The Power Of Family Unity.
Welcome to the second of our 50 Ugandan Asian Stories. This is the story of Usha & Subhas who, along with their family, had to flee Uganda like so many others.
Usha and Subhas thrived as a married couple in Jinja, Uganda. Their lives there were slow-paced and serene: work was laid-back; the community was strong; and the weather made everything better.
The calm conditions they knew and loved quickly descended into mayhem following the announcement of Ugandan Asian expulsion. With great reluctance, their family split apart across the world, leaving behind cherished possessions and relations alike. Usha travelled to India to help settle family elders, while Subhas remained in Uganda and rushed to tie up loose ends.
Ultimately, Usha and Subhas reunited and started rebuilding their lives in London, where they were forced to confront and overcome a variety of physical and emotional hardships. And with the help of their family, functioning as a cohesive unit, they succeeded in finding stability once again.
This is their inspiring story, told from the perspective of their daughter.
A peaceful balance of work and leisure
“My parents’ livelihoods in Uganda were pleasant and relaxed. My father, Subhas, was fortunate enough to enjoy an easy-going work life at his family’s hardware shop, which was set up by his father. With my mother, Usha, he lived in a flat above the shop, which allowed him to spend his one-hour lunch breaks at home while the shop was closed. He had a good amount of free time: beyond closing for lunch, shops in Jinja would also remain shut on Sundays; and moreover, Dad had usually finished work and returned home by 7pm. He was his own boss, and the work wasn’t very stressful—most of the heavy lifting was done by the local native Ugandans.
My father liked to socialise during his free time. Because Jinja was such a small town, people’s means of socialising didn’t change much week to week. For Dad, it meant going down to the Goan Club during the week to play poker—a game he was particularly enthusiastic about. He also spent plenty of time at the Lakeview Club, which was another place where men hung out, played cards and gambled. Those who preferred to hold onto their money played snooker instead, or enjoyed drinks at the bar.
Every so often, parties would be hosted at the Lakeview Club—to which the men’s families would also be invited—and everyone would have a delightful time eating and drinking. Even more common than these parties were Sunday picnics on the grasslands at the rear of the club grounds. Each household would bring a dish, place it on the communal tables there, and share the food with each other. The weather was amazing, and made for the perfect backdrop to these events; even the rain never lasted long, and it remained warm throughout any downpours.
My father must have been especially extraverted and energetic, because beyond playing cards at the Lakeview and the Goan, he was also a member of the Rotary Club. Dad’s brother and father, on the other hand, were Freemasons; but since my dad wasn’t very studious, and Freemasonry required one to learn and recite many passages, my grandfather encouraged him to become a Rotarian instead.
Compared to my father, my mother spent much more time at home—she was a housewife, as ladies in Jinja tended to be. Of course, she did lots of cooking and cleaning; but, like Dad, her social life wasn’t dry either. Mum really enjoyed sewing, which was a popular hobby among women. Alongside many others, she often attended daytime sewing classes, run by the more talented women in town, and stitched clothes for young children.
Additionally, if there was a wedding happening nearby, Mum would join other ladies in the local area and gather at the house of the bride and groom, to help prepare snacks, peel vegetables and cook—regardless of differences in religion. My parents were part of a close-knit community that felt like one big family.”
Saying goodbye, to home and to each other
“My father was the first one to find out that he and his family would, all of a sudden, have to leave their home within just ninety days. He immediately broke the news to my mother, and told her to start packing. That same evening, Mum and two senior aunties in my family met up to discuss what to pack and to start making arrangements. At that time, everything was happening so quickly that there wasn’t time to process the news or to think deeply about its ramifications. Like the flip of a switch, my parents left behind their stable and tranquil lifestyle, and went into overdrive.
Some people were excited by the prospect of a new life abroad—normally children who didn’t understand the gravity of the situation—but for my parents, this was a particularly unpleasant time in their lives. Neither of them wanted a new life elsewhere. There was also a lot of fear within their community after the announcement, not least because the army could suddenly be seen everywhere, carrying guns. A 7pm curfew was in place, but people felt unsafe and generally avoided venturing out anyway.
During the day following the announcement, my parents and other family members—my aunts, their husbands, and my grandfather—all gathered to discuss who would be going where and when. They were split between India and the UK, and it wasn’t always easy choosing between the two. My father, for example, desired to settle in India because it was the more familiar country, but some of the children in the family were already attending boarding schools in the UK, so for the sake of the kids’ education, it made sense to settle there instead.
My family fragmented as different members went off in different directions. For my grandfather, the UK held no appeal, so within a few weeks of the announcement, my mother and I left with him to India for a temporary stay. At the same time, one of my aunts took her son and my sister straight to London, so that she could sooner have them enrolled in schools there and avoid disruption to their education.
Meanwhile, another of my aunts, my uncles and my father remained in Jinja for a while, to reconcile business matters and to sell the household items that were left behind. Rather than reside between three homes as usual, they all moved into one, for safety reasons. And while they spent their last days in Uganda, they bought plane tickets for a lot of people who lacked the funds to be able to fly out of the country themselves.
Eventually, the time came for the family members still remaining in Uganda to leave as well: my father, alongside one of his closest friends, left for India to join my mother and I, while the others left for London. Dad’s departure from Jinja was a particularly tearful one because he had to say goodbye to John, who had been his faithful domestic help since he could remember. John, like many others, now had no work and feared for his safety. With his family in tow, he boarded a bus to Kenya on the same day that my father left, making his way to a friend of my father’s living in Nairobi, for whom he worked until retirement.
My parents and I stayed with my grandfather for six months before reuniting with the rest of the family who were already in London. My mother didn’t care about losing money or leaving behind possessions—she was simply relieved that all of the family members had made it out of Uganda safely and were finally reunited in the UK. Nevertheless, she understandably feared the upcoming trials of settling down and integrating into this new and unfamiliar place.”
A new country with new challenges
“Upon arriving in London, life for my parents still didn’t slow down. After taking just two days to rest and unpack, my uncle advised my parents to start looking for work. My mother and father both did so; in fact, they landed jobs on the same day. Mum started working at Osram GEC, which was a factory that produced light bulbs, while Dad got a job at Norland’s, which was a popular DIY high street chain.
My mother found her initial days in London very hard. She was living in a house with thirteen people, and now doing housework without any domestic help. To make matters worse, there wasn’t a washing machine at home, so Mum spent countless hours in the local laundrette with the other ladies of the house.
On top of her household duties, managing her job at the factory wasn’t easy. It was daunting to leave the house in darkness at 6.30am to go to work—especially in a country she didn’t yet know. To save money, Mum always brought food with her on her way out; and at lunchtime, she would huddle together with all the other Ugandan Asian women working at the factory, sharing her food and exchanging stories of their experiences. Sarees weren’t allowed to be worn on shift at the factory, so my mother, albeit slowly, had to get used to wearing western clothes.
My father’s early life in London wasn’t a walk in the park either. He was born and raised in Uganda, and his body was accustomed to its weather; the UK, by comparison, was far too cold, which delayed his ability to truly settle down there. He yearned for a life in India moving forward, but my uncle reminded him of the UK’s superior quality of education, and that they had to prioritise their children’s futures now. Dad always listened to his brother, who was a very sensible and pragmatic man.
Leaving his home, and having to do so in such an abrupt fashion, really damaged my father. From then on, he never again spoke in Swahili (commonly spoken in East African countries like Uganda). Moreover, he never revisited Uganda; and even when he was in Kenya, right next door to his old home, he would decline his nephew’s offers to drive him there. Dad never explicitly spoke about it, but the pain of leaving and starting from scratch, and the trauma of how it all occurred so fast, certainly stayed with him.”
Getting better by sticking together
“At the end of every week, after many long and arduous work shifts, my parents would hand over their pay envelopes to my uncle. He would ask them if they needed to purchase anything for the week ahead, and then save the rest for buying a house and businesses in the future. Placing their trust in my uncle, with his foresightedness and frugality, ultimately paid off: about one year into living in London, my father and his brother were able to purchase a house of their own, into which nine family members moved. It’s amazing what you can achieve by sticking together and having resilience.
My parents and family started to gain momentum. Every day, they got more and more used to their new surroundings and lifestyle. The new house had a washing machine and a dryer, which was a godsend in itself. Moreover, shortly after moving in, my family bought their first shop—a sporting goods store—which my uncle and his son ran, while my parents continued with their old jobs. In time, though, my father would quit his job and take charge of a second shop that my family had acquired. And after that, even a third shop followed. Living in the UK now looked a lot more promising.
However, during that time, life certainly wasn’t without its problems. My aunt’s health became quite unstable, so she stopped going out to work (although she continued to help run the house, and kept everyone well fed). And tragically, before buying the third shop, my family lost my uncle. Suffice to say, it was a massive blow to everyone.
Nevertheless, everyone had to carry on, and family ties became all the more valuable. Sundays were characterised by a gathering of twenty-five family members in the house, to eat lunch and dinner alongside each other. And if it wasn’t a gathering in the house, then it would be a picnic in Brighton, Littlehampton, or by Virginia Water Lake: the same twenty-five family members, with big pots of Indian food—never a simple sandwich in sight.
At this point, my parents and family may have been far from their true home, but my mother regards her memories for that time as joyous. After all, these moments of laughing, sharing food and simply enjoying each other’s company weren’t too dissimilar from the parties and picnics way back at the Lakeview Club in Jinja, which everyone loved dearly. So if my parents’ story can teach us one thing, then it is surely the power of family unity, which can bring us a sense of peace and stability during even the most dire of circumstances.”
We hope you enjoyed reading the second of our 50 Ugandan Asian Stories. This is a project by AFFCAD UK to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the exodus of Ugandan Asians, by collating and archiving the stories of those involved. If you would like to contribute a story, do get in touch here.