Life after Uganda

Life after Uganda

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By Aarti C Thobhani

In August 1972, many South Asians living in Uganda were ordered to leave the country. Aarti C Thobhani reports on the 40th anniversary of their coming to Leicester

The summer of 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the South Asian community from Uganda. In August 1972, a large number of South Asians who had been living in Uganda for decades, were given 90 days notice to leave the country, after an expulsion order from Dictator Idi Amin. This saw the lives of many drastically change, as disobeying the order could have led to imprisonment or even death. This gave the Ugandan Asians no other option than to leave the country, which has since created a large and diverse Ugandan Diaspora in many parts of the world.

On the 25th of January 1971, President Idi Amin became the third president of Uganda seizing power over the country and ordered the killing of many Africans including supporters of former president Milton Obote. On the 4th of August 1972, Idi Amin ordered more than 60,000 Asians to leave the country, forcing them to leave almost everything they owned and had ever known in Uganda to seek refuge in other countries such as the UK and Canada.

Sarla Saujani, a surgeon from Tampa, Florida, was born in Mbale, Uganda and had left the previous year in 1971, to study in medicine in Pune, India. She recalls the time of change when her family left the only life they knew in Uganda to move to the UK. “My Father, mother and sister were given a Visa from the British Government and had to leave everything behind. We had two shops, four buildings, my brother had a Peugeot agency, we lost and left everything behind”. “I was stuck in India studying Medicine and didn’t know for six months what had happened to my family, as there was no way to communicate at that time”.

Many families arrived at the Ugandan airport with the amount of luggage and belongings that was allowed, consisting of sentimental items, but the soldiers would decide to keep a suitcase or two, stating that it was over the weight limit. Sometimes begging helped the families to keep a blanket for their children, but most of the valuable property was taken away.

After being reunited with her family in the UK, Sarla explains the impact of the change of lifestyle. “We were living in a tiny little, cold house, which was dirty and filthy with cockroaches everywhere. My Father was stuck in time, he was a powerful well off businessman, an educated guy and I don’t think they could take it and this was the case for many Asians in similar situations”. “As refugees when you move from one country to another you pay a financial price, an emotional price and you pay a physical price as well, so it was very, very devastating for us”.

The expulsion of Ugandan Asians caused many to move to different parts of the world. Many members of the Ugandan Asian community settled in the UK, since being citizens under prior colonial rule and holding British passports, settled in places such as Leicester. Some communities were more welcoming than others but in Leicester, the locals had put an advertisement in the newspaper urging the Asians, “Please do not move to Leicester” and picketed the Asians who did arrive, urging them to go elsewhere”.

For many it was not the homes, jobs or businesses that they missed the most. Those things could be replaced, even if it did take quite some effort. It was the loss of their hopes and dreams, their identities, relationships, and most of all, their old community.

Leicester resident since 1972, Chandulal Karsandas Thobhani from Soroti explains the impact of leaving behind the successful family business and happy lifestyle moving to a foreign new country. “My father Karsandas Madhavji Thobhani started his business in 1924, which grew into a very big business specialising in wholesale cloth material and we were the sole agent, supplying stock all over the Teso and West Nile district of Muljibhai Madvani’s products including Beer, Sugar and Kerosine”. “We also had an Agip petrol station and were shareholders in the local cinema Paramount Picture house”. “It was really hard to leave all this behind, that my father had worked all of his life for and that I and my brothers had supported and grew up a part of”. “Above all I miss the local community, where everyone knew everyone and were always there to help each other through the good and bad times. I also miss our family lifestyle, in our house where there were eleven adults and seven children and we lived as one big family. The lifestyle and weather allowed us to be free and enjoy a simple life”.

Many Ugandan Asians had big family run businesses and the change affected many who had come from affluent and comfortable lifestyles in Uganda. Though armed with their business skills and propensity to work hard many had successfully started again from scratch in a foreign land.

Amongst the many Asians who had set up successful businesses in the UK is Bhagwanjibhai Lakhani, formerly of Jinga. Mr Lakhani had left within 15 days of the order with his wife and children and moved to Leicester. Since moving from Uganda in 1972, Mr Lakhani recognised his wife’s culinary skills and due to the growing influx of East African Asian’s, four years later on 14th February 1976, opened his hugely successful Vegetarian eatery Bobby’s on Leicester’s Belgrave Road, which is a thriving business to date.

In the UK, the city of Leicester is home to thousands of Asian families, many who had move over from Uganda to Leicester in the 1970’s. Marking the 40 years since the move, Leicester’s New Walk Museum has set up an exhibition using original film, personal photographs, reflective testimonies and rare artefacts borrowed from Leicester’s Ugandan Asian community. The exhibition explores the powerful and important story of survival, sacrifice, change and adventure, looking at the background to the Asian community in Uganda, settling in Leicester in the 1970’s.

Upon the opening of the Ugandan Asians exhibition, Leicester City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby, proudly stated: “Many Ugandan Asians came to Leicester, stayed in Leicester, bought up their families in Leicester, flourished in Leicester and now have become a vital part of the story, what makes modern Leicester.”

Since 1972, the country has transformed a great deal since the horrifying time that saw many Ugandan Asians being forced to leave their beloved country of birth. Uganda’s economy, although terribly hit by the knock on effects of the time, has seen steady growth rising from 3.3% in 1980 to a respectable 5.1% in 2010. The economy is still growing with the focus being on areas such as Agriculture, Tourism, Energy, oil and gas sectors.

There is a change, a change for the better.

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Somanjana Chatterjee

Somanjan Chatterjee is San Francisco based consulting editor