Remembering the Ugandan Asian expulsion 50 years on
On 4 August 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin issued a decree: all non-citizen Asians living in the country had 90 days to leave. Of about 80,000 people, around 28,000 went to the UK, making and building their lives in their coloniser’s homeland. Fifty years on, travel writer and editor Meera Dattani explores what this means for a second-generation British Ugandan Asian.
Diaspora. I’ve always been fascinated by that word. One definition puts it as: ‘The movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.’
‘Scattering’ is the word I most associate with ‘diaspora’. And ‘dispersed’ – that they’re all over the place.
Fifty years ago, everything changed for my family when they too became part of the ‘diaspora’ – scattered – because of one dictator, his dream, a speech and a three-month deadline. What was home was no longer. You had to find and make home someplace else now.
The idyllic notion of generation after generation living in the same village, let alone the same country, had gone. Instead, what’s left are stories, told and retold, of that homeland, of playing games under a mango tree, of Sunday strolls on Kampala Road, of roadside roasted corn and cassava on road trips to Murchison Falls, of return journeys to the homeland, all blending and blurring in a cloud of nostalgia, sadness, joy and relief, even pride, at having survived it.
The stories I grew up hearing of Uganda are mostly warm, evocative, familiar, of an idyllic, tropical childhood. I heard them so often that sometimes, I felt like they were my stories. I even used to be envious of my older cousins, born in Kampala, Uganda, while I got Barking, Essex.
For so many years, I heard wonderful anecdotes: Of my Bapu’s (my father’s father) grocery store on Kampala Road that, thanks to his adventurous palate, was the place to get cheese in Uganda. Of my mum and her siblings playing badminton with saucepan lids and a broken shuttlecock. Of my dad, who went to boarding school in the UK, aged 12, returning home to much-missed siblings during school holidays. Of my Naniba (my mother’s mother) peeling pomegranates on the veranda. Of dressing up on Sundays for the weekly drive-in cinema trip.
But I knew there was more. Other realities, darker stories, disparities unacknowledged.
‘As I got older, I again felt that pressing need to know more’
I first visited Uganda with my mum back in 1989, almost 18 years after she’d left. My uncle had settled there in the early 1980s, post-Idi Amin, when the current president Yoweri Museveni was encouraging Asians to return. I was only 14, but seeing the places in those stories come to life left a mark on me. Experiencing ‘servants’ for the first time, trying to outwit a soldier guarding the former family home-turned-barracks by sneaking a photo from across the road, hearing my mum speak Swahili, seeing her in the context of her childhood. It sparked something but not for long; my teenage years, university days, and 20s got in the way.
As I got older, I again felt that pressing need to know more. I visited a few more times. I went on safari to Murchison Falls and picnicked by Lake Victoria, just as my parents and family did. I explored Kampala, hiked in the Rwenzori mountains, and made it to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and saw the gorillas. But I had regrets for the conversations I could have had with my grandparents, whose knowledge and memories extended beyond those of my parents’ recollections, of travelling by steamer across the Indian Ocean from India to Africa, of life in the ancestral homeland of Gujarat in pre-Partition, early 20th-century India, and settling in Uganda in the 1930s onwards.
The reality is, things changed for my ancestors a long time before migrating to Uganda, but this isn’t the time – nor is there enough of it – to explore the effects of the British Empire on a quarter of the world’s population whereby Indians ended up in Fiji and West Africans in the Caribbean.
But to step back a little, it begins in India, the once-upon-a-time ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire (these days, you’ll find a handful of actual jewels where they shouldn’t be) that was well-and-truly plundered for its people and resources. During Empire, many Indians, either as ‘indentured labourers’ – a more ‘palatable’ (it wasn’t) form of slavery – or for economic reasons, ended up halfway around the world.
Like East Africa. Or in our case, Uganda. From 1895, indentured labourers started to arrive to work on the Uganda Railway (dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express’ for its waste of resources and life – around 2,500 died from disease and terrible working conditions). Numbers of Asians increased as ‘passenger Indians,’ such as my forefathers who left Gujarat, came to pursue businesses for the growing needs of the then-British protectorate. A three-tier hierarchy evolved, with the British at the top. For several generations, the Asian community flourished, at the expense of Black Ugandans, even after independence in 1962. Divide-and-rule. It ‘works.’ Until it doesn’t.
Anti-Asian sentiment or Indophobia grew, among accusations of inequity and non-integration. Military dictator Idi Amin, who’d seized power from Milton Obote in a 1971 military coup, wanted to 'give Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans'. But not to all Ugandans. The wrong tribe, and you weren’t safe either.
‘You could see it coming,’ some in my family said. Those who could, the lucky ones, moved funds and assets out of Uganda. In being able to purchase a property overseas, as my family did – even in trauma – there is privilege. But even so, no one really expected to pack up and leave behind their entire lives, their homes, their friends, their businesses, their memories, in 90 days, even after Idi Amin made his speech commanding exactly that on 4 August 1972.
But it quickly got real. Bodies in the river (mostly African), disappearances, robberies. Frantic applications for visas, embassy queues, and talk of how to smuggle valuables. Not everyone made it; some were imprisoned and tortured at the State Research Bureau (SRB). Others robbed en route to the airport. Strip searches. Rapes. Exact figures are hard to come by. And not everyone shares such stories.
‘We would be children of the diaspora’
As a former British protectorate, many Ugandan Asians of Indian and Pakistani origin had British passports; some were already studying or working in the UK. That’s why around 27,000 settled there, not as willingly (initially) as the British narrative might have you believe (Leicester City Council even put out adverts saying not to come there). Six thousand others went to Canada, around 4,500 to India, and 2,500 to Kenya or Pakistan. They were now diaspora. We would be children of the diaspora.
As I pieced together this history, I’d realised I’d been mesmerised by family tales but my jigsaw was missing a few pieces: stories of the Ugandans they lived alongside, who often worked for them, often as staff or ‘servants,’ a word I still find uncomfortable, in these more affluent Asian households.
During one conversation, a family member tearfully recalled how they threw a shoe at a ‘houseboy’ because their clothes hadn’t been ironed for Sunday’s cinema trip. Another recognises the way many people spoke to their staff was unacceptable. The two-tier social structure was evident, from who could enter a golf club to the segregation of education. I feel it’s only more recently that there’s this more pointed reflection: at what price did the Asian community flourish?
And what about what followed after the expulsion, during Amin’s terrifying eight-year reign, in which an estimated 300,000 Ugandans died in his ideological quest for ‘greatness’? For Ugandan Asians, being told to leave your life within three months with one suitcase and £50 to your name is the stuff of nightmares – and in that trauma and pain, survival is the aim. But now, 50 years on, why isn’t what followed a more integral part of the story? It’s part of Amin’s terrible legacy, as much as the Ugandan Asian expulsion is.
As the 50-year anniversary of the Ugandan Asian expulsion grew closer, I needed to be part of something bigger. I came across a project called British Ugandan Asians at 50/BUA50, one of several organisations working to mark the event. What drew me to it was its focus on an aspect of the expulsion that I knew little about, but had been a huge part of the migration experience for other Ugandan Asians.
For several months, BUA50 has been interviewing British Ugandan Asians who ended up in one of the 16 camps set up around the UK by the Uganda Resettlement Board after Idi Amin’s decree. Many arrived at what were often former military barracks in stark surroundings – cold and disoriented, after the long journey from Uganda. BUA50 also interviewed local volunteers and those who worked in the camps, as teachers, medical staff, chefs. The end result is an illuminating set of videos called Ugandan Journeys and a touring exhibition that will travel around the UK into 2023.
In March 2022, I was part of a small production team with BUA50 that visited one of the camps, Tonfanau camp, near the town of Tywyn in mid-Wales. I took my mum so we could understand the refugee experience so close to home and yet so different from our family’s.
Today, just a few outbuildings remain at the site itself, but it’s not hard to imagine the shock upon arriving at that small train station on a cold, dark November day in rural Wales. It was in Tywyn’s Neuadd Pendre community hall that it would come to life. All weekend, former camp residents and volunteers – from teachers to chefs – shared testimonies, including one resident and volunteer couple who the project had reunited. From the fear and anxiety on arrival and the warmth and welcome from volunteers, to racism in the workplace, and stories of both success and failure in the UK, the weekend touched on every human behaviour, emotion and outcome.
‘I wear this triple identity of British, Ugandan and Indian with some pride’
I realised I had much to learn. The story of Amin, the decree, the frantic departure, loss of possessions, resettlement, racism and integration is the more common one, alongside Amin’s many wives, stories of cannibalism, and his get-out-of-jail ‘easy exile’ in Saudi Arabia. But stories of refugee camps, life for Black Ugandans in Uganda, and the tortures and murders ordered by Amin during his terrorising reign until 1979 are part of this same story.
The 50-year anniversary has been a timely, sobering reminder that by the next significant anniversary, many of those who remember life in Uganda as teenagers and adults will be fewer. That’s why projects like BUA50 and many others, such as the Expulsion @50 podcasts and other oral history initiatives are so important.
Today, when I see the generation who left, both in my family and community, I’m in awe of their determination to restart life and rebuild community. The Ugandan Asian success story can be overplayed; not everyone did so well and many carry the trauma of 1972 more than others, but it’s hard to disagree that there is enormous resilience in this community.
I think of the harmonious existence they lived in a warm land, albeit with the usual challenges of life, living side-by-side or just streets away from family and friends. Then, bang. Just 90 days to leave the place they’d made home, a generation or two or three before having already left ‘home’ (India), only to create home again. To leave the place they’d been born in, brought up their children, made a life, and carved out livelihoods.
Some have returned, many of them successfully. On my mother’s side, the family house, occupied by the military on my first visit back in 1990, belongs to the family once again, becoming home to my uncle, now passed, aunt and cousin. This house draws me back time and time repeatedly, a reminder of what was, even if the rose-tinted glasses have slipped off and other realities have come into focus. There’s still disparity and not all lessons have been learned.
This scattering is a universal story. It has happened before, it’s happening right now, and it will happen again. Each time, people are uprooted, communities change, societies evolve, and a new intake, like me, grow up as second-generation immigrants, all of us with one foot navigating the present, the other grasping the past.
I wear this triple identity of British, Ugandan and Indian with some pride, but am ever more conscious we don’t get lost in a fog of nostalgia. I’m passionate that we, and those after us, stay engaged with our history. It’s easy to forget what those before us have endured to get us here. When they’re gone, the stories go with them. I’m grabbing what’s there while they’re still here.
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