British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Chandrika Keshavlal Joshi
Interviewers: Dr. Jyoti Shah
Place: Hotel Rafayel, Battersea, London
Date: 28th May, 2022
Chandrika Keshavlal recalls leaving Uganda with her family as a child and their fear of the authorities. She talks about her first impressions of life in the UK, the food, fashions, and people. She also discusses challenges of the camp, ‘inappropriate’ volunteer actions, and the trauma of the move and its effect on her mother in particular. She speaks about moving to Penrhys, an initial sense of isolation, and the role of her education. Other topics mentioned include women and gender roles, and gratitude.
Early life in Uganda
0:46 I was fourteen when I came from Uganda and we came straight to Wales at the resettlement camp which was in Tonfanau. My parents had emigrated – father in 1930s, my mother in 1945 after having married my father – and then moved to a little town in Uganda called Iganga. We considered Uganda as home because that is where we were born and brought up. My sister and I were in a girls hostel so that’s where we heard that – in August of 1972 – that Amin wanted Ugandan Asians to leave.
1:25 From my perspective, I do remember, very vividly – going to a friend’s place and finding that the house is empty- they are all gone, you know. And, you never knew who was leaving because people didn’t say goodbyes etc. As soon as arrangements were made, they fled. Hearing tales of- of people being abused, people being harassed, their material possessions being taken away from them. We had a house help called John, a young man – probably eighteen – and he didn’t come to work for few days so we wondered what was going to happen, what was happening and you know, when he came back, he showed us his back where he had been lashed because he was taken by the police and for some reason, they wanted to know who does he work for.
Standing at the airport, I was behind my sister and I think we were not allowed to take out any Ugandan currency and my sister had a few cents, so it was literally like a few pennies in her pocket and you know the scary army officers with their guns, you know. My sister was sixteen and not allowing her to go. And shouting at her and telling her that she’s got money in her pocket and er and I remember looking at my mother, my mother was small, 4ft 12 you know sort of. I vividly remember my mother’s lips dry, her mouth dry, you know – her eyes full of fear, because we had heard of rapes and attacks on women etc, and my mother really scared that what if they turned around and say she cannot leave. And then my sister was then allowed to leave and going inside the plane – British Caledonian, looking out through the window and I was really scared my father wasn’t going to make it because my father was obviously disabled and walked with a stick and he was way behind and really feeling terrified what if the plane goes off without him [gestures panicked handwaving]. So this uhm irrational fears that somehow something horrible is going to happen.
First impressions of UK
3:50 My first impressions of UK were looking through the window of the sort of bus which was taking us to the train station from Heathrow airport. We arrived in Tonfanau Refugee camp. You know we really had no idea of what to expect and we were all taken to a cinema there which was a hall and we were allocated these little rooms which had these small uhm small one-bedders with these khaki blankets on top, a tiny electric heater was wall mounted and there were lots of beds in a tiny area.
4:36 In Uganda, you know we had our own fashion sense! And when you are fourteen you are very conscious of how you dress etc. So, you know we wore our mini dresses in the sixties and then we started wearing our bell bottom trousers and tunics in Uganda and of course, there were lot of clothes which are from 1960s and really, you know, old fashioned clothes, so I remember, at fourteen, thinking, ‘Oh I don’t want to wear that’. So I’d rather wear my Ugandan dress even if I’m going to be cold because as a teenager you know it’s really important, you know you’re conscious of how you dress etc. So I still went around in my sandals, in my little Ugandan dress even though it was freezing cold because I’d rather look nice, than than sort of wear these old fashioned clothes!
Food in the camps
5:36 Food options were limited. So it was mainly English food. And for vegetarians which were predominantly – a lot of Ugandan Asians, Gujaratis, were vegetarian – so there were not enough vegetarian options. And, you know, toast, milk, cornflakes, beans and after a couple of weeks, people complained and said there wasn’t enough variety of foods for vegetarians and also people, you know, were missing their own food to an extent, you know. So after I would say a few weeks, they invited some of the Ugandan Asians who were already there to help with the cooking, and a stage came when they started making parathas and stuff like that and offering that which was much nicer. And much later, they actually gave us little electric plates, to keep in our own rooms so we could cook our own food if we wanted to. And I do remember our first meal on that little ring which was cooked, you know, like a little khichdi etc was made. And, you know that was so enjoyable because that was again the food, you know homecooked.
Challenges in the camp
7:04 In retrospect, if I think about it, then I remember the inappropriateness of some of the volunteers or people who the organisation had put in place and I remember one person, I can still see him in front of my eyes – a very colonial, older gentleman – and my father, obviously at that stage, my parents couldn’t speak much English so the children often helped out. It was a housing office, so you would go there and you would discuss your housing needs etc and go and ask if a house was ready for you. We had gone over and I had gone with my father to translate and when I stood there with my father, the- the old English gentleman said in Hindi, ‘She’s such a beautiful girl.’ But it was said in a way – and then … Sorry, the other Asian volunteers giggled. They were all men. And I looked at my father and I could see the embarrassment on my father’s face and I felt the remark was inappropriate. So those kind of things were maybe sometimes present which which people probably don’t talk about.
8:31 The other thing that happened in the Refugee camp, one of the main events was that my mother became ill, became very ill. She had rheumatic fever and of course we didn’t know it was rheumatic fever and uhm her heart was affected, joints were swollen etc, and uhm so my sister and I went to the medical centre – because my mother couldn’t go to the medical centre. She couldn’t walk because Tonfanau camp is very hilly. You’ve got to go climb a hill to go to the medical centre and the nurse said to my sister and I that – it was raining a bit then – and she said, ‘It rains here all the time and just because it rains, you can’t turn round and say she can’t come here. You’ve got to bring here, otherwise no one is going to come there and see her.’ And we went home and told my mum that they won’t come and we’ve got to walk over. And uhm… And then we walked, my sister and I and my mother, and uhm… You know, my mother – you can imagine with rheumatic fever, with that acute infection with the heart, you know, cardiac sort of affected. And, walking and my mother would walk a few steps and then stop and sit down, and walk a few steps and sit down [welling up]. And then a milk van passed by, and then he stopped and he said, ‘Shall I take you?’ and we said ‘Yeah’. And then he took of course my mum to the medical centre and er of course as soon as the doctor examined her, he said, ‘No you can’t go home. You’ve got to be admitted now’ [wipes tears]. She survived. She did live, but you know she never quite recovered.
My mother had a nervous breakdown in the hospital because I think she heard- overheard that there was a priest who’s become – she was learning English right? So she had a dictionary and she was learning English etc – and she overheard someone talking about that there was a priest who has been involved in an accident, so that was really traumatic. And she thought, ‘Oh my God, we have just left the country and now a priest has had an accident. There can’t be many priests around here, so it would be my husband, what’s going to happen to my children?’ [wipes tears] It wasn’t my father, no, but once she had a nervous breakdown, you know, of course that … it’s difficult to think back.
Life in Penrhys
11:06 I would say the early five years of our lives were really tough. And unlike a lot of Asian people who went and settled in places like Leicester, Birmingham – where other Asian social support is there, where other Asian people were there, we were housed in a small estate in South Wales and my father accepted the house because my mother was in a hospital there and we just didn’t want to be too far away from my mum. We were housed in a little, little place called Penrhys which is a small village in South Wales. There were ten families who were housed in the Rhondda because a call out had gone to all the councils to say how many Ugandan Asians they can house and South Wales had said we would take ten.
11:56 The nice thing was that we used to visit each other, so socialise with each other – take a bus and go over to their house and socialise there and make samosas and eat, and you know, and they came over.
12:10 Schooling in Tonfanau camp – once we had the camp school, and right towards the end in December, they had picked a few children and put them in the local grammar school and I was one of them. I went to Tywyn Grammar School and I sat my – the December exams were on and we came with no books or anything. The Headmaster said to us, ‘Why don’t you sit the exam?’, so most of them backed out and said ‘No’, the children said, ‘We don’t want to.’ But there was a girl called Rasika Dave who was my age and we were both in the same class and Rasika said, ‘You know we should try and sit the exam.’ And I said, ‘OK, then we will both sit it.’ You know, looking at the O level books and studying hard and of course, Rasika and I came top in class.
So you know it was so nice and it was showing the school that just because we came from Uganda which was a British Colony, it doesn’t mean that the education standard in English was low. When the Education Officer came in Penrhys to allocate a school, I was allocated a place in a Secondary Modern. He just said, ‘No you can go to a Secondary Modern, right?’ You know it was so random, it was just like if we put, it was a really random selection, rather than, anything – what have you done, what language, did you study? Anything. And, I had to argue my case with him at fourteen to say, ‘Why am I not being put in the same school as my sister?’ and then show him the certificate from the exam results from the Tywyn Grammar, for him to put me in Grammar School.
14:04 I didn’t get any of my A Levels. I went through a really traumatic period, so for me at fourteen, the five years were really hard. I couldn’t… I am on top of a village, living in a– which was fine – initially trying really hard to integrate and the only Asian girl in my class etc – but the school was Ferndale Comprehensive School, so I would have to change buses in order to go to school because we were on top of the mountain. Only one shop and there was nothing else there. And although the school children, the headmaster, etc, the children were lovely – I could have made close friends from my class – the fact that it was so far away left me out. So I felt really isolated and lonely so the five years were very hard for me and I didn’t get my A levels. But then I got a job in a hospital, as I had twelve to thirteen GCSE’s – 13 O Levels, good grades. Right? So that meant that I worked in the hospital for two years and then got a qualification and got distinctions and decided to do dentistry.
15:24 For me to make Wales into my home was really important and I probably only settled properly in Wales and felt it was a home, uhm… Less than twenty years ago. I have been here fifty years and I felt homeless quite frankly until I made the solid decision that there’s never going to be the home that I have lost. I’ll never find it.
16:01 My story is – of Uganda – is not just my story but it is a story of my siblings and my family, my mother, Kantaben Keshavlal Joshi who lost her life, who died in this country having made it her home, and we scattered her ashes in a Welsh river and called it our Ganga.
16:27 We have now… truly, made this our home. My message to the volunteers is: ‘Thank you so much for volunteering your time and coming over and you know making it a little bit fun for us’, because they were young volunteers, a lot of them, I came were young and [I’d say to] the volunteers at Aberystwyth University: ‘Sorry, I didn’t dance with you at the disco, but I had never been to a disco and I would not have dreamt of dancing with a man in 1972, so sorry about that’ [laughs], but uhm, ‘thank you for helping out and thank you for making our life easier.’
17:15 Looking back, if I had only lived my life in Uganda, I cannot say that I would have had those opportunities in Uganda, because most people, if I like back and remember women in their twenties were married very you and had children, and had their own families. At the maximum the role models I saw of women were they worked in primary schools as school teachers. There was an Indian nurse who was a woman in our town. But I never saw women in any professional positions. And, I think, the advantage of coming to this country, is that as a woman it gave me wings. So that I can never stop flying!
Last modified: 28th Nov 2022