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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.

Harshinder Sirah

Heathfield Camp

Interviewers:  Charlie Forbes, Dominic Case (local sixth formers)

Place:  Allhallows Museum, Honiton, Devon

Date:  18th June, 2022

Harshinder Sirah was a camp resident in 1972 and describes her experiences. She has used her art to work through and interpret the legacy of the Ugandan expulsion. Sirah recalls the beauty of Uganda and how communities had once come together there. She discusses how her family has been permanently geographically dispersed since the expulsion. She recalls memories of the camp at Heathfield, then being lodged with a Christian family, and her families struggle to re-establish themselves in Bristol. She discusses how she still visits Uganda, seeing her father and friends, and how the culture still inspires her artwork. Other topics discussed include: differences in status of work for refugees; grammar school education; trauma based silences in family discussions; the importance or remembering and reuniting.

Transcript

Recollections of Uganda

0:45 Before we left, I have recollection of what a fantastic, beautiful country Uganda is and how stunning it is. I know that a lot of people are probably talking about the atrocities, being horrendous, we’ve been part of that journey. However, I’d like to probably put a positive spin on how fantastic my birthplace is and how the fond memories I have of it – riding my bicycle, you know, and having Chinese people living next door to us. My father was a formidable and retired building contractor, so we had lots of amazing fond memories of unity, and communities coming together, and obviously learning the language of Swahili and gelling with everyone around us. It was just beautiful. The country is just absolutely amazing.

What I do remember is that we had a very large family. So, we lived quite close to each other and memories were just fantastic of the nursery school I went to there, and always running to an auntie’s house across a big airfield where Idi Amin used to actually fly down to and take off from the city. So on those grounds, I remember going to my auntie’s, running there quite a lot. But I don’t really remember anything about what the UK was going to host for us, because remember, you know, my mum came on her own with three young children. My youngest brother Jaz, was only a month old, then Sandeep was three years old, and then myself. So she had to come with three small children and we left slightly after my uncles and aunties that came here. My father was trying to sell properties and trying to rekindle his business as much as possible. He had worked so hard, you know, he’s been part of renovating the Makerere University, he’s built part of the main post office on Kampala Road – all of these amazing stories that he would have me on the back of the pick-up truck, and take me to building site after building site.

 

Coming to Britain and separation from her father

3:10  I came over, as I mentioned, with my two brothers and my mum and we had to get out of the country as soon as possible. We were sort of later to my uncles and aunties. But my father said that he would join us in a week and he’ll follow us through, but we must go, so he made this amazing identity cards to get us out to safety. Uhm and he said he would join us within a week, but unfortunately that week never happened, because he wanted to salvage as much as he could financially. He had worked so hard all his life. He is a very well-known building contractor, and that week didn’t happen and all these years later, my father never joined us; and it’s happened to many families, not just our family. The unity is still there, he is still my father, we still love him, my parents are still married. But he wanted to give us the best of life and all three children went to private grammar schools because we had lost so much of ourselves in education, being shunted from school to school but he never came back.

Each time he came to visit, he would come and see us and visit us. He didn’t enjoy being here. He missed people just popping in and out, you know, sitting on the verandah, having a drink, cold glass of beer, a cup of tea, not by appointment to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake or whatever. It was just a different way of life. So, he came here and he was offered a job as a gardener and my father was already very high up as a building contractor. So he said, ‘Do you know what? I’d rather be shot than to come back and be a gardener.’ He just felt that was quite, you know … ‘I want to go back and I just want to carry on for my family.’ So that’s what he did.

5:01 And trying to speak to my mum about it is very difficult, because I think they have all suffered so much that they don’t really want to talk about it. It brings back such memories for them, uhm and the hardship, and then they’ve made such wonderful memories here now.

 

Memories of the camp

5:18 My first memories of the camp and probably the most memorable is, I have two brothers and my youngest brother was only a month old, so I remember being left with him, often, with my legs crossed at the age of six, sitting on the floor and just feeding him bottled milk, and I’d be doing that quite often.

We managed to get out of Heathfield after two or three months. We went to live with my grandparents as I mentioned earlier, and then we were ushered to go and stay in Bristol with a Christian family – just like the Ukrainians at the moment, you know, that are being housed by British and so forth. We were given the opportunity to go and stay with a Christian family for a year and half I believe, in Chipping Sodbury in Bristol, so we chose Bristol as our settlement. And we lived with the family and we are still in touch with that family. The children are my age. My Mum and my Dad are still in touch with the parents and I have lots of memories of that. So I think my memory started coming sort of past six, seven, eight years of age and er I remember, loving the fact that we had this huge, great big – in England it was quite cold and I remember having a swimming pool in their garden, and they had quite a substantial home. But it was my Mum and my brothers and myself that lived with this Christian family that took us in, fed and watered us, looked after us.

And then from that we were able to go and rent a house in a place called Stockwood, in Bristol. Again we rented that and my Dad’s parents, my grandparents – my Dada and Dadi – came to live with us and they resided with us for many years. So that was quite nice. We all were brought up together and that was in a rented place, and that was also quite hard to make sure the rent was paid on time. Uhm.

From that we went on to another place called Whitchurch, and it was in Whitchurch that we managed to buy a home – a small three bed – and that was what we could call our base. That was the first time, I remember feeling, ‘Oh thank God, we are going to stay here now!’ We were there for a good ten years or so in Whitchurch, and from that place I remember going to Colston, and then living with my uncle and auntie for a while, in Patchway in Bristol. 

 

Visiting Uganda

7:51 I have been back about three or four times, and we have-, I have friends that I grew up with that never left, and the sad part of that is a lot of their families died through the regime, uhm and many families stayed on, and they have become some the most wonderful human beings you know. One’s a very high up – a magistrate in Kampala and she is a very good friend of mine. So I like to go back and see them [nodding].

8:20  It would have been very, very difficult as a woman to stay on in Uganda. Uhm, I still feel quite nervous when I go back. I do still feel … the insecurities I had, however, I think I would have been just as accomplished there as I have been here. I was the first girl in my family to go to University and have a degree, and I knew from the age of eleven that I was going to be a fashion designer. I thought, ‘That’s what I am going to do!’ So I was always found in the art room or the sewing room but never in Physics [laughs]. I was dreadful at Physics.

 

Life as an artist

8:58  I went to Salisbury Art College. I graduated and became a designer. I did my designer days for about fifteen years, and then my life changed. My son was diagnosed with autism, and so I run an educational programme specifically for him. And I started painting, that was twenty years ago, and it became my therapy. And then I exhibited at David Lloyd’s gyms and sold my work, and since then I have been teaching uhm and er doing all my art work from my studio and selling and you know providing my journey. You know I am very keen on migration and the history of migration, how people have moved to Canada, America, England and you pick up all these items, you know, and yes, I think I just love textiles and I love colour and I love depicting history through my work as well.

 

Inspirations (subject showed a series of her paintings)

9:58  So this particular painting was inspired by a journey taken from Kampala to Barara to go and meet some friends, and en route we stopped in this wonderful Ugandan cornfield. I can’t remember what little village it was, but it was so inspirational and we stopped for a picnic and it was just great.

10:17  This painting was sketched out and made with the lovely lady who did all the washing for our family’s friends in Barara when we were visiting.

10:27 This is a marketplace en route. My father always, always, stops at this marketplace . I think it’s because it’s the most affluent of marketplaces. It generates all this beautiful colour, and you don’t really want to eat the gorgeous fruits and vegetables because they are just stunning oranges and greens and aubergines and beautiful purples, and amazing wonderful costumes and dresses that people are wearing. And we always stop at this marketplace because we believed to take gifts in the form of food to our friends, rather than taking other ostentatious gifts.

11:07  This was a fabulous dancer that we went to see in a dance show. We’d often go with my father to see local African dance shows, or we would go to some mixtures of Bollywood and Punjabi songs to hear, you know, in a vibrant setting where the heat is just phenomenal but you are sitting outdoors till eleven, twelve o’clock at night. And, again, it was just lovely to see this dancer in her beautiful costume.

11:38  This is a lady in the marketplace and this is in the place where my father lives, Bugolobi near Kampala. He lives in one of the hill tops that surrounds Kampala. You get amazing breeze, so if it’s forty degrees sunshine you get this amazing breeze sitting on the veranda. And where we went to buy tilapia fish from her, and again, I bought her clothes that she’s actually wearing. They are still in my studio and I work from those colours, because you can’t replicate those colours from just memories. You need to bring the items back.

 

Reflection

12:14 I want the history to be told, that it wasn’t easy for our parents. Our parents suffered a great deal. Came back with nothing, you know, just a handful of items, and look where they are today, fifty years on! You know, accomplished children, brought up their kids, and it would be nice if we could tell that story and that journey, and to make sure that we unite again as people and doesn’t matter where you are from – Black, Asian, white – but we all unite. I think that’s really important to do.      

Last modified: 20th Nov 2022

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