Urmila Jhaveri: 1931 - 2019

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019
Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

It is little wonder that as soon as news of Urmila Jhaveri`s death spread, heartfelt tributes started pouring in on the A-O forum, on Facebook and elsewhere. These came from close friends and other people who had known her through her writings.  All of them spoke of the warmth of her humanity, her humility, her unfailing courtesy and the uplifting and inspiring nature of all her interactions with everyone. These qualities epitomised her moral integrity, strength of character and singular determination to do good which underlaid all her actions.

So who was she?  Urmila Jhaveri was born in Pemba in 1931, the eldest of four children, to parents who had migrated to Zanzibar from India. Her father had been recruited to the colonial customs service in the mid-1920s and was posted to Pemba but, after about 6 or 7 years, left it to join his elder brother`s business of a drug store in Dar es Salaam, which then became her home city for the next 75 years.

Fortunately for us, her memoir `Dancing With Destiny` (published in 2014 when she was 83) gives a graphic account of her trajectory and progress through life in characteristically modest fashion.  Her idyllic childhood and schooling in Dar es Salaam`s colonial setting was interrupted by WWII, when the family moved to India, where she was betrothed to a promising young lawyer, K L Jhaveri, whom she married on her return to Dar, after he had arrived there having finished his legal studies in London. That was just two months short of her 17th birthday and before she could complete her School Certificate, though that was not to be a handicap.  Her fate was to `dance with destiny` as it unfolded,  grounded in her cultural roots and a solid marital relationship with a loving husband whose liberal ethos enabled her to flower into a confident self-educated woman of great intellect and personal and social accomplishments.

Kantilal Jhaveri was a distinguished lawyer cum politician whose own memoirs were published in 1999 under the equally catchy title of `Marching With Nyerere`, alluding to his part in the fight for independence alongside the Mwalimu.  So inevitably Urmila too got drawn into the struggle and to know all the leading figures of the time, who used to meet at their house and with whom she could converse in Swahili which she spoke fluently.  She also became a much valued activist in her own right as a member of TANU and in the women`s movement, `Umoja Wa Wanawake Wa Tanzania` (UWT), which entailed travels across the length and breadth of the country as the only Asian, the only non-African, with her colleagues who all formed a close-knit network of friendship and sisterhood. Her book gives a fascinating insight into her UWT and other activities within a vast hinterland of her tremendously varied interests - see http://opinionmagazine.co.uk/details/799/Review-of-Dancing-With-Destiny-by-Urmila-Jhaveri.

During those years, both before and after independence, the Jhaveris quite understandably moved in the country`s elitist circles, where Urmila was much admired both as a charming host and guest, as can be seen from the many pictures of her with top local and visiting dignitaries in her book, with a foreword by G Madaraka Nyerere, a son of Julius Nyerere.  

In 2010, Mr Jhaveri`s failing health prompted the couple to move to Delhi in their retirement, and it was there that Urmila began to write her memoir, encouraged by her husband who however never interfered with the book, `letting me write our story in my own way`.  Sadly he did not live to see its publication, though he had read it in manuscript before he passed away in January 2014 – his obituary can be accessed at


Smiling Urmila Zhaveri in conversation with the former President of India, Dr S Radhakrishnan, during his visit to Tanzania
Kantilal and Urmila Zhaveri seen in later life - A couple who had dedicated their working lives to Tanzania
Urmila Jhaveri donates historical photographs and documents relating to Tanzania’s struggle for freedom to Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation, National Archives and Kavazi la Mwalimu

In 2017, Urmila made a touching return visit to Dar when she presented the Jhaveri papers – comprising historical documents, photographs and other material relating to the struggle for independence – to the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation and the National Archives.  She was warmly received everywhere (for a local newspaper report of her presentation see  https://awaazmagazine.com/volume-14-issue-2/book-reviews/item/919-urmila-jhaveri)

Indeed, the TBC2 channel recorded an extensive interview with her in Swahili as part of a documentary feature ‘to honour mama and celebrate her contribution to the independence struggle for Tanganyika’, which was broadcast on 8 March 2018, International Women`s Day. It is little wonder that she was  affectionately called `mama` by the locals, for this was an impressive performance in terms of her narrative clarity and command of the language - see


It is clear from her `Destiny` book that she had lived her life to the fullest in every possible way, and even towards the end she was working on a sequel to it, the focus of which was going to be Tanzanian women`s part in the fight for independence and betterment of their condition. She was always conscious of the enigma of her existence, expressed in her book`s epilogue thus: `No doubt all my experiences, relationships, actions and reactions have moulded my being … [but] Who am I? African, Indian, Gujarati or Amalgam of many labels`! She was much more than that and will be missed by all who knew her.  She leaves a loving extended family of children, grand-children, nephews and nieces scattered across the world.

Ramnik Shah



Last modified on Friday, 07 June 2019 23:49

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