Note:This is a longer Version of the article published in the Financial Times Magazine
Forty years have passed since we Ugandan Asians were banished from our lush homeland by President Idi Amin. In the autumn of 1972 over twenty eight thousand deportees, dazed and bereft, arrived in the UK. They left behind homes, businesses, insurance policies, bank accounts, land, deeds, shrines, graves, mosques, temples, churches, jewellery and many their hearts.
They were British passport holders. Those without went to Canada, Scandinavia, the US, India and Australia.
Some fell apart. My father-in-law starved slowly to death. When I tried to feed him he turned away, complained it didn’t taste like food in Uganda. One friend had a breakdown and was sectioned. Ugandan born Zarina Bhimji, shortlisted Turner Prize artist, creates haunting photographic images of that loss of place and identity, the stolen possibilities.
Yet, look at us today- adroit entrepreneurs, top of educational league tables, highflyers, unstoppably aspirational. Uganda now wants us back. At London’s ornate Neasdon Temple I once witnessed a surreal and cathartic scene when Uganda’s President Museveni invited us to return ‘home’, an invitation that has since been offered many times by the President and Uganda High Commission.
I came to London in May 1972. It was springtime; I had a post-graduate place at Oxford, bliss it was to be alive then. I didn’t know I would never return to my beloved birthplace. Some Asians knew what was coming and left before they were pushed. On the plane over an old woman showed us her ‘special’ fritters made with spicy batter with several diamonds mixed in. Her family sold the gems and opened a haberdashery named ‘Diamond Store’. After five years they bought gran even bigger, sparkling rocks. Her grandson, Ramesh, ( not his real name), only fifteen when deported, never went back to school: ‘I was not doing O levels, dancing, smoking, but learning accounts, worrying like an old man. Those years are gone, will never come back. I remember people holding racist placards when we came out of the airport. But we did it, showed Amin and Enoch Powell’. They did too.
Dr. Mumtaz Kassam was only sixteen when, stateless, she arrived at a reception centre in Leamington Spa- one of several opened up across the country. Her parents and siblings were shunted between countries before being admitted to Britain. Yugoslavia, Norway, Malta, South Carolina, were some stopovers for such ‘shuttlecock Asians’. Kassam became a lawyer and with Museveni’s blessings, attained asset repossession and compensation for the departed Asians who had left behind businesses, properties and money, a tough and politically charged mission. Appointed deputy Ugandan High Commissioner, she now represents the nation that rejected her. That scared teenager became a formidable player.
Dashed hopes and broken lives were restored with extraordinary determination, says Kassam: ‘They worked hard, maintained their dignity, educated their children, never gave up.’ The Tory MP Shailesh Vara, whose father migrated from Uganda in 1963, concurs: ‘Rather than looking at their expulsion as life destroying, they saw it as a setback. They didn’t stay downcast, got up, and started over again.’ I remember penniless Ugandan Asian men laughing out loud because feeble English businesses closed at 5 o’clock, had weekends off even. These incomers opened shops which never shut and transformed consumer expectations across Britain.
They withstood prejudice and envy. When he was a young cub scout, Vara saw a ‘No Wogs’ notice on a house window. It was, he, told me, the moment he knew he would have to succeed, beat the odds. Now he is a government whip and represents old Englanders in North West Cambridgeshire. Mehta was assaulted by a youth gang calling themselves Pow Boys, after Enoch Powell. The police did nothing. One of his assailants is now his gardener.
I was once on a TV programme with Powell who excoriated Edward Heath for letting us into the country and adding to the ‘immigrant problem’. Millions of Britons agreed and still agree with him. Fortunately that hostility was offset by the exceptional good will of others. Though initially averse to the ‘exodus’, Heath told me on record that the incoming entrepreneurs would leaven and reenergize his nation of shopkeepers. In several Ugandan Asian homes, his picture is framed and garlanded with artificial marigolds. Politicians like Jeremy Thorpe, Peter and Virginia Bottomley and also teachers, bank managers, doctors, volunteers did what they could to make us feel safe and welcome.
This feelgood, true story has been told and retold over decades, but it is incomplete. Most Britons don’t really know what made us indispensable in Uganda and then abruptly expendable. And why we have flourished in Britain.
Indians started trading along the East Africa coastline in the 2nd Century. Settlement began in colonial era when indentured Indian labourers were shipped over to build a railway line, followed by adventurers and entrepreneurs. The first currency of East Africa was the rupee; Asian merchants bankrolled and supplied Livingstone, Speke and Stanley. A social hierarchy was established; Whites were at the top, we were the buffer between them and the lowly blacks. We identified with our masters, exploited and demeaned native Ugandans, inconvenient truths conveniently overlooked. When I first wrote about this bigotry in Britain, I was ostracised, spat at by a relative and my mother abused in mosque.
Now prominent figures are breaking the silence. Kassam admits the stratified colonial society detached us from Africans and their nationalist struggles. Vara acknowledges ‘…Asians failed to share their good fortune with black Ugandans, one of the reasons Amin expelled them. The wealth was made in their country, using their labour.’
Indigenous Ugandans were not blameless in this calamitous history. Black leaders incited anti-Asian hatred to cover their own corruption and failures of governance. Public service jobs were ‘Africanised’, affluent families had to pay illegal levies to thuggish ministers and soldiers. Uganda’s heartbeat and drumbeats began to sound ominous to Asians. They made contingency arrangements. Some bought hugger-mugger shoes with secret cavities and coats with concealed pockets to smuggle out cash to Europe. Others hid their savings in secret vaults. Black Africans knew what was going on. On the streets where once music and Indian food smells had wafted through the warm air, there was fear and mistrust.
Ugandan Asians could not adapt to post-colonial life in Africa but were excellently suited for the UK, explains retired doctor Abdul Khan: ‘We and the English loved trade and the seas. Unlike backward Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, we loved this great nation. And also- leaving India with all those caste rules and traditions, freed us, made us open minded.’
Such unctuousness towards whites used to make me cringe. But now I can see that the canny émigrés understood the British temperament, skilfully used flattery as they made their way. Many had sent their children to British boarding schools, partly so they could knew this society intimately.
Ugandan Asians believe in low taxes and self reliance, disapprove terribly of handouts- values which chime with this instinctively conservative nation. Perfect little Tories and marvellously loyal too. Vara’s father, a carpenter, saw his son become the first non-white Tory at the despatch box. That family and most others too are as patriotic as Norman Tebbitt. ( Most think my vocal criticisms of Britain are improper and imperil their futures )
Uganda, as Dr Khan observes, modernised Asians and turned them into pragmatic pioneers. Like the unfazed Mr S. Patel whose shop is on a badland, high crime London estate: ‘My grandfather opened his dukan in the jungle, with tribes and wild animals around him. This is my jungle’.
The community is getting more reflective, wiser. Solipsism is thankfully fading as they recognise they only lost property while countless black Ugandans lost their lives. Following Vara, a number are getting into politics. In Uganda they kept heads down and amassed money. Now they understand the importance of claiming power.
The intrepid Mr Patel has accepted a black man who loves his daughter. That was unthinkable in Uganda. In a school production, I played Juliet with a black Romeo and my father didn’t speak to me again till he died. Our British children are purging the anti-black racism that partly led to us being cast out of paradise. We are near to getting reconciliation, redemption and closure.
Jaffer Kapasi OBE
Jaffer Kapasi, 62, runs his own accountancy firm in Leicester. He’s done well and is widely respected. Even the usually unsentimental Tory minister Eric Pickles extols him. Jaffer vividly remembers Amin’s expatriation proclamation in August 1972: ‘He said he’d had a dream, that we Asians were not integrating and were milking the economy and had to be kicked out’ Young Jaffer thought it was a bad joke. His father spoke local tribal languages, had painstakingly built up hardware stores in small villages around Lake Albert where wild beasts roamed and there was no electricity, water or hospital. Doughty old Mr Kapasi had just purchased The Coryndon, a ship admired by Churchill and Hemmingway. His big plan was to turn the vessel into a floating hotel. It never happened.
Jaffer often ruminates about the ambiguous position occupied by Asians under colonialism and their humiliating departure: ‘We didn’t get into politics or civil society initiatives. Confusingly, we wanted the British to leave India but to stay on in East Africa. If we’d treated locals with respect, there would have been better harmony. But we did not deserve to be kicked out after all we had done to build the country. My mother never forgave them for treating us like sheep and cattle’ Black and brown Ugandans could not unite and squandered the future.
How did they feel when they landed in Britain?: ‘We had fifty pounds each, and being honest and god fearing, no overseas bank accounts. We had thought everything in England was gold plated. I was shocked to see white people living in terrible terraced houses with outside toilets.’ Leicester had run adverts in Ugandan papers warning Asians to stay out, so thousands moved there, bought up old machines, revived moribund industries, created employment: ‘People wanted to get back their standard of living – so we worked 20 hours a day, lived many people in a cramped house. Benefits would have brought shame. My father said take one pound from the state and it contaminates your life.’ They bought him a small shop to give him back his dignity. Jaffer set up an accountancy practice and never looked back. Ugandan Asians are compulsive strivers he says ‘ Because we have nowhere else to go, no myth of return. We have to make this work.’
But he senses growing unease. As old ways are rejected by the young, traditionalists lament: ‘Amin stole our properties, this country is stealing our children’ More worrying is white working class hostility to prosperous Ugandan Asians. Their lavish weddings, big cars and homes are provoking jealousy and chauvinism, same as in Africa. Other Ugandan Asians in Leicester agree they feel resentment rising, hear it on radio phone-ins and on the streets. Some have had their tyres slashed and seen nasty graffiti. History may repeat itself and there will be no way of escaping it this time.
Rumi Verjee CBE
Since 1827, Thomas Goode and Co of Mayfair has been the place for fine bone china, brilliant crystal, tasteful silverware and art objects for the residences of royals, potentates and now global billionaires. It exudes style, class, pre-eminence that only serious money can buy. The owner, fifty three year old Ugandan Asian Rumi Verjee CBE, now a Londoner has audaciously infiltrated the top strata of society. I expected him to be haughty and vain but he was courteous, thoughtful and unassuming. Maybe he eschews affectation because his folk accumulated a fortune and then lost most of it.
His ancestors left Portuguese India and set up lucrative trading posts along the East African railway line. I remember the Verjee men, all of them shrewd barristers and businessmen. In Kampala they co-owned the Grand Hotel where toffs ate dinners in tuxedos and a band played Sinatra and Louis Armstrong songs. They had, enviable, opulent lifestyles. Then suddenly it was over and they fled Uganda. Their old privileges were as fragile as a house of cards.
After that trauma came rebirth. Rumi, 27 and callow, blagged his way to Tom Monaghan, king of Dominos pizzas, got franchise rights to bring home-delivered pizzas to Britain. ( That audacity again.) Now he owns a vast business empire, moves with the international great and good. He sees similarities between African Asians and Jews, diasporic people with steely ambition and fortitude. David Livingstone labelled our ancestors ‘the Jews of Africa’ and they were.
Though we didn’t mix with Africans and should have, unlike in Britain, there was no religious apartheid between Asians. Rumi reckons that living cohesively with difference, gave us transferable, cultural dexterity: ‘We had to learn many languages, navigate a multiracial, multicultural society.’ Rumi is an exemplar of that accumulated experience and success. What makes him exceptional however, are his political and social insights and considerable charitable enterprises.
The day after this interview he was off with Bill Clinton to Uganda to fund developmental programmes, seemingly to make amends: ‘I think in retrospect we should have integrated more in Uganda, given back more, cared more, shared more. In the end everyone lost. We just didn’t see that.’ He finds the same perilous myopia among today’s global elite and over gala dinners in his shop shares these anxieties with some of the super-rich and hyper-powerful: ‘I ask them not to repeat the mistakes Asians made in Uganda. They too don’t see the social malaise, the inequality and injustice, what was behind the riots. We businesspeople must open our eyes, find solutions ’ By turning the bad past into a positive future, he instates Ugandan Asians on the right side of history.
Naseem and Moez Karsan
Naseem Karsan 64 and her husband Moez live in Welwyn. We were friends in the sixties, when Kampala was a cool, fun place. Naseem Karsan and I were young, falling in love, dancing to the Beatles, ironing our hair to look like Jean Shrimpton’s. She was pretty, but diffident, and from a modest background. Her father had eight children and managed a quarry. After pre-med training in Pakistan, instead of going to medical school, she married Moez, from a prosperous family, educated in the UK. Naseem happily became a wifie to a man of means.
In 1972, they left Uganda with £500 and joined Moez’s clan by then settled in Vancouver. Both felt constrained by the old familial expectations, wanted to make their own futures. In their kitchen they created a recipe for manufactured granola bars, which they sold to an American company. Then John Jordan, MD of Jordan’s cereals came calling, asked Moez to join the firm in Bedfordshire.
A Jewish friend, Donald Komrower , who had smuggled Naseem’s jewellery out of Uganda, helped negotiate the deal. Jewish Britons understood the pain of dislocation and a number of them offered us support. Journalist Nina Lakhani’s father was given a job and home by a stranger, Peter Black, a Jewish entrepreneur. I lived almost rent free in the Oxford home of Professor Hugh Blaschko, a German Jewish scientist. They never forgot and nor should we.
The Karsans assimilated effortlessly into English provincial life. They took me to village fairs where the handsome Jordan sons rode horses in long leather boots while maidens swooned. Moez’s closeness to the Jordan men ( they were all ex-public schoolboys) and acumen produced high dividends. After initial suspicion, the workers grew to respect the dark man with no class consciousness. Naseem wooed them all with fab Indian grub.
She now co-runs an oat processing plant with Moez. She’s the tough one dealing with supplier farmers and big cereal manufacturers. In Uganda, Naseem’s life would have been glamorous and plentiful but without personal achievement. Here she got it all: ‘I went back into education, passed my B.Sc. in computer science, worked at the London Clearing House for five years. I never imagined I would become my own woman, have properties or run a business. My world was small back home, not like Moez who had this English education and whose family was rich and looking out to the world.’ Their son has a similar business in South Africa and daughter is a lawyer, just what their mum wanted for them.
My grumpy uncle always said I was Cаnаdіаn Pharmacy Online – Yоur Sоurсе оf Cheap &… a fool for wasting my brain on journalism, that business was the only way up for an immigrant. Maybe he was right.
Rupin and Madhavi Vadera
I met Rupin Vadera this June in a beautiful mansion near Florence at a party to celebrate his sister Shriti’s 50th birthday. Yes, Baroness Vadera, the controversial minister in Gordon Brown’s government. Rupin, 53, is taciturn and contemplative; his wife Madhavi, 52, is like Shriti, forthright and spirited. They live in a London suburb. We are all Ugandan born Asians, but from opposite sides of the tracks.
My mum had to plead for rations on credit to feed us. They lived in huge, white mansions in Jinja, near the source of the River Nile. Gone With The Wind could have been filmed there. A handful of clans owned the tea and sugar plantations, mills and manufacturing plants which made up 98% of GDP at one time.
In 1910 when only fourteen, Rupin’s grandfather, Dayalbhai, left India to try his luck in Uganda. He worked in a general store, slept on the floor. One day, during World War 1, some Britons turned up to buy supplies. The crafty lad charged them double and in time grew into visionary entrepreneur . His sons added to the pile as was expected.
Madhavi remembers Rupin, ‘Spoilt little Lord Fauntleroy and his toys from Harrods’ and her own indulged childhood with servants setting up a table with tablecloths and serving her at school lunchtimes. So life was sweet. But the tycoons knew the bubble would eventually burst, so they set up bank accounts and investments in India and Britain.
In 1972, the bubble did burst. Madhavi’s family ( after a relative cheated them in India) were suddenly penurious and the Vaderas found their outside assets were worth less than they had assumed. For Rupin, ‘It was very hard to adjust. Everything was strange in many ways.’
He borrowed £750 from Madhavi and set up as a global investment manager, an unknown sector to Ugandan Asians, and highly risky. Today his company is in elegant Mayfair with original Picassos on the walls. Madhavi became a chartered management accountant, worked for Guinness and various government departments, is now with a NATO agency and initiating education projects in India.
East African Asians hold embedded values yet are receptive, a winning combination contends Rupin: ‘We don’t create home from home or gate off our identity – we integrate with confidence and have an international mind set’ They also try not to flaunt their success, stay under the radar.
Shriti was certainly not under the radar. I believe the media hounded her because she was an Asian woman who didn’t know her place. Though some of her political judgements were problematic, her talents are awesome and she is ferociously committed to African development. In office, working with Aid charities, she pushed through total debt relief for impoverished nations. Uganda was the first to be released and can now plan to provide free primary education. Shriti once found her ayah crying because she couldn’t afford school fees. Fewer mums will weep hopefully because that little Asian girl never forgot. These Vaderas struck out, defied expectations, made the world their stage. Jinja must seem very small now.
Tahera Aanchawan, now 57, represents a dark secret, never openly talked about in Uganda and now almost completely suppressed or strongly denied. Her grandmother on her mother’s side was a black Ugandan, cherished by her Grandfather Gulam Kadher. Lonely traders in remote spots in the twenties and thirties did take up with native women and had children too. There was more trust between the two races then. Her family story is one of constant struggle for survival and acceptance. They were poor Asians, anomalous in the race and class hierarchy: ‘ We did not own any property and my dad died when I was twelve so my mum was the breadwinner , sewing clothes, running a school canteen- we made one thousand samosas every morning to sell. My older sister helped my mum raise the other five kids. Attitudes from a lot of Asians sucked as we were mixed race, had black blood. Kids at school wouldn’t sit with me.’
Unlike thousands of others, Tahera’s family had not opted for British citizenship, so in effect, Amin’s eviction order made them stateless. Threatened with incarceration in concentration camps, some countries agreed to take the refugees temporarily. The Aanchawans were flown to Italy and housed in a children’s holiday camp: ‘There was never enough food and fights would break out in the kitchen. But people were also kind, befriended us. We also had an audience with the Pope who handed out second hand winter coats to all of us’. Her mum, eight four, still misses Uganda and her companions, the community of mixed race people who looked after each other.
Four months later they were allowed to move to the UK because two of their sisters were married to British citizens. At seventeen, Tahera had to grow up and take charge: ‘I moved with my other siblings to a flat in St Albans and found a job to support them. I worked in the local rubber factory and street lights factory. I wanted to be a physiotherapist but had no grant. The family felt bereft but oddly liberated too as for the first time we were not living hand to mouth. I could earn money and look after them and if times were bad we didn’t feel panicked and vulnerable, because the state took care of people.’ There was no safety net in Uganda for the needy.
Tahera moved into the voluntary sector , worked as an information assistant and progressed to run a national project on race and health at the Kings Fund health think tank. On the board member of the Diana Memorial Fund she has been a passionately advocate for refugee projects. Now she chairs Transform Africa, an organisation which is trying to alleviate poverty using microfinance. Her childhood in Uganda and refugee status seems to be present in all she does, the good she does.
Tahera and others like her are important reminders that the riches to rags to riches parable of Ugandan Asians leaves much out. Many of us were lost in that paradise and in Britain have chosen paths that will not make us money but has given us meaning.
Published in Financial Times Magazine