Driving Through Adversity.
Welcome to the third of our 50 Ugandan Asian Stories. This story is by Ramzu who, like so many others, had to flee Uganda alongside his family.
At twenty-five years of age, Ramzu was working for the family business, repairing and selling cars in Kampala, Uganda. He loved visiting the country’s restaurants and scenic locations, and spending weekends at the local drive-in cinema. He wasn’t prepared to believe that all this would be coming to an abrupt end, following the announcement of Ugandan Asian expulsion.
Ramzu and his family, on numerous occasions, came face-to-face with the violent horrors sparked by the announcement. Narrowly escaping the chaos that had engulfed their hometown, they boarded a flight to the UK, with little more to their names than a few suitcases and a pocketful or two of cash. They arrived in a camp in Wales, where they took almost no time to rest before starting to rebuild their livelihoods from scratch.
Through patience and resilience, they went from strength to strength. They moved from the camp into council housing, and then into their own homes. They bought a shop in Swansea, and a second one soon after that.
Meanwhile, Ramzu himself came full circle and procured a car showroom in the UK, among other businesses across multiple countries. His success was hard-earned. And his old life in Uganda shines brightly in his memories.
This is Ramzu’s breathtaking story.
Family, food & fun
“Although I was born in Amuria, I later moved to Kampala, where most of my close and extended family lived—so Kampala was home for me. I had great fun there: going out to restaurants was very popular, and my favourite food was matoki crisps and chicken. The chicken was organic by default, and so the flavours were really fresh (whereas mass produced food loses its flavour).
When I wasn’t busy eating out, I loved going on day trips to Entebbe and Murchison Falls. The latter was over five hours away from where I lived, but it was still my favourite—the scenery was amazing, and I still remember the beauty of the area.
I enjoyed my weekends, too, which were famously spent at a nearby drive-in cinema. My family and I would clamber into a few cars to arrive at the cinema, and step out to picnic on the grounds for a while. Then we’d get back into our cars to watch the movie. I’m really fond of those days.
My family actually owned a car business in Kampala, with showrooms as well as a garage for repairing cars. Meanwhile, another one of our family businesses was an upholstery. Everyone, including the men, knew how to operate a sewing machine; and my two brothers became expert upholsters. Although I was taught the same, I was more interested in the car side of business, so I focused all my energy on that.”
A swift decline, from denial to distress
“My father and I were in the process of developing a new office in one of our showrooms when we heard the news about President Amin’s most recent announcement. At first, I was in utter disbelief—how could Amin possibly act on a dream which told him to throw out the Asians living in his country? It was too preposterous to be true and, naturally, I didn’t take it seriously.
Even when Robert Carr—a minister for the UK government—flew over to Uganda to talk with Amin, I thought the whole situation would just be a storm in a teacup, and that Amin would surely see sense. However, the truth started to sink in when Carr managed to grant us ninety days to get out of Uganda. Ninety days to pack whatever belongings we could, decide what we should do with our lives moving forward, and abandon our homes and livelihoods.
No longer denying reality, my family and I decided we would go to the UK, and made our way to the British embassy to acquire visas. Given that my father already had a British passport, we didn’t think there would be any issues. However, nothing prepared us to witness people sleeping outside the embassy. Understandably, they felt desperate enough to do so. We ended up waiting there for a full 24 hours, but we all got our visas in the end.”
The departure of humanity from the streets of Kampala
“My family and I went about doing what needed to be done, but all the while, there was a real sense of fear and panic. Trouble had started to flare out in Kampala, often without warning. For example, one day, while in town trying sort things out, we got stuck in the thick of things: the army had started shooting at people. We hid in my friend’s house, and as we were trying to plan our escape, my brother spotted and got the attention of a high-ranking officer who had arrived on the scene. We were then bundled into the back of an army vehicle and driven home. Suffice to say, when the escort parked outside my house, my family inside were terrified that the army had come to round them up. When we climbed out of the back of the vehicle, there was a big sigh of relief, and a mutual understanding that we all needed to flee Uganda immediately.
On that same day, two small children, whom I knew, were shot dead. Along with three other children from my family, they’d been playing outside when the army arrived and started shooting people at random. All five children hid as the army came closer, but at the last second, the three from my family decided to run and hide elsewhere. The other two were left behind in all the chaos and, unfortunately, paid the ultimate price. I still consider it a miracle of God that three of the children, at least, had the premonition to change their hiding spot. Nevertheless, for many months following this incident and after leaving Uganda, they continued to have relentless nightmares.
It wasn’t even just Asians who got shot: many native Ugandans were killed under the madness of a single politician. Opposition leaders, educated people … basically anyone who posed a threat to or spoke out against Amin … they all risked suffering the same fate.
On top of our fears surrounding everything that was going on, we were dismayed at the thought of what to do with our house and businesses in Uganda. Amin was encouraging native Ugandans not to buy anything from Asians because, as soon as we left, they’d get it all for nothing. Still, we tried to sell things, but our endeavours were, of course, fruitless. In the end, I left Uganda with a few suitcases and £55 in my pocket, for my wife and I to share; and my brothers left with the same. Unlike some others, we’d never moved money abroad, so we literally lost everything.”
A harrowing journey away from home
“There were numerous checkpoints on route to the airport, and we were scared to see many vehicles being stopped on the roadsides. The army were ransacking all the suitcases, and confiscating items at will. There was no logic in it; rather, one man’s loss was simply another man’s gain. What’s worse is that we even witnessed beatings of ordinary people who were just trying to get to the airport to leave Uganda. My family and I were lucky to avoid being stopped and to arrive at the airport in one piece. We boarded our flight, terrified about our futures, but together, alive, and finally safe.
We arrived at Heathrow Airport, where we were transferred with our luggage onto coaches, and taken to Harlow Town Train Station. My family and I didn’t know where we were headed—we just followed the crowd. I remember the quiet chatter on the train, as many people had never travelled abroad and were surprised to see the British countryside. Most had only heard about the big, bustling city of London, and knew little else about the UK.
We arrived in North Wales in the middle of the night. Once again, we were loaded onto coaches, and this time, we were driven to an army barracks near Towyn—our final destination. The whole operation of transporting us from Heathrow to Towyn was very well organised. We were all exhausted, and as soon as our luggage was dropped off to our rooms, we went to sleep, unaware of what the next day might hold for us. It was surreal.”
Building on humble beginnings
“Thankfully, we were treated kindly at the camp. Families were kept together, each with their own room and a small kitchen. There was a communal dining area where we were served really tasty Asian dishes that we were used to eating, cooked by Indian chefs who had arrived at the barracks soon after us. There was also a shop which was offering us second-hand coats. Nobody owned a coat because we didn’t need them in Uganda; but now that we were all in the UK, we felt very cold, so it was fortunate that each of us could just walk into the shop and help ourselves to a coat.
Like our trip from Heathrow to the barracks, everything there was really well organised. Each of us were given £2.50 per week to spend. There was a jobcentre office on site, where we were all signed on for work. Everyone had an interview, and our skills were carefully noted so that we could be matched up with appropriate vacancies. Meanwhile, we were asked where we wanted to settle; although, we were told clearly not to ask for London or Leicester, as they weren’t available options. I guess those cities were already overpopulated with Ugandan Asians, and we would need to be more evenly distributed. Nevertheless, my family and I decided we wanted to live in a reasonably sized city, so that we could find work and save enough money to start our own businesses in the future.
One day, my brothers and I heard there was work for upholsters in Swansea. I didn’t have any experience in upholstery, but my brothers said they would teach me, so we decided to leave the camp and head there. We travelled to Swansea on board a bus that was arranged for us by the barracks. Within five to six weeks, we caught a break: we were offered upholstery work, and were given a flat in Mumbles to live in. Our staple diet from Monday to Friday became fish and chips from the local chippy; and on Friday nights, we’d travel back to the camp to rejoin our family for the weekend, and enjoy some decent food.”
Working hard & facing hardships
“We carried on with this work for some time, and eventually, we bought a car for £250—a Vauxhall VIVA—to make it easier and cheaper to travel back and forth between Swansea and Towyn. I didn’t have a UK driving licence, but at that time, no one was asking questions, and everything was about survival. That car did really well for us, and we had many adventures in it. I still remember the number plate … it’s strange how some things become imprinted in the brain.
This routine continued for about three months before my younger brother was able to secure council housing. Six of us moved into my brother’s two bedroom house: my parents had one room, and my brother and his wife had the other, while my wife and I slept on a blow-up mattress. Money was tight, and our meals weren’t big portions, but we always made sure my parents ate well. Soon, after hassling the council on a daily basis, I was granted a council house as well, into which my wife and I moved. Meanwhile, my older brother too got a council house, into which he and my parents moved.
Things were starting to improve, although life was still very hard. We were taking on as much work as we could, which usually meant 18 hour shifts; and on some days, we’d even work for 24 hours straight. We’d often travel to London for work, too, refurbishing restaurants and commercial businesses.
After about six to seven months into living in the UK, we’d saved enough money to buy our first workshop, on Carmarthen Road in Swansea. Unfortunately, the place wasn’t in good condition—big rats could be seen crawling around—but it was a start towards building our businesses. And soon, we were able to buy a second shop in Castle Square; fortunately, this was a nicer area, and even more fortunately, there were no rats living in this shop.
However, at this point in 1973, my family and I suffered a great loss in the passing of my father. This was especially challenging because there was no Muslim burial location in Swansea back then. Thankfully, though, people came together to support us, and a space was made available to function as a Muslim burial site. My father was the first to be buried there.
Later on, I rediscovered my passion for cars and bought a showroom in the UK. And from there, I bought two fuel stations. My family and I were finally comfortable enough to buy our own homes, and move out of council accommodation.”
Closer to Uganda, yet further from home
“I think about the exodus often, and although it felt awful and scary at the time, I acknowledge that it worked out positively for my family, and for many others. Wealthy Asians were a minority in Uganda, and the middle class was bigger, but there was certainly a lot of hardship. While my family was comfortable, we knew many Ugandan Asians who struggled financially; I knew families who found it difficult to pay their children’s school fees, or even to put food on the table. Through the exodus, many poorer Asians gained access to free healthcare and education for their children elsewhere, which really helped them find success. Many went on to develop strong professional careers and attain levels of wealth and comfort that they may never have had in Uganda.
Nevertheless, in 1992, something called out to me. I sold up my house and interests in Swansea, and created a base in North London. I also went out to Tanzania—I suppose it’s true when they say Africa gets into your blood. In Tanzania, I got involved in numerous businesses, and bought into a hotel and restaurants. Nowadays, I move between Pinner and Dar es Salaam; but I have to say, Tanzania has much better weather.
Although I can still get a taste of Uganda’s amazing climate in the neighbouring country of Tanzania, I often reminisce about the day trips and picnics in Uganda that I used to enjoy so much. I miss being around my family and friends; in Kampala, we all lived so close to each other, but now, we’re scattered across the globe. I’ve been back to Uganda about two or three times since the exodus, but I find that things have changed: it feels very crowded, and somehow, far from the home that it was in my memories.”
We hope you enjoyed reading the third 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.