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British Ugandan Asians at 50

Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.


Asian Life in Uganda before the Expulsion

South Asian people were initially brought by the British Empire to East and Southern Africa as indentured labourers in the late nineteenth century. In East Africa, including in Uganda, their main role was to build the railways. The British brought in over 34,000 workers from India, on three-year contracts. There were also draughtsmen, surveyors, accountants, clerks and supervisors. When the railway was finished over 6,000 Indians stayed on in East Africa.

Following in the wake of the railway workers, and expanding long-existing trade connections across the Indian Ocean, thousands of migrants from west India arrived. They were mainly traders and professionals, seeking to make the most of opportunities presented by the opening up of East Africa under British rule.

The country owes much to the Indian trader and we consider that a broad policy of toleration should be adopted towards him. He has shown energy and enterprise and has assisted in the opening up of the more remote districts. He is also of value as an agriculturalist.

Government of India dispatch, 20 October 1920

As the colonial government began to promote cash crops, Asians gained special trading privileges, including a monopoly on cotton ginning. Throughout Kenya and Uganda, Asian traders became ideally positioned to move into cotton trading because of their connections with Bombay’s cotton industry. In 1919 Asians were buying and exporting half of Uganda’s cotton crop to Bombay mills. Others established sugar plantations. By 1920 there were 12,000 Asians in Uganda, a population that had swelled by 1965 to 360,000.

The Indians are a noisy, enterprising, colourful set of people who are tenacious of their culture and connections abroad; they appear more prosperous than anybody else and seem to invest a great part of their prosperity in large families. Concentrated as they are in trading settlements, they stand out conspicuously against the rural African background, and it is not hard to see why they are envied and disliked by Africans and Europeans.

Stephen Morris, British sociologist, 1956

The migrants also found commercial opportunities. The first Asian-owned shop opened in Kampala in 1903, and Asians went on to open businesses and engaged in trade across the country. Although many of the original migrants had been men, now whole families moved to the region.

My father, Manubhai, and his two brothers, Indrakant and Subhas, ran a business in Jinja called African Ironmongers. It was set up by my grandfather, who was recruited from India to help build up colonies in African countries like Uganda. He initially worked on the railways, but always had a keen eye for opportunity.

Viresh Patel, aged 8 in 1972

My family actually owned a car business in Kampala, with showrooms as well as a garage for repairing cars. Meanwhile, another one of our family businesses was an upholstery. Everyone, including the men, knew how to operate a sewing machine; and my two brothers became expert upholsters. Although I was taught the same, I was more interested in the car side of business, so I focused all my energy on that.

Ramzu Pirmohamad

Freedom of movement across the British Empire may have opened up opportunities for Indians in East Africa, but British colonial policy also used them as a ‘buffer’ between Europeans and Africans. Indians quickly established themselves in the middle rungs of government and the professions. This position was reinforced as the British prioritised their education over that of Black Africans.

Ugandans – Black Ugandan Africans – didn’t really trust Asians, and Ugandan Asians didn’t really trust Black African Ugandans. Right? It’s the unsaid thing. And Amin was part of the discourse going around in Uganda which created, gave him the environment to come to the forefront, in addition to Britain’s bloody involvement in putting Amin into those positions. OK?… So, Britain has responsibility and it took some responsibility by taking the Ugandan Asians, but let’s also be honest that Britain didn’t open its arms to us and say, ‘Immediately come in.’ OK? It took public pressure, to get them to take us in. So yeah, they did the right thing in the end, but Britain’s involvement in Uganda has a dirty history’.

Fiyaz Mughal OBE, expelled from Uganda aged 18 months

Those who originally came to Uganda were from diverse backgrounds: Gujarati, Punjabi, Goan; Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Parsee and Sikh. People were further divided by caste, language, sect and class. Nevertheless, over time those living in the country forged a new identity of ‘Ugandan Asian’ that to some extent overrode these different identities.

It was very strong, there was a very strong sense of community that came through what my mother said and my father said… It was a community pretty clearly that didn’t have a sense of sectarianism around it… we had a sense of collective – we had a collective identity, which transcended religion.’

Fiyaz Mughal OBE, expelled from Uganda aged 18 months

Memories of Asian life in Uganda often mention its rich sociability. This life was supported not only by the population’s economic success, but by cultural, religious and social institutions that were established in Kampala, Jinja and other towns. Worship in temples and mosques, social gatherings and sports and cultural events gave a structure to everyday life.

My mother spent much more time at home—she was a housewife, as ladies in Jinja tended to be. Of course, she did lots of cooking and cleaning… Alongside many others, she often attended daytime sewing classes, run by the more talented women in town, and stitched clothes for young children. Additionally, if there was a wedding happening nearby, Mum would join other ladies in the local area and gather at the house of the bride and groom, to help prepare snacks, peel vegetables and cook—regardless of differences in religion. My parents were part of a close-knit community that felt like one big family.

Memories of the life of Usha Patel

I have vivid memories of my childhood in Jinja… I spent most of my free time playing freely and swimming at Amber Court with my cousins—we all lived nearby each other, so there was always someone with whom I could hang around, and I never felt lonely. I also spent plenty of time at the Lakeview Club, and watched many cricket matches at Jinja Recreation Club. Food was a big part of my childhood experience: I loved to eat kebabs, fried mogo, jalebi and gathiya, made by a vendor called Ali across from the local cinema. I can still taste them all now—it’s funny how you don’t forget the smells or tastes of their favourite foods, despite the passing of many years.

Viresh Patel, aged 8 in 1972

If there was mixing between Uganda Asians of different backgrounds, there was far less social interaction between Asian and African Ugandans. The British Empire’s three-tier racial hierarchy concentrated Europeans, Asians and Africans in different part of the economy, and aimed to separate them socially. Outside the workplace each group led almost separate lives, with residential and cultural mingling discouraged. Each population had its own housing, schools, healthcare, social clubs, and even cemeteries and public toilets. However, by the time of independence, among younger generations there was the beginning of racial mixing.

[I went to] a youth club for Asian boys and girls – the first of its kind – where we could socialize and play at romance away from the penetrating eyes of the old guard… Soon some white and black youngsters joined in too… I danced reels with [a young African] Charles; he held my hands, which didn’t turn black, as we were warned they would by our elders. Oh, the agony and ecstasy of transgressive acts!

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Settlers’ Cookbook

The structural position of Asians in East African society made it easy for post-war African independence movements to position them as a problem. Although many Asians opted to take Kenyan or Ugandan citizenship on independence, their position in the newly created nations was precarious. Sometimes described as the ‘Jews of Africa’, nationalist politicians increasingly depicted them as social parasites, with Idi Amin accusing them of having ‘milked the cow without feeding it’. As a result many Asian families across East Africa chose to retain their UK passports.

Following the independence of East African countries in the 1960s, the new governments introduced Africanisation policies designed to end Asian dominance of the professions, civil service and commerce. Africanisation was explained as a positive assertion of African rights and status in the post-independence era. But the policies deliberately targeted Asian businesses, and barred ‘non-citizens’ – mainly Kenyan and Ugandan Asians who had kept their British passports – from, for example, holding civil service jobs. Alongside this kind of state action, anti-Asian prejudice sometimes spilled over into violence.

With their future in jeopardy, many East African Asians opted to migrate to different parts of the world, even before they were forced to do so as in Uganda. The introduction of Africanisation policies in Kenya after independence in 1963 saw thousands of Kenyan Asians leaving. Many came to Britain, and formed the basis of its East African Asian population, who were to be important when the Ugandan Asians were forced to follow in their footsteps in 1972.