FEATURE :Untold story of astrologer and Tanzania’s 2015 general election

Sheikh Yahya Hussein, one of the famous astrologers in East Africa during his life time.


What you need to know:

His numerous predictions made front page news and a long consultation list at his offices meant visitors had to wait for hours before seeing the famous astrologer.

Dar/Nairobi. In his heyday, Sheikh Yahya Hussein was a household name. He frequently mingled with presidents and kings, including the giants of East African politics, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

His numerous predictions made front page news and a long consultation list at his offices meant visitors had to wait for hours before seeing the famous astrologer.

When he died in May 2011, President Jakaya Kikwete cut short a trip abroad to join tens of thousands of mourners at a funeral which brought large parts of Dar es Salaam to a standstill.

Variously described by his supporters as a leading astrologer, star gazer, palmist and prophet – and by his enemies as a worshipper of djinns and member of the occult – Sheikh Yahya Hussein, who popularised the “Mganga from Tanzania” (medicine man from Tanzania) concept in many parts of the continent, was easily the region’s most famous fortune teller.

Sheikh Yahya Hussein’s practice lives on today in the person of his first born son, Maalim Hassan Yahya, who was named official successor and, like his father before him, has become a major news maker as Tanzania heads to what has been dubbed by many as the closest presidential election in its history.

Lean and tall with an easy smile, Maalim Hassan has made a string of predictions about the battle between ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi and the Ukawa opposition with confident declarations of which side will end up victorious and a sensational claim that a prominent politician will die before election day.

There are varying degrees of superstition in many parts of Africa but Tanzania stands out in this field.

A 19-nation survey of African countries by the PEW research firm in 2010 found that 93 per cent of Tanzanians believe in witch-craft, the highest level of any of the countries surveyed. That explains the boom in business for wizards of various types around election season, a fact which has put the lives of albinos, whose body parts are prized as potions, at great risk. The Tanzanian government warned politicians not to consult any witchdoctors who use albino body parts and raids on albinos by people trading in body parts have been reported in Kenya.

Sheikh Yahya, however, was not in the crude league of wizards who demand body parts and ask their clients to pull off all manner of stunts to be healed.

Instead, the Sheikh cultivated a reputation as an astrologer, palm reader and star gazer whose supposed powers were enough to win him the friendship of figures as varied as King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, King Sobhuza II of Swaziland and Presidents ranging from Nyerere, Kenyatta, Moi to Mobutu Sese Seko.

Born in 1922, the young Yahya proved an adept scholar of the Koran at the Muslim A cademy in Tanzania and was taken under the wing of the prominent scholar and preacher Sheikh Abdalla Saleh Farsy who would go on to serve as a Chief Kadhi in Kenya.

He later became a preacher himself but disaster struck after the nationalist revolution on the Island in 1964 which toppled the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Sheikh Yahya was arrested due to his association with the prominent preachers of Arab origin at his school which, according to Maalim Hassan, is how he began his practice of palm-reading.

“While in prison, one of the senior Arab preachers told him how fortune-telling works. Within no time, he was predicting the future of the fellow prisoners and prison warders.”

Stretching the imagination, Maalim says the most sensational development at the prison was the mysterious escape of one of the “gwiji” (accomplished experts) who mentored Sheikh Yahya.

“He said, ‘haya bwana basi wacha mimi niende zangu’ (hey it is time for me to leave). And then he turned into a frog and left.” Of course, that is a tale only believers will buy.

In time, Sheikh Yahya was released and after briefly setting up a practice in Dar es Salaam he moved to Nairobi where he pitched up in California Estate in Eastleigh. He married a Kenyan lady, Maalim’s mum, Fatuma, a native of Murang’a and gradually became a household name in his adopted home.

He wrote the horoscopes columns for the Baraza newspaper owned by The Standard and the Nation Media Group’s Taifa Leo title and quickly amassed a big clientele.

His growing popularity alarmed some within society and even attracted debate in Parliament. On June 29 1971, MP John Mulli Mutambo demanded that Vice President Daniel Moi, who was also minister for Home Affairs, tell Parliament whether he was aware that “a certain Sheikh Yahya” was “collecting huge sums of money from Kenyans as consultation fees through his fictitious astrological practice and that Kenya is losing enormous sums of money that way”. Mr Moi promised an investigation. However, in a follow-up question, according to the Hansard record of the debate, MP Wafula Wabuge asked Mr Moi if he was aware that it was “alleged throughout the country that even some people in high positions in the government are using Mr Yahya to tell them what will become of Kenya tomorrow”. Mr Moi denied this.

That second question was a reference to Sheikh Yahya’s rumoured friendship with a succession of presidents in the region which would later be substantiated in books and in the many pictures which Maalim Hassan now displays at his office in Dr es Salaam showing the Sheikh with leaders including Mzee Kenyatta and King Hussein of Jordan.

Author Ludovik Mwijage later claimed in The Dark Side of Nyerere’s Legacy that Sheikh Yahya served as a spy/informer for the Tanzanian government in Kenya and it was said that in later years he cultivated a strong friendship with President Moi and even helped negotiate the transfer of political “dissidents” between Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Maalim does not deny those claims.

“You know, naturally, when you are famous the intelligence services will use you. They use many people who are famous, including musicians and footballers. Even I, when Mzee handed over to me he told me the government might need some help and I should stand ready to offer that help.”

As Sheikh Yahya’s fame grew, he left Kenya and began to move across Africa making his predictions with a special focus on the southern African region.

He also began to think about his succession and identified his first born son Maalim Hassan as the man who would take up the mantle.

Maalim grew up in Kenya and told Lifestyle he considered himself a honorary Kenyan.

“I took maziwa ya Nyayo (free milk offered in schools in the Moi years) during my time at the Muslim Primary School,” he says.

He went on to Kisumu Boys where he played in the football team and recalls a fierce rivalry with Kakamega High School and Cardinal Otunga School.

The young man later studied at the Kenya Institute of Mass Communications before going into business selling electronics in Botswana and several other southern African countries.

That was before heeding the summons of his father to come to Dar es Salaam and undergo training as his successor.

“Mzee said that I would be dismissed as a conman if I took after him only after his death. That is why he took the time to train me at length.”

So, is he a witch doctor? “Far from it,” says Maalim. “Astrology is a science. I know what your star means and I can tell you what habits you are expected to have. Sometimes I don’t administer any medicine.

I could tell you after monitoring your star to abandon the bus business and do farming or change various things in your life. I have no potions. You will never hear me ask for an albinos hand like witchdoctors.”

But what about when he gets his calculations wrong or reads the stars falsely? “I don’t tell people things then they don’t happen. I do my maths carefully and when people are sick, I diagnose them and if I see they are dying I don’t charge them. You must note astrology is a science practiced around the world including in Europe.”

The truth is that the elder Sheikh Yahya often got it wrong, not least when he predicted that the 2010 elections in Tanzania would be postponed resulting in a coalition with the Prime Minister being nominated by the opposition.

His goofs never seemed to dim his popularity and he continued to be a powerful presence in official circles.

Tanzanian media reports say Sheikh Yahya was especially close to President Kikwete, who is said to have financed his trips for medical treatment in India in the final days of his life.

Maalim also claims Sheikh Yahya warned President Moi in 2002 that the ‘Uhuru Project’ was headed for failure and urged him to accept the results, a claim which could not be independently verified.

So how is the election season working out for Maalim Hassan Yahya?

“I am extremely busy,” he says. “To us, this is high season, just the way you have high season in tourism. There is a Swahili saying that you can only harvest water when it is raining and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Maalim says that during the race to clinch the nomination of the ruling CCM party which attracted a crowded field of 38 candidates, he advised “six or seven” of the contenders on what the outcome would be and claims to have got it right.

“Most people expected the winner to be (Edward) Lowassa who was leading in the polls or (Bernard) Membe who was said to have the support of President Kikwete.

But I predicted that the winner would be someone who nobody expected and that is what came to pass.”

Maalim denies claims by his critics that he is closely aligned with the ruling party, saying the number of critics on his case shows he is doing something right.

The 52 year-old, who also took over his father’s horoscope programme on Channel 10 TV and on FM radio, says he is seeing over a dozen clients every day, many of them parliamentary candidates each demanding to know “which way the wind is going”.

He says he charges them depending on how deep their pockets are and on how they approach him.

Incumbents, who recently received a hefty pension after passing a law to pay themselves a handsome golden handshake at the end of their terms just like their Kenyan counterparts, have to pay more.

Their fees range between Tsh15m (Sh730,000) and Tsh20m (S970,000) with challengers paying less.

So which candidate will emerge victorious after the election on October 25? “It will be tough.

The stars show the people have woken up this time. People want change. Despite the fact that the opposition is very strong and there have been a lot of defections, (John) Magufuli of CCM will win because CCM knows what the people want and it will give it to them.”