My Dad: Salim Najmuddin Mnyusiwalla
‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ as the old saying goes, yet my dad has become the master of many during his fifty years. Having been everything from a restaurateur to a chicken farmer he has led a colourful and very varied life.
Salim Najmuddin Mnyusiwalla was born in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-Es-Salaam in 1961, and he was two years old when his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother Zehra, a seamstress, to raise him and his three siblings, Mohammed, Aunali and Tasneem single handedly.
Having moved back to his mother’s home town of Tanga, 320 kilometres north of the capital following the departure of his father, my dad had a comfortable upbringing having been supported by his uncle, Dawoodbhai Yusufali Mohammadali, who he came to see as a father figure.
Growing up he became what you might describe as a teacher’s worst nightmare
“I was mischievous to describe it mildly! My friends and I would decide when we wanted to go to school, sometime we’d just go and sit in the tree house we had made, ourselves in the school grounds instead of going to class, other times we would sneak into the headmasters house which was on the school site and steal oranges from his trees. The canteen next door to the school was owned by my friend’s dad, my friend would steal the keys from the worker in the morning and occasionally we sneaked into the warehouse to eat sweets and cassava crisps. To be sent home from school several times a week wasn’t out of the ordinary for me, we were the real-life bash street kids”
At the age of seven in an attempt to improve her son’s behaviour my grandma sent him to live in a hostel near the school which belonged to a family friend, at the cost of fifty shillings a month, equivalent to around 25p in today’s terms.“We had set bedtimes, a siren would signal lights out at 8pm, and another siren at 6am when we would have to get up, do our prayers and get dressed for school. We would have to be ready and downstairs for 7:15 otherwise we wouldn’t get breakfast, I never missed it. After coming back from school we got changed and headed straight to the gymkhana (sports centre), sport was compulsory then it was dinner, homework time, a glass of milk and bed, it was six people to a dorm”
“That place taught me discipline but I loved it, it sparked my love of sports and I got to live with my friends, what could be better than that”
However the hostel still didn’t prevent the odd incident every now and then “School wasn’t like England, if you were naughty you would get a ruler to the hand or a pinch but our religion teacher was particularly harsh. He would always pick on a group of us, so one day me and nine other broke into his office and threw his cupboard ,where he stored books, out of the first floor window into the schoolyard”
In Tanzania, come the weekend, time would rarely be spent indoors. On a Saturday all the children would be driven the twenty minutes into town in the hostel’s pickup truck, ten at a time, to spend their pocket money and Sunday’s would be spent at the beach.
“ I’d get two shillings every week, which would only be about 10p today, but it went a long way. I would head straight to the paper shop and buy my four favourite comics and with the rest of my money I’d buy peanuts, mango with chilli and salt and a sugar cane so big that it would last me for the rest of the week!”
Salim eventually went on to complete three A-levels before leaving home to complete a year of national service.
Up until 1998 national service was compulsory for every Tanzanian who went onto further education with the help of government money, put simply it was a form of loan repayment.
Whether it was after A-levels or following the completion of a university degree each individual was expected to join the organisation which today still exists as Tanzania’s equivalent to Britain’s Territorial Army.
One of the primary functions of this organisation is to defend and help Tanzania during times of war or natural disaster with recruits trained in front line combat giving them the ability to supplement the country’s main army, the Tanzania People Defence Force (TPDF) should the need arise.
In addition, the national service is also tasked with helping to develop Tanzania working on farmlands and carrying out government projects such as building schools and new roads.
My dad joined the service at the age of 18, moving around a thousand miles away to a base in Arusha from his home in Tanga. It was during his year in service that Tanzania entered into a war against Uganda which was under the rule of Idi Amin.
“I was in the division called ‘operation Idi Amin’, everyone who started national service during the war went straight into front line training learning combat, self defence, emergency first aid, how to defend camps, trench fighting”
“There were eight battalions in our division, each with two hundred soldiers. We all had six months of intensive training in Arusha before moving to Kagera, a small town on the border between Tanzania and Uganda. Four of the battalions went to war, I was in the 5th battalion but before we were sent to the front line Amin fled to Saudi Arabia and the Ugandan’s surrendered”
Straight after the war, my dad’s battalion was sent into Uganda on a clean-up operation, recovering weapons and the bodies of soldiers and civilians who had been killed. In this period he witnessed some harrowing scenes.
The clean- up operation took them to army barracks in the Ugandan town of Soroti, used as a torture chamber during the notorious rule of Amin.
“The barrack cells were splattered red and in some you could see brain matter, others were covered with writing where prisoners had written their names on the walls in blood. The floors in some of the rooms were covered in congealed blood where only god knows how many people were brutally tortured and killed. People who were sent to that prison rarely made it out, I can’t describe how it felt seeing it.”
Whilst in the national service Salim had also joined the field hockey sports team as a means of stress relief and represented the service in national competitions ultimately leading to him being selected for the Tanzanian Olympic Hockey team to compete in the 1980 Moscow games. However shortly before competing he was forced to pull out after breaking his leg during a match.
Leaving Arusha in 1980 he headed back to Tanga where after a short stint working in the police force he was left in charge of running the family restaurant ‘Shamiana’ that sold Indian and African food.
“Our restaurant was famous for its rib soup”
Following the war with Uganda, the country was suffering from widespread shortages of basic amenities such as soap and sugar and having made contacts whilst working at the restaurant my dad became involved in black market trading.
With some of the proceeds he bought a chicken farm on the outskirts of Tanga in 1982 and became a supplier to a lot of the town’s population.
“I think I had around 7000 chickens altogether, I employed workers to look after the farm and everything seemed to be going perfectly, I felt like a mini entrepreneur, I’d always wanted to run a chicken farm because my uncle used to keep them when I was younger and I loved them”
But disaster struck three years later when the farm was hit by a disease known to locals as ‘Kideri’ which had the potential to wipe out the entire stock of chickens.
“Overnight, two of the farm workers, my watchman and I had to slaughter every single chicken by hand to prevent disease spreading, it was a disaster, I shut down the business after that”
After running the restaurant for a further five months he handed control back to his older brother and decided to come to England to study. However after arriving in London in 1986 his plans soon changed and he instead started a business exporting truck parts to Tanzania.
“I was still young and very money minded at the time so when I saw an opportunity to make money I took it. I’d been to England quite a few times before I decided to move there permanently and one of the reasons I liked it so much was because it seemed easy to achieve your ambitions there, if you had an idea, you had the potential to realise it with bank loans and government help”
After a few months in the capital, my dad moved to Leicester to stay with friends and here he met my mother Shirin after being introduced by a friend. They married in 1986 and four years later welcomed their first daughter, Munira (me) Followed by a son, Hamza in 1994.
In that time he had gone through a number of jobs from mechanic to working in a pharmaceutical factory. Now a qualified electrician after having finally completed his original ambition to study, he has settled into a suburban way of life with little evidence of his eventful past.
He still makes regular trips back to Tanzania “I see both countries as home, given the chance I would of course love to have raised my children in the country where I grew up and have the same way of life that I did. Everyone misses their past, but I am happy knowing that my son and daughter will have the same values as me and my wife because that doesn’t come from where you were brought up, but how.”