Ugandan Asians: Life 40 years on

By Rupal Rajani
BBC Asian Network

Image caption,
About 30,000 Ugandan Asians came to the UK, after being given 90 days to leave their homeland

Forty years after Uganda's Asian population was expelled from the country by General Idi Amin, how much has life for that community changed?

A young boy runs through the streets laughing, his yellow T-shirt drenched and stuck to his skin. When it rains in Uganda, the water comes down in sheets. In Jinja the streets empty immediately. But it is welcome relief.

Unlike in Britain, there are no grumbles about rainy summers here. It cools the day, leaving the air smelling fresh and the heavy shower passes as quickly as it comes.

It is often the thing most people who come from Uganda remember - the consistency of the weather and the climate.

"You know it never gets too hot there," they say. "It's always warm, and maybe you need a sweater on an occasional evening but nothing more."

It is one of the things people miss the most.

When I arrived at Entebbe airport, I was not sure what to expect from my trip.

I was going back to Kakira, the sugar plantation where I was born.

I was hoping, but not counting upon, meeting people who remembered my family before Idi Amin so unceremoniously threw us out in 1972.

I was only two years old when we left so I do not remember much - it was going to be up to others to piece my history together for me. What I found in Kakira left me emotionally drained.

I visited, for the first time, the shop my father ran when we lived there. It had been closed after we left, and was re-opened only about six years ago.

Media caption,
Nimisha Madhvani: 'The Indians coming in now must learn to respect Ugandans'

It is hard to describe how I felt when I walked in - the tears that I was unable to control said it all.

Imagining my father running the store, looking at the counter he would have stood behind, I was overcome by the fact that the fixtures and fittings were still there from his day. It sounds silly but I really felt his presence there.

All I could think was - how would life have been for me if we had not been thrown out of this country?

That, of course, left me with a tougher question. Why were we thrown out and - a difficult issue to confront - did we deserve it?

Some have argued that there were gross inequalities in the way Asians treated Ugandans back then. We know that around 90% of the economy was controlled by Asians before 1972. So were they fair to locals, or did they "milk" the economy?

Black Ugandans were so often less successful than the Asians that had settled in the country. I am not sure how comfortable that would have made me had we stayed put.

I posed questions about the inequalities to many people on my trip, in Kampala, in Jinja and in Kakira, the sugar plantation owned by one of Uganda's most successful returning Asian families, the Madhvanis.

Image caption,
Trucks line up at Kakira sugar plantation, where Rupal was born

I did not get a consensus on this. I never was going to, to be honest.

Some - like British Ugandan Asian Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - argue that many Ugandan Asians were racist and never saw black Ugandans as equals.

The expulsion was wrong and unforgivable, she says, but adds: "After 40 years, can we please talk a bit about why when Idi Amin threw us out, people cheered?"

Others argue that the fact that the country fell apart when we left proves how important we were, that blacks who worked for Asians and actually knew them, didn't feel resentment.

Feroz and his wife now own the welfare shop run by my dad all those years ago. They moved to Uganda from India in the hope of a better life for themselves, in the same way that my father and thousands of other Asian families had once done. Their hopes and dreams are exactly the same.

When asked about the relationship between the Asian and black communities, Feroz tells me that things are good. He and his wife are positive about their new home - they love their lifestyle, the climate and the people.

I put the same question to Ugandan Asians who decided to return to the country from Britain, having once been asked to leave.

The guest house we stayed at in Jinja is owned by a man whose family were also expelled.

Surjit Bharj says that his decision to move back was partly motivated by good memories, and partly because he was fed up with his life in the UK and wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

Does he feel that he fits in and, more importantly, does he treat people equally? The answer to both questions is an emphatic yes. He teaches his staff to be able to do what he does regardless of their colour, he says.

Media caption,
Bharat Manek: 'The journey was very long... it still sends a shiver down my spine'

And touching upon an old complaint about Asians in Uganda in the past, does he "give back"' to the country? He answers that he does, most definitely. His wife even runs an orphanage to help young Ugandan Africans find new homes.

The new wave of Asian immigrants coming directly from India have a better understanding of the country and the people and treat them fairly and equally, he feels.

But is Uganda his home?

"Not a permanent one," he says. "There is always the fear that what happened in '72 could happen all over again."