Viresh Patel: A World Of Wonderful Memories.
Welcome to the fifth of our 50 Ugandan Asian Stories. This story is by Viresh Patel, whose family, like so many others, was impacted by the exodus.
At eight years of age, Viresh was a happily enjoying the fruits of life in his hometown, Jinja. He loved the freedom and sense of community, as well as playing with his cousins and going on adventures under the bright Ugandan sun.
Right before the announcement of Ugandan Asian expulsion, Viresh left Uganda to attend a boarding school in Eastbourne, England, where he overcame the initial culture shock, and grew fond of his new life. With the support of his family, he played sports, learned new skills, and made lifelong friends.
Today, it pains Viresh to recall how, in one sweeping motion under the exodus, his family in Uganda split apart across the globe, and how he lost his treasured childhood. But he has reconciled these painful memories, managed to build a successful career, and created a loving family of his own in Israel—he feels fulfilled and happy.
This is Viresh’s heartwarming story.
Fun in the sun
“I have vivid memories of my childhood in Jinja. I remember attending Naranbhai Road Primary School, and being very happy there. I spent most of my free time playing freely and swimming at Amber Court with my cousins—we all lived nearby each other, so there was always someone with whom I could hang around, and I never felt lonely. I also spent plenty of time at the Lakeview Club, and watched many cricket matches at Jinja Recreation Club. Food was a big part of my childhood experience: I loved to eat kebabs, fried mogo, jalebi and gathiya, made by a vendor called Ali across from the local cinema. I can still taste them all now—it’s funny how you don’t forget the smells or tastes of their favourite foods, despite the passing of many years.
I have memories of my seniors’ livelihoods in Jinja too. My father, Manubhai, and his two brothers, Indrakant and Subhas, ran a business in Jinja called African Ironmongers. It was set up by my grandfather, who was recruited from India to help build up colonies in African countries like Uganda. He initially worked on the railways, but always had a keen eye for opportunity.
My family also enjoyed their lives outside of work. Along with my parents, we’d get dressed up on Sundays and drive around Jinja. We travelled extensively across Uganda and Kenya for holidays; it was lovely to drive to the beautiful sandy beaches of Mombasa and swim in the warm water before drying off in the heat. It wasn’t just parents and immediate family that we’d travel with, either: if an uncle or aunt was going somewhere and you could squeeze into the car with them, you did. Things were spontaneous, and that was half of the fun. Moreover, children didn’t cling to their parents back then—it was the time of truly extended families, and I liked it.
Indeed, everyone knew everyone in Jinja. For example, all the shopkeepers knew all the local families. During Diwali—while the streets were packed, and non-stop firecrackers could be heard—you could just walk into the shops and receive free chocolates, in honour of the festival. Nothing out of the ordinary happened during my childhood in Jinja, and everything moved along in a smooth way. But little did I know that the Ugandan Asians exodus would make for a dramatic exception.”
Confusion from overseas
“I actually left Uganda just before the announcement of the exodus; like my brothers before me, my father had sent me to school in the UK. I was in England when I learnt about it, but I didn’t hear it from my parents. There was no email or WhatsApp back then, and there were no phone calls. My parents didn’t have the time to write to me or to my siblings and discuss anything because their lives had been turned upside down.
I was too young to fully comprehend what had occurred. The gravity of the situation only struck home when my family scattered around the world: my parents left for India, while my uncles and cousins came to England. It was a grave realisation that I wouldn’t be going back to my home in Uganda, to my old life that I loved.
It saddens me to reminisce about that time. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to my family who were, all of a sudden, strewn across the globe. I wondered what life would be like for everyone now that the family business had been left behind. Although, having departed from Uganda early, I was at least somewhat protected from the fears and horrors that many people experienced while trying to flee the country.”
Settling in, with the help of family & friends
“Fortunately, upon my arrival in London, I was able to stay with my brother and cousin. Having a base there and being with family made the transition to life in the UK easier. However, going to school—a boarding school in Eastbourne—was a shock at first. Everything was controlled and disciplined, which wasn’t at all what I was used to.
But over time, as I became more immersed in my new life, I came to enjoy school. I learnt to understand and get along with people from different backgrounds and cultures. In fact, my closest friends today are people I met back in school—these friendships have lasted for almost 50 years.
I was also very sporty and enjoyed playing cricket at school. When we had friendly matches, the players’ families were invited to come and watch. Most boys had their parents and a sibling or two turn up to their matches. My family, by comparison, piled into two cars to come and watch me play, when three were probably required to fit everyone comfortably (which was standard back in those days, when many families didn’t have cars). I was always pleased to see them, but I have to say that they were particularly noisy. They’d have massive picnics with enough food to feed half of Eastbourne. I doubt my school had ever seen anything like it, but there’s a first time for everything. In any case, it was nice that, since my parents were in India, the rest of the gang came out to support me.
During the holidays, I’d stay in England with my brother. It was too far to go to India to see my parents all the time, but they would visit us in the UK regularly. I was happy to have my sister and extended family here in the UK too, and I certainly got used to the way things were.”
Reflections on the past, present & future
“If I had stayed in Jinja and grown up there, then I believe I’d be working for my father’s business. But nowadays, I run my own business in the nutrition and wellness industry, and I mentor people who want to start their own businesses in this field. My work involves a lot of travel, and meeting many different people across the world doesn’t faze me—it was valuable to have learnt how to get used to people of diverse backgrounds during my boarding school days.
I now live in Israel—a country that provides me with a life similar to the one I remember as a child in Uganda—and I’m married to a Jewish woman, with whom I have two children. My son is currently involved in national service, while my daughter will finish her A-levels next year and then begin her own national service. I’m very happy where I am today, and I don’t yearn for the life in Uganda that I left behind.
In fact, I haven’t gone back to Uganda at all since leaving the country at eight years of age. I never felt the need to, especially after witnessing what so many families had to go through to rebuild their lives. I could never bring myself to go back. But recently, I’ve made peace with the past, and I plan to take my children to my hometown. I think it’s important for them to know about where I was born—about the place that gave me so many happy memories.”
We hope you enjoyed reading the fifth 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.