Recording Uganda Asian Exodus for Posterity

Letter from New Delhi

A Kenyan Asian economist has spent seven years compiling the history of Asians in Uganda and especially their expulsion, prosperity in new lands and return to Uganda in a monumental book.

After working for seven long years away from his family, Dr Vali Jamal, an economist, has almost completed his magnum opus – Uganda Asians: Then and Now, Here and There.

This book is has 1.2 million words spread over 1,656 pages with thousands of historical photographs, illustrations and tables. It contains personal stories of 444 Ugandan Asians expelled by the dictator Idi Amin. Of these Dr Jamal interviewed 155, received 155 by mail and researched the remaining on the web. In all, 2,222 people have been mentioned in this book.

Born in Kenya and brought up in Uganda, Dr Jamal obtained his degree in economics from Trinity College, Cambridge. After graduation, he worked in Uganda Ministry of Commerce and Industry (1964-67), but left to go to Stanford for his doctorate. In 1972, he went to Uganda to collect data for his dissertation (‘The Role of Cotton and Coffee in Uganda’s Economic Development’). Then the expulsion happened.

He helped his parents and sisters with visas to leave Uganda and kept notes of the historic happening. After he completed his dissertation, he was recruited into UN-International Labour Organization. On an ILO mission to Kenya in 1982, he visited Uganda and did so every two years after. He was the first to chronicle the post-expulsion decline of the economy in economic journals.

On his retirement from the ILO in 2001, he spent three weeks at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) researching on Uganda Asians. In 2005, he returned to Uganda to open a restaurant with disastrous results. After several publishing ventures, he embarked on writing this book.

Talking about his book, Dr Jamal says, “There were some ten thousand households in Uganda at that time. I have covered at the most a thousand families. I had to be comprehensive of all communities, classes and towns. That’s where the length came in from, but it’s not just quantity, it’s also quality, and that’s why it took so long, apart from the length.”

About its content, he says, “The core consists of how people coped with the expulsion, where did they go and what are they doing now. To provide a context the stories of our pioneers are told. If we had to cope the 90 days of the expulsion, they had to cope years of mosquitoes, man-eating lions, and unsanitary conditions. They are the joint heroes of my book. I also record the stories of our pioneers to Canada and UK from the early 1960s.”

The book has not been launched but has generated great interest. He said, “Many people have sponsored this work. Ugandan President Museveni has endorsed it and agreed to launch it in July. Many Ugandan leaders have commented it while Asians have welcomed it. ‘The book is a national asset in Uganda’s commercial diplomacy,’ said President Museveni.”

In recognition of this contribution to Uganda, the Ugandan government honoured him with a Presidential Medal on 9 October 2012, the golden jubilee of independence. He was among the 42 Uganda Asian recipients decorated by the President. He recalls, “I was in the academic category. In the full list, two-thirds are posthumous, showing an acknowledgment of Asian contribution throughout Uganda’s history. It was a unique event that Uganda honoured so many members of a minority that was once expelled from the country. Was it a kind of atonement? Certainly President Museveni has shown lots of inclination towards the Asians. It was under him that properties were restored to the expelled Asians. Kenya celebrated its Golden jubilee in December 2013; no awards were given out for the even greater contribution of Asians to that country.”

There were 80,000 Uganda Asians worldwide in 1972; 60,000 or so in Uganda at the expulsion. He says, “I was the first (and only person) to show the economic basis for the expulsion. A headline in one of my published papers from my dissertation said that we were one percent of the population (then 8 million) but garnered two-thirds of the nonfood GDP. The economy was based on Africans as cotton and coffee farmers, Asians as ginners and hullers, and Europeans as exporters.

“We had arrogant ways to go along with that, like coming out on Sundays to flash our best linen shirts and silk saris and Mercedes-Benzes, he says, “President Amin got caught up one Sunday in the traffic jam. Says he to an aide: “Where are we? Bombay?” And the expulsion happened. Amin had a dream and he was commanded by the Almighty to expel the Asians – right? Well, we had it coming since almost the start of the Uganda Protectorate.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi


* Published in print edition on 1 May 2014

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