Why I am proud to be a Jain Oshwal

Published: 08.08.2011
Updated: 02.07.2015

In my first post on this blog (Is being an Oshwal compatible with being a Jain?) I argued that today's Oshwal youth (myself wholly included therein) lack the humility so essential for progress on the Jain path. My question was and still is this - how can we be held to be adherents of the Jain tenets of non-violence (ahimsa), non-possessiveness (aparigraha), non-stealing (asteya), self-control (saiyyam, or what I like to refer to as brahmacharya), adherence to the Truth (satya) and pluralism (anekaantavaad) when all we are concerned about is self-gratification and self-indulgence?  Where is the Jainism in that? Where is the humility when we cannot put our assets (intelligence and energy for some, wealth and enterprise for others) to good use for the development of those less fortunate around us? 

At the time of writing that first blog post I was in search of a contemporary from within the Oshwal community whose life exemplifies internalised humility cultivated through service to mankind. As far as I am concerned, the one who has fully imbibed humility internally (which can only come through the service of others) is the true Jain Oshwal.  That person is a Jain because he/she has embarked on the journey of the Jain path, exploring the tenets listed above using humility as his/her walking stick along that path.  That person is an Oshwal because he/she uses what he has been blessed with (wealth, intelligence, energy or enterprise) to serve others beyond exclusion.

Ladies and gents, my quest has come to an end.  I have found the person whose life is the inspiration I was in search of. The rest of this post is therefore dedicated to  Mrs. Damayanti Premchand Shah, who, through her life and achievements, makes me feel proud to be a Jain Oshwal.  Mrs. Shah (fondly referred to as Damu Kaki or Damu Ben by several Mombasa residents) is, simply put, humility personified. 

Mrs. Damayanti Premchand Shah

Born in 1939 Mombasa to an Oshwal pioneer and staunch educationist (Mr Somchand Ladhabhai Gudka), Damu Ben belongs to a rare breed of forward-thinking, broad-minded and highly educated Oshwal women.  Her life is a prime example of what a recipient of an education par excellence can achieve if driven by the right purpose. Having received a world-class education in India and England, Damu Ben elected to return to post-independence Kenya to galvanize the socio-economic development of women living in what was (and to some extent, may still be) a predominantly chauvinistic society. 

What is so striking about Damu Ben is that she is an endless fountain of energy which she has methodically channeled to carry out social service benefiting society's young and old.  Her service is inclusive, bereft of discrimination on grounds of class, creed or colour. To that extent, her biggest and most inspiring achievement has been the Shanzu Transitional Workshop in Kenya.

With assistance from several local and international charitable donations, Damu Ben founded the Workshop in 1992 as a Girl Guide project to enable young women with physical disabilities gain skills that would enable them to become productive and independent Kenyan citizens. Disabled girls are admitted to the transitional workshop at the age of 17 years and join a two year training programme. During this period of time, they learn production skills, tailoring as well as basic business skills and life experience skills. Many of the young women come from backgrounds overshadowed by a society that treats them with shame, fear or pity not allowing them to participate in the day to day activities carried out by other members of the community. The Workshop is therefore a lifeline for these women.

While at the workshop, the young women make products such as bags and artifacts which are sold to tourists or at local markets. Profits from the sale of these products are then shared with the women enabling them to earn some money and gain independence. All products from the workshop carry the distinctive Shanzu label and another with the name of the creator, boosting the esteem of the young women every time they see someone carrying one of their products. At the end of the two year training, each young woman leaves the workshop with tailoring qualifications, a sewing machine and personal skills that will enable her to lead an independent life and be a proud, productive  and responsible member of her community.

Damu Ben (in the navy blue saree) presiding over a tree planting project at Shanzu.

Damu Ben has spent the major part of her adult life fund raising for the Workshop and lobbying the Kenyan government for the inclusion of women in the country's socio-economic development. How lofty must her charisma, skills of persuasion and dedication have been! She successfully convinced the Kenyan government to grant her a plot at the Kenyan coast at no cost for the purpose of developing a Kenya Girl Guides campsite in 1985.  Following the inception of the Workshop, Damu Ben's efforts in fund raising for Girl Guide projects began to expand to the international arena.  An exemplary achievement is her procurement in 2009 of a donation of KShs. 1 million (Canadian $ 15,000) from the Canadian government for the development of dormitories, buildings and ancillary infrastructure at the Workshop.  Needless to say, to reach such heights of fund raising requires unmitigated devotion to a cause, a focused mindset and a "never say never" attitude, all of which come naturally to Damu Ben. My point is this - Damu Ben realises her strengths and has employed them to serve others unconditionally. In so doing she may have broken boundaries and challenged orthodox dogmas but she has also built bridges and cultivated within herself a profound sense of humility. This is what the modern day Jain Oshwal is and should be. 

Damu Ben (center) seen with local Rotarians in connection with a project to develop sanitation at the Shanzu Workshop.

Damu Ben (in the navy blue saree) looking on as Vanessa Hynes, wife to the then Canadian High Commissioner, lays a stone at the construction site of the Shanzu Transitional Workshop Dormitory in March 2009.

Damu Ben's services extend beyond just the emancipation of women.  A recipient of the Daniel Arap Moi Nyayo award, she has elected to serve on and lead HIV AIDS awareness campaigns in East Africa and social development projects with the Likoni School for the Blind, the Ziwani School for the Deaf, St. John Ambulance, the Freedom from Hunger Council and the Municipal Education Office of Mombasa.  

All of the above is of course in addition to being a wife and mother.  Damu Ben has had a personal life to which she has been equally devoted, once again setting an example for her incumbents illustrating how a comfortable balance can be achieved between personal life and social service.  More recently, in her fight against cancer she has been an icon of positivity and fortitude for several cancer patients.

Damu Ben (in the pink saree) seen at the Mombasa Jain temple with colleagues from the Kenya Girl Guides.

If there is one lesson I take from Damu Ben's life it is this - humility, and therefore the stepping stone to spiritual advancement, is found in service beyond exclusion, and nowhere else.  Just as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated in his life, so has Damu Ben in hers: "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

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  1. Ahimsa
  2. Aparigraha
  3. Asteya
  4. Brahmacharya
  5. Fear
  6. Jain Temple
  7. Jainism
  8. Mahatma
  9. Mahatma Gandhi
  10. Mombasa Jain Temple
  11. Non-violence
  12. Oshwal
  13. Saiyyam
  14. Satya
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