Long Journey Home
A refugee at birth returns to Uganda after nearly three decades to piece together a complicated story of the history and legacy of South Asian immigrants in East Africa.
“Go back where you came from!” the surly soldier said to my father. This was 1972 and my dad had just stepped off the plane at Entebbe International Airport after an 11 hour flight from New Delhi to Mumbai (still called Bombay in those days) to Nairobi and now Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
A young doctor fresh out of medical school and hungry for adventure, my dad had chosen to work in East Africa, miles away from the comforts of home. He first landed in Uganda in 1970 and worked in little towns and hamlets, providing succor to hundreds of people who previously didn’t have access to medical facilities.
In June 1972, after spending close to 2.5 years in Uganda, he went to India on home leave. It was then that Idi Amin, the infamous Ugandan dictator, issued a decree expelling all Asians from the country.
In the 1960s, Asians (mostly Indians) were a prosperous community in Uganda. They were running successful businesses which were the backbone of the country’s economy. However, Amin, the despotic ruler that he was, couldn’t stand them one bit. He ordered all Asians to leave the country within 90 days because apparently God Himself had come in his dream and “asked” him to do do so. They could take with them only minimal belongings.
Most of the 73,000 Asians in Uganda had been there for several generations already and knew no other home. The expulsion order snowballed into a major international crisis involving the Indian and British governments, as some of the Indians in Uganda held British passports. Despite the outcry, Amin plowed his way through and the Asians had to leave Uganda before the deadline. They left with just their basic possessions, leaving behind their homes, properties, businesses and literally all of their wealth.
Watching the proceedings from afar, my dad delayed his return to Uganda by six months, trying to ascertain from the Ministry of Health and the Ugandan High Commission whether his services were still needed in the changed circumstances. Only after repeated assurances from the ministry, did he decide to come back.
But his worst fears came alive when the sullen soldiers at the terminal blocked his entry. They refused to listen to him but allowed him one phone call to the health ministry. A senior ministry official immediately sped to the airport to sort the matter but the soldiers didn’t budge.
Left with no choice, my dad boarded the departing Air India flight, without a ticket (the crew was kind enough to let him come on board). During the long layover at Nairobi, an Air India manager came looking for him. As it turned out, after his departure on this flight the Ugandan health minister heard about the episode and contacted the minister of interior affairs who eventually conceded that this was a mistake and assured my dad of a safe return.
And so he took another flight back to Uganda where the same soldiers were instructed to be on duty and respectfully let him enter the country.
The rest as they say is history. My dad ended up spending 11 years in the country.
Today, I was going back to the same country, albeit 40 years after this episode.
Soon after our plane took off from Addis Ababa, the bustling chaos of Ethiopia’s capital gave way to miles and miles of pretty patchwork quilt farms. Then the stark brown hills and dry grasslands of Kenya’s Turkana region loomed into view. And soon we were flying over the Great Rift Valley, a geographical marvel. But my restless mind was desperately waiting for Entebbe.
I had been on and off planes for nearly 26 hours now. Physically, I was exhausted but the adrenalin rush from excitement kept me going. The final two hours of the journey seemed to last forever.
We finally entered Ugandan territory and I stared down in wonder, savoring each moment. I had waited for this day for way too long.
The red murram (dust) roads snaked their way across the lush green landscape, so distinctive of this part of Africa, and in the background were the blue waters of Lake Victoria, stretching far into the horizon. And on the shores of this languid lake lay my final port of call – Entebbe International Airport.
As I walked out of the plane and towards the terminal, the gentle breeze hit my face bringing with it the distinctive smell of Lake Victoria. Yes, this felt good…
Uganda has always had a special place in my heart. My family lived there in the 1970s. We left the country in 1981 — when I was all of two years old. I lived in Zambia, India and the US after that but somewhere deep inside, I yearned to go back to Uganda. I had no living memories of the country. What I knew about it came from my parents’ accounts of the country, our close friends who lived there, Nanaji’s letters and countless pictures in our family albums.
As I grew up, I conjured up a near mystical image of Uganda in my head. The country where my dad, a young doctor then, established his career in extremely trying circumstances. The country where my family had some of its best years, and some of its worst. This was also the place where we met some extremely wonderful people who helped us in times of extreme hardship. And this was the place where my brother was born and I was almost born – well, almost. And this was also the place where my family managed to stay on despite the expulsion of Asians in 1972.
Before coming to Uganda, I had my doubts. All these years I had an image of Uganda in my mind.
What if I went and saw it wasn’t quite the same place as I had imagined it to be? Suddenly all those stories I knew about Uganda would seem out of place – and the cherished image shattered.
“Don’t try and imagine what it will be like. Go with an open mind,” my husband told me. I took his advice. But now as I stepped out of the airport, I realized that my fear was probably unfounded. The place looked just as I had imagined it to be – maybe a lot fuller now with more buildings, traffic and people.
As my cab drove from Entebbe to Kampala, I noted with a hint of pride countless red hoardings for Indian telecom company Airtel along the way. I thought that perhaps, finally, today’s Uganda has come to accept Indians and Indian companies.
We drove past State House, the president’s home. This was where Idi Amin lived in the 1970s. This building, along with many others across Kampala, saw countless horrors unfold—some too sick for one to describe. Now it is home to President Yoweri Museveni. State House has undergone several changes since then. It has become more pompous—and very clearly, it has lost some nuances of its original Edwardian architecture. A little further on from State House we crossed Lake Victoria Hotel, an old colonial hotel on the lake shore. This was the hotel where my Dad first stayed when he landed in Uganda in February 1970. Modern day Uganda still offered enough room for nostalgia.
Kampala, Uganda’s capital, was originally a city built on seven hills. Today it extends way beyond the original seven—and is crammed with people and vehicles. The roads were jammed, everyone was honking like crazy. Women were walking around with huge banana bunches on their heads and little babies on their backs. Occasionally a man would walk past holding trussed-up chickens in his arms. Adding to this chaos were the boda-bodas—or motorcycle taxis—and the distinctive white-and-blue painted matutas or minibus taxis.
As we pulled into the hustle and bustle of Uganda’s capital, I recognized from afar several familiar buildings that still dot Kampala’s skyline, the old clock tower and the domes of two old Hindu temples—the Sanatan Dharam Mandir and the Swaminarayan Mandir.
We left the noise and chaos behind and entered a beautiful, quiet tree-lined avenue at Nakasero Hill, a rather posh area which has among other things, the prime minister’s office, the Ugandan Parliament and the Independence Monument. The roads were wide, and traffic sparse. I was staying at the Imperial Royale Hotel, owned by Karim Hirji, a prominent business tycoon and one of the few Ugandan Indians who managed to stay on in Uganda despite the expulsion of Indians in 1972. An Indian friend’s friend’s friend got me a huge discount—clearly, Indian connections in this part of the world still matter.
Asians, and specifically Indians, have a long history in East Africa. The first big wave of Indians—an estimated 32,000 of them—were brought to East Africa by the colonial British rulers to build the Uganda Railway (known as the Lunatic Express after author Charles Miller coined the term in his 1971 classic The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism). Some went back after the job was completed. A few of them got eaten up by lions in Tsavo, Kenya—a famous incident that found its way in most history books chronicling the British rule in East Africa (the two man-eaters can now be seen at the Chicago Field Museum). A few got killed by Masai warriors. But 7,000-odd—mostly Sikhs—stayed on.
Another steady stream of Indian traders set sail for East Africa after seeing the success of legendary pioneer Sheth Allidina Visram. These young enterprising Indians—mostly Gujaratis—would sail to East Africa in dhows. They came and opened small shops called ‘dukas’ (a distortion of the Hindi word ‘dukaan’). The dukawallahs flourished and gradually founded huge business empires in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Throughout East Africa you’ll see enough traces of India. The architecture, in some ways, is influenced by India. Even the food has acquired Indian undertones. Every Ugandan household eats chapatti, an Indian flat bread. Samosas—a triangular pastry typically stuffed with savory potatoes—are commonly available on roadside food stalls, but stuffed with beef instead. Some of the words used in Swahili are similar to their Hindi counterparts—such as kursi for chair, sabuni for soap and saebo for sahib or sir. I am not sure if these are influenced by Hindi or Arabic but the similarities are uncanny.
The Ugandan Asian community is now scattered across the UK, Canada, India, the US, Europe, Australia, etc. Post-expulsion, they had to struggle and start afresh. But eventually they prospered outside the country of their birth.
My father, not one of the original Asian settlers, narrowly escaped the expulsion along with a few others and found himself in a country with a hostile political climate.
Once in my hotel room, I opened the curtain and peered outside—the tall building outside the window looked familiar. Later when I spoke to my brother Rajeev on Skype, I took the laptop to the window and showed him the view outside. “That is Apollo International Hotel!” he exclaimed.
Back in the late 1970s, Nanaji, my adopted Indian ‘grandfather’ in Uganda, used to live in a suite in Apollo International and Rajeev and I used to spend our Sundays with him there. Nanaji – or Justice B.B. Asthana – was a Judge in the High Court of Uganda. He and his wife Indu (who everyone called Didi for some reason) treated my parents like their own children and Rajeev and me like grandchildren.
Nanaji was there at Rubaga Hospital when Rajeev was born. He was most excited to see the little baby. It was then, while talking to my newborn brother, he had christened himself ‘Nanaji’ (grandfather in Hindi). Nanaji played a huge part in spoiling both of us despite my mother’s protests—giving us chocolates and Coca-Cola all the time, rare commodities in the Kampala of those times. He and Didi would be at our birthday parties as family.
The day we left Uganda Nanaji didn’t come out to say bye—he was afraid he would break down in front of us. We left. Nanaji and Didi moved to London. We stayed in touch. I would write long letters to him. Since Nanaji was too old and ill, Didi would write out his replies to me. And then sometime in the 1990s, Nanaji, my favorite grandfather, passed away.
When we left Uganda, my brother was all of five years old. Too young to remember what Apollo International looks like, I thought. So I googled it but couldn’t find it. The next day I asked a waiter about the building. “The Sheraton,” I was told. “But was it always the Sheraton?” I asked again. “No,” he replied. “They took over Apollo International Hotel some years ago and converted it.” So this was really it. Talk about a child’s memory.
I spent one restless night waiting for the morning. I wanted to be outside—in the real Kampala. But first I had to get some airtime for my phone—I didn’t realize that 500 Ugandan shillings were enough for only two 1-minute calls. I walked to an Airtel outlet at one of the two malls on Yusuf Lele Road. Mall culture is very clearly, a huge hit in Kampala. You can tell from the number of cars waiting to get into the mall parking. Yusuf Lele Road is home to two of the most happening malls in town—Nakumutt Oasis and Garden City.
Nakumutt, a huge retail chain in East Africa, is owned by a Kenyan Indian. That’s true of a lot of big businesses in East Africa. The Indian stamp in Uganda is everywhere. Crane Bank, a major player in banking, is owned by Ugandan Indian tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia. Between the two of them, Ruparelia and Hirji own most of the big hotels in town. In fact, it is rumored that Ruparelia owns half of Kampala’s real estate. In manufacturing Amirali Karmali owns the Mukwano Group that makes everything from soaps and oil to plastics and confectionery. And then there are the legendary Madhvani and Mehta groups that are primarily into agroprocessing. The list just goes on and on.
I got my airtime for 20,000 shillings which would last me all but two weeks if I used it sparingly. I took a long time to mentally adjust to the number of zeroes I would have to add to the price of anything. Handling currency notes for 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 was painful—the lowest denomination currency note was 1,000. In my world, anything with four zeros and above is a lot of money.
Later in the day, my Dad called and asked what I did for lunch. I had had a rather nice spaghetti at a restaurant in Garden City. “How much did you pay for it?” Dad asked. “It cost me 16,500 shillings,” I said. There was a moment’s silence on the phone. “When I finished my first three years of service in Uganda, I got 16,500 shillings as gratuity,” my Dad said.
I was stumped. There was indeed something fishy about the number of zeros.
Makerere University was Uganda’s only university in the 1960s and 70s and had an enviable reputation in all of East Africa. Illustrious people like noted authors V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux had worked here. Today more than 20 universities—some of which are private—have sprung up all over Uganda. As the numbers have gone up, quality has gone down.
My mother, who came to Uganda in 1975, was a lecturer in biochemistry at Makerere. And from 1978 onwards, we lived in the faculty apartments in Makerere—in a building called Quarry House. My mother told me to go and see if Quarry House is still there. Specifically, she told me to look for house number B-8, our home. “You must stop and see Bat Valley on the way,” she told me.
Bat Valley was a stretch of land full of a dense growth of trees and, as the name suggests, full of bats. As I climbed up Makerere Hill, disappointment hit me. There were no trees. All I saw were shops, shanties, milling crowds, the incessant din of matutas, boda-bodas, and chickens squealing in their little cages. Development has its costs—as the city grew, it engulfed Bat Valley into its grimy folds. Somewhere along the way, Bat Valley had receded into history—and no one here seemed to miss it.
The university entrance didn’t seem as grand as I thought it would be. The beauty of those regal gates was marred by campaign posters for the upcoming presidential elections. There was a huge mosque next to the entrance—very clearly, a new addition to the university campus. I asked for directions to Quarry House but nobody knew where it was. Worse, no one had even heard of it. Had it disappeared like Bat Valley, I wondered, hoping that I was wrong.
I walked on till I came across a rather elegant building with a clock tower at the top. This was the main administrative block of the university. I had seen enough pictures to know this building. My brother and I had spent countless hours playing on the greens in front of it.
My mother had told me that Quarry House was close to this building. I descended downhill and I finally saw a tiny white signboard with the two magic words ‘Quarry House’. Thrilled, I walked towards the first apartment block where our house was.
The white paint was peeling off and the building had obviously seen better days. I looked around wistfully. A man sitting in a parked car saw me. He came out and asked me if I was looking for something. “Oh, I used to live in B-8. I just came to see if the house is still there,” I said, thinking of taking a picture from outside and then leaving. At this point, a lady walked downstairs and the man pointed to her saying, “She is Margaret Tukahirwa. She lives in B-8.”
As soon as Margaret realized why I was there, she happily grabbed me by my arm and took me upstairs. “But exactly how old were you when you lived here?” she asked incredulously. I said I was two. “So do you still remember this place?” she asked. Of course not, but I had seen enough pictures to know the house. Margaret started opening doors and walking me through rooms—her four little children following us around the house in one happy trail.
“And what did you use this room for?” she asked throwing open an iron door into a tiny windowless room. I had no idea. “The furniture is still the same,” Margaret said. I turned and looked at the dressing table. This was unmistakably ours! I remember that very clearly because back in those days, my dad splurged on a new Asahi Pentax camera. While teaching himself how to use it, he accidentally took a picture of himself reflected into the mirror of this dressing table. I took a similar picture of myself reflected in the same mirror and made a mental note to mail it to Dad.
Margaret and her children stared on amused, before Margaret bustled into the drawing room and threw open the doors to the balcony.
Back in the day, this balcony was a special place. My mother loved to sit here. There are enough pictures of her and me when I was a few days old in this balcony, with my happy brother looking on. In this balcony I played with my best friends Sheba and Herbert Bosa, the children of my mother’s boss and our close family friend Prof A.J. Lutalo Bosa.
It was in this house that my brother foolishly decided to ride his tricycle down two flights of stairs and was rewarded with a deep gash—and a permanent scar—on his forehead. It was in this house that my mother developed a love for the music band Abba. Our neighbor, Charles, in A-8 downstairs, was fond of Chiquitita and played it all day long. It was from this house that we had to flee to Kenya in 1979 on a 24 hour notice with as little as 70 shillings in our pocket. It was in this house that we developed deep friendships with both Prof Bosa and Prof Mugambe, a neighbor.
Many years had gone by and we gradually lost touch with both of them. Five years ago I found Prof Bosa after a couple of Google searches, a string of emails and some phone calls. A PhD from Canada’s McGill University, he had gone on to become the vice-chancellor of Kyambogo University before he retired. We spoke on phone and it was an emotional moment.
The Bosa family and we were very tight knit. As the political situation worsened and civil war gripped the city, everyday life for common folks like us became tough. Essential commodities like milk, tea and sugar were hard to get. A few things were smuggled in from Kenya and shared between friends. Thanks to Nanaji’s influence and my father’s expatriate status, our family was able to get some things from a duty-free shop which was out of bounds for local Ugandans. It was from there we stocked up on Nido, a European milk powder brand, and sugar, among other things. My parents started drinking black tea without sugar, saving the milk powder and sugar for us. They shared these precious commodities with the Bosas for their children. In return, the Bosas shared vegetables from their garden with us.
The situation would only go downhill from there—first came the petrol shortage, and then water supply became erratic. My father, because he was a doctor in Mulago Hospital, would get a fixed quota of petrol each week. Water was another story—my father finally resorted to bringing 20-liter cans filled with water from the hospital to the house.
Shortages were only part of the problem. No one in Uganda was safe anymore. The country was gripped by lawlessness. The sound of gunshots became so common that people stopped reacting to it. Our friends made jokes about the gunshots—“they are making popcorn again!” Men and women would go missing and never be heard of again. Dead bodies choked the Nile. For the common man, life had never been more cruel.
On 30 March 1979, just a few days before I was born, the Indian High Commissioner Madanjeet Singh visited Makerere University to speak to the Indians. Rebels from Tanzania were entering Uganda and the situation would get out of control as soon as they reached Kampala. Their aim: to oust Idi Amin.
Singh gave everyone two hours to leave the country for Kenya. My parents were worried—it wasn’t safe for my mother to travel in this condition. Yet it wasn’t safe for us to stay on.
My parents waited for one day but the sense of unease was heightened the next day as most Indians had fled. It was then that the High Commissioner’s Indonesian wife called—a second convoy of Indian vehicles would be leaving soon and my mother could travel with the High Commissioner and his wife in their Mercedes Benz. My parents decided to finally leave though my mother chose to travel in our own car so that she could be with my father and brother. They took with them 70 odd shillings (it was a Sunday and they couldn’t withdraw money from the bank), certificates, professional testimonials and essential medicines—in case my mother went into labor while we were on the way leading to an emergency delivery.
As my parents left, they handed over our house keys to Prof Mugambe.
“If we come back, great. If we don’t, everything in this house is yours,” my father told him.
And they fled. They were stopped at gunpoint a number of times on the way and drove at top speed whenever they heard gunshots, but they managed to cross over into Kenya where Indians—some friends from before, some complete strangers—rushed to help out. Some took my family home. Others helped with money. And despite the severe circumstances, my parents managed quite well and in a few days, I was born in Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi—a refugee at birth.
Meanwhile, the rebels had taken hold of Uganda and Amin fled to Libya. But the damage had been done. The Western city of Masaka, where my parents began their married life, had been razed. Till date the city hasn’t been able to rise from the ashes. A wounded Kampala was trying to limp back to normalcy. When people lost everything in the civil war, they resorted to looting. They knew that the Indians had fled and looted their homes.
It wasn’t the best of times to go back, but we had nowhere else to go. On coming back to Kampala, my parents learnt that the homes of most Indians who had fled with us had been looted. Ours was safe. Prof Mugambe had shifted most of our belongings to his house. And if anyone came around to loot our house, he told them it was actually his house and thus, saved it. He apologized profusely for using up the food in our fridge—his family had run out of food. My parents were very touched. My father gifted him a wrist watch which he accepted very reluctantly. We owed a lot to Prof Mugambe.
That evening, Prof Bosa came to see me. He hugged me like a long lost friend. “My daughter is back after 29 years!” he said happily, and took me to an upmarket Indian restaurant at Kololo Hill where he told the Indian manager who I was. “I never imagined I would see her again—and see, she is here!” he explained in his excitement.
Twenty-nine years is a long time. We had a lot to catch up on. I was more interested in knowing about my childhood friends—Sheba and Herbert. Sheba, an MBA in finance, is now with Bank of Uganda, the central bank. And Herbert, a doctor by profession, is an epidemologist. Clearly, they were both doing well professionally. But Prof Bosa had another daughter—Estella who was born just after we had left. That was news to me.
“Things aren’t so easy here,” said Prof Bosa talking about life for the common man in Uganda.
Years of Idi Amin’s dictatorship ravaged what was once called the Pearl of Africa. But even though Amin was ousted in 1981 and gradually peace and normalcy was restored, the common man is still struggling to make ends meet due to the poor state of the economy.
A constant complaint I hear from various sections of people over the next few days is about the government and corruption. Uganda went through some pretty tumultuous years.
But when current president Yoweri Museveni took over, he set the house in order, restored peace, revived industries, and among other things, invited expelled Indians to reclaim their properties.
But that’s where the happy story ends, so I am told by the shopkeepers, waiters, hotel managers and cab drivers I met on this trip. After some years of good work, this government became corrupt too. Some sectors of the economy—like agriculture—have suffered due to bad government policies. Worse, Museveni’s been in power since 1986 and shows no signs of letting go. Most people believed that the presidential elections that were coming up in a few months were a farce. “Even though he has seven competitors, he will win again,” a cab driver told me. “He will use the state resources to fund his campaign and will eventually resort to rigging the elections.” “He will bribe people for votes,” a shopkeeper told me. “He needs to learn to let go—allow a new successor.”
One morning New Vision, a national newspaper, declared on page one that a poll conducted by Afrobarometer predicted that Museveni has 66% majority. I shook my head in wonder because that was not the sense I was getting from speaking to people. A couple of days later it was alleged that this poll was influenced by the ruling party. Throughout the length of my stay, I could see very clearly a policy of appeasement play out. One day, the same paper talked about Museveni’s new fund for the Kabakas, the kings who originally ruled Uganda. Now they have been reduced to titular heads but their support is essential for anyone who wishes to become president. On Day Three Museveni announced a youth fund. And thus, it went on. As expected, some months later Museveni won the election.
Back in the day, my father’s friend Harjit Kaka used to run an auto repair business called Kaka Motors which used to service military vehicles. But as a special favor to my dad, Mr Kaka serviced our Fiat 127 as well—free of charge. Like the Asthanas, the Kakas were like family to us and I had instructions from my dad to find them. I looked them up on the internet but failed. I asked enough Indians in Kampala and no one seemed to know. As I sat for breakfast in the morning, I was joined by the Sri Lankan CEO of my hotel who, I discovered, knew two of the Kaka children well. He promptly put me in touch. They didn’t remember my family but promised to speak to their parents.
Later in the day, Kuku, one of the four Kaka children, called me. His mother couldn’t remember who my parents were but said I should come and see them anyway. I called up my mother who promptly scanned a few old pictures of us with the Kaka family and mailed them to me. Perhaps they would remember us if they saw those pictures.
In the evening Kuku, now a motor rally racer, picked me up from my hotel. He was driving a Hummer and he quickly made it clear that this $90,000 car was the only Hummer 2009 model in all of Uganda — and that he was buying another one. Clearly, Kuku is stinking rich: he hob nobs with the local elite and is important enough to be invited to dinners at State House.
As I entered the Kaka residence on Mawanda Road, it immediately struck me that this was the same house as the one in the pictures my mother had sent. The same distinctive wood paneled walls, wooden floors. As soon as I entered the room, Mrs Kaka asked, “Tu Meenakshi ki beti to nahin hai?” (“Are you Meenakshi’s daughter?”) I said yes, and she started crying. I was surprised. I hadn’t even had a chance to show her the pictures my mother had sent and she had already recognized me. I rang my parents and got them to speak to the Kakas. After the call ended, Mrs Kaka cried some more. “Till morning, you didn’t even know who they were,” said Kuku amused. “We were like family,” said Mrs Kaka, sobbing some more. “Even after all these years, they didn’t forget us.”
Kuku took me out for dinner to Pavement Tandoori, a high class Indian restaurant on Kololo Hill. As we stepped in, we got strange looks from the Indian families eating there. Obviously, Kuku has a “reputation”. One woman stared at him all through. He explained: “Indians here don’t like me and I don’t like Indians. She thinks I am with a new chick.” I was too embarrassed and slightly hurt by the Indian remark. But he quickly added that it was not meant for me.
Throughout my trip across Uganda, Kuku became an unlikely guardian angel. He kept calling to tell me which hotels are safe in which towns, giving me his local friends’ contacts in various towns (“Call if you need help”). And occasionally there would be sentences like: “If anyone troubles you, say you are my friend.” It sounded very sinister in a way.
Kuku, I realize, like many other Indians in Uganda, doesn’t consider himself Indian. He considers himself Ugandan. Would that have happened to me if I had stayed on? I don’t know.
Over the next few days I realize that the Indian community in Uganda has changed. There are sharp divides now and much hatred. Some pin the blame on the new immigrants, who they call the ‘rockets’, people who never quite blended in the original Ugandan Indian culture where it was all one big happy family. Another bone of contention is the reclamation of Indian properties that were seized by the government after the Asian expulsion of 1972—when that happened, politics splintered the Indian community further. And the last thing is obviously a age-old Ugandan grouse—that the Indian community doesn’t integrate with the local Ugandans. This is Kuku’s grouse too. I am not sure that this is true across the board.
On another day as I sat down for a lazy meal at an open-air rooftop restaurant in Garden City, I saw frenzied preparations for a wedding reception happening in a banquet hall in front of me. The setting seemed rather odd—old south Indian women in saris and with sandalwood tikas on their foreheads, Indian men in suits and sherwanis, pumping African music, a Ugandan lady in a salwar kameez and another Ugandan lady in an orange kanjeevaram sari.
“A Muhindi boy is marrying a Ugandan girl,” a waiter told me. Muhindi is a Swahili term for a local Indian. I looked on happily. Perhaps, finally, real integration between Indians and Ugandans was happening.
The next day I decided to go to Mulago Hospital where my Dad worked in 1970s. This was East Africa’s best hospital when it was set up in 1962, an independence gift from the Queen of England to Uganda. Mulago’s decline began in the Amin years when a host of doctors—most of them foreigners—fled the country. Today Mulago has stiff competition—not just in Uganda but in neighboring Kenya as well.
Way back in August 1976, Mulago Hospital had an unlikely patient. Dora Bloch, a Jewish hostage from the ill-fated Air France plane that was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to Entebbe. Though Bloch lived in Israel, she was a British citizen. Even as the Israeli government discussed the issue with the Ugandan government, the stalemate continued because Amin sympathized with the hijackers and was reluctant to help.
Meanwhile, Bloch choked over a fishbone and was rushed to Mulago while the rest of the hostages remained in captivity in Entebbe. The doctors at Mulago kept Bloch in hospital even after she had recovered in the hope that they could save at least one person from the impending tragedy they believed would follow.
The Israelis meanwhile launched a sensational rescue operation even disguising one of their soldiers as Amin. Within a matter of minutes all the hostages were bundled into an Israeli plane and flown away to safety. About 50 Ugandan soldiers died in the encounter. Angered by this, Amin passed orders to murder Bloch. An uneasy calm hung around Kampala that day and there was an ‘undeclared’ holiday everywhere.
One of my dad’s former colleagues was ill and admitted in Mulago. My parents went to see her and she told them about the gruesome events of the night before. It seems that on Amin’s orders angry soldiers raided Mulago at night looking for Bloch. And when they found her, they dragged the 74-year-old lady kicking and screaming down the stairs. No one knew what happened next. Only years later, it was discovered that she was taken into a jungle some miles away and brutally murdered. It is said—though not proven—that Amin personally participated in her murder. The policeman guarding her was also murdered. A government photographer who had the audacity of taking a picture of her dead body met with the same fate. The incident sparked international outrage and Britain ended up severing ties with Uganda.
In Amin’s Uganda, lives were disposable and torture was common. These things happened every day. You just collected your wits and went on with life pretending nothing had happened.
I got back in touch with the then Indian high commissioner Madanjeet Singh to ask him more about those years. He offered me a sneak peek into his personal notes from those times.
In one of the episodes, he describes his meeting with the French ambassador Pierre Renard soon after he came to Uganda. The account left me horrified. Here’s what he wrote: “Hardly had we exchanged a few words of greetings while we sat in the spacious lawn in front of his residence, when I heard a shrill inarticulate cry of pain from across the fence of the compound. Startled, I almost stood up, as I looked enquiringly at my host. But the Ambassador sat unconcerned, continuing to puff at his cigar. ‘Oh that,’ he explained calmly, ‘is one of Amin’s victims being tortured in the State Research Bureau building next door.’ He himself had got used to these horrifying shrieks and screams, he added, but his wife could not take it.”
I bumped into two Sikh women at Nakumutt one day, one of whom was the priestess at Kampala’s gurudwara (Sikh temple). Their Punjabi was flawless and their English too was heavily accented with Punjabi. While one asked me to come for the Sunday langar (meal) at the Gurudwara, the other one simply said: “Aa, tere ko ghar le chalun.” (“Come, let me take you home.”) Manjit has been in Africa for two decades now, but her in-laws, who live in Kenya, have been around forever she proudly told me. They were descendents of the original Indian settlers who were brought to East Africa in the late 1800s by the British to build the Uganda Railway.
Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta was one of the original few Indian businessmen in Uganda. In 1900 at the age of 13, he set sail for East Africa and bit by little bit he built a business empire—starting with a trading business (where he traded with tribals using cowrie shells because there was no currency at that time) and graduating to a sugarcane plantation. Gradually his sugar empire grew and today it is handled by his son Mahendra Mehta and grandson Jai Mehta (married to Indian actress Juhi Chawla).
As I entered Lugazi in Mukono district, I couldn’t help but notice a stark change in the surroundings. The unruliness of small-town Uganda gave way to orderly tea gardens, followed by miles and miles of sugarcane fields. A small gate led to the Mehta Estate, a self-contained township. Among other things, it has a school, a college, a hospital, a small supermarket, the plants and offices of the Mehta Group and neat orderly rows of the workers’ houses.
On top of a hill overlooking a beautiful golf course is Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta’s house and next to it is his son Mahendra Mehta’s house. The architecture is unmistakably Indian. There is an ornamental jharokha jutting out of Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta’s house which looks very Mughal. At least 100 peacocks—imports from India—roam around freely in the estate. There is a small mandir with a tulsi plant and an Indian lady dressed in a salwar kameez had come to offer her evening prayers there. As I walked into Mahendra Mehta’s study, I was greeted by him and his elegant wife Sunayana Mehta. The place smelled of agarbatti and later over tea, Mr Mehta offered me some chakli to eat.
Mr Mehta is used to getting guests like me. He gets several each year—each one returning to Uganda hoping to piece together bits of his own personal history. “Many of them tell me that their parents worked for us and they grew up on this estate. But they have all grown up now—I find it hard to remember faces,” he laughed.
It was on this estate that the young Idi Amin’s mother sought refuge after abandoning his father. And ironically, it was the same Amin who threw Mr Mehta out of Uganda.
Mr Mehta recounts those painful times, mentioning how Amin had offered him immunity from the 1972 Asian expulsion only to go back on his words within days. A Ugandan soldier came up to his house to break the news to him. The soldier’s father had worked for the Mehta Group and he had grown up on this very estate. With a sense of guilt, he told Mr Mehta who he was and apologized for the news he was about to break—he had his deportation orders.
Mr Mehta left Uganda with just two suitcases. It was a tough life outside the country of his birth. “At times, I didn’t have the money to pay for my children’s school fees,” he said. He painstakingly pieced his business back together. And after Amin fled to Libya, he returned to Uganda. Ironically, the recent movie on Idi Amin—The Last King of Scotland—was shot on the Mehta estate. Today the Mehta Group is worth $500-million group with a presence in four continents.
I left Lugazi and drove towards Jinja on a road that cuts through the Mabira Forest, a thick rainforest. This forest caused a huge controversy in 2007 when the Mehta Group planned to plant sugarcane on a third of it. The incident sparked off a series of violent protests reigniting the hatred against Indians—very reminiscent of the 1970s Uganda.
While I am in Uganda, I try not to wear my Indianness on my sleeve. One day I overheard a bunch of people talking about me in Swahili—I don’t understand the language but I heard them laughing and caught the word ‘Muhindi’, which in my mind, is sometimes a derogatory word. Friends have warned me that though Uganda is safe nowadays you can’t be sure of what people think about Indians. Besides in some towns that didn’t receive much of the current government’s development largess, the locals still believe that Amin was a better ruler. Armed with this knowledge, I decide to keep my mouth shut.
I spent the night in Jinja in a seedy hotel next to the source of the Nile. I couldn’t sleep a wink all night thanks to a nasty grasshopper that kept jumping on and off the walls of my room creating a horrible racket. In the morning, my driver told me that I should have caught the grasshopper and eaten it. Fried grasshoppers are a delicacy here.
Jinja is a fascinating town which had a huge Indian population at one point of time. And that shows in the architecture and the name of buildings. I visited Kakira later in the day—this town, on Lake Victoria’s shores, is where the Madhvani Group is headquartered. Like Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta, 14-year-old Muljibhai Madhvani came to Uganda in 1908. While he started off by working in his uncle’s shop in Iganga, Muljibhai eventually set up a business empire of his own. Kakira Sugar Works is the flagship company of the Madhvani Group today though the group has business interests in a range of other industries. The group is now run by Muljibhai’s sons. I had written to two of them—Manubhai and Mayur Madhvani (married to Bollywood actress Mumtaz)—before coming to Uganda. They were in London (Manubhai has since passed away), but they said I should visit Kakira anyway and meet their top management.
Manubhai Madhvani faced the worst of Amin’s ire against Indians in 1972. Amin threw him into Makindye, a torture chamber and prison for political opponents. It was said that no one who entered Makindye came out alive. Manubhai did—but he had learnt his lesson: he shouldn’t mess with Amin anymore. The family fled to the UK. Amin handed over Kakira Sugar Works to his cronies. “But those civil servants knew nothing about sugar,” said process manager Wilfred Pacoto as he showed me around the sugar factory. He had joined the group just as the family was leaving Uganda. Under the new management, the factory soon came to a grinding halt.
Amin, meanwhile, was happy plundering the Madhvani wealth—he had already taken several of their Cadillacs and Mercedes Benz cars as his own. And he had taken the house of one of the brothers—because it had large bathrooms and a “massage parlor” he loved. As for the furniture, paintings and carpets from the Madhvani homes, he “sold” them off in a public auction to his own cronies.
The group has now been resurrected and is worth around $300 million. The Madhvani Estate is just as impressive as the Mehta Estate. It stretches for miles and miles, caressing the shores of Lake Victoria where there’s a memorial for Muljibhai Madhvani and his eldest son Jayant Madhvani. The group has its own airstrip and private planes.
I have started to glean one thing from all these meetings and also what I read in the papers. All the big businesses want to be on the right side of the government. The expulsion has taught them a bitter lesson.
I headed to Mbale next, a small town at the foot of Mount Elgon, a dormant volcano on the Uganda-Kenya border. Like Jinja, this town also had a huge Indian contingent all of whom were mercilessly thrown out. I spent a Sunday roaming around on the streets of Mbale. The Indian stamp is everywhere. I came across countless Indian buildings—Hansraj Building, RS Patel Patidar Library, Girdhar Building, Haathi Building, Ashok Talkies (a cinema hall in its heydays) and a little Hindu temple.
Every second building I came across is Indian. All of these once-handsome buildings are now in a derelict state—they look imposing from far but when you peek inside you realize that one shop has been divided and further sub-divided into tiny ones often with just enough room for one person to stand. None of them have any meaningful business. The paint is grotesque. Campaign posters are plastered everywhere. Mbale leaves me sad—a ghost town with a prosperous past.
There are a handful of Indian establishments still left in Mbale. I walked into a curiously named supermarket—New Shanghai Stores — where I met Ruchi and Lala, the Gujarati owner’s nephews. Recent migrants from India, they knew nothing about the Indian expulsion of the 1970s. Their uncle told them “there is a lot of opportunity here”.
Tired of the hotel food, I ate out for a change. My Lonely Planet Guide recommended a restaurant called Nuralis on Cathedral Street. I walked in to the blaring sound of the old Bollywood song ‘Pyaar se dil pe maar de goli’ and settled down on a huge cane chair with garish maroon cushions. Nuralis seemed to be pretty popular with local Ugandans who seemed to be enjoying the Hindi music. There were old faded Mughal painting prints on the wall and a tacky neon green plastic cobweb and spider. Nuralis’ menu offers everything from samosas to tandoori chicken, koftas, biryani and paneer. There are enough local innovations as well—like masala matoke and chicken matoke (matoke is a Ugandan dish made of steamed raw bananas). The food didn’t disappoint.
I got talking with one of the managers—18-year-old Nizar who recently moved from Ahmedabad in India. Nuralis has been around since 1957, he told me. But the original owner (Nurali, after whom the restaurant is named) is in Canada and doesn’t want to come here anymore. Nizar didn’t know why Nurali doesn’t come here but he knew that something had happened in the 1970s when Nurali left the country.
For the young Indians in Mbale, I concluded, ignorance is bliss.
Next, I made a quick trip to Kapchorwa, the town where my father had his first real posting in Uganda. Kapchorwa is at a height of 2,000 metres above sea level and is breathtakingly beautiful with lush hills and pretty waterfalls. In any other country, this would be relabeled a hill station. My father worked as the District Medical Officer in Kapchorwa General Hospital in 1971.
Interestingly, it was in Kapchorwa that he met Idi Amin for the first—and luckily the last—time. Soon after upstaging the then president Milton Obote in a military coup in 1971, Amin did an extensive tour of the country trying to win over people. And thus, he came to Kapchorwa. The heads of all the administrative departments of the district, including my father, shook hands with Amin and sat on the dais with him as he spoke to the public.
An excellent speaker, Amin convinced everyone about his reasons for toppling Obote’s government. The people of Kapchorwa, it seems, gave him a rousing reception whereas those in other districts were not so welcoming.
My parents were never able to repatriate 11 years of savings from Uganda. They tried for 6–7 years and gave up. Some years ago the then Ugandan high commissioner to India Nimisha Madhvani said I should give it another try. My parents told me not to waste my time but I ignored them. After several months of emails, couriers and phone calls to Bank of Uganda, I gave up.
Before I got here, a new Ugandan Indian friend of mine introduced me to Rajni Tailor, a minister in the Kabaka government (apart from the presidential government, Uganda reinstated the Kabaka government some years back. The Kabaka has no real powers anymore and is just a cultural head). “Maybe as a last-ditch effort, you should check with Mr Tailor,” my friend had said.
So I walked up to Rajni Tailor’s shop on Jinja Road in Kampala (even though he is a minister, he runs his own tire store). The receptionist made me fill out a form which very clearly said: “If this is a personal visit, please don’t waste our time”. I ignored that and wrote that the purpose of my visit was ‘official’.
All this while, a small unassuming man sitting behind a desk near the receptionist, kept staring at me. Much to my surprise, this was the Honorable Rajni Tailor, Minister of State for Economic Planning, Development and Investments.
Born and brought up in Uganda, Mr Tailor’s English still bears an unmistakably Gujarati accent. I was curious about his surname. His was a family of tailors, he told me. And his father stitched clothes for the Kabaka and the first president of Uganda Edward Mutesa as well as for the second — Milton Obote. In recognition of these services the Kabaka made him a minister.
I finally broached the topic of my parents’ savings. It is pointless to go after it, he said. If we had a house or a shop in Kampala, it was a different deal. “Let’s assume they had 1,00,000 shillings,” he explained writing the figure down on a piece of paper. “First you can cut off a couple of zeros.” He knocked off three. “Out of the remainder, the government will deduct 42% for still maintaining your bank account for all these years,” he said. “Is what’s left worth the effort?” I shook my head. Perhaps it was finally time to give up on this.
It was almost time to go back home. But I wasn’t done with Uganda yet. I still didn’t understand why Idi Amin did what he did. I tracked down Jaffar Amin, one of Amin’s many (some say 43) children and author of Idi Amin: Hero or Villain?, a book that looks to correct the “misconceptions’’ about the dictator. I wanted to understand why he says his father was misunderstood. Jaffar Amin launched into the Asian expulsion issue. “Think of it this way: In 1840, people start grabbing chunks of Africa. You get a shoe in through the railway (the Uganda Railway), you become successful. And we, the blacks, end up as sharecroppers slashing sugarcane,” he said in his distinctly British accent. “You stratify people. You can be defensive about it but that’s the way you people think.”
Jaffar also insisted that $1billion was paid to the Indian government as compensation for the people who had been expelled. No one I know has ever received any money.
He did, however, acknowledge the pain of separation—the loss of identity and the sense of humiliation that comes from it. He identifies with it too. “We as the so-called children of Idi Amin or his tribe or his religion post-1979 have gone through reverse humiliation where every government goes through the process of humiliating him, his kin, his religion, his people. This issue persists. It’s like a chain of retribution. I call my father illustrious. People call him infamous,” he said. “The Amin clan is now scattered over England, the US, Saudi Arabia and is beginning to trickle back into Uganda.”
“How many siblings do you have?” I had been dying to ask him this. “We are quite a number,” he said twice, probably hoping that I will let it be. But I didn’t. “We are anywhere between 45 and 60.”
I had been here for three weeks now. Before leaving, I drove back to Makerere and saw my old house from outside for one last time. I belong to Uganda in a strange sort of way. As my plane took off at Entebbe, I felt a little strange. But I knew that I would be back again.
This is an account of the author’s trip to Uganda in December 2010. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Forbes Life India (Spring 2011).