Racism and the truth about the Ugandan Asians

Like all racists, we fantasised that Africans wanted our women. Rumour was that 'our' girls were being raped by black Ugandans

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 05 August 2002 00:00
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It is exactly 30 years today that Doctor Idi Amin Dada, His Excellency, Life President of Uganda, life Field Marshal, Al Haj, Conqueror of the British Empire and the Last King of Scotland, stood in his pyjamas and announced to his army cronies that Allah had instructed him in a dream to expel all Asians from his country and to confiscate their homes and their businesses by 9 November 1972. If any Asians were seen in Uganda after that date, he warned: "I will make you feel as if you are sitting on fire. Your main interest has been to exploit the economy for years and now I say to you all – Go!". That famous laugh gurgled up darkly, and his big face beamed.

Most Asians thought he was just rattling them. The UK government was unruffled – after all they had supported his coup in 1971. Although things had soured, Amin was felt to be a man the British could manipulate, trained by our soldiers, a chap who loved the Queen. They were wrong. Amin may have been a little mad, but he was ruthless and a clever populist who meant to carry out this expulsion.

Ugandan Asians were a small minority – about 60,000 – but we were the visible middle class, descendants of indentured labourers (enslaved men, only with a little money promised at the end of their long tenure) brought over by the British, later followed by desperate landless farmers, small shopkeepers and, in the early fifties, professionals from India and Pakistan.

The imperial plan was to create a racially defined commercial and professional class and we happily obliged, making good and keeping our heads down. We didn't much care for independence when it came in 1962, and we did what was necessary – bribes, public demonstrations of support for this minister or that – anything that could keep us living enchanted lives in a natural paradise.

I remembered all this with a jolt last week, on a boat going down the Nile towards Aswan in Egypt, halfway through the best holiday I have ever had ( an apology: last year I said I would not go to Egypt because I feared hard-line Islamists. I was wrong. The people were exceptionally warm and open-minded). I sobbed without being able to explain why. Looking at the densely packed banana trees and small huts, tethered goats, wandering cows, fishermen and the huge dam, I now think it was just a surge of memory and loss, that knowledge that there is no going back.

This river meanders up from Lake Victoria where I swam and picnicked, even trod on a crocodile once thinking it was a log, and these were the pictures I drew as a small child. It is still hard not to miss your homeland, although I love London now and would never give up all that I have slowly built over the decades. Many Ugandan Asians have similar ambiguous views – that so much was lost and even more gained when Amin banished us from a country that we had helped build.

Some older people have been unable to talk about the humiliation they went through. Their grief lingers on, with a sense of terrible injustice. In a searing essay, Paul Theroux, who was in Uganda in 1967, wrote: "I believe the Asians to be the most lied-about race in Africa; the reactions of most Africans and Europeans in East Africa to the Asian presence are flagrantly racist." Trevor Grundy, the white editor of the Kenyan newspaper The Nation, was also well known for his support of Asians in the face of some hideous black and white prejudices.

We have since become one of Britain's fables. Idi Amin is seen as the big, black, demonic monster; we are his heroic victims saved by graceful and fair Britannia who received us into her soft bosom. Nurtured thus we rose again to become frightfully good millionaires. Jean Cocteau said that history is facts that become lies in the end, and that legends are lies that become history in the end. These are legends and lies that have become history. Never forget that when we came here in 1972 Enoch Powell was at his most powerful, although there were thousands of people who did welcome us and the mood was not as hysterically anti-immigration as it is today. Nor was Idi Amin as wholly demented as people believe.

I met him in 1968. He was head of the army and I was staying in State House barracks with 40 other young people, taken there to spend three months with the then President of Uganda, Milton Obote, and his family. Obote was worried that the student revolts in Europe would spread to Uganda, so he wanted us to see how his government worked, but more importantly he hoped to identify possible troublemakers. Several students disappeared from our group. I remember thinking even as a schoolgirl that Amin was both charming and cunning. When he threw us out he knew it would be a popular move among Africans, and it was.

Envy was only part of the reason. A small racial minority obviously more wealthy than the majority obviously created resentment, sometimes among people who didn't understand how much work and thrift had gone into the success they saw. (Although another lie is that we were all rich. We were not, but we were never as poor as Africans). In the last years we spent there, we were made to feel insecure and terrified, much as the white farmers of Zimbabwe are now, and that was wrong. Some Africans and Asians were developing friendships and a new destiny, but they were a minority.

We Asians did not share our wealth and skills as much as we should have, and we did illegally send out money – both accusations levelled by Amin. And most Asians were deeply racist, unable to imagine marrying Africans and living with them as equals. Like all racists we fantasised that Africans wanted to possess our women. So rumours spread that hundreds of "our" girls were raped by black Ugandans, unsubstantiated wild allegations that were repeated in a newspaper only this week.

My father died without speaking to me three years after I had played Juliet in a school production. My school had started admitting black children and our Romeo was black you see, too much even for my "egalitarian" father. I wonder how many of my schoolfriends will recall this scandal at our first reunion this month. Some of my family – not my mother – shared these attitudes, and when I described these in my book No Place Like Home, several stopped speaking to me. No great loss. Asian papers also condemned me because they too want to forget the wrongs we did

They prefer self-pity or distasteful triumphalism ("See, they could do nothing without us!"). A few years ago I went to Neasden Temple where the present President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, was on a reconciliation mission. Eight thousand Asians gathered to hear him announce that properties and homes were being handed back. Priests anointed, garlanded and blessed him. Then came his fierce speech where he reminded us that only 10 (if that) of us were killed: "When I was in the bush fighting, you were in Shepherd's Bush. I got rid of Amin. Half a million of my people died. So come back to your country, help us rebuild, but remember the truth." Yes, remember the truth, especially today.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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