and mutual material obligations that unite the Khan with his Ismaili community, it is impossible to appreciate his real significance. One will be tempted to see in him a latter-day Nabob surrounded by a bevy of fawning yuppies and businessmen. Rich and influential the Aga Khan certainly is. His wealth and social standing however only serve one all defining purpose, something that often gets overlooked by the outsider. It is in the name of the spiritual and material well being of his Ismailis that Prince Karim invests in businesses around the world. For them that he amasses his incredible fortune. The British general, at whose side the once Aga Khan fought against the mountain tribes of Afghanistan around 1840, was quite clear about the real significance of His Highness. The Aga Khan, he wrote in a dispatch to London, is "a god with an immense fortune, " a god whose legendary wealth enabled him to negotiate on favourable terms with the powers that be.

The fact that the Ismaili community is scattered throughout the world inevitably makes the Aga Khan's task more complicated. "There are certain parallels between the Ismailis and the Jewish diaspora before the founding of the state of Israel" suggests Alnashir Visram at the Aga Khan Foundation "Wherever we Ismailis settle, we are in the minority. And in East Africa, as you know, the Indians are not exactly beloved. Idi Amin drove all the Asians out of Uganda in 1972. In other countries of the region they have been dispossessed and their lives made a misery. As a result, we have to bury resilient. History has taught us to rely on our own strength."

If things are not going well with the Ismailis community the Aga Khan is always there, ready to step in and lend a helping hand. While other Asians had to flee Uganda with little more than the clothes on their backs, the Aga Khan had his Ismailis airlifted out in specially chartered jets. His worldwide network of contacts then assured a propitious start in the countries in which they settled. In similar fashion he led the Ismailis out of Tanzania as Julius Nyerere's socialism began to threaten their businesses. And while Indians in general complain of growing racial antagonism in East Africa, the Ismailis feel themselves secure in the knowledge of their close ties to the Kenyan authorities.

The administation in Nairobi has every reason to keep on good terms with the Ismailis. They know that, left in peace, they will go on contributing to the economic development of Kenya. And this in a very tangible way. While many multinational corporations simply regard Kenya and other African countries as exploitable commodities, the Aga Khan's business operations are directed according to the needs of the country. Profits are reinvested on the spot, which means that the overall economy of Kenya benefits directly.

The Aga Khan also has a shrewd instinct for sound investments. In the early 70's at a time when the Third World was only able to take 10 per cent of the world revenue from tourism, he recognised the trend in the rich North towards tourism to the impoverished South. The AKFED (Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development) promptly founded a new department - Tourism Promotion Services - and established the Serena hotel chain, luxury tourist facilities run along the lines of the Costa Smeralda, the Aga Khan's resort on the island of Sardinia. Today, nearly a quarter of the annual $ 200 billion that tourists spend is spent in the Third Worldout. And more than any other country in the region, Kenya has profited form the white man;s hunger for the sun. Tourism now brings more hard currency into the country than traditional industries like tea and coffee. The sumptuous hotels and lodges of the Serena chain are today to be found all over Kenya - in Nairobi and on the white sandy beaches of Mombasa; in the snows of Kilimanjaro or among lions and elephants in the Masai Mara National Park.

But despite the esteem in which the serene Khan is held by the government of President Moi, he knows how precarious the existence of his Ismaili community is.

Prince Karim's early forebears had established a sect within a sect; his great-great-grandfather had to escape the Shah of Persia to India. Who knows what might happen to the Ismailis in Kenya if there were to be a radical change in the political climate? Another Idi Amin keen to buy black favour at the expense of brown skin is always possible.

Because of the fragility of their position as a minority group, the Ismailis have not only had to learn the art of pragmatic alliance with the powers that be. Since the diaspora out of Persia in the last century, they have had, with great subtlety and skill, to forge bonds with whoever was in power. For a long time, that meant a close cooperation with the British. In the former colonies, the Ismailis always identified with the colonisers. Sir Eboo Pirbhai, the head of the Ismaili community in East Africa, symbolises the deep ties that historically bound the Aga Khan's people to the British. King George VI invested Pirbhai with the Order of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth knighted him. At 90, still fit and doing a full day's work every day, this patriarch also symbolises the success and standing of the Ismaili community in Kenya.

Aga Khan IV has skilfully adapted the survival strategies of his grandfather and Sir Eboo to contemporary realities. The "special relationship" to the British has been recast as a close alliance with the capitalist West in general, for the Aga Khan Foundation the embodiment of economic and political superiority in today's world. As a result, the Ismailis are liked and admired throughout the Western worldout. In a continent marred by growing Islamic fundamentalism, the laissez-faire liberalism and humanitarian engagement practised by the Ismailis is deeply reassuring. Instead of backward-looking religious dogmatism the Ismailis practice tolerance, internationalism and modernism. Instead of the jihad, the burdensome holy war against the infidel, they practice economic advancement and self-reliance. And they are not pro-Western simply out of shrewd calculation like the Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf Emirates. They are pro-Western out of conviction, by virtue of their way of life and their mentality.

Because of this, the West is always quick to back the Aga Khan when he extends the field of operations of his business concerns. When, for instance, IPS founded Leather Industries of Kenya at Thika, outside Nairobi, the AKFED only needed to go in with a share of 44 per cent of the original capital outlay. The rest of the finance came from a conglomerate of Western consortia including the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, a West German development corporation, the American Life Insurance Company and the US Agency for International Development (AID). The same goes for tourism. Apart from the Aga Khan's Tourism Promotion Services. British Airways, Lufthansa and Avis are all involved in the Serena hotel project.

Given the favour that the Ismailis enjoy on the West and their own enormous skill and competence, it is no surprise that Prince Karim, the once Aga Khan IV, finds, himself leader of one of the most stable and successful communities in East Africa, a community that, also brings great benefits to the indigenous people.


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