British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Interviewers: Charlie Forbes, Dominic Case (local sixth formers)
Place: Allhallows Museum, Honiton, Devon
Date: 18th June, 2022
Mahendra Dabhi recalls the traumatic experience of leaving Uganda Asia, being held at gun point and being stopped and robbed by authorities. He speaks of the joy of finally being told they had cleared Ugandan airspace. But the sadness of hearing of some families who were not able to get out together and men who were never found again. He recalls the surrealness of arriving at Stanstead and noticing the immediate difference white cleaners. He recalls arriving at Honiton and receiving a warm welcome, making friendships in the camp at Honiton. He particularly expresses gratitude to the Community Service Volunteers and WRVS ladies, and all those involved in helping. He mentions the cross-cultural bonding effects of sport. He describes resettling in Birmingham and his family’s struggle, but the good support available from the Asian community, and finding new joys at college such as going to see Frank Zappa. He reflects on giving back to the community and the transformative humbling effect of the experience. Other topics mentioned include: food; football; hockey; places of worship; businesses; Jimi Hendrix; music.
The last 90 days in Uganda
0:47 When Amin announced that we should leave, first of all it was disbelief for few days. ‘Is this guy joking?’ The Asians were part of Uganda. But the last ninety days were quite horrific. I was [gets emotional], …Twice I was held at gunpoint because they wanted the car that we were in and it was fortunate that we managed to get away from it. I had to do about seven or eight trips in the last ninety days to get our passports etcetera ready. Normally at that time, any person of my age wouldn’t have gone through that because their parents or elder brothers would have done it. And in my case I had to do that. Excuse me … and it wasn’t really a pleasant experience.
1:57 My father lost his eyesight when I was about thirteen, so he became blind, and from thirteen onwards most of the official work etcetera you know it was given to me so. And I travelled back home. told the family. We packed up everything one Sunday evening and moved out of our town. We travelled to Lugazi and we stayed there for three or four days. From there on we just timed it with other families to get their tickets etcetera sorted out, and on the last day we left, got a coach from Kampala to Entebbe, and you were under army escort to make sure that you don’t get hassled. All the other trips that we done, to and fro – by that time, the army, the military police or the police themselves, would stop you anywhere, whatever you had, they would take it from you. So if you had a watch they liked, they would take it from you. Me and my uncle did that regularly. So what we had was a boot full of clothes, no suitcase. And the reason being is that you can pick up whatever you want, please yourself, and quite often, we used to put a lot of rags in there as well, just to make it look full. And quite often, they would stop us and take whatever they wanted. If they felt that they did not have enough or we didn’t have enough to offer them, they would slap you around the face or kick you or something for not providing them with everything that other Asians were providing.
3:17 On the last few days before we left, we had moved up to Lugazi, which was only twenty-eight miles from Kampala, so whenever we got the exit clearance and the tickets, we would be on the plane straightaway and out. Erm, so there was eight of us, with few other family friends who we were to travel with. We would have left about four to five weeks earlier but we wanted to make sure two elderly couples who were family friends got their exit as well. So we want to make sure that they were on the plane to India. My uncle was on the plane to Canada. And then we got on our plane through to the UK. It was a joy when they turned around and said that we have cleared the Ugandan airspace. That’s the only time that I particularly relaxed.
4:10 We were lucky enough to be able to get our exit, tickets etcetera sorted out. But there were dozens and dozens of people, families, who didn’t have any means or ability to get their passports and things sorted out, and I know that a lot of community elders got together and sponsored their exit. What I mean by sponsor is, they turn around and say: ‘We’ve got a family here, they’ve got a British passport, they can get onto a plane, and we need to find five tickets for them’, and all the businesses would chip in and give them the money… Two of them, the family got out but they never saw their husbands ever [welling up]. Erm. One, we realised that the army was after them, and he had to go up country, and lived a very simple life in some village for good two or three years before he emerged, and his family had assumed that he was dead. Erm. But the two people who were left behind, we don’t know what happened to them. The family has arrived in the UK, obviously the Red Cross did a search for them but they never found what happened to the family.
Arrival in Britain
5:34 The next morning we landed at Stansted airport. Erm, and because my dad was blind, we waited for everybody to clear, so when I was walking out with him, he could walk he was blind but, we came up to the doorstep at Stansted airport and we stood there looking at the landing, you know, all the people who had landed and the terminal. We could see through the terminal – it was only about 7.30 in the morning – and I remember one of the crew telling me, ‘Are you OK?’ and I said, ‘Yes’. I smiled and looked at him, and said that twenty-four hours earlier, that would all have been black women doing all the cleaning, whereas twenty-four hours, you could turn around and see all the [white] cleaners etcetera, the tables turned completely. And er, once we landed, I had to go with my sister who had a scar, a little wound on her knee, so that’s why we were retained at the airport. And I was actually taken to, me and my sister went to Bishops Stortford General Hospital, where they wanted to keep her to make sure that it was not infected. So she was kept there and I had to stay with her so we were there for about six days.
In that six days, I got bored after day one. So there was a lady called Mrs Hughes who came to see me from Red Cross and I said, ‘Look, I am getting bored, is there anything I can do at the airport? Let me come.’ So for two or three hours a day, I used to go the airport – Stansted Airport – and rather than just hanging around, I started helping the volunteers who were tying up cases and broken suitcases. It was quite strange, that I was on the other side of the barrier as people were coming in. And a lot of people who I had met two or three days earlier in Kampala, particularly my school friends, and people from Soroti, were walking past, they were very curious to see me on the other side and said, ‘What the hell are you doing there?’
Arrival at Honiton
7:31 My first memory of camp was very interesting, interesting in the sense that my family arrived there a week before me. I was held back at Stansted airport to allow my sister’s medical treatment, and a week later we joined. So I was put onto a train at one of the stations in London, I can’t remember which one, and I was told, ‘People will be waiting for you at Honiton Station.’ But when we got to Honiton, at about 4.30 or 5 o’clock, they had taken trouble to station one person every ten yards to make sure that all the carriages were covered, and that if they saw me, they would knock on the window. [Laughs] Then they panicked because they couldn’t see me in any of the carriages, because I was standing by the door about to disembark, and when I came out, friends and people from the camp who’d come out to look out for me, all the volunteers. It was nice to see all the people, it was a good welcome. If nobody had turned up at the station, it would have been a bit of a panic.
8:34 A group of friends that we developed, or that I developed at the time, at the were the volunteers. There were CSV volunteers – Community Service Volunteers – and they were more or less a similar age, nineteen, twenty. And, one guy called Dick Nash who came there he had a Morris Minor, particularly we became good friends, so we would be out watching Exeter City play. Sports is one thing that brings a lot of different cultures and communities together, regardless of colour, creed, it depends on ability. And, it was quite interesting that when I got here [the camp], there was two – football was already set up, and volleyball. So somebody offered a lot of hockey sticks so we started a hockey team as well. We and CSV volunteers and admin people, who were quite proactive in trying to help you to develop links, develop games so we had a gym on site. There was an old gym, which quite a few of us went in there, cleared it out and used it. So we had indoor football we used to play, and then once we got a good enough team, we went to play outside. I remember beating some Exmouth College 9-2. When we first started, within the first ten minutes, we were losing 2-0 and then we told everybody to forget about all the warm clothing you were wearing, take it off, keep on running and that will keep you warm. We ended up winning that game. Erm, sports was important, yes, because it helped us meet a lot of local people at the time, which we thought that may last a few more months.
But come January, it was announced that within a week, all those who were left, apart from a handful of families who were going to be located locally, that we were to move out and we were transferred to Faldingworth. So, we lost a lot of contacts in that case, but it was one good way of actually meeting not only the local people, but also the people who were interested in football. And, being in my situation that I came across – doing all the admin work etcetera – I used to pop in for couple of hours into the admin office every day, particularly to do the translations, and particularly building a confidence with older generations saying, you know they would ask you questions saying, ‘How have we nominated this place, what is it like?’
Support from the volunteers
11:09 In terms of food, it was my least bother, I’ll be honest with you, because in the last ninety days we had realised that surviving is far more important than eating well. I know there was lot of kerfuffle when we first started it, people were saying, ‘We need Indian food.’ And the camp administrators were very good, very, very perceptive in that way. They got people involved, there were Indian cooks they’d got to do the cooking. It did quite a lot because it humbled you to see how many people went way out to help you. And, particularly people who we never knew who turned up, who came up and said, ‘I was here … ’ You know, three or four months before, making beds, you know, cleaning the huts, because you got to realise that these huts and the camp was closed for almost two years. So they had to clear out all the cobwebs and everything, make everything work, make everything habitable. All those volunteers, all those unpaid people who spent hours and hours helping us out, the Community Service Volunteers were brilliant, erm, the WRVS ladies were brilliant. They were always on the ball. You know, if they saw you walking around without a jacket, they would call you in and say, ‘Would you like a jacket?’ And if they couldn’t find one that fitted you, I am sure within a couple of days they’d find something that fitted you. And I think that momentous effort that they did between October and first week in November, when most of the Asians had arrived – and you’ve got to realise that’s a condensed six weeks period, 28,000 people arriving – so everyone did a brilliant job and all I would say on behalf of all the Ugandan Asians, is thank you!
Leaving the camp
13:13 I left camp in 197-, so I would have been just over eighteen – coming to eighteenth birthday. Erm, eighteenth birthday would have been June and I left in March. Honiton we left in January ’73, and we were transferred via train. Half a dozen of us helped the rest of the baggage crew, to bag all the stuff, put it on trucks at Honiton camp, offload it at the railway station and put it on the train. And, the journey itself I remember it very well, because there was all the food and drinks etcetera on the train, and apart from a few girls who joined us, [there were] eight or nine of us volunteers and some other CSV volunteers who travelled with us, who were ferrying food up and down. Once we got to Market Rason, they had volunteers that offered stuff for us. This was in Lincolnshire where we were got transferred to. Erm, leaving camp was bit sad, but we had to move on. We knew that, we were going to go to abetter place. Leaving camp altogether, I, we left it in March ’73, and by that time I had secured a place in Hall Green College in Birmingham to go and do my O-levels. Erm, unfortunately, it didn’t happen that year, because of all the transfers and transits etc, so I had to wait for the following years to do my O-levels.
Settling in Birmingham
14:48 In the meantime, I did a couple of other courses, and er, and we settled in Birmingham. From there on we just looked at all the sports and everything that we could do. There was a large community of Asians there, particularly Hindus, and not only that, but a lot of people that my father knew and had a shared history in Kenya, were actually in Birmingham. So when we settled down, we would get a knock on the door and people would turn up and ask for my dad’s name, and he would say, ‘Come in’, and you would suddenly realise that these two guys were meeting after fifty or sixty-odd years.
15:40 Academically, it was good because I started O-levels, I got through that quite easily, and then A-levels and a degree at Warwick. Familywise, it was good – it was a struggle, it was a struggle in the sense that obviously my sisters were working, I was a student, but we managed. The first three or four years were difficult. But one of the things I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, and I’d found out when I was in Uganda, that er, I learnt of a band called Santana and Jimmy Hendrix so the first thing I did when I got to Birmingham was go to a concert. When I joined Holborn College, there was another long-haired layabout, who turned around and said, ‘Oh you interested in this? I’ve got two tickets for it’, and we paid £2.50 to go and see Frank Zappa.
Contributions of the Asian community
16:18 The experience of camp, taught a lot of people a lot of things, and in particular things like doing good for the community. I know a lot of Ugandan Asians who have done well, in terms of prosperity and everything, but then I know far more Ugandan Asians who have done well for the community. All the friends I have known from school from Uganda, from my town, they have held a lot of community positions, they have contributed a lot for the community. Not all of us go for an accolade, are you with me? There are lot of friends who have donated, lots of people who came, particularly businessmen, who came in the ‘70s, who when they left camp, they had their old business partners who were in Uganda were [then] in this country, so together they had the skills but no capital. But once they got the capital, and employed their skills or deployed their skills, and started making money. One of the very first things they did, they donated a lot of money, to temples, to community centres. I know for a fact that three temples that were built in Birmingham in the ‘70s were due to the Ugandan Asians.
17:36 Having lost a lot of things in your life, people realise that you’ve got to contribute to the community and in our town, temples opened their doors, mosques the same if you are Muslim, gurdwaras the same if you are Sikh. Anything you wanted, you could go in there and say, ‘I want money to buy two tickets for my family, or three tickets’, they would chip in and find out something for you. And that humbling effect, when you go through it, erm, it really transforms you.
Last modified: 20th Nov 2022