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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.

Praful Purohit

Tonfanau Camp

Interviewers: Ffion Freeman (Coleg Dwyfor Meirion) and members of the BUA50 team

Place: Neuadd Pendre Community Centre, Tywyn, Wales

Date:  19th March, 2022

Praful Purohit recalls his experiences as a Ugandan Asian refugee, leaving Uganda, arriving in Wales at Tonfanau camp, experiencing cultural differences, a ‘little bit’ of racism as well as making life-long friends. Topics mentioned also include: employment; expressing gratitude.

Transcript

Journey to Wales

0:43 We were very tired you know when we came to Wales, because it was a long journey. First we were put from the airport onto the coach and then we were transferred from coach to the train and it was a long journey. We were very tired. Sandwiches were dished out but they didn’t know that some of us were vegetarians so somehow we were given ham sandwiches and that sort of thing so we said, ‘No, we are vegetarian.’ So they gave us vegetarian sandwiches like cheese and that sort of sandwiches they gave us, and they gave us a small drink as well.

1:21 I was in Jinja. There were army barracks there, so I straightaway knew these are army barracks, you know. And we were were taken into a big hall – our names were registered and then we were allocated rooms.

 

Idi Amin’s announcement

Idi Amin, as soon as he was in power, within a few months he announced that Asians were corrupting the country, you know? And they were greedy and they weren’t helping out the local people. So he announced that all the Asians should leave the country within ninety days.

1:57 Most of the people didn’t take any notice of the ninety days notice. You know, they thought that he was just bluffing like you know. The Government of India, the Government of Britain, tried to persuade him to reverse his decision. But he wouldn’t have it. So once people knew that … he was serious about it, everybody started getting ready. Some of the people there didn’t even have passports because they never thought that they would leave this country. There was so many red tapes you know, that we had to go to Kampala, filling various forms and there were big big big queues, you know. So we were spending most of the time in queues and filling up various forms. I was single. My friends they were all single. You know. They said it was better for us to first go. It was winter time here. It was bit harsh for elderly people to come over into this country. In a way you can say we were a sort of guinea pig as well, you know.

 

How he left Uganda

3:07 I was stationed in Jinja. From Jinja to go to Entebbe, at that time there was tribal war going on as well. So they had several check points and there were quite a few military personnel on the way. So we had to go through about five to seven checkpoints and there they would search our baggages and everything and whatever they found- sort of good, they would just take it without asking us, just take it, you know, at gun point. We couldn’t say anything to them you know. We were more worried about our lives than belongings. Once we boarded the plane, there was a sense of relief, you know. That at least we are leaving this country, but at the same time we were sorry that we were leaving our family behind. We had a house servant. She was crying out, you know, she said, ‘It has nothing to do with us. We liked you Asians and everybody’, but she said ‘it’s beyond us’, you know. They were all crying, my family was emotional as well, you know. They didn’t know what’s going to happen, you know, to them or to me. But eventually we boarded the plane and there was sort of relief in a way that at least we are out- away from this country.

 

Tonfanau camp

4:35 We boarded the coach and from the coach, they took us to I think it was Harlow station. And then we boarded the train. There were quite a few volunteers – local people, you know, they had come to help the people, take their luggages. It was quite… I don’t remember how long but there was quite a big long walk. They took us from the railway station to the camp.

5:01 We were taken in a hall and everybody’s name was registered and then we were allocated the rooms and then once we settled in, they called us. They had set up a social security office and employment office in the campus itself. There was a shop as well. They had opened up a small shop there so we could get Indian rations and daily things like bread, butter and that sort of thing.

5:30 We had Navratri festival – so that is nine days of Indian folk dancing, where we pray to goddesses and they had given us a big hall, you know. So nine nights of what we call Garba, we done that. And people from-, local people as well used to come and they used to enjoy it you know. They used to participate in it as well. So that was very good. So that broke the ice as well you know with local people. Everybody started sort of mingling with all the rest of the-, and some of them became really friends. They used to come regularly into the camp and help us out. Most of them were farmers. They used to take us to their farms and show us all the crops and all the lamb and sheep and whatever. So yeah, they were very friendly. I had a couple of rides on the horses as well you know!

 

Cultural differences and learning 

6:33 In Wales, people were quite friendly but when we used to go to the town centre … We used to experience a little bit of er racism – but not to that extent that er it frightened us you know. But once they came to know, that we are OK, they were alright with us.

6:58 Another thing: in Uganda, we were used to being served. When we go into the pub- bar, you know, there was no pub like here, there were bars. So, all you had to do is go and sit down and the waiter will come and serve you – they’ll take the order, you know. Here it was different. So we went to the pub [laughs]. We sat down, and sat down, nobodies coming here. Weird, you know? Eventually, I went to the counter and I asked, ‘No waiter here?’ He asked, ‘No. What do you want, Sir?’ So I said, ‘I want a pint of lager.’ So he said, ‘OK, OK, take it. So you have to come here, get it for yourself and then you have to find a place and sit down.’ So that was my, another experience, a new experience for me.

 

Food in the camp

7:47 [laughs] The food was totally bland, you know, because they didn’t know what we were eating like what our diet was, you know. So we put up with it for some time, you know. Then there was a protest, you know, that, er.  ‘We don’t like this food at all.’ So they got some chefs you know who could do curries and that sort of Indian dishes… They were all boiled vegetables, fish and chips were there, they used to have lamb, but all roasted like you know… the English people make you know. Some people loved it you know because they used to love meat but most of the people who came to Wales, they were vegetarian. So they used to ask me, ‘Is that vegetarian food or non-vegetarian food?’ And some of them, they used to get spices with them, sprinkle over them and eat it. So they tried their best to make our life at ease.

 

Settling in UK

8:55 There was second load of Asian people coming to Wales. And I was, and a friend of mine, we went to – as a volunteer – to receive them, you know. And who do I see, but one of my best friends coming, getting off that train, you know. And I tell you what –  that was the biggest, most joyous moment in my life when I saw him, you know. We hugged [cries].

As soon as I saw my friend, you know, I asked straight away about my family, you know:  ‘How are they? What are they doing? Is everything OK in Uganda?’. He reassured me that everything was alright, so don’t worry about that. He was put in a room next to me. And he – I didn’t have any relations in the UK at all – but he had his sister and his brother-in-law. So as soon as he settled, he wrote to his brother-in-law and he said, ‘Don’t waste your time in the camp. Come over here.’ So he went to stay with his brother-in-law. And after he had stayed there for about a month, he wrote to me, ‘You had better come here.’ I went to his house. I stayed there for two, three days, and then I found a family who took me as a lodger. I stayed with that family for about six, seven months and I found a job as well. My family came from Uganda. So I went to receive them. They initially went to Croydon to stay with their friends, you know. My brother had a friend, so he stayed with his friend and after a while we rented a property, found a property in Tulse Hill, in Brixton. So we rented that property and I moved there with my brother and sister-in-law and my dad. I had a very good job. I worked for Field Aircraft Services, which changed its name to Sigma Aerospace. I worked there, for that company for thirty-seven years.

 

Friendship with volunteers Ron and Angela

11:38 The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting Ron and Angela, two of the members – well English people – they are English people they used to live in Wales. We got acquainted with them and they became very close to us, you know. They used to take us to their house and entertain us and take us to the various sightseeing places and tried to make us as comfortable as possible. Christmas was just approaching, you know. And, Ron and Angela invited us you know. He said, ‘Would you like to come to our house?’ So we said, ‘Yes, OK.’ So, he said, ‘I’m going to decorate Christmas tree. Will you help us?’ So, he was trying to all the time involve us into something different like you know, because Christmas and everything anything. In Uganda, we never knew anything – we knew there was a Christmas holiday, that’s about it, you know. But we didn’t know the significance of it at all. We never had Christmas trees in there in Uganda. So yeah we said, ‘Yeah, show us how to do it’ and we done it. So we helped them out and er, he was, well, he was quite impressed, you know with the way we were decorating, me and my friends you know.

12:57 He showed me how to develop, because he was a photographer and he knew how to develop pictures, black and white pictures. He had a dark room. He took me and showed me how to develop pictures. So, that one skill I learnt from him. And then we became very very close indeed. He used to come and advise me about what to do, what not to do and everything. I used to take his advice. Angela was equally good. They both were very concerned about everybody – all the Asians, you know. They themselves had adopted two children, you know. So they knew the plight of people who were sort of homeless and refugee. They were very good to us and even for fifty years he has been sending me Christmas cards without fail. In the card, he will put a leaflet telling me about progress and whatever incidences they had throughout the year. It was something different, I never had it before. Every year I used to get updates of his family and he would ask me the same, how am I doing. I invited him to my wedding. I just sent him an invitation thinking, that, will he come or will he not, thinking that he wouldn’t come. To my surprise, he and his Mrs were there in full English attire, with hat and everything, and they thought that it would be a very sombre moment, you know. But Indian weddings are amazing. People are running, children are running around, people are talking, some people are outside, the ceremony is going on in the middle and everybody is doing their own thing. So they were a bit surprised about it all going on [laughs]. But they enjoyed it. I met him yesterday. And I tell you what? I hugged him and hugged him. First of all I asked him, ‘Is it alright to hug you?’ and he said, ‘Yes, Praful I am longing for that, you know.’ I hugged him and I hugged her and I tell you [laughs and swallows hard]. Tears of joy came out, you know. We were- three of us-  were sort of crying, you know. It was quite emotional, quite emotional. And we sat down, chatted and chatted and chatted. We talked about anything and everything you know.

 

Gratitude

15:55 My heart goes out to all the people from Ukraine, you know, because I know what they are going through because I have gone through that thing… And all the volunteers from the bottom of my heart [puts hand on heart], I thank all the volunteers, all the people of Wales and the general public of Britain. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.             

Last modified: 28th Nov 2022

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