The amazing man who saved my family from the clutches of Idi Amin
40 years ago, Nina Lakhani's family were among 70,000 Asians driven from Uganda. They ended up in Britain. So how did the upheaval change their lives?
Saturday 28 July 2012
It was 40 years ago that General Idi Amin, Uganda's military dictator, ordered all of his country's 70,000 Asians to leave, in what became one of the largest diaspora since the Second World War. On 4 August 1972, in the sleepy town of Tororo near the Kenyan border where my mum was born and raised, he announced the expulsion, giving only three months for people to pack their bags and leave their homeland.
Amin, who came to power in a military coup in 1971, claimed the "bloodsucking" Asians were sabotaging the economy and taking African jobs. He threatened those who refused to leave with concentration camps, and – chillingly – expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler.
My parents, my brother Deven, aged three, and the extended family were among almost 30,000 Asians who ended up in Britain with £50 each and only the bags they could carry. Everything else – homes, businesses, cars and money – was left behind for employees or to be taken by Amin's men.
As they tried to get out, many people were robbed, some brutally. Few Asians lost their lives, but up to half a million Ugandan Africans were eventually killed during Amin's despotic rule.
My mum, Ansuya Lakhani, said: "We heard stories about bodies floating in the River Nile, dumped by the military in trucks. We were worried for our lives, but it was the Africans that Amin killed, people from different tribes. We left our homes, but we left with our lives."
The Asians were widely regarded in East Africa as the middlemen in a society where racial division – in school, work, housing and leisure – was instilled by the British and accepted unchallenged by most Asians.
"The British lived in Europe town, we lived in our areas and the Africans lived in their villages," my mum said. "That was the way it was. We spoke nicely to everyone, but we only spoke if there was a reason. It was only when we came here we realised that how we'd lived was so wrong."
Indian migration to East Africa was encouraged by the British colonialists, first to serve the needs of the Indian coolies building the great railway and later to help develop the economies.
My grandparents were among thousands who moved to Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania from Gujarat in the 1920s and 1930s, in an attempt to build a better life. My maternal grandmother boarded a steamship at the age of 13 to join her new husband; she did not return to India for 50 years.
Until his decree, Amin had been regarded by the British as a man they could work with. But the expulsion was in part him sticking up two fingers at the Heath government, who he regarded as interfering imperialists, wrongly stopping East African Asians coming to Britain through emergency immigration laws.
Cabinet minutes show how hard the British government tried not only to persuade Amin to re-consider, but to encourage other Commonwealth countries to "share the burden"; they even tried to find an island to dump them on, worried that the public would not tolerate such a huge influx of coloured refugees.
Canada saw the exodus as an opportunity, taking 10,000 of the most educated people before Britain was out of the starting blocks. But three-quarters of Ugandan Asians were British passport holders – citizens with rights, not refugees.
My uncle, Himat Lakhani, who had moved to London in 1962 to study, played a big part in helping the homeless through those traumatic first months, setting-up the Co-ordinating Committee for Evacuation of Ugandan Asians to pressure the government to fulfil its obligations.
But he also motivated an army of volunteers, thousands of ordinary Britons touched by the plight of the new immigrants, who offered to drive, cook, clothe, advise, teach, and even house people from a country many knew little about.
On the very first chartered flight, on 18 September, was Suresh Majithia, who was 29, single and living in the village of Iganga, where he ran a secondary school.
"At first Amin said qualified people like me could stay, but I didn't want to," he recalled. "We were frightened of the military by then and we heard stories about people disappearing."
He remembers going through five army check points on route to Entebbe airport – about 20 miles from the capital, Kampala – as the soldiers helped themselves to anything they wanted, using violence if necessary. "I could see piles of gold and ornaments. They were taking everything."
Once on the plane people were reassured that Britain was expecting them and ready to help, so they tried to forget the newspaper reports about racist protests from the National Front and Smithfield meat porters, and MPs like Enoch Powell. They were welcomed at Stansted airport by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service offering warm clothes, and by my uncle Himat, who tried to match new arrivals with volunteers.
Majithia said: "I was penniless, but I had a brother here, so at least I didn't have to go to a [refugee] camp. I took a week or so to rest and get used to London, but I knew I needed a job if it was going to be OK."
He started work as an accountant for a money-lending company in West London on 5 October. And this desire to work and get on was pretty universal. These were people unaccustomed to getting help, and nor did they want it: most just wanted to get over their old lives and get on with the new.
My dad was among 20,000 people who did spend time at one of 17 refugee or resettlement camps, set up in disused barracks in far-flung places such as Yeovil, Greenham Common and Tywyn. The camps were cold, cramped and isolated, but there was a war-like spirit, with church groups and volunteers on hand with warm clothes and welfare advice.
My dad, who in Uganda had worked in a bank, stayed for almost two months at a former RAF station in Stradishall, Suffolk, and was offered positions as a junior clerk by both Midland Bank and Standard Bank, with a starting salary of £1,400 a year.
But then along came Peter Black, a German-Jewish businessman with a successful shoe and slipper factory in Keighley, West Yorkshire, who had come to England in 1933 as the persecution of German Jews had started to escalate.
His eldest son, Thomas, now 72, said his father was motivated to help another immigrant family because "as a Jewish man he knew what it was like to be persecuted. England made it possible for people like my father to work hard and succeed. He was simply replaying what had happened to him and his family."
My dad took the very difficult and selfless decision to forsake his banking career and leave his extended family, and accept Mr Black's incredible offer not only of a job, but also a rent-free house for a year.
So off they went – my parents and my brother – to a place they had never heard of to start again with the help of a family they didn't know. It was the middle of winter, and Yorkshire was freezing. "The family had prepared the house for us, so there were plates and pans, and even coffee, tea, sugar and milk," said my father. "We were happy to be able to have a cup of tea when we got there.
He added: "We have never forgotten what Peter Black did for us."
Thomas Black said: “My father could see the headlines and made it happen, it was an enlightened thing to do at the time but we were rewarded with a super family who made a great contribution to what we were doing.”
Other members of my family did exactly what the government didn’t want them to, and moved to a ‘red zone’, in their case Leicester, where it was considered to be too full of immigrants already.
Wherever they went, most people were curious and largely sympathetic, if a little clumsy with names and use of the term 'Paki'; some, like the Black family, were incredibly kind and altruistic.
There were of course incidents of racism. My cousin Nikhil Lakhani, a very fair skinned six-year-old, remembers how the kids wouldn’t let him play kiss-chase in the park. “They said I was a ‘blackie’, yet until then I’d always been called ‘mzungu’ which means white in Swahili.”
The Ugandan Asians are considered one of Britain’s most successful immigration stories, among them Tory MP Shailesh Vara, the journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and former deputy assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner Tarique Ghaffur.
Others went back after Amin was overthrown, and can be found re-settled in their old towns and cities, though most also have homes elsewhere, in case they ever have to leave again.
Some did much worse here, unable to settle or prosper, though the truth is no-one really knows what happened to them all.
My parents have been back to visit, nostalgic about old times, remorseful about past mistakes, but settled here now as fully fledged British Indians. They were never as financially comfortable, but they fed, schooled, and housed their three children, so they feel they succeeded too.
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