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A slice of Oman in Uganda

1 Nov 2020 By SHADDAD AL MUSALMY

Uganda, which may be lesser known to have historical links with Oman by the younger generation, is still a safe haven for many Omanis, and the country which hails from a diversity of rich culture, is remarkably hospitable.

According to Mohamed Nasser Ammar al Harthi, who has done research and is in the process of writing a book on Omanis in Uganda, Omanis travelled deep inside Africa from the East African Coast, and Uganda was one of the major destinations for Omanis.

“During the reign of Seyyid Said bin Sultan in Zanzibar, Omanis travelled deep inside Africa from the East African Coast and Uganda was one of the major destinations for Omanis. In 1844, Ahmed bin Ibrahim al Amri, who introduced Islam to the King of Buganda in Uganda, was the first Omani and foreigner to enter Uganda,” Harthi said.

Then, other Omanis and other foreigners – Europeans, Yemenis, Indians followed. “The Omanis in Uganda then received and encouraged and supported other Omanis arriving in Uganda in many ways, like doing business, or in their travel to/from Uganda and other places or neighbouring countries – whatever the needs were. The Omani guests and other foreigners felt secure and encouraged because of them,” Harthi said.

“My forefathers also followed suit, some decided to marry and live in Uganda and others brought their families with them,” he added.

In Uganda, dress is determined by the region they come from. Influenced by the outside world some tribes changed their clothing. “The King of Buganda (Kabaka) who accepted Islam was the first to put on the Omani ‘dishdashas’ (locally known as Kanzu) and the ‘bisht’ (Bisuti) followed by his senior officials in 1844. The Kanzu was then adopted as clothing for men in Buganda region and it slowly spread to other neighbouring regions like Toro, Bunyoro and Busoga,” Harthi disclosed, adding, “The pattern and design of the original Omani dishdasha, which our ancestral women used to knit by hand is still maintained in Uganda and tailored locally.”

Interestingly, in Uganda, the men do not use the ‘wizra’ (locally known as Bikoy and Bikoyi) as Omani men do. Instead, Ugandan women put on the wizra which are considered as prestigious attire. “I wish to mention that the initial old wizra were originally from Oman and of different patterns and types. In the old days, these wizra were manufactured from different Omani local villages, given names similar to the originating Omani villages, and exported.

In Uganda the names of the wizra which were brought in by Omanis in 1880 are known as Karyati from Quriyat, Bula from Ibra and Sumaili from Samayil.

According to Harthi, Omanis also took with them and introduced Omani medicines, like subar, khali, qarfa, filfil aswad, and the incense burning tradition with Luban.

Harthi, 66, who lived in Uganda, says, he enjoyed his life there. “I was brought up in Uganda by my Omani family, and frankly, I enjoyed living and studying in Uganda. As an Omani, I have therefore decided to write about my life experience in Uganda. The Omani customs and culture benefited us in many ways and we felt proud to be Omani. The Omanis felt responsible for each other and for the up-bringing of their children with the same spirit.” 

The locals picked up some useful cultural traditions and maintained them, and vice versa. Omanis also benefited from the locals and other foreigners. They also had a tendency to speak a number of languages,” he said.

He further said that his elders made it a habit to listen to BBC Arabic radio and would then discuss it when they got together for Qahwa (Omani coffee). “We always stood around to serve them and listen to their discussion. However, when the Late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, many got thrilled and decided to come back to Oman,” Harthi said.

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