Monday, August 22, 2011

Uganda: where Asia meets Africa

As we swam and sunbathed by Lake Victoria yesterday, we were surrounded by the sound of Indian voices and the colour and elegance of Indian saris. Jinja has always been a place for east and west to meet.

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.
And the Indians, the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those railway workers, have left an indelible mark on Uganda. Many Ugandan towns - Jinja, Lira, Mbale and Soroti, to name but a few - are unmistakeably Indian in origin, built on a grid pattern and with low decorative shop fronts and covered walkways. Their distinctive buildings, their temples (both Hindu and Sikh), their food (chapattis and samosas), their language (dobbi, or laundry) and their clothes (salwar chamiz) have become embedded in Ugandan culture and heritage, though few Ugandans would recognise them as such.

Hindu temple in Soroti
Then, as you know, Amin expelled the Asians during the 1970s. Why? For similar reasons to those used by Hitler when he made the Jews his scapegoats. The Indians were too successful and too visible.  It had become obvious that they owned major parts of the Ugandan economy.  Why was this? Because Indians traditionally work hard.  They aspire to success but know that success comes through hard slog, rather than lucky windfalls or magic charms.

Hindu temple in Jinja.
A recent Daily Monitor interview with Sudhir Ruparalia, an Indian whose family was expelled from Uganda in 1972, describes how, during his exile in London, he drove taxis and worked in shops and factories doing several jobs at once, to put together the money to start again. He eventually returned to Uganda and his company now owns 16 well known businesses here, Crane Bank, Speke Hotel, Speke Resort, Kabira Country Club, Kampala Parents School and Kampala International School among them.  He was asked to comment on the 'work attitude' of Ugandans. This is what he said.

'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.
And that is exactly what the Indians have done. After Amin was overthrown, they came back and built - or rebuilt - some of the biggest businesses in Uganda. The Mehta and Madhvani groups are the country's major sugar producers and own many other businesses besides. They have become such an integral part of the Ugandan economy and have such strong though invisible links with the government that they can 'call the shots' when they deem it necessary or when it is time for repayment. You already know about the President's decision to hand over Mabira Forest Reserve to the Mehta Group for sugar production - yes, 'hand over' for the company will not have to pay a penny for it. Think of all that mahogany, timber worth millions of shillings, let alone the agricultural worth of the land! The Madhvani company, for its part, is being given large tracts of land in Amuru, northern Uganda, also for sugar production.  This is also a controversial decision as it is land which Acholi elders claim belongs to the people who have been living in IDP camps (camps for people internally displaced during the northern conflict). The official reason for the transfer of assets from the nation to individual companies is the recently identified 'sugar shortage'.  Only a few weeks ago supermarkets were giving out 500g bags of sugar free with tins of coffee, yet now we have a shortage - all very odd. Confusing as all this is to the ordinary Ugandan, what is clear is how important the Asian businesses are to the leaders of the country, how indispensable and how powerful.

Hindu temple in Kampala.
Today the Office of the President announced that President Museveni has received a delegation of over 30 entrepreneurs from India who are willing to invest in various enterprises in Uganda such as agriculture, banking and information and communications technology. 

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.
How unlike Ugandan workmanship! The new block of flats to the side of our own block is clearly not perpendicular.  Spirit levels and plumb-lines appear to be virtually unknown tools over here.  Every staircase in the country, including the one leading to our flat, seems to have steps of different depths: I spend my time falling flat on my face. Just down the road from us an entire building recently collapsed through poor workmanship, the rubble apparently comprised of matchsticks and sand, no doubt the result of the usual adulteration and theft.

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.

You may also be interested in this Telegraph article.
Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia sells Euro Car Parts for £225m after starting it with £5,000

How many business success story stories like this has Uganda missed out on? 


  1. Excellent article.I commend you on your knowledge about the Indian social and economic contributions in Uganda.Many people from overseas have traveled to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, but have not really been interested to learn about the histories of these countries.The Indians who left during Idi Amin ''Exodus'' for U.K. Canada, and USA are all doing well in business, and the younger generations born outside Uganda have become successful professionals.