British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Interviewers: Paresh Solanki
Place: The subject’s home in Kenton, North London
Date: 30th March, 2022
Jatin Shah describes his life across the globe to escape the Ugandan expulsion, and he still ended up in a British camp. Shah speaks of his vivid memories of leaving Uganda, the trauma incited at the airport, the difficulties in getting their belongings and whole family out together. He then recalls life in West Malling Camp: weather conditions; camp food; difficulties in the camp; shock. He describes how he worked his way up in the fashion industry and how his family established themselves but the legacies of becoming refugees so suddenly stayed with them. He expresses deep gratitude and thanks. Other topics mentioned include: polio; giving back; faith.
Before the Expulsion
0:44 In Uganda, my father was a businessman. The money that was in the banks would become very useless. The value of the money would go overnight. So what my father did, so all the people that worked for my father – that worked at home and in the business – he made sure that he bought them all the things that they would have needed for their homes; he even kind of gave them cash in advance for their children to be able to go to school. But then Dad he decided, well if we’re going to leave money behind anyway which is gonna become obsolete, might as well buy airline tickets, and see the world, or as much of the world as we can see.
1:28 Basically, the District Commissioner phoned my dad at about eight o’clock one evening and said, ‘Mr. Shah, I am sending two cars. I know-, I’ve heard the army is after you and we are going to send two cars. Just pack whatever you can pack in a small suitcase; as soon as the driver is there, you just put the suitcases there and you leave. No questions asked.’ So obviously Dad followed the instructions. We put whatever little we could put into a little suitcase.
We fled Mbale. But we travelled at night. We had to fly from Entebbe, so we had to go to Kampala first, but from Mbale to Kamplala, there were seven army check points that you had to go through. Uhm, we just literally-, it was the driver who was doing all the communications. The army would order you out of the car, they would open your suitcase, they would take whatever they wanted from your suitcase. You could not say anything. And also the driver was telling us that on his various journeys they had actually seen people that were arguing with the army, and they were just being shot there and then on the spot. ‘So do not say a word, anything they ask for, just give it to them. We need to get you safe to Kampala.’
So, because the drivers were under instructions as well, so they went up to Mum and Kaki and said, ‘Mama, can we have all your gold and jewellery.’ They tied it up into a little knot in cloth, they put it under the driver’s seat, on top of it they put a cushion and they sat on it. Both the cars. That is how, because they were not hassling the drivers – the army – it was only the Asians that were fleeing.
When we got to Kampala, we stayed with a family friend. His family had already left but he was still there. So we stayed with them, and when the gold jewellery was given back, we gave it to the person whose house it was to keep it safe for us. Now he-, they used to be in the petroleum business, where they had big tankers and they would take petrol from Kenya to Uganda and vice versa. So this gentleman said, ‘OK, give me all your gold. What we’re going to do is, on the side of each petroleum tank, we have these pipes which is where the nozzles all go in. Your gold is going to be put in there, but the drivers will not know what’s in there. When it gets to the other end of Nairobi, the right people will be informed. The first thing they need to do is to get your gold out and deliver it to your family in Nairobi. And that is how all the family gold got sent there.’
4:47 So from Kampala, we went to Entebbe. From Entebbe you had to do the vigorous custom part, go through the checks of the customs. Now the family before us was a Punjabi family, and the lady, she had a very big plaster all the way down there [indicates his arm] and so everyone thought she had broken her hand. She made the fatal mistake of lifting a suitcase with that hand. As soon as the army saw that, they cut the plaster open and it was full of gold bangles. So, that was not the right thing to do.
Now my kaki always used to have a big ambodo, like a bun, that’s how she always did [her hair]. So they got very suspicious that she might have something in there; they took her away and they started to do a strip search on my kaki. But on the other hand, we were being told, ‘Now it’s time for you to board the plane. You need to go’. And, literally you were just looking at all these rifles that were pointing at you. You couldn’t do anything. Although my kaka and my dad pleaded that ‘Our family member is being detained in there, if we go on the plane, what is she going to do?’, they weren’t having any of it. They said, ‘Somebody else is dealing with her.’ So they took us on the plane, and my dad actually went to the pilot and explained to them that our family member is being detained there, she has got no gold, nothing on her at all. In fact, they didn’t even have the bangles on or anything because everything went in the tanker. And the pilot said, ‘But there are certain times we have to observe because of the flight.’ Then, the pilot decided, that he actually stepped off the plane and went in there. So on that day my kaki was wearing a sari but when they released her, she just literally had to drape it in and just to become a bit decent, and she was brought onto the plane by the pilot. That’s when the family felt a big sigh of relief. And when the plane took off, that was the biggest relief. We were dicing with life there. Although we were children, I have vivid memories of the fright on my parents’ face, how scared they were. So it was not until the flight took off that we went sort of ‘Aaah, now we are safe’.
7:36 We went to Nairobi first because we had some family there where we could stay, and we stayed there for six months with the family, did our first Diwali there after leaving Uganda. A year [earlier], in 1971, my grandparents had decided that they wanted to go and retire in Jamnagar, because my mother-, we are from Gujarat, from a small village called Chela, near Jamnagar. So it was kind of going back to their roots and they wanted to retire there. They were hearing of all the sort of things, the riots, and how the refugees were being treated during the time of leaving Uganda, all the army that would hassle you know the people out there. They would hear all the stories, so obviously they were building up their own sort of anxieties, and I think Dad said, ‘Let’s go to Ba and Bapuji and present ourselves and tell them that we are safe, do not worry.’ So when we went to Jamnagar, obviously Dad tried to enrol us into the schools but without [being able to speak] Gujarati or Hindi they wouldn’t give us a place. And they said, ‘There’s no future for these children and if you want to see a future for them, your best bet is to fly to London, because UK Resettlement Board are still accepting Asians from Uganda.’
So we went through all the customs and we went through the immigration, we went through all the body screening for for infections or anything like that, and then they decided to call the camp which was at West Malling in Kent, to say, ‘We have got a family that needs to come to your camp because you have space there.’ So a driver came to collect us in a big van. So we all got into the van. We didn’t even have the right clothes, we didn’t have any jumpers or any overcoats because it’s not something we were used to having. Very cold, very frightened, very hungry, but we made ourselves go to the camp. By the time we got there, it was night time, so we were shown to our dormitories where literally there was just beds with little curtains. We went to sleep.
Life in West Malling Camp
The next day when dad and my uncle came out onto the grounds, they said in the morning, ‘You need to go and have your breakfast in the big dining rooms’, and that was a big shock, to the system for the family because they were not used to begging with a tray for food. Food always used to come to them on the dining table. So almost Kaka and Dad didn’t eat for three days but then as the days passed, they started meeting people from Mbale which gave them that hope and that confidence that, ‘Yes now we are with people of Mbale.’ We could talk freely with them and they actually told Dad and my uncle the way of life, because they had already been in the camp for many months prior to us: how to live there, how to comply with the rules of the camp. Slowly everybody got adjusted, to the point that my mum and my aunt, my kaki, also got involved with working in the kitchens to prepare Gujarati food for everyone.
11:33 Very near West Malling camp was a place called Maidstone which is where they had the Indian cinemas, all the Indian grocery shops, so often you know the chef with the ladies would go to these places and buy the ingredients that they would need. Food was laid out in a buffet, so there was non-Jain food-, non-vegetarian food, vegetarian food, but for families that had never had meat, it was very difficult to adjust to that you know, because sometimes, you don’t know the spoons may have got mixed, the utensils may have got mixed. So for mum, my aunt, for many other people that was a big problem. So that’s why they said, ‘No, let us now get involved and we start cooking Gujarati food. We’ve had enough of boiled vegetables every day’ and it was also decided, ‘Can we leave off meat completely, enjoy the Gujarati food because it caters for everybody.’
12:38 All the children were taken to Wrotham High School to continue with their education. They put on extra classes. Kent is very famous for the apple orchards, so they would take all the men to these orchards in a coach. They would put these big baskets with the band round there [indicates forehead]. They would climb up the trees and pick apples and that fruit then got sold which helped the camp as well. The ladies would go and help out in the kitchens but also they would help out like clearing clutter from the communal grounds. In the evening everybody would collect in the big dining rooms after dinner. So by that time, you know, you started making a lot of friends as well as friends you already had from Mbale. You just exchanged stories, the ladies had singsong sessions, we had some people who actually produced a little play; a story about the life in Mbale and how it is here. We would invite the English people that were running the camp to come and have a look at it. We just tried to make it as fun and enjoyable as possible.
Getting a job in Britain
13:57 I knew that the BBC was a prestigious name to work for, so that’s where I applied. I had no formal training in that field. My determination was, ‘Yes, I just needed to prove something.’ I went for my interview. They asked to see my portfolio. Well I had never even heard of the name portfolio, so I asked, ‘What is a portfolio?’ and they said, ‘That’s where you show us all your fashion sketches’ and I said,’Well I don’t have any.’ But then something clicked and I thought, ‘Yes, but I can put something on paper.’ So I went to the nearest gents toilets, ripped off some tissue paper and I just started sketching in there, rolled up the toilet paper and went back to the head of the costume department where I was being interviewed, and gave him that. He was a bit uhm, surprised, he says: ‘This is toilet paper.’ I said, ‘Do open it, and you will see what I am capable of doing.’ When he opened it, he saw what I was doing. He said, ‘You are completely hopeless at applying for this job, but it’s because of your determination that I am going to give you a job just to try and see how you work.’ And that’s how I got my job.
15:16 Slowly, I think they saw that, ‘He is determined and he wants to go ahead with fashion design’, so they actually sponsored me to go and do my degree in Fashion Design. From then on I went on to do my Masters degree in Fashion Design. Then I was supposed to go back to the BBC, but the other offer that came was to work for a very prestigious fashion house, a very upcoming designer – an opportunity that I would never get ever again. So I approached the BBC and they said, ‘Yes, I think you must go and get your experience.’ I went to work for Zandra Rhodes who was the queen of punk and fashion. I had to work my way up. I was a very new, young designer but I soon started learning the ropes. What I enjoyed the most was at Zandra Rhodes, there was less of pattern cutting and more of draping straight on to the dummy, and I thought that was just so amazing: you could actually get the feel of fabric, you could see the shapes there and then, rather than making patterns and then them not working. I really enjoyed that, so that’s what I continued doing, which then gave me the inspiration to want to go into couture design. I started my own fashion label and I was making some garments, one off pieces and selling them.
16:50 We came here with no money whatsoever. Now we’ve got our own business, we’ve got our own home, we’re very very comfortable. We don’t spend lavishly. We are very careful because you’ve been through that stage where you had so much money and overnight you became a pauper, you became a refugee. So the lesson to be learnt was you earn money, you spend it wisely but always save it for a rainy day as well, because you don’t know what the future holds for you.
17:25 “Hats off.” We would never have got this anywhere else. For everything they did. There was so much humility. They-, they-, the compassion, the level of compassion they showed towards us, we cannot ever be thankful enough. We can never repay them back. You know, my dad – because I had polio from the age of six months and the difficulties he knew that I was facing, but then likewise, there was an epidemic of polio during the late 50’s. A lot of local African children also got polio. His determination always was that whatever we earn from business, the first thing we are going to do is for these children, like my own child, we are going to pay for their education because when they grow up they will then, you know, be able to stand on their own feet. So he paid for their education, he paid for their calipers to be made. Like I was being looked after, he looked after these people. Somewhere I think God sort of looked after us as well.
Last modified: 20th Nov 2022