After the exodus: 40 years on from Amin's terror offensive against Asians in Uganda


Nina Lakhani
Friday 22 June 2012 23:22 BST

A dozen or so children are gathered outside 2 Nile Gardens in Jinja, Uganda, playing and preparing mogo (cassava), as we pull up outside the detached, corner bungalow around lunchtime. They all stop, momentarily shy of strangers, but relax as my mum explains in Swahili that this was her home 40 years ago – and she has just come back to remember the old days.

The children are excited to hear her stories, following her around the house as she points out the old bedrooms, a coal-room, the store-room for sacks of rice and flour, and the tiniest room, which once served as a mini-temple in which my grandmother would pray.

The wide-eyed kids can hardly believe her tales, as 40 years later, this once-comfortable bungalow is now in a dilapidated state: many windows are broken and there is no running water or electricity. Once home to my prosperous, extended family, these days it houses 10 extremely poor Ugandan families, one to each cramped room.

The best-preserved part of the house is the shady veranda out front, where every afternoon the women would once have gossiped while chopping vegetables and the toddlers played. Back then, the older children could usually be found outside on the oblong grassy gardens, around which 20 Asian families lived for decades.

It was from this very veranda that my mum got her one and only glimpse of General Idi Amin Dada, not long after he overthrew the elected government in a military coup in January 1971. "He was standing on the corner of the neighbour's house talking politics, and we secretly watched him from here. He was so big, tall and fat, with big, red eyes. We were all scared of him because he was a military man and they used to say he drank human blood."

Then, Ansuya Lakhani was a 27-year-old mother of one, and little did she know that this scary man, fanciful rumours aside, would go on to become one of the world's most brutal dictators. In eight short years, Idi Amin, the self-professed "Last King of Scotland", slayed hundreds of thousands of his countrymen suspected of harbouring loyalties to the previous government, and oversaw devastating economic and social ruin.

In 1972, Amin expelled more than 70,000 Asians, including my family, as part of his incoherent, sadistic plans that he claimed would make Uganda thrive. This decisive intervention led 29,000 Asians to come to Britain over a three-month period – one of the largest diasporas since the Second World War – uprooting my family from the only country they had ever called home and, in doing so, determining the course of my life before I was born.

In 2012, the year that marks the 40th anniversary of the Asian exodus, I have come to Uganda for the first time, to the place that would have been home.

I grew up with romantic stories about the old life, in the country known as the Pearl of Africa, so fertile that a few chilli seeds carelessly thrown out of the kitchen window would bestow a new plant.

My dad and his seven siblings were born in Jinja, where the majestic River Nile begins its journey across Africa. Ironically, Uganda's second city has, since 1963, been twinned with Finchley, a north London suburb where more than a handful of Ugandan-Asians ended up.

My mum, now 67, laments the pitiful state of her former marital home, which is the most ramshackle on the square. "It makes me want to cry to see what it has become. We lived a good life here. We worked hard, but it was a relaxed life, it was our home."

Nile Gardens was, back then, part of Asian Town, exclusively home to the city's 10,000 or so Asians, with every shop on Main Street owned by and largely catering for their needs. British-imposed segregation, broadly accepted by the 1.2 million Asians then living in Africa, had meant that before Ugandan independence in 1962, it was rare for the three racial groups to mix in school, work or play.

The sprawling Rock View School in Tororo, my mum's home-town near the Kenyan border, is now attended by almost 3,000 primary-aged schoolchildren, many travelling far from surrounding villages for a chance to learn. But it opened in 1942 as the fee-paying Indian public school, with only Asian teachers teaching only Asian girls, no more than 20 per class.

"It wasn't until we went to Britain that we really understood that what we had been doing was so bad. We never hated the Africans, and we never once treated them badly, but we never played together, or lived together. We wouldn't even use the same plates," admits my mum.

"They lived in their areas, we lived in ours and the British lived in Europe Town, that's just the way it was and I didn't question it. When I saw how some of the British people treated us [when we arrived], I understood, and felt so bad about how we had lived our lives in Africa."

It was in Tororo that Amin announced on 4 August 1972 his decision to rid the country of the "bloodsucking" Asians who he declared were sabotaging the country's economy and taking African jobs. His intention to rid the country of what he called the "British Asians" sent shockwaves around the world, nowhere more than here.

Three-quarters of East African Asians had opted for a British passport at independence, though most were still subject to strict immigration controls. But worsening race relations and dwindling job opportunities meant more and more Asians wanted to emigrate, from Kenya in particular. MPs such as Enoch Powell warned of an impending race-relations crisis, so in 1968 the Labour government stemmed the flow of immigrants (legally British citizens) by introducing an annual quota system.

Yet, in August 1972, Edward Heath's Tory government was suddenly faced with having to honour promises made to colonial subjects a decade earlier.

At first nobody believed Amin, but within days it became clear that this was no joke – and my family was among tens of thousands of Asians forced to flee. Further absurd decrees from Amin, together with violence and looting by his undisciplined army, spread fear across the country. The mood was exacerbated by the British government's initial refusal to accept responsibility for its citizens. Officials first tried to negotiate with the General, whom they believed to be a man Britain could work with, and then tried to offload as many evacuees as possible to other Commonwealth countries. Government documents reveal attempts to find an island on which to house (some might say dump) the Asians, amid fears that the public wouldn't tolerate such a huge influx of coloured migrants.

My mum remembers those dark days well: "Everyone was frightened for their lives. We would hear stories of dead bodies floating in the Nile, dumped from trucks by Amin's men; we were too scared to go outside."

The expulsion came at a time when my family had been prospering. Several aunts and uncles were working or studying in the UK, my dad was progressing at Standard Bank and the family's transport business was expanding fast; they were on track to becoming millionaires when the carpet was pulled from under their feet. But, at the same time, many families were almost destitute – banned from jobs under Africanisation policies – and so cheered when Amin forced the British to accept them as citizens.

My mother and grandmother, who arrived in Uganda in 1934 from India aged 13 after marrying my grandfather, always described Tororo as an idyllic place where everybody knew everybody else, and children played with bottle tops, filling their bellies from fruit-laden mango and papaya trees.

This magical place turns out to be a twee two-street affair with a roundabout and an impressive, imposing rock overlooking the town as its most notable landmarks. My grandfather's shop, which had sat on the main street selling bicycles, hardware and textiles, is now a lawyer's office and mobile-phone shop. Next door, the tailor, Owino William, who owns the shop where he once worked, immediately recognises my mum: "Matoto ya matoto," he exclaims, jumping up to embrace her. "The little girl of the little boy" – the latter being how my grandfather was known from the time he arrived from Gujarat at the age of 13 to the day he reluctantly left his beloved Africa 48 years later. Like the vast majority of Asians in East Africa, he had come voluntarily in hope of a better life, encouraged by the colonial masters to help develop the economy and provide goods and services for the coolies brought over to build the railways.

The long, narrow, very simple one-storey house behind the shop is almost unchanged. Local land disputes are now resolved from the old lounge which once doubled as a bedroom for my mum and her sisters. Behind that, the rest of the house is office and home to the lawyer Opino Walter Simali, who couldn't be more welcoming.

His father had moved in not long after my grandparents left, but Mr Simali only bought the place from my family after – in the late 1980s – Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni, allowed Asians to claim back properties in the hope they might return to help rebuild the economy.

By happy coincidence, my mum bumps into an old neighbour, Ramesh Pathani, who she hasn't seen for more than 40 years. He lives in London, too, but has been in Tororo for 10 months, embroiled in legal shenanigans to reclaim the house and soap factory his family left behind.

Their factory, like all Asian businesses, had been handed over to favoured Ugandans by Amin as part of his great economic war. The move was populist one – but had catastrophic consequences, as most new owners had no business experience, which, together with trade embargos and blocked credit, quickly led to desperate shortages.

In Jinja, we meet shop owner and landlord Hitesh Dahia, whose family was permanently split by the troubles. His grandmother went back to India; he, his mother and sister were allowed into Britain; but his father and grandfather, Ugandan citizens, were not, so they, along with several hundred others, stayed put and tried to carry on. The pair were personally guaranteed protection by Amin, but in 1976, the grandfather was shot dead in his shop by military looters. It was a sign that Amin was losing his grip.

Dahia, like most Asians who have returned to Uganda, divides his time between this country and Britain, with economic and emotional ties to both.

As does Alibhai Kara, 69, who in 1972 left his textiles shop in the safe hands of an African childhood friend. In 1987 he left his family in Bolton, to return to a city that he found was in dire straits. "The roads were ruined; so many people had been killed, it was a mess. But I was born here, it is my home, and anyway, who would give someone my age a job in the UK?"

These shopkeepers stand out in Jinja's high street amid the new generation of immigrants from India, thousands of whom have come on work permits from one rural region of Gujarat over the past 10 to 15 years. They own many of the country's mini-supermarkets and predominantly employ only Indians because, they tell us, local people cannot be trusted to work hard or to be left with money.

The blatant and insidious racism dished out by some of this new and expanding population is fuelling tensions, which are never far from the surface. In 2007, two Indian men were killed after protests triggered by a controversial government plan to sell part of a protected forest to an Asian sugar-cane mogul turned into full-blown race riots.

"These new Indians treat the local people as if they are doing them a favour by selling them something," says Dahia, "so I don't blame them for being so upset. We had a meeting in the town hall recently, and the local government told the Indians to behave better or get out."

In Iganga, a small town between Jinja and Tororo, we get into an argument with some shop owners. "Haven't you people learnt anything from what happened to us?" asks my mum. "You are in someone else's country and you can't even treat people properly with a little respect; you are all asking for the same trouble."

A few minutes later we get chatting to three Ugandan market stallholders while buying some sugar. "Thank you, mama, for teaching your children good manners," says one woman to my mum. "The Indians here don't even reply when we say 'Jambo' [Hello] – we want you people to come back."

My mum looks heartbroken. She never wanted to leave, but nor can she imagine going back after so long.

My parents holidayed in Britain in 1971, when my dad's younger brother, Himat Lakhani (who ran away from Uganda in 1962 for a better education) tried to convince them to buy a house in Golders Green, going cheap for £5,000. "I told him not to be stupid," says my dad. "Uganda was our home and when we got old, we had ideas of retiring in India, never Britain."

So when Amin's explusion took effect a year later, my mum and dad, aged 28 and 33, seriously considered a life in India. Not that they had ever been, but for them, it somehow seemed less alien, less of a risk than coming to the UK, because neither had an education to fall back on (my mum left school at 12, my dad at 18). "But we knew it would be better for our children if we came to the UK, as they would get a good education," explains my mum.

My family was temporarily split during those mad three months. One aunt left quickly with three of her four children because they had a coveted unrestricted passport, foiling the looters by "smuggling" out the family's gold jewellery among the children's bags.

Most people queued for hours in the heat to get the correct paperwork from the somewhat unsympathetic British High Commission, and then outside the Bank of Uganda to buy plane tickets and exchange 1,000 shillings for £50 – the total foreign currency each person was allowed to leave with.

Daily reports of brutality in Uganda, allied with Amin's declaration of allegiance with Hitler and government assurances that the Asians were middle-class, educated people who would easily assimilate into British life, meant that by the time the first chartered plane landed at a wet and dreary Stansted Airport on 18 September, the British public was largely persuaded that these were worthy victims.

y parents, brother Deven, two, and cousin Avni, three, were among the last to leave, at the end of October 1972. The family left behind five trucks, two cars, a lifetime of belongings and most of their money – split between their staff. For some reason they shipped blankets, pots and pans, and huge cooking utensils with hollow handles stuffed with pound notes, which miraculously arrived in London, box by box, over the coming months. Those saucepans are still used: "They came this far, how can I throw them away," we're always told.

My family was lucky: they were quickly reunited, while many, including thousands of Ugandan passport-holders declared stateless, spent months apart in different countries, waiting for refuge. Most of my family started out in a rented house in Sudbury, north-west London, where the kids got their first glimpse of a TV. But my dad went to Stradishall, a former RAF station in Suffolk, one of 17 refugee camps set up by the government's Ugandan Resettlement Board. More than 20,000 people spent time on these disused barracks in far-flung places such as Yeovil, Greenham Common and Tywyn in north-west Wales, which were criticised for being cold, cramped, unfit for purpose, isolated.

Despite protests from the National Front and strikes by Smithfield meat porters (presumably worried about their jobs), hundreds of volunteers rallied with a war-like spirit to help out, with church groups, the WRVS and Citizens Advice on hand with warm clothes and welfare counsel.

My dad stayed in Stradishall for almost two months, filling out job applications, trying to acclimatise himself to his new country. He was offered a junior post by both the Midland and Standard banks, with a clerk's starting salary of £1,400 per year.

But then along came Peter Black, a Jewish man who had escaped the Nazis by hiding in a truck, and now wanted to help someone in a similar plight. "He offered me a job in the accounts department of his factory in Yorkshire for £1,500 a year, but also free accommodation for a year," explains my dad. "We had never heard of Yorkshire, and of course I personally would have preferred a bank job, but I needed a house for your mum and brother, so we said yes and took the train to Keighley."

They spent nine years in West Yorkshire, where they had two more children – my brother Mehul and me – improved their English and bought their first house. "It was so cold, it snowed and snowed, but I felt so embarrassed to wear trousers because I thought everyone was laughing at me," says my mum. "But we didn't have too many problems – sometimes people would call us 'Paki' or say, 'Go back home,' but we just ignored them. We made friends, but we were lonely as we had never lived without the rest of the family."

Mum got her first ever job in Peter Black's factory, but became depressed and lonely– so when my dad got the chance to start his own business with a friend in London, a toy shop near West Ham's stadium, they headed south.

My dad, now 72, was perhaps too trusting to be truly successful in business, and after trying his hand at a succession of small ventures, settled at a friend's post office, where he still works. My mum "retired" in 1997 to care for my grandmother – for it was the elderly who found the exodus most difficult, arriving in the UK too old to learn the language or find a job; too cold to venture outside much; and never again really feeling free. This trip made me realise just how much families like mine gave up – not just their homes and jobs, but their identities, relationships, often hopes and dreams. Though we hear about how successful these immigrants became, this truth is anecdotal rather than being based on any real evidence about what became of their lives.

Being witness to some hateful racism dished out by those Indians who have more recently made the move to Uganda has made me think not that Amin was justified or right, but why he might have thought it would be a popular decision. The long-standing mutually beneficial relationship between the Asian businessmen and President Museveni cannot last forever. What happens to the Asians then... well, anything is possible.

Naturally, I've often wondered what my life might have been like had Amin not been a deranged despot. It's odd but I felt something I can't quite explain when I was in Uganda – though not the powerful connection I had visiting India for the first time. And I now can't stop thinking about how different I might have been. My mum's take on these musings: "Don't think too much, everything happens for a reason." Spoken like a true survivor.

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