The writer, Zamena Manekia Manji (Bujumbura, Burundi) is a bookworm with a passion for writing and community service.
he other day when my 3-year-old asked me ‘mummy, what does one ummah mean?’ I stuttered for a second, wondering how to explain such a diverse meaning to him. He was watching the popular one Ummah on YouTube then, and one glance at the animated video portraying people of all ages in different garbs yet coming together was enough to simplify the whole explanation.
‘’ it means a community. Remember how you go to the mosque and meet all your friends there, and all the uncles and aunties you see, well, all of us together means one Ummah’’ I replied. He happily skipped away then, carrying a newfound relationship with him, the kind that will one day resort to becoming one of the greatest gifts this life has to offer.
Growing up in Dar es Salaam and being a part of the Khoja Shia Itnaasheri Jamat, my community to me felt like a huge crowd of people with whom I shared a similar culture with. It meant sitting next to my mum, amidst hundreds of people and listening to the lecturer in Urdu, a language I seldom understood back then. It meant sitting on my dad’s shoulders while he walked in tandem with thousands during the Ashura Procession. It even meant praying next to my grandmother. To the little me, it defined unity, discipline and religion in a nutshell.
Perhaps that is exactly what a community means, a unified force, focusing towards attaining the pleasure of the Lord who created us. A school, where we learn to respect and serve the elderly, where we celebrate and mourn the Ahlul bayt together, and where we learn empathy, kindness and tolerance.
Being part of an ummah of roughly 8000 plus people when I was growing up was truly a lifetime experience. We knew we couldn’t leave our shoes on the way for fear of losing them or someone tripping over them, we even knew if we would get late, we wouldn’t get the front rows at the mosques. Other than learning punctuality and discipline, I learnt team-playing and gained a bucketload of confidence, quite literally. For believe me, when you have to walk in front of thousands of people with a bucket of curry and the nerve-wracking part of serving the masses without spilling, you master the art of confidence in no time.
My community shaped me into the person I am today. Sometimes it felt like a testing ground of my parents’ upbringing and other days, like a safe haven where I could just sit and absorb the calmness that radiated through the walls of the mosque. it helped me make new friends and cement lifetime relationships. I even learnt to always lend a helping hand to the elderly lady passing by and assist a fellow member in need. I watched how everyone would come together to help the less fortunate. I learnt how to co-exist with people from all walks of life, from the 80-year-old to the 6-month-old baby, we were all under the same roof.
When I moved to Bujumbura, Burundi – I was welcomed to a community way smaller than the one I grew up in. with barely 200 people, needless to say, it felt very different but with time, I realized how size didn’t matter when it came to community building. The zeal and passion were the same, and it felt like home in no time. The efforts of running an efficient community were evident and whereas I could now enter the mosque at any time without worrying about getting a place, I still left the premises with the same lessons I learnt back home. I was awestruck at how in the face of one’s adversity, everyone rose as one family to help the affected member, further cementing the very core lessons we derive from the very essence of a community. A little mosque that will now impart the same timeless lessons to my child that I once learnt from my childhood, the lessons of humanity.
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