Uganda Asian Exodus: An Inhuman Migration Transformed into Success Story

By Kul Bhushan,who covered the migration from East Africa and Britain

Fifty years ago, on 4 August 1972, around 60,000 Indians living in Uganda, East Africa, were ordered to leave this country within 90 days by dictator Idi Amin. These Indians, called Asians, had been living in Uganda for over seven decades, toiling and building their businesses and lives.

Africa’s most brutal tyrant, Idi Amin, had seized power a year earlier and ruled the resources rich country on his whims and phobias. His orders became a nightmare for the docile Asians.

Asians arrive in Britain without any assets and hope but rebuilt their lives with business acumen and hard work

The Asians came to Uganda at the end of the 19th century when the British built the Kenya Uganda Railway with importing Indian labourers. During this period, the Asians opened small shops, known as ‘dukas’ in Swahili, in the wild bush to supply basic goods. Thus, the Asians were branded as Dukawallas. By the 1970s, they had set up many other enterprises like cotton ginneries and even large industries like sugar factories by two major industrial groups – the Madhvanis in Kakira and the Mehtas in Lugazi near Jinja town. The educated had become professionals.

In his lunatic frenzy, Amin overlooked the fact that the Asians employed a huge number of Africans in their shops, businesses, factories and even in their homes. Calling them ‘bloodsuckers’ of Uganda, he ordered them to leave – without any assets as they had acquired them in Uganda.

Panic was the most predominant emotion after this announcement. The Indians scrambled to get their passports in order to leave. About half had British passports, most others were born in Uganda and were entitled to Ugandan passports, but Amin would not have this and insisted that they leave.

Thus, Canada came into the picture as some Asians, led by the Ismaili leader, the Aga Khan, pleaded with Canada. So, thousands of Asians, mostly Ismailis, went to Canada. The remaining Asians, mostly Gujaratis, went to Britain while others settled in USA, Australia and elsewhere.

As they flew out of Entebbe airport, they were roughly checked by Ugandan soldiers so that they do not take away anything valuable. Sometimes, their suitcases were seized claiming that they were overweight.

The first group of Asian refugees, numbering 193, landed at Stansted Airport in Britain on 18 September 1972 – the first of hundreds of flights that would carry out the evacuation. They were greeted by the chairman of the Uganda Refugees Resettlement Board, Sir Charles Cunningham. They stayed in these camps until suitable accommodation was found for them. Some families with relatives and friends in Britain had made their own arrangements for accommodation, but others were taken to an RAF camp at Stradishall in Suffolk in dull, misty autumn which would turn into biting winter in November when the last refugees landed.

At that time, the British economy had slowed down after the energy crises; business sentiment was low; property prices were down and liquidity was scarce. In this scenario, many Uganda Asians who had already transferred sizeable sums to Britain withdrew their funds and purchased homes and shops. Others provided bank guarantees by their relatives/friends who had a good financial standing and also purchased their homes and shops at low prices. Those with a low level of training and/or education started work at the bottom of the economic ladder.

They mostly settled down in Wembley, London, and Leicester, Luton, Slough and other towns. In Leicester they settled mostly in Belgrave, Rushey Mead and Melton Road. The Leicester City Council placed advertisements in Ugandan newspapers warning the Asians that the city had no jobs or housing for them, thereby discouraging their arrival. But they were not discouraged and went ahead because of their relatives and friends.

And they prospered due to their business acumen and hard work. The staid small shops were bought by Asians and were open till late evenings and on Sundays; thus, changing the concept of retail in Britain. Others started grocery stores which became multi-million-pound chains. They entered the financial sector and did equally well. Most of all, they educated their children up to the university level with professional degrees and achieved top positions. Descendants of Ugandan Asians feature among Britain’s high achievers and celebrities, including Priti Patel, the Home Secretary.

Now Leicester has the heavily Indian Golden Mile of jewellery shops, cinemas and restaurants. Leicester’s Asian community is so large and influential that the city now hosts the biggest Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, celebrations outside of India.

Back in Uganda, the Asian-owned shops, businesses and industries, were handed over by Amin, mostly to his fellow Kakwe tribesmen who ran them down. They had no business background and did not employ Africans in shops and businesses creating huge unemployment. In a few years, this resulted in low tax collection by the government. Meanwhile, the murderous regime of Idi Amin ended with an invasion from Tanzania in 1987 and he went into exile in Saudi Arabia the following year until he died in 2003.

However, Asians’ re-settlement became a success story for British immigration and in 1991 President Yoweri Museveni invited the expelled community to “return home” to help rebuild the economy. Again, he urged them to return during his visit to Britain in 1998. Only a few accepted his invitation.

In fact, Asians have paid tributes to Idi Amin for deporting them to re-start their lives. A book, ‘Thank You, Idi Amin’ by Mohezin Tejani was published in January 2010. Dr Vali Jamal, a former UN consultant, has compiled an unpublished oral history of Uganda Asians running into 2650 pages, 13.8 years in producing, initially done to record people’s memories of the expulsion and childhood in Uganda.

A committee has been formed to mark 50 years of Asian Exodus to organise different events, discussions, seminars, and exhibitions. ‘Rebuilding Lives: 50 Years of Ugandan Asians in Leicester’ will recognise those who fled the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and celebrate the positive contributions they have made to the community in the East Midlands.

The Asians he deported after his decree that fateful August 4, 50 years ago were fortunate that they were merely deported, rather than butchered as Amin threw hundreds of Africans to the crocodiles in the Nile or killed them heinously. A human head was found in his refrigerator as he boasted of eating human flesh! Lucky Asians.

Kul Bhushan has been invited to become a patron of the committee to mark the 50 years of the Asian Exodus. Kul worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 5 August 2022

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