Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Asian community in Uganda: then and now

We miss our Indian neighbours. Aria and her mummy were a constant presence next door. The glorious aroma of Indian cooking wafted around the stairs, as did the perfume from the incense stick attached to the door. Aria's prattling drifted down from the balcony as we got into our car in the morning. We were greeted by smiles and waves when we left - How are you? I am fine - and greeted by smiles and waves when we returned.

Quite often Aria and mummy would be sitting outside down in the compound chatting with the maids. (That isn't as posh as it sounds!) Aria would be holding forth, much to the amusement of all, and the conversation, all in Luganda, would dance back and forth among the women. Conversation with us monoglots was much more difficult, sadly.

We saw less of Aria's daddy as he worked from dawn till long past dusk. Sunday was the only time we saw him, usually playing with his daughter or taking the family out to visit friends. A distant wave and greeting and that was all, really.

Soon Aria started nursery, and off she went in the mornings herself in daddy's car, dressed in her navy blue shorts and bright green T-shirt. Then the prattling changed. Our leisure hours were filled with the sound of nursery rhymes learnt at school. The balcony next door gradually accumulated a child's tricycle, a little chair and various stuffed animals who would be given rides, fed dinner and told stories. Alas, it all came to an end all too soon when Aria's daddy got a job back in India and the compound became silent again.

Mehta golf course, Lugazi

Why this long-winded introduction?

For several reasons. Firstly, the common view is that Ugandans and Asians don't get on. Certainly, we are quite often taken aback by the derogatory comments which some of our Ugandan friends make about Asians, sometimes throwaway remarks, but often deliberately offensive. In the UK such comments would be regarded as racist. Yet, here were Aria and her mother spending day after day in relaxed and natural conversation with the women around them.  The maids, each employed by other neighbours of ours, happily played ball with the little girl and looked after her when her mother was out - as friends do, not as babysitters.

Secondly, we ourselves related to Aria differently from the way we relate to other Ugandan children around the place. Aria was lively, talkative and inventive. She reminded me of my granddaughter in so many ways. Right from toddlerdom, her mother would lift her up and point out the sights from the balcony, talking away to her just as we used to do to our own children. Aria was also responsive. She was good to talk to for we would always get a reply. She echoed us, particularly Stuart - How are you? Tip top - not quite the standard Ugandan greeting!

Aria, however, was also a handful. A determined little girl, she led her mother a merry dance and sometimes had the most tempestuous temper tantrums: screaming, yelling, stamping of feet - the lot! And in all this, she was very very different from the Ugandan children we see, who tend to be quite quiet and relatively passive - well disciplined, to be sure, easily trusted to walk by themselves down busy pavement-less roads or ride helmetless behind a boda boda driver at the age of three, but not so obviously playing with language, exploring the environment and doing all those noisy messy and inconvenient things which drive parents crazy but help children to become thinking, creative and imaginative little people.

And it is not just Aria. When we go out and about, the Asian children appear to have more openly affectionate relationships with their parents, receive more obvious attention, are more likely to be involved in adult conversation and are generally livelier than their Ugandan peers. Obviously this is a sweeping statement as we have never penetrated within the family home of ordinary Ugandans. The people we have most to do with are the professional middle classes who bring their children up in a much more 'western' way. Sometimes, to be sure, Asian children are too boisterous and noisy and much more likely than well-behaved Ugandan children to take up more than their fair share of the swimming pool and splash around indiscriminately. In fact, they behave more like western children, whom Ugandans think are appallingly badly behaved.

Thirdly, Aria's father had a work ethic which we related to very easily and accepted as quite the norm. After all, we used to have one just like it not that long ago. Such a work ethic is nothing like that of the average Ugandan worker.

All stereotypes, you are probably shouting at me from your laptops! What sort of a sample is that, one family? Both are, of course, perfectly valid criticisms.

However, such criticisms ignore the fact that cultural similarities, stereotyping and prejudices are not just relevant to where we are now, but are also relevant to how we got here, for this month is the 40th anniversary of the Asians being expelled from Uganda. And about twenty years ago they started coming back again.

Old Indian building in Jinja, now used as a bank.
What had led up to the expulsion of Asians? The reasons are well rehearsed. In the 1960s and 70s, the Asians owned 90% of the Ugandan economy. There had been boycotts of Indian goods some years before and calls for their expulsion. When, in 1972, Idi Amin gave them 90 days to leave, scarcely a tear dropped from a Ugandan eye. In fact, the Asians got on the planes to the sound of wild cheering. The expulsion was probably one of the most popular things Amin did. When Yoweri Museveni reversed the process in the 1990s, it was for purely economic reasons. Ugandans had taken over the abandoned Asian businesses, almost all of which had then failed. By the end of the 1980s, the economy was in a mess. The Asians returned, built up their ruined businesses from scratch again, struggled to reclaim their land and property, much of which still remains in the hands of the Ugandans who took them over in the 1970s, and re-established their lives.

Ugandan primary children are taught - not entirely accurately - that the first Indians were originally brought here by the British in the early 1890s to build the great Uganda Railway which went from Mombasa in Kenya to the shores of Lake Victoria (not really going through much of Uganda at all!). Of those who survived the back-breaking labour, tropical diseases, attacks by hostile tribes and depredations by lions, some chose to remain in Uganda, rather than return home. Of the 31,983 Indian workers who had first arrived, 2,493 died, 6,454 were injured and invalided back to India and 6,724 were offered, and accepted, the chance to remain. Incidentally, the last stretch of the line, up to Arua in West Nile, was only completed in 1964, two years after Independence.

Covered walkway in Jinja, fabric shops with tailors
 working at their antique Singer sewing machines.

However,  about 5,000 Indian traders were already in East Africa by the 1860s. Indian soldiers were also used to put down a rebellion in Bunyoro, western Uganda in the late 1890s and the Sudanese mutiny. When the British started developing cash crops, enterprising Indians like Allidina Visram, a trader in spices, salt and ivory, who had arrived in Zanzibar with nothing at the age of 12, also expressed interest. Having begun by providing food to the railway workers ten years before, by the early years of the nineteenth century he owned seven large sugarcane and rubber plantations, and had started to introduce tea and cotton. He operated his own ships on Lake Victoria, set up his own cotton ginneries and, having by now expanded his business right across to what is now DR Congo, eventually set up East Africa's first bank.

And there were many others like Visram. Of the first 13 applicants for land leases in 1909, nine were Indians. It seems as if the Indians were prepared to turn their hand to anything, could foresee some of the most promising and profitable lines of work and were willing to take risks when potential enterprises were at an early stage of development.

However, they also got a helping hand from the British. Before the British arrived, trade between and among Buganda and the surrounding kingdoms and with other areas of East Africa had been thriving. War, famine and disease following the colonial expansion put paid to that. The British changed the land tenure system and promoted new cash crops like cotton and coffee, grown in plantations rather than on small farms. These crops brought work to Lancashire mills and revenue to the Empire but did not directly benefit Ugandans.

That is where the Indians came in, arriving from another corner of the Empire to run the cotton ginneries. 'East Africa is, and should be ... the America of the Hindu,' said Sir Harry Johnston, the architect of the Buganda agreement. Certainly, at £10 each, trading licenses were beyond the pocket of most ordinary Ugandans, although not, it has to be said, those of wealthy Bugandan landowners.

The Indians were so successful at the cotton business that they accumulated profits which could then be used in other enterprises. One of those enterprises was sugar, particularly following sugar shortages during World War 1. The Indians used the capital accumulated to edge the Europeans out of the cotton trade. The two key names from that time were the traders Nanji Kalidas Mehta, who left India at 13, and Muljibhai Madhvani, founders of two of the most successful family businesses in modern Uganda.

Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Jinja,
overlooking the River Nile where his ashes were scattered

Mehta managed to circumvent the colonial restrictions on non-natives buying up land, and founded his sugar plantation and works at Lugazi, between Kampala and Jinja. By the 1930s, the Ugandans had become well aware of some of the implications of this large-scale purchase of land.  In 1939 the tenants at Lugazi sent this letter to the Governor

Your Excellency, we have written to you, asking your kind and peaceful eye to be turned towards our position. We are natives in this land and the bones of our parents, relatives and friends are buried therein. Why are we deprived of the land which we cultivate and in which we nourish our children and graze our animals? How can we abandon the land and let [sugar] canes feed on the bones of our relatives as long as we are alive?

These moving words remind me of the Highland tenants evicted from the Strath of Kildonan.

Despite their letter, the Ugandan tenants of Lugazi were, nevertheless, evicted, although at least they were compensated. The British became concerned about the extent to which Ugandans were losing their land to Indians. Eventually the system of outgrowers was established, a system which is still in place today, and which enables local small holders to become part of the expanding sugar empire. However, many of them continued to be eased off the land, causing ill feeling within the locality and beyond. Outgrowers have only ever contributed a small proportion of the sugar harvested.

Madvhani, Mehta's rival, set up his sugar works beyond Jinja, at Kakira in 1918. The colonial Director of Agriculture objected to the 'Indianisation of the Protectorate' but the Governor approved Madhvani's lease on the grounds that the area was relatively unpopulated. Irrigated by water from Lake Victoria, by World War 2 the plantation had become, so it is claimed, the largest in the world. The scene was set. The Asians owned the businesses and the Ugandans worked in them: in the fields and in the factories. The rest of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and other East African countries became labour reserves which contributed migrant workers to work in the sugar plantations of Buganda (Mehta) and Busoga (Madhvhani).

Mosque at Jinja
Other Asians arrived and set up other businesses: bus companies, small-scale garment manufacturers, building and engineering firms. An Asian discovered oil in western Uganda. Asians certainly regarded themselves as belonging here in Uganda. They built towns right across the country each with distinctive 'Asian' architecture. Even Kampala had an 'Asian' city centre until relatively recently. Asians were born here and they died here, generations of them. Asians even supported the Independence movement.

One of the criticisms which has been thrown at the Ugandan Asians is the fact that they never 'integrated' into Ugandan society. They had their own schools, Buganda Road Primary School, Pioneer School Soroti, Bat Valley Primary School. Some of them were among the best in the country. Mind you, the British didn't integrate either and also had their own schools. Today Ugandan Asians keep their children out of the government-aided sector and send them to the international schools, along with the children of ex-pats and rich Ugandans. And who can blame them? What does seem to have been true is the fact that before the 1970s, the three racial groups: the Europeans, the Asians and the Ugandans seem to have lived quite separate lives.

Nowadays, the Mehtas and Madhvanis, the huge Mukwano food and soap empire and many other Asian-owned businesses are flourishing. Asians from the Indian sub-continent now own 40% of the Ugandan economy. (The Chinese own 30%.) The Asian community has made efforts to contribute to Uganda through charitable work as well as business, however. The Indian Association provides heart surgery for 20 needy Ugandan children every year. The Mehta Group runs a hospital in Lugazi, various dispensaries, two nursery schools, 13 primary schools and one secondary school. In total 6,000 children benefit. The Madhvani Foundation provides university scholarships for needy students.

The big Asian families are politically influential and are believed to be close associates of the ruling party. Unless there are dramatic political changes, they would appear to be well protected this time round. Some of their recent business ventures have been brave and certainly not popular, such as the attempted takeover of more of Mabira Forest and of land in Amuru in northern Uganda, for sugarcane plantations.The Madvhanis own some of the most luxurious lodges in Uganda - Chobe, Mweya and others - and, controversially, are trying to move into the golf course business. In addition to the big businessmen there are many small Asian entrepreneurs. Most of the IT firms are Asian, as are many of the pharmacies, the opticians and the small and medium-sized engineering and manufacturing firms.

Mehta golf course, Lugazi
Over the last century and a half, the historical record has been uneven, including both great achievements and terrible injustices. However, modern Uganda can only benefit from the spirit of enterprise, creativity and solid hard work which the Asian community exemplifies. The Asians are here to stay, once again contributing their culture, values and quality of resilience to the country to which they belong, Uganda.

Much of the information on which this post draws came from a wonderful series Uganda@50, published in the Daily Monitor.

You may be interested in the following posts which also look at aspects of the Asian community in Uganda:

Uganda, where Asia meets Africa
Golf courses of Uganda Part 1: The Mehta golf course, Lugasi
Our intrepid explorers discover the source of the Nile and Jinja Golf Club
Tropical forest, golf and sugar
More on Mabira
National parks, wildlife and golf

BBC: Ugandan Asians: Life 40 years on
BBC: Ugandan Asians trying to rebuild after their return to Uganda
BBC: Uganda Asian recalls leaving for a new home in the UK

Financial Times Magazine: Starting over (article about Ugandan Asians by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown)


  1. Just a small correction. The building in Jinja that you refer to as a temple is actually a mosque.
    Thank you your well balanced piece on Uganda Asians.

    1. Thanks for pointing out my error - now corrected! Glad you liked the piece.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I like your report on Uganda Asians. Its unbiased, and to the point.

    If we read the history of Uganda,Kenya, and Tanzania, the ''role models and navigators'' were almost always the Europeans.

    They hardly ever documented the contributions of intrepid Indians, as the real Geographical
    Explorers, who took enormous risks, no one else was courageous enough to take in the exploration of ''Dark Africa''.

    A book coming out soon, and 10yrs in the making written by Vali Jamal, will perhaps open up a serious dialogue about the contributions of Asians in the ''Dark Continent''

    Here is a link :

    1. Sorry I have only just picked this up, Zuli. I will keep an eye out for the book. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. The Ritchies in Uganda (BLOG)
    By Elisabeth Ritchie

  4. Enjoyed your article. My book Uganda Asians is now finished after 10 years at 2222 pages. It will shed a lot of light on Asian contributions to Uganda and the expulsion. It should publish in July.

    1. Thank you for getting in touch, Vali. Your book sounds very interesting.

  5. I was born in Soroti. People worked, invested and died of old age in the town and had no intention of leaving or calling another country their home. There was full trust. Amin felt that the asians had more of the economy in their hands. It was all hard work. In three months he decided to forcefully take all economy in his hands without having to work for it. That would count as a theft in simple words. Many who moved to UK have settled down and are working hard once again and now investing in UK as they feel that now this is their home and many die here as they grow old...same as what was happening in Uganda. People like me who were born in Uganda still have clear memories of the life in Uganda. Some have died due to old age. When people of my age die ( the remaining last few), there won't be much to talk about Uganda memories as the children are born in UK and know more about UK and have a different life. Amin too ended his life away from Uganda. these are the facts we have to live with. One thing is for sure, we all still have dreams and clear visions of school, roads etc we left behind and at times it can be disturbing. There can't be a going back to it as most of us were much younger that time and relied on hard working parents and most of us saw them pass away here in UK as they too never forgot Uganda. The same will happen to us. The life goes on.

    1. Thank you for this moving response, Dilip. It must have been very hard for you, your friends and family. I am glad to hear how well you have settled. It shows considerable resilience.