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HomeSpiritual TravelSaints of the Savannah Sequence: The Punjabi Labourer

Saints of the Savannah Sequence: The Punjabi Labourer

Using by way of the Kenyan countryside on the fashionable customary gauge railway one comes throughout a peculiar sight. Not very removed from the most important nationwide park within the nation, the ominously named ‘Tsavo’, which to the Kamba individuals means ‘a spot of slaughter,’ lies a small and unassuming city known as MacKinnon Street with a inhabitants of lower than 10,000.1 On this very city within the dry coronary heart of Kwale county, there lies a tomb belonging to a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – a saint from the Punjab2 who died right here, within the African wilderness, within the nineteenth century.

Within the 12 months 1887 through the ‘scramble for Africa,’ the Imperial British East Africa Firm based by Scottish businessman Sir William MacKinnon3 devised a plan to, amongst different issues, out-do the French and consolidate British holdings in East Africa. The concept: construct a 675-mile railway line from the medieval Islamic metropolis of Mombasa in current day Kenya, all the best way to the shores of Lake Victoria4 in current day Uganda.

William MacKinni
Sir William MacKinnon

However what does Victorian period colonialism in Africa, need to do with the tomb of a Punjabi Muslim saint? This unlikely pairing was introduced collectively through the necessity for affordable and expert labour. The British rapidly discovered that native communities in Kenya5 have been uncooperative and hostile in direction of them, to not point out unskilled in trendy business.6 Nevertheless, India within the previous a long time beneath the British, had already seen the development of railways strains and industrial growth7 by way of the exploitation of native labour. And so an estimated 1.9 to three.5 million indentured Indian labourers have been moved midway throughout the globe, largely involuntarily, to as soon as once more assist advance the colonial challenge.8

To cite one author, “they performed their roles as cogs within the wheels of the imperial equipment, toiling on sugar plantations, constructing roads and buildings, clearing jungle.”9 The primary rail was laid in Mombasa on 5 th August 1896.10

Sayyid Baghali Shah

Enter our saint. Born within the village of Moinuddinpur some one and a half miles from the city of Gujrat in modern-day Pakistan, Baghali Shah, a purportedly very robust youth disappeared from his household and not using a hint. Hailing from a pious household descended from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the younger man had seen his father, a virtuous farmer fall into monetary disaster.11 Letters (which now kind historic paperwork) from his prolonged household have prompt that the dutiful son voluntarily signed-up to toil on the East African railway with the intention to help his household. One letter means that his mother and father and siblings tried to discourage him from the perilous enterprise, however to no avail.12

Sayyid Baghali Shah
(The tomb of Sayyid Baghali Shah mendacity behind a railway monitor, with a locomotive within the foreground. Photograph courtesy of Pals of Mombasa)

His journey in East Africa, wouldn’t be a simple one. What’s now recognized famously as ‘The Lunatic Specific’13 as a result of expense and issue in developing it, could have been constructed by using the wonders of European expertise, however its gas was the blood and sweat of colonial topics. Hardship, and in some instances, loss of life, was the destiny of lots of those that laboured in its constriction. Other than the tough labour situations, the African wilderness was one other problem to cope with. The next is extracted from a poem written in 1899, entitled, I, Roshan, in a Unusual Land14 composed by a chief labourer who witnessed the horrors of the railway.

Now from the city of Mombasa, a railway line extends unto Uganda;

Within the forests bordering this line, there are discovered these lions known as “man-eaters,”

And furthermore these forests are filled with thorns and prickly shrubs.

Parts of this railway from Mombasa to Uganda are nonetheless being made, and right here these lions fell on the workmen and destroyed them.

Such was their behavior, day and evening, and a whole lot of males fell victims to those savage creatures, whose very jaws have been steeped in blood.

Bones, flesh, pores and skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a hint behind them…

Due to the concern for his or her lives, [labourers] would sit of their huts, their hearts filled with foreboding and terror.

Each one among them stored a hearth burning at evening, and non-dared to shut his eyes in sleep; but would a few of them be carried away to destruction.

The lion’s roar was such that the very earth would tremble on the sound, and the place was the person who didn’t really feel afraid?

British railways actually, actually didn’t support the conquered. 2,493 staff died through the development of this explicit railway between 1895 and 1903 at a fee of 357 yearly.15 Some died of illness or as a result of tough labour situations, while others succumbed to the feral components of the wilderness. However Sayyid Baghali Shah had one other story to inform.

Sayyid Baghali Shah
Indian labourers with a surveyor through the development of the railway close to Voi, 1889. Photograph courtesy of Kenya Railways.

Tales started to unfold alongside the railway grapevine about a youth with Herculean power, mystical presents and exceptional piety. It was reported by many, together with English officers,16  that Sayyid Baghali possessed a capability to levitate steel laden karais17 consisting of heavy constructing materials two or three toes above his head as he went about his labours. Others would say that he might simply run at tempo carrying three maunds18 over his head, a feat of power no different foreman might even come near engaging in. Phrase unfold relating to his adherence to prayer and different tenets of Islam, in addition to his honesty and magnanimous generosity to the needy and weak (of which it will possibly simply be imagined, most of the labourers have been).

Much more fascinatingly, it was reported that he possessed the flexibility to converse with animals. On one event when labourers have been clearing a bush, an enormous python appeared. A number of the labourers have been prepared with their sticks, whereas one of the Englishmen raised his rifle to shoot. Sayyid Baghali was reported to fall on his knees and begged them to not hurt the animal; he then confronted the snake and pleaded it to go away in peace. The snake backed down and slithered away. It was additionally believed that Sayyid Baghali’s prayers stored the lions at bay and the labourers in his camp protected.19

Kenya railway
Col John Patterson with a Tsavo man-eater that terrorised rail staff, killed 9 December 1898.

It’s no surprise then, that his loss of life was met with nice unhappiness. He died following an accident wherein the trolley he was driving on misplaced management. He was buried the place he fell, on MacKinnon Street (named after the financier of the Lunatic Specific), The grave was dug proper beside the railway line, by the British officer in cost, who had nice respect for Sayyid Baghali.20 Oral legends inform us that his physique was too heavy to hold away to an appropriate graveyard by the opposite foremen, and thus the explanation for such an odd location.

Sayyid Baghali Shah
Railway line engineers on an inspection trolley (thella), MacKinnon Street, June 1897, courtesy Kenya Railways.

Months turned to years and the railway line was lastly full, however the grave of Sayyid Baghali Shah remained a easy one, surrounded by bush. Many a weary traveller would cease by the grave to supply prayer and salutation to the Sayyid. They’d then attribute their protected journey to the blessings of God by way of this saint. Within the Nineteen Forties, the grave acquired a dome and folks started to settle round it. Mackinnon Street thus turned a city within the wilderness, a haven for travellers to cease at.

At the moment, this cease has develop into part of the tradition of the nation, and never just for Muslims. It’s customary for travellers heading in direction of Mombasa, the most important port in East Africa, to go to the city first. Additionally a part of the customized is for trains and buses to decelerate when passing the city, to pay homage to the Punjabi foreman of East Africa.

Sayyid Baghali Shah
The tomb of Sayyid Baghali because it was within the late Nineteen Forties, courtesy of Musa Ahmed Umarji.


One thing uncommon occurred through the development of a railway line within the wilderness of East Africa. The unusual tales related to a person from the Punjab, which proceed to be instructed all these a long time after the reported occasions, eclipse any type of colonial ‘achievement.’

How typically is it that the faceless employee is remembered over and above the mighty overlord? Whereas few at the moment will habitually keep in mind Sir William MacKinnon, the founding father of the corporate accountable for the railway line, with any type of fondness (or if in any respect), Sayyid Baghali Shah, is visited by hundreds. Although the highway could also be named after MacKinnon, it’s the humble saint the crowds are there for, and it’s to him that they attribute their security, as an alternative of the modernity and progress introduced on by the so-called civilising forces.

Sayyid Baghali Shah had the defiant final chortle. He serves as a reminder for us that, even beneath unspeakable hardship, religious labour, relatively than bodily, is what endures.

The next piece was written by poet Sonya Kassam21 and devoted to Sayyid Baghali Shah.

veiled by bougainvillea inside sacred alabastrine partitions
travellers pause, search aromatic blessings for onward journeys

the iron snake tracks by way of unforgiving terrains
but you stroll as if treading on rose petals
stone laden karai floats over you in reverence, a halo?
the python consents to your prayers
even the man-eaters daren’t cross perimeters

forgive my impertinence
my persistence, my obstinance
O Mystic of Mackinnon Street, I found

a secret divine throughout the Lunatic Line’s shrine…
those that dare transcend the boundaries of chance
stay detached to accusations of madness

This text is a component one of many Saints of the Savannah collection. Learn half two: The Nice Cleric


1 The inhabitants was 8000 within the 1999 census.

2 The Punjab is a area shared between Northern India and Pakistan. While Sayyid Baghali Shah has been documented as hailing from the portion which now constitutes modern-day Pakistan, it might be traditionally anachronistic to consult with him as Pakistani.

3 1 st Baronet of Strathaird and Loup.

4 The naming of the most important lake in Africa after the well-known British monarch is indicative of how the British noticed the East African frontier as rightfully theirs.

5 On the time nonetheless known as British East Africa.

6 Cynthia Salvadori, Settling In a Unusual Land: Tales of Punjabi Muslim Pioneers in Kenya, pg. 18, 88.

7 Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, pg. 177-183.

8 Ibid, 163.

9 Ibid.

10 Cynthia Salvadori, Settling In a Unusual Land: Tales of Punjabi Muslim Pioneers in Kenya, pg 20.

11 Ibid, 88.

12 Ibid.

13 A reputation coined by Charles Miller in his 1971 ‘The Lunatic Specific: An Leisure in Imperialism’.

14 Lieut.-Col. J H Patterson, The Man-eaters of Tsavo, pg 104.

15 The Uganda Journal. Quantity 12, #1, March 1948 pg.1 – 15.

16 Cynthia Salvadori, Settling In a Unusual Land: Tales of Punjabi Muslim Pioneers in Kenya, pg 88.

17 A big metallic wok.

18 A maund is a standard Indian unit of mass. The mass of a maund has different traditionally as being
someplace between 11kg and 72.5 kg. This might imply that he ran with a weight of between 33- 217.5kg on his head!

19 “Mackinnon Street Station/Mosque ( final accessed 9 March 2022 and Oral Literature of the Asians in East Africa by Mubina Hassanali Kirmani and Sanaullah Kirmani, East African Training Publishers, 1 January 2005; The Mystic of Mackinnon Street’, final accessed Solar twenty second Might 2022.

20 Settling In a Unusual Land: Tales of Punjabi Muslim Pioneers in Kenya, Cynthia Salvadori Pg 86.

21 The Mystic of Mackinnon Street’, final accessed Solar twenty second Might 2022.



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