Karim the builder

MA Karim (RIGHT) did the first designs of the mosque in Kampala, which later, was completed by Muammar Gaddafi. Below, at the opening of Kibuli Mosque: M.A Karim, Prince Aly Khan, Prince Badru Kakungulu. Karim was the Secretary General of Muslim Welfare Society and was the architect. (Also of Aga Khan mosque). File/Courtesy Photos

What you need to know:

In the 11th part of our series, Waheed Karim tells the story of M.A. Karim, the man who built many landmark Indian architect buildings in Kampala and Masaka. This is an excerpt from Vali Jamal’s book Uganda Asians: Then and now, Here and There, We contributed, We contribute

My father built a lot of the residences in Old Kampala – on Rashid Khamis Road, Martini Road, Namirembe Road. Almost two-thirds of our people lived there until the 1950s. My father was responsible for designing over 30 buildings in that one-mile circle of the Museum Hill.
By the late 1960s many of the established families had moved away to Kololo. A tour operator had planned to include this area in his itinerary to show tourists some of our heritage buildings. Many buildings in Masaka too were designed by my father. Where are they now? Old Kampala’s old homes are being razed and the sites are being developed into medium-rise flats. Masaka street homes were bombed to ruins by the anti-Idi liberation forces.

One building that we were particularly proud of was the Art Deco structure on the corner of Rashid Khamis Road and Ginnery Road. It was built on a tiny piece of land with that awkward corner. That’s why my father came up with the rounded Art Deco style. It used to have a drive-in petrol station. It was in absolute shambles when it was repossessed in the 1980s. Luckily, we managed to save it from “development.”

Kibuli Mosque
My father was the architect of the Kibuli Mosque and he supervised its construction. Prince Aly Aga Khan had laid the foundation stone as well as did the opening ceremony. I was often on the site playing around from school. Kibuli seemed so far away from town then! Some Fridays after prayers we would be invited to come to Prince Badru’s home for lunch, just down the hill from the mosque. We would wash hands and sit in the sitting room. A maid would arrive with the food in a traditional tray. Prince Badru would lift the lid and then ask that we be served first. Then, once everyone was served he’d ask us to start first and then he’d join in. He was a very dignified person. He never raised his voice.

The grand mosque
One bright morning in March 1972, two high-ranking military officers marched into our office on Wilson Road. They said they had orders to take us to the president. We were most perturbed what it could be and the soldiers wouldn’t answer. So we were brought to the presence of President for Life, Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, 6’ 6”, seated on a black leather armchair, his whole chest plastered over with medals and ribbons, some hanging from his shoulder as if there was no room on the presidential chest. As he stood up, it was noticeable that he carried two holsters at his hips.

He took us both in. He fixed his gaze on my father and said: “Karimu, I know about you, you build (sic) the Kibuli Mosque. I want you build my mosques on Museum Hill, minimum 15,000 people, conference rooms, staff residences, library, primary school, hospital, accommodation for medical staff.”

He wanted all that under one roof! My father responded: “My brother, Mr President, it is a great opportunity to build a mosque complex on a prominent hill, but we have to do a topographical survey. Also, with all the land available, there we should look at siting the other activities separately.”
The president was not amused. I have told you Karimu what I want. If you cannot do it, I shall ask my Russian friends (grunt, pause). I give you one week to come back with your plans. Now go, I have my high command meeting coming up.

My brother Jaweed (now practicing in London), my dad and I started drawing the plans, topography unknown, all by hand, as Auto cads and Arch cads were unknown then.

The big day arrives. The president is in a jovial mood, even more brass over his chest. The national TV people are there, the floor bristling with their cables. Excellency instructs the camera to first capture him receiving the project from the architects and then presenting it to the nation. He conducts the proceedings in Swahili and English. The expulsion came and the rest is history.


The mosque sequel by Waheed

After the Asians left, Amin managed to secure a large sum of money from Saudi Arabia to build the mosque. Plans were commissioned from an architect in Nairobi and construction begun by 1978. With the fall of Amin the project went into desuetude and the funds were dispersed into private pockets. The minaret was constructed before the walls emerged from the foundation. By the time I returned to Uganda in 1994 the minaret was visibly leaning, earning the nickname The Leaning Minaret of Kampala. The tilt was increasing perceptibly and there were predictions it would collapse within a year at the most. The complex was going to have four stories, with the lower floors occupied by offices, library and conference room. The prayer hall was going to be on the fourth floor, accessed by just two elevators for men and women, for a congregation of at least 1,500 at any time!

In 1992, I got a letter from Zul Thobhani encouraging me to return to Uganda, as my Uganda passport had just been restored to me. Zul said: “We have started lots of Muslim activities in Uganda. During our visit to the Far East we had the honour to meet HRH Prince Mohamed Bolkhia of Brunei and I promised him that I would finish the national mosque. I need your support for this.”

Enter Qaddafi

Qadaffi came to visit Museveni around the mid-1990s. During a drive around the city he noticed the leaning tower (so after all it hadn’t fallen yet!). He asked what the problem was. Museveni told him it was an unfinished Saudi project for a mosque. Qadaffi said he’d complete it. Museveni convinced the Saudis of this course of action, arguing that they already had done enough by donating the Islamic University in Mbale and the King Fahd Plaza in Kampala. The Saudis accepted this. Waheed was incorporated into a team to revive the plan he and his father had drawn up. That plan was based on the concept of a walled square, enclosing an open space. The Libyans brought in a whole team of architects and engineers and completed the mosque in three years by 2007.