Travel, emigration and commerce between Asia and Africa have been going on for centuries. Arab traders enslaved Africans and brought them to Zanzibar for export back to their home countries. More recently, at the end of the nineteenth century, Indians from even further to the east were imported by the British to build the railway from the Kenyan coast to Lake Victoria and then on to Kampala - The Great Rift Valley Railway. The Indians died in their thousands, killed by malaria and wild animals. Contemporary accounts describe workers cowering as they listened to the lions devouring their neighbours in the nearby tents, thankful that they were not the victims this time but trembling with fear that, nevertheless, their turn would soon come.
The Arabs left behind their religion: Islam. The Indians, however, put down roots in Africa, most of them becoming small traders. They opened shops in cities, towns and trading centres up and down the east and south of the continent: in Malawi, Kenya and South Africa, and, of course, Uganda. Everyone over the age of fifty has heard of the Ugandan Asians. Those small shops became larger businesses and the businesses became empires, for Indians are good at business, better, dare one say it, than most Ugandans.
|Old Indian shop in Jinja.|
|Hindu temple in Soroti|
|Hindu temple in Jinja.|
'Ugandans are very enterprising people. They always want to succeed very first [sic] and there's something wrong with that. You need to start at the bottom and climb up the ladder.'
|Indian building in Lira.|
|Typical Indian decorative frontage, also in Lira.|
|Hindu temple in Kampala.|
The President told them: "Agricultural production in Uganda is not a problem. The only problem is processing. If you can save me on that, I will put your statue in Kampala."
The well-established Indians are not, however, the only businessmen from the east who are operating in Uganda. The recently arrived Chinese are also here in large numbers, as they are in many other African countries such as Zambia. China has provided 25 million dollars as a donation to construct a new twin-tower building to house the offices of the President and Primary Minister. Perhaps not entirely unconnected with help like this are the contracts for Chinese companies. Chinese engineering firms deal in scrap metal, supply many of the vehicles we see on the streets and, like the Japanese, are building some of Uganda's most important roads. We recently drove down the Soroti to Lira road. It was unlike any other road we have driven on in Uganda, bearing comparison with the best roads in Europe. Broad, smooth and well surfaced, it even had proper signposts, a rarity over here. The Chinese are also building the road from western Uganda to the Congolese border. When we drove along it we noticed Chinese foremen every hundred yards or so, making sure that the local workmen put in a full day's work, that the materials were not stolen and that the work was completed to an appropriate standard.
|Nice new Chinese lorry on the nice new Chinese road being built to DR Congo.|
So, are Ugandans lazy? It is an accusation which newspapers make on a regular basis.
Certainly not most Ugandan women. They work from dawn to dusk looking after their large families, collecting water, growing and gathering food and selling it on roadside kiosks. Most of the nation's farmers are women. What about other workers? Well, we know of college lecturers who don't bother turning up on Mondays and Fridays, leaving their students to fend for themselves. We know of teachers who teach only a couple of lessons a day, if that. Offices and restaurants are overstaffed, mopping up the surplus population. And, of course, as we all now know, one Kenyan does the work of four Ugandans.
Commentators sometimes explain the low work rate as being the result of Uganda's fertile land and weather: everything just grows and no one has to work very hard. Friends talk of throwing pumpkin seeds into the compound, which then grow by themselves with no need for human intervention, like Jack and the beanstalk. Ugandans certainly have a relaxed approach to life, something which, perhaps, the rest of us could learn from. However, climate change and hungry populations at home and overseas may put an end to their complacency. It has been reported that Bangladeshi companies are planning to buy tracts of Ugandan land for food production, much of it to be exported, no doubt to compensate for the rapid disappearance of their own over-crowded farmland under the Bay of Bengal. It may not be long before Ugandans themselves are forced to start considering the effects of deforestation and desertification in their own country in order to save their inheritance before it is too late. A projected population of 60 million by 2030 (almost double the current 33 million) should certainly concentrate the mind. Where is all that food to come from?
The world is now a global community. Old-style colonialism has been replaced by multi-nationalism and new-style cooperation. For models exemplifying the qualities and skills essential for nation-building, young Ugandans may need to look no further than the established and successful Ugandan-Indian businessmen with their resilience and determination, and the newly-arrived Chinese engineers with their creativity, energy and hard work. The east has come west again and it looks as if it is here to stay.
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