Ebrahim Rhoda is a detective, which is self-evident when you sit and listen to him recount his fascinating odyssey that started with a desire to find out who his forebears were.
It all started way back in 1990, when he asked his late aunt, Rahima Crombie, to tell him about his ancestors.
“She was 90 at the time, and she sat in that very chair there,” says Mr Rhoda, pointing across the living room. She couldn’t read and write, but she had a fantastic memory, encyclopaedic in fact. I recorded her story and transcribed it, so I have all the names.”
But it was only in 2001 when Mr Rhoda’s friend, David Gordon, stopped by and told him about the slave heritage project initiated by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT), which was looking for community researchers, that he started his journey of discovery that eventually took him across the length and breadth of the Western Cape and as far afield as Grahamstown, in search of the answers he sought.
“I’d been home for seven years by then (Mr Rhoda was the principal of Strand Muslim Primary School when he retired), so I applied.
“Seven of us were selected, and we each got R5 000 from the National Research Foundation for lodging and travelling, and they gave us basic training in how to access the slave records,” he says.
And so Mr Rhoda began his research into the history of the Muslim community in the Strand, that would eventually result in him registering for a Master’s degree in history at UWC, which he completed with distinction in 2006.
His thesis, titled The founding and development of the Strand Muslim community, 1822-1928, contained so much new information about his research topic, that in the opinion of his supervisors, it ought to have led to a doctorate.
In the words of Dr Susan Newton-King of UCT: “It fulfils all of the requirements of a Master’s thesis, and at least two of the key requirements for a doctoral degree: it shows proof of original work, and it makes a distinct contribution to new knowledge.”
Mr Rhoda’s research encompassed oral and written records, which led to some interesting sleuthing to arrive at the answers which he sought.
What started as a desire to research his own genealogy, became a quest for the history of the Strand Muslim community, when he read the testament of Javanese-born Imam Abdus Sammat, who settled in the Strand (then Mosterd Bay) in 1822, where he died in 1838.
Mr Rhoda’s research led him to postulate that Imam Sammat was tending to a faith-based community of free-born and freed slaves in the area.
His sources included family oral traditions, opgaaf- rollen (census), wills, death certificates and death registers, and the slave registers which local farmers were required to keep, and diaries and journals written by people of that time.
The intricacies his research entailed is perhaps best illustrated by his search for answers about Imam Abdus Sammat.
The Cape Town census of the time revealed that he was part of a group of about 300 people who lived in the Bo-Kaap in 1907, which led Mr Rhoda to ask: “When they came here (to the Strand) there were a lot of Muslims and imams, so what did they do (to resist being baptised)?
“Unfortunately we don’t have archives, so what is the next option? You either go to the diaries of citizens of the Cape, or journals, or you go direct to the records of the missionaries.
“I took the bus down to Grahamstown and I sat with their records (of the South African Missionary Society) and I found that the imams were giving the missionaries a headache with their own mission work,” says Mr Rhoda.
“But I had to find proof that the imams were doing this.”
And the answer emerged from John Campbell’s book Travels in South Africa, which recounts his 17 month-long journey visiting mission stations in 1812 and 1813, in which he wrote: ‘Here in Cape Town about 23 blacks and Muslims have clubbed together and hired a room. Into this room they invite the slaves and when the slaves leave that room they are anti-white, they are anti-Christian and they are Muslim.’ So I had proved they (the imams) were doing this missionary work,” Mr Rhoda says.
But he needed corroboration, so he spent two weeks delving into the Dutch Reformed Church archives for the period, where he came upon the diary of Paul Daniel Luckhoff, who taught slaves in Stellenbosch at the time.
Mr Luckhoff, who spent a period convalescing in a holiday hut on the beach in Strand, wrote in his diary: “It is very lonely and you must bring everything with you because here there is absolutely nothing, but here on the beach stand the fisherman’s huts of the adherents of Mohammed.”
Mr Rhoda had struck gold.
It is such postulations underpinned by painstakingly researched corroborations which characterise Mr Rhoda’s work.
While completing his research and eventually his Master’s thesis, Mr Rhoda has written many newspaper articles, given many talks and presentations, and spoken frequently on radio.
He has presented a number of scholarly papers locally and overseas, and curated and staged a photographic exhibition, all around his much-beloved subject.
Mr Rhoda is a founding member of the Cape Family Research Forum (CFRF), which encourages people to do research into their genealogy, and he has run a number of workshops for beginner researchers.
The 260-page book which emerged from his thesis, The Strand Muslim Community, 1822-1966: A historical overview, was expanded to cover 38 years more than his thesis, which covered the period 1822 to 1938.
“One of the major reasons was to publish the book and generate money to establish a fund for the widows of our imams and madrassah teachers with long service. This was my wife, Amina’s, idea. We donated 1 000 copies to the community,” he says.
“To facilitate the marketing and sale of the book, I included about 100 families and listed all the imams and teachers who served the community from 1822 to 1966.
“Enlisting the assistance of all stakeholders in the community we managed to raise R175 000 for this fund, which is now operative for the past two years.
“In 1966 we unified the four separate congregations under the Strand Moslem Council. In 2016 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Strand Moslem Council.
“I served as secretary and treasurer for the first 10 years. I am the only surviving founder-member of the original executive committee of nine members,” Mr Rhoda says.
Aside from his thesis-based book, Mr Rhoda has self-published eight other booklets over the period 2003 to 2018, the sale of which contributed significant sums to building work at Strand Muslim Primary School, various community projects, and a fund which partially assists indigent pupils with their school fees.
Despite the insistence of a number of academics that his work merited a doctoral degree, and the advocacy of his nephew, Adiel Ismael, who lobbied his alma mater, UWC, Mr Rhoda was content with his Master’s degree.
But these things have a habit of coming full-circle.
During November, Mr Rhoda received an invitation to an award ceremony at UWC on Friday afternoon, where he received recognition for his outstanding work, in the form the UWC gold medal for commitment to community service.