I felt an unusual nervousness while waiting for my scheduled interview with His Highness the Aga Khan at his home in Nairobi's Muthaiga area. He, or rather his institutions, had been of such profound influence in my life for so long that the thought of finally meeting the man in person after so many decades was unnerving.
I started my primary schooling in Nairobi while Kenya was still a British colony. Government schools were few and far between, instead parents relied on Christian Mission schools, or community schools to educate their children. The Aga Khan schools in Nairobi and Mombasa already enjoyeathe reputation of being among the best education establishments in the country but admission was not easy.
By great good fortune, I was enrolled at the Aga Khan Primary School in Nairobi. The following year, I moved to Mombasa with my mother as Nairobi was becoming increasingly dangerous. I joined a small number of other non-Ismailis at the Aga Khan Primary School there.
This had a huge impact on my life. I loved the school and never once did I experience any form of discrimination as a non-Ismaili. I aid well ana was amply rewarded for it. I made friends who remain so to this day.
The second major impact on my life was when I went to work for the Nation newspaper. It had been launched by the Aga Khan in 1960, three years before Kenya's independence, to be a "voice for the voiceless". Before that, the main English newspaper, The East African Standard, had been strongly focused on the colonial government and white settler community. The Nation, which was tabloid size, stood everything on its head. Now coverage was through the African perspective. Journalists were no longer required to be white. The paper sold like hotcakes and first instilled in me the desire to take up journalism when I finished my education--and that is exactly what happened.
Throughout most of my primary and secondary schooldays, the face of the young Aga Khan, Prince Karim, had beamed out at us from his photograph in the main hallway. I can still recall the surprised duzz, in 1957, that had greeted the information that in his will, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III had looked beyond the next generation, past his two sons, Prince Aly Khan and Prince Sadruddin, and named as his successor to the Imamat, the athletic 2.o-year-old Karim, who was then a student at Harvard University.
The news had been as much of a surprise to him as it was to us. "Overnight," Karim was to tell journalist Paul Evan Ress, "my whole life changed completely. I woke up with serious responsibilities toward millions of other human beings."
After taking a year and a half to visit Muslim communities the world over, he completed his degree. Some years later, he was able to find time to join Iran's skiing team for the 1964 Winter Olympics in Austria. In another interview with James Reginato, he explains why he returned to Harvard, to finish his BA in history. "There was knowledge there that I needed. I was an undergraduate who knew what his work for the rest of his life was going to be."
But his very early education, interestingly enough, was in Kenya. At the outbreak of the Second World War, his grandfather had sent him and his younger brother Amyn to live in a house the family owned in Nairobi. In addition to the usual subjects, they were also tutored in Arabic, Urdu, the Koran and Islamic culture.
Back in Nairobi in April, the call came through that His Highness was ready for the interview. I knew that he had had a hectic couple of days in Nairobi and there was a long list of people wanting to meet him. The interview slot had been unavoidably delayed by a few hours so it was almost 7.00pm when I was shown through to a living room. He is over 80 years old and in his place, I might have felt a bit testy to have to sit through an interview.
He breezed in looking as fresh as if it was the start of the day. He gave me a warm smile, shook me firmly by the hand, ushered me to a sofa and turned his full attention on me.
I started by asking him if he recalled anything of his time when at a tender age he was in Kenya.
It was during the Second World War, he reminded me. "My brother and I were together at the time, of course. And, we were very young. So, we were really children with home education. There was a nanny who was also an educator. And, we went back to Europe at the end of the Second World War. So our experience here was when we were very young children."
Did he have any memories of the time?
"We were in the garden very often. We were interested in the growth of rhubarb. And why does rhubarb grow in grains? All the intelligent questions that young people ask themselves," he saia with a smile and we laughed. I immediately felt quite relaxed.
It was time to get to the nub of the matter. "How would you describe your role as Imam?"
"Oh, that's another issue," he said and reflected for a brief moment. "Well, I think first of all, obviously, there's an issue of interpretation and practice of the faith. And that is clear. But, in Islam an Imam is involved with the quality of life of the communities that refer to him. He's not just a man of faith, he's also a man of guidance for social relations, economic development, etc.
"My grandfather, as Imam in his time, was particularly concerned with the security of the community during the War. That was six years with the world upside-down.
"And, then, the question was always going to be the impact of the War on the countries where the Jamat [community] was living. He followed those issues very carefully, he was engaged in international affairs...