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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 15. Uganda: A personal viewpoint on the Expulsion, 30 years on

Jameela Siddiqi

To use a well-worn cliché, Uganda was, in many ways all things to all men. While the Whites treated expatriate life as one long, heady English summer, the vast majority of Indian traders were really only interested in making money and recreating India. But the Raj educated professional Indians (some of whom arrived much later than the pioneering merchants, whilst others had come early in the 20th century to work as civil servants for the White Master,) often looked down on these moneymaking traders. Some went a step further in trying to recreate British India, complete with a British class system. Basically, everybody imagined this lush, green land of plenty with its immense natural beauty and abundant wildlife, had to, in some way, emulate their original homeland. But those who had rightfully inherited this land could only stand by and look on bemused - bemused by the Brits who had a habit of saying "Nice day, isn't it?" (What else could it be?) and the less amusing Indian habit of starting every sentence addressed to an African with the imperious Swahili word: "Lete!" (Bring, Fetch!)

There have been numerous books on Uganda. But few attempt to shed any meaningful light on just what this multicultural, multiracial hotpot actually amounted to on a day-to- day basis. In the past, any book on Uganda has inevitably turned into a book about General Idi Amin's sexual and cannibalistic exploits. Idi Amin is actually no more, and no less, than a catalyst who finally caused the time-bomb to explode, a time-bomb that was initially planted by the British and then, in many ways nurtured by the Asians themselves who often claimed to be living on "borrowed time." All the time that bomb was ticking away, the vast majority of Asians never thought of Uganda as home. But when ousted heartlessly - and inhumanly - many cried bitter tears of fury for the "homeland" from which they were being forcibly evicted. It took an expulsion to make Uganda feel like home.

A kind of 1960s "Little India," as the more radical African journalists were already describing it.

The attitudes lurking under Amin's seemingly mad actions were certainly built up over many years of hatred, resentment and mutual distrust, otherwise Amin would certainly not have had the unreserved support of his peers. Various other African countries were said to be secretly envious of the "man of action", as Amin frequently defined himself. Why else would they have gathered at an OAU Summit in Kampala in 1975 and lowered their eyes in awe and respect while Amin briefed them all on how he would destroy Israel in a week and put an end to apartheid in South Africa within a fortnight? (Thank God for South Africa, otherwise there was little else feeding into the pseudo-socialist rhetoric of "Pan-Africanism" in those days!) Although a relatively unimportant player in the larger scheme of things, Amin had merely been mentally unhinged enough, and politically and economically naive enough, to actually DO what his predecessors had only fantasised about doing.

As a young (and fairly naive) student at Makerere University in 1972, judging by the reaction of my peers to the Expulsion order, it seemed to me that the vast majority of educated, and reasonable-minded Black Ugandans were actually very supportive of Amin's decision. Although many had suffered the effects of Amin's brutal regime (relatives gone missing, believed killed) they still seemed to think that the Asians were somehow to blame for the political and economic mess that was now Uganda. Every night, in the undergraduates' Common Room, when the countdown for Asians to get out was updated at the end of the evening news, cheers went up from the Black girls.

These girls asserted that the Blacks needed more of a chance to do their own thing. That such a "chance" would most certainly materialise out of thin air once the exploitative Asians had been booted out, is merely proof of their own short-sightedness. It by no means reflects negatively on Amin, who never once attempted to rationalise his drastic action: others, more sensible and better educated , did it for him. Amin, a devout Muslim, simply said he was acting on God's orders. In Islam, everyone was the same. Nobody was superior to anybody else. So why the hell didn't Asian Muslim girls ever marry Black Muslim men?

Bless Amin, that question could well be asked in today's Tower Hamlets, or Bradford, as easily as it could be asked in Vancouver or Toronto.

In many ways this was a unique emigration in that an entire community re-located itself lock, stock and barrel, to carry on pretty much as before. In Uganda, they had worked hard and they had prospered. That prosperity had allegedly become an eyesore for native Africans. In Britain, they work even harder, and prosperity descends on them by the bucketful. But successive British governments, far from hateful envy, have decided that the Ugandan-Asians are almost the only species of humans worthy of being held up as prime examples of the Protestant Work Ethic. (Whether Jewish or Indian, it usually takes some kind of non-Protestant Christian to become a shining example of the Protestant work ethic!)

So, whatever happened to 'When in Rome?' Because when in East Africa they tried to recreate India, and then, on being expelled to Britain, they transported that same second hand slice of India, but this time with the added delicious effort to try and recreate colonial Africa in Wembley and Tooting. Africa's yesteryear trader is now the British Asian restaurateur introducing his largely well-to-do English clientele to a unique Indian-African food experience. Strangely enough, it is a food experience that is new even for "real" Indians and Pakistanis, many of whom would be hard pressed to mark a cross on a blank map of Africa to show the exact location of Uganda.

But that is today's story, and it is a story that has now taken on global proportions with the East African Asian Diaspora representing an even larger cultural monolith through being equally well established further afield in the USA, Canada and Australia. But that perhaps is a subject for one of my future books.

When the British formally left in 1962 and the Blacks took over, hundreds of Asians swore they would be going back to India or Pakistan. But they didn't. A few sent their wives and daughters to India, (fearing as ever, forced marriages or Black gang rapes) but soon the women were back as no such ludicrous thing had happened. Little could anyone have guessed that in exactly ten years from that date, they would be leaving in thousands, not voluntarily but forcibly, and certainly minus the bulk of their possessions. What's more, they wouldn't be going to the idealised Mother India which had loomed large in the psyche from Day One, but straight into the open arms of Mother Britain, which had until now been considered totally uninhabitable on grounds of its climate and its secular culture of shamelessness. (This factor is portrayed comically in my novel "The Feast of the Nine Virgins")

The only Black Ugandans who were genuinely upset at the Asian expulsion were the very poor ones, many of whom were employed in Asian businesses and homes. Not only would they be losing their jobs, but many had also formed close bonds with their employers. Many an Asian brat would not mind his mother going missing for a few days but would be inconsolable if his Ayah hadn't turned up to work. Domestic servants were a vital link in the whole scheme of things. Their hard work and total dedication had contributed to the idyllic lifestyles of their Asian mem-sahibs, who in turn had sometimes proved extremely charitable in a crisis, but more important, Black African servants were often the only (rather limited) link that Asians had to African culture.

During their years in East Africa - and this applied to Kenya, Tanganyika and Zanzibar as much as it did to Uganda - the Indians had managed their own community affairs from a largely moralistic Indian standpoint. Sometimes this morality was also extended to their Black employees so much so that, domestic servants were expressly forbidden from entertaining sexual partners on the premises. This kind of self-imposed, self-righteous governance had become a convenient substitute for seeking to form any real Asian political entity. In domestic or matrimonial disputes, Indians doled out justice to other Indians, largely sanctioned from within their own religious communities and sects. At the other end of the spectrum, the socially progressive Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan, ran a surprisingly modern social welfare system within their own community, with a zero cost to the State. Some of their charitable works were available to all communities, irrespective of religion.

My own personal story - that of losing my Uganda Citizenship and having to find myself a nationality with a deadline of 30 days hanging over my head - is also the subject of a future work. In that book, against a backdrop of various historic landmarks - some well known, others not that well known - a number of hilarious personal anecdotes centred on friends and family highlight the cultural schizophrenia of the Asian settlers. My schoolteacher father's obsession with Chaucer and Fowler takes on ridiculous proportions in the midday sun, while my own romantic fantasies are fed by the imaginary beauty of Bronte country, to say nothing of my idealisation of Austen and Wordsworth. Needless to say, I had never actually SEEN a daffodil, any more than the Black children being taught to say "A for Apple" were actually ever likely to see - or eat - one!

Jameela Siddiqi is a freelance producer, broadcaster and writer. Her first novel, "The Feast of the Nine Virgins" is published by Bogle L'Ouverture Publications, London, 2001.


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