Sultan Jessa – 1942-2019

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

Sultan Jessa passed away on 22 August 2019 in Montreal, Canada, aged 77. The man who was born in 1942 in Moshi, on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, rose to towering heights in journalism, first in East Africa and later in Canada. 

Sultan was born in a family of East African pioneers. His grandfather, Hasham Jessa, made the arduous voyage from Gujarat, India at the dawn of the 20th Century and settled in Mombasa. He later migrated to the then Tanganyika, set up shop near Moshi, ventured into the bee-keeping business and expanded his business to include a cattle and fruit farm and built the landmark Tanganyika House in Moshi. He was called ‘Lord Jessa’ and was known for his business ethics and charitable spirit, which Sultan imbibed.

Sultan is the son of Kamrudin Jessa who started his business in nearby Arusha   expanding his conglomerate to include a coffee plantation, a bakery, a dairy and still having time for community work. From a young age, Sultan chose a career in the media rather than joining the family business. 

His early foray into publishing was the launch of his magazine Scholar's Digest.  His big break came when he joined The Nationalist newspaper, mouthpiece of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) as a trainee reporter. The Nationalist sent him on a scholarship to study journalism at the Berlin Institute of Mass Communications in Germany. Then he went to England, and returned to Dar es Salaam and reported on the Independence Day. He was privileged to work under the editorship of Benjamin William Mkapa, who later became the President of Tanzania. 

He joined the Tanganyika Standard which was then owned by Lonrho before nationalization, and later called the Daily News. He covered many stories on the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar and on the efforts by Presidents Nyerere, Obote and Kenyatta as they struggled to establish the East African Community. 

The field opened further for him when he started freelancing for western news agencies – Agence France Presse, United Press International, Associated Press, Reuters and Ceteka, the Czech news agency. He also wrote for Adruica magazine of London, Drum and the Kenya Mirror as well as Kenya’s Nation Group. In a decade of working in Tanzania, Sultan interviewed former global leaders like German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Robert Kennedy, Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, cowboy films legend Roy Rogers, Harry Belafonte, John Wayne and Sidney Poitier – Hollywood icons. He was transferred to Nairobi in the early 1970s and covered the Parliament and ventured into news features. TV stations invited Sultan to interview luminaries in Kiswahili. 

But his most significant break came when covering the 24th biennial Boy Scouts Jamboree in Nairobi.  Sultan saw Prince Shah Mahmoud, third son of the deposed King Mohammed Zahir Shah of Afghanistan and approached him. The Prince was shocked when Sultan broke the news to the Prince that his father had been overthrown. This was an international scoop for Sultan and his reputation as a hard-core newsman went up many notches. 

Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Asians from Uganda, an exclusive interview with Dr Robert Ouko, Bing Cosby the famed American singer and Stan Musal, the American baseball superstar established Sultan as an international journalist. 

When Tanzania banned The Nation, Sultan returned to Tanzania and launched his own newspaper, the Northern News in Arusha. In 1973, he moved to Canada with his family, initially settling in Cornwall, Ontario, where he got a job on The Standard-Freeholder, a small community newspaper owned by the media giant Thomson group. Sultan did not wish to leave Tanzania but its nationalisation programme had hit his family hard. He continued in journalism in Canada and finally retired in 2005 at the age of 63 having worked in the profession for 30 years. 

Throughout his life, Sultan never forgot his role in helping the entire community and for this he was honoured with Canada's highest and most prestigious Order of Canada award. In 2010, he was voted as one of Canada's top 25 immigrants – no mean feat bearing in mind the country has over 7.54 million immigrants. Sultan received numerous other awards including the Queen's Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals for voluntary work. 

Sultan was someone exceptional. He was nicknamed ‘The Sultan of Selflessness’ for his uncanny ability to raise funds for local charities. Canada's former Prime Minister Paul Martin sent Sultan a personal message saying, ‘You can take pride in your accomplishment over the course of your remarkable career.’ Sultan continued to pen articles till the end – a weekly column on national and international affairs and numerous travelogue stories of his worldwide travels. 

He is survived by his wife Rosila, who was born in Mozambique but later migrated to Portugal, two daughters Anaar and Yasmin and grandchildren. 

By Shamlal Puri and Kul Bhushan

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 March 2020 10:14

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