By Annisa Essack
It all started way back in 1990 when he asked his late aunt, Ragiema Crombie, to tell him about his ancestors. 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). He mentioned that they were looking for community researchers.
He was one of the seven selected and given R5 000 from the National Research Foundation for lodging and travelling and basic training on how to access the slave records. Furthermore, 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.
His research into the history of the Muslim community in the Strand would eventually result in him registering for a Master’s degree in history at UWC, which he completed with distinction in 2006.
Ebrahim Rhoda, dubbed the “heritage activist”, was recognised by the University of the Western Cape for work done revealing the Cape’s hidden Muslim history.
At the ripe old age of 80, in 2018, Rhoda became the first recipient of the university’s Gold Medal for Commitment to Community Service to recognise his dedication to the Strand Muslim Community. Ebrahim Rhoda’s contributions were not only through research but through active citizenry, says the university.
Rhoda, from Strand, was a former teacher and principal of the Strand Moslem Primary School for 35 years and has published various books over the years, which convey how histories can be rediscovered through the oral narratives of community sources coupled with archival research.
His research included consulting with his 90-year-old paternal aunt, Ragiema Crombie, in 1990 about their forebears. He says that although she was illiterate, she was endowed with an encyclopaedic memory which allowed him to later corroborate with archival documentation. Rhoda’s quest resulted in him “tracing the slave matriarch of our family”.
His passion and interest in Muslim genealogy led him to cofound the Cape Family Research Forum (CFRF) in 2002 with other researchers. The CFRF aimed to encourage people to research their genealogy, resulting in several families tracing their ancestry to slaves and exiles brought from Indonesia and other Indian Ocean territories.
From Slavery to Citizenship: a walk through the history of a Strand community (2011); The Strand Muslim Community: 1822-1966 An Historical Overview‘ (2014) and The Wentzels: a pioneering family of the Muslim Community of the Strand (2018), are his books published. He also wrote and published many articles on the history of Islam at the Cape.