On August 8, 2010, a large number of people bade farewell to a humble, simple and model matriarch, the late Awabu Mohammed Bhamji, who passed away at the age of 86.
To most people she was respectfully known as Bai (sister), Baa (mother) or Mahajni (female shop owner).
She gave her undivided attention to young, aged, sick or poor.
Most mourners at the Waikumete Cemetry in Auckland knew her as the mother of Ahemad Bhamji, a community leader from Fiji; but few knew the attributes of one of the finest matriarchs of our community that radiated love, respect, humility, simplicity and integrity.
Baa was the Bhamji family matriarch of great distinction, whom I had the privilege of knowing when the family owned a shop in Varandoli, Ba in Fiji.
I was then a student at the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic (DAV) College, Ba.
She left an impression as a person whose duties, obligations and responsibilities to her family remained foremost in her life until the very end.
An exemplary family
Baa rose at 5 am when the village around her home echoed with the crowing of roosters, which had great significance, particularly for women who began the morning chores, cooking breakfast, milking cows, feeding chicken and getting children ready for school.
Baa had eight children plus an extended family that accounted for 32 people, all living under one roof with one family kitchen.
To the best of my knowledge, this was the largest Indo-Fijian family unit in Ba and they all lived, strictly following the moral, ethical and religious codes.
Indeed, this was unlike the traditional Indo-Fijian family unit, which was comparatively smaller. The unity of the Bhamji family revolved around one compassionate matriarch.
Baa arrived in Fiji from India in 1949 when both her parents, who were in Fiji passed away, leaving four siblings, aged 11, 9, 7 and 5 years. Their custody and care fell upon Baa who never faltered in her responsibilities towards them.
They lived, grew and became part of the Bhamji family. Two of the sisters got married and left the clan but the two brothers married but opted to remain with their Bai.
Each of the brothers had six children. Their affection, respect and reverence for Baa remained immeasurable.
Despite such a large number of people with different ages, the family led an exemplary life. The children grew, observing family values under the watchful eyes of Baa.
Honesty, humility, sincerity and integrity were the finest traits of the Bhamji family and Baa was a proud matriarch to see the Bhamji clan retain those values.
In the early days, to supplement the family needs and family income, Baa kept an average of four prized cows for milk and ghee and a fowl run with 30-40 chickens. I often saw her milking cows in the morning or feeding the chicken, later returning to the service counter in the shop.
A caring mother
In addition to the family responsibilities, she devoted time to impart Islamic knowledge and values to the children in her locality on a regular basis.
Her love for her cows was no less than the love she had for the children of the clan.
The cows had to be well fed, which she ensured as they returned home in the evenings. Any sign otherwise brought rebuke to those who grazed them. She had a keen eye and rare wisdom in selecting her cows and, assuredly, they produced milk above the national average.
She had buyers wait-listed for her cows and it included our family but she rarely sold her cows until they aged.
She had equal interest in the chicken that she raised and introduced the ‘Kabuli Roosters,’ with featherless necks in Fiji.
Baa visited her native Bhanodra (a village in Surat, India) in 1961 and on her return, brought six eggs, from which, she successfully hatched a rooster, enabling her to expand a unique breed of chicken in Fiji. The fowl run was kept neat and tidy to the standards required by the health authorities. The demand for her chicken drew people from afar, as the prices were always reasonable. She sold them by the weight, not by size, as per the prevailing practice.
Baa rarely smiled; she did not need to; her charm and the aura of dignity were embedded in her vibrant personality. Anger was not part of her life and despite the pressures of life, as she related to everyone with compassion and kindness.
The entire clan recognised and respected her stature and yet she never showed authority or dominance over her subjects.
One of her most endearing traits was that she considered all the children of the household as her own and never made her own children feel that they were special or entitled to priority of consideration over others.
Baa’s customers varied and some came from considerable distances on horseback to shop. A few came to borrow money when in hardship. She helped the poor, assisted them and those who borrowed money did not have to pay interest but were expected to honour their word and return it on the due date, failing which, they received the requisite free and stern lectures.
She had her own funds raised from selling milk, ghee, chicken and vegetables to support those for whom her heart bled. A few families, who were able to educate their children up to the secondary level with her support, eventually succeeded in getting professional qualifications for their children and their gratitude and respect for her remained strong.
One such person, Briji Deo is currently the Principal of Tavua College in Fiji whose profound condolence message read, “She was one of the greatest women of compassion.”
Following the military coup of May 14, 1987, the family was devastated, as Baa’s eldest son, Ahemad Bhamji, who was a Minister in the deposed Bavadra Government, was held captive and later had to settle in New Zealand.
It gradually saw the Bhamji Empire disintegrate, as some family members headed for Canada and New Zealand. However, true to her role, she was the last person to leave her three-storied, 14-bedroom mansion and came to live with her children in Auckland.
Her occasional trips back to Fiji were like a pilgrimage to her, as she returned with new images of the changing skyline of Fiji.
Realist and pragmatist
However, she was realistic in her approach, accepting the need to move with times and with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren around, she was a very proud and a happy matriarch who touched and transformed numerous lives.
Personally, it was my privilege to have known Baa closely and to see, appreciate and realise how an ordinary woman made an extraordinary contribution in shaping the destiny of the Bhamji family.
Sorrow and sadness ravage our hearts, as we think of someone very special who is no longer with us. However, she has left a legacy for us to follow the values that she treasured.
Our community has built itself on the foundations of struggle and sacrifice of our forebears and Baa was one of those who will always be fondly remembered by the Bhamji family and those who knew her closely.
It is propitious that our Baa should be farewelled in the month of ‘Shabaan,’ a Holy Month in the Islamic calendar.
I pray God to give peace to her soul.
Rajendra Prasad is our columnist and a passionate writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A Compassionate Matriarch: Awabu Mohammed Bhamji