50 Ugandan Asian Stories:
How old were you when you left Uganda?
Which city in Uganda are you from?
What did you and your family do for work in Uganda?
My family owned a business called African Ironmongers, through which we were able to live comfortably. Three families were supported by one shop, which I remember as we resided directly above it. The business was founded by my grandfather, who previously worked as a railway station guard before predicting that there would be a great need for materials in the developing nation of Uganda. He was right.
How did you and your family spend your free time in Uganda?
I often wandered into the shop downstairs to see what my father was up to; but aside from this, I didn’t do a lot with my time as a five-year-old girl in Uganda. I ate, slept, laughed (and probably cried too)—I enjoyed my simple little life. I do recall spending time on one street named Gabulla Road, because my sister used to have a group of friends who referred to themselves as the ‘Gabulla Road Gang’. I would often tag along behind them all, as they found me too irritating to include in their activities (but this didn’t bother me much!).
Another memory of mine is going on lovely picnics by the lakes with my family. We could see hippos and hear their roars while we ate our food. Whenever we went for a lakeside picnic, there were usually so many of us that we would fill up a few cars on the journey there. People always did things in groups, and I really enjoyed having people around all the time—it made life interesting, and there was always someone to talk to.
How did you learn that you had to leave Uganda? And what was your first reaction to hearing this?
I remember coming home one day in 1972 to find the place in a total mess, with suitcases, crockery and household goods scattered everywhere. Jinja was a quiet town and it felt like everything moved slowly there, so when things changed all of a sudden, it was a lot to process. And when I was little, Indian families like mine never really explained anything to children. We just tried to put the pieces together ourselves, or eavesdrop on adult conversations.
The adults were talking about an evil man called Idi Amin who was telling us that we had to leave our home in Uganda. I knew of him because I’d seen him on TV before. I could tell that he was very important, and I found him scary. But I was too young to understand politics. As these events were unfolding before my eyes, I didn’t grasp how drastically my life was about to change, and that it would never be the same again.
In fact, the chaos around me felt like some sort of adventure. I was curious about the frantic behaviour and the suitcases littering our flat. Although I suspected something bad was happening, I lacked the sense of urgency that the adults must have felt so strongly.
How did you leave Uganda? And where did you arrive upon leaving?
We left Uganda by plane, and it wasn’t until we reached the airport to leave Uganda that I felt any sense of danger. Throughout the terminal, I saw men wearing army uniforms and carrying rifles. At one point, one of the immigration officers snatched my teddy bear from me, and I screamed and cried as they cut open the bottom of the bear to check if we’d hidden anything inside the toy. Asians were known for their love of gold, and since we weren’t meant to be taking such valuable things with us, the officers were thorough when it came to checking our bags.
Once I’d gotten it back, we made our way to our gate, leaving a trail of stuffing behind us. I remember trying desperately to keep my hand over the torn part of my toy, unaware that my teddy bear’s misfortunes were the least of our troubles. But I still remember spending the flight from Uganda stuffing my face with the candy known as Starbursts—I loved them, and they always seemed to make everything better.
We arrived in India, where we stayed temporarily to settle my grandfather, before travelling further to settle ourselves in London. I was very excited to go to London because I would finally be reunited with all of my relatives who had travelled there ahead of us.
How was life for you in your new home?
When we reached the house, it felt great to see my sister, cousins, uncle and aunt. At that time, the house sheltered three families between four bedrooms. Suffice to say, not everybody had a proper bed: the living and dining rooms both had makeshift beds in them. Interestingly, I don’t remember any of us ever fighting for the bathroom or toilet—we all simply managed.
My family went from strength to strength living in that house, and together we formed many happy memories. That period in our lives was a lot like the song ‘Hakuna Matata’: with good food and nice clothes, I never felt as though I lacked anything, and the atmosphere was always cheerful.
I didn’t understand how lucky we were to have a home to go to at all. It’s only later that I learnt about the thousands of other Ugandan Asians who ended up in army barracks, otherwise known as camps. Many families had been split up across different countries, against their wishes. I didn’t realise that not everyone could afford to buy plane tickets to go where they wanted.
What are your favourite memories of Uganda? And what do you miss most about living there?
In my head, Uganda was an idyllic place that brought me a sense of peace and happiness. When I think of my hometown, Jinja, I think of sunshine, glorious green shades of trees and bushes, and red soil. I remember the sweet smell of rain which would stop as suddenly as it started. People living there didn’t seem stressed, and life seemed easy.
Occasionally, I’ve found myself longing for Uganda in my heart, as certain moments have left me missing the little things that made life what it was for me growing up. For example, I remember my first time drinking passionfruit juice here in the UK, which I adored back in Jinja (alongside matoki and cassava chips). When my cousin and I learnt of a place nearby that was selling passionfruit juice, we drove there very fast to treat ourselves to a glass. Tasting the sweet and ever-so-familiar flavour of passionfruit was like going back in time for a moment.
Have you been back to Uganda since leaving 50 years ago? If so, what was the experience like?
I did revisit Uganda, about twenty-eight years ago. A cousin of mine who was living in Kenya drove me across to Uganda, and it was an amazing trip. He took me to my old home, and the families living in the flat at the time were very welcoming, letting me look inside. It felt strange being back there after so long, and it didn’t look like I’d remembered it—but the experience gave me a great sense of closure, and I’m so grateful to my cousin for his part in that. Also, at one point during the trip, heavy rain suddenly fell on us and we got soaked, before the sun came out just as quickly and dried us, in true Ugandan style. In my head, I can still smell the sweetness of the ground when this happens—it’s a treasured memory of mine which is lodged in my brain.
What do you do for work and for leisure nowadays, in your new home?
I’ve been able to stand on my own two feet, through my successful career in marketing. I’ve worked for many blue chip organisations, such as BT, BP, SKY TV and, more recently, Age UK—the largest charity in the UK for giving support to older people.
Nowadays, I devote more of my time and energy as a volunteer for multiple charities, as a way of giving back when so many have given to me in the past. For example, I’m an active fundraiser for the Vraj Charitable Trust, and I direct the charity on fundraising and community events. I also spend eight days every year in India working as ground support for projects run by the trust over there.
Meanwhile, on Sundays, I put on my wellies and go to work on a charity-owned ISKCON organic farm, which grows a wide range of produce and supports free food distribution. I help with organising local volunteers, and I act as the Team Leader for various community events.
Do you have any closing comments or reflections about Uganda that you would like people to know?
When you go through something like being expelled from your country, I suppose it’s natural to often wonder what life would have been like if you’d never left. But I prefer to focus on what I can do with my life in the present, while keeping the memories of Uganda that I do have close to my heart. After all, I may not have achieved so much if I hadn’t come to the UK.