Category Archives: Commentaries

Asians comment on issues and developments in Africa

The Vice President Calls for Ugandan Asians to Return

 

It was reported some time ago about the trip that the Vice President of Uganda made to Canada to try to invite former Ugandan Asians back to the country.  Disgruntled Asians felt that they were not always recognised as the essential ingredients of the engine of commerce and as investors in the economic development of Uganda. The Asians still feel that there was ample evidence that most of the time they were held in fair amount disconcerting suspicion.  Idi Amin capitalised on that popular dislike of the Ugandan Asian.

The Vice President’s call for the Asians to return to Uganda was flattering.  It seemed to have taken a long time to realise that Asians had significant part in lubricating the economy. Some sources even claimed that the GDP of the country fell by 40% when the Asians finally vacated their key positions in the economy.  There are no figures available to confirm this claim.

What was it about the Asian community that made them so special in commercial terms?  Can they not be replaced by other very successful and often shrewder operators such as the Lebanese, the Chinese or even the Nigerians?  I was amazed to see Nigerians at Hong Kong airport taking goods for sale to various parts of Africa. Now that is commerce.

There were divided opinions on how the Asians secured a grip, if not a stranglehold, on the East and Central African economies. The Asians became the more notable producers of wealth when their main “rivals”, the multinational corporations (the MNCs) were detested by many African governments. Large MNCs representing the trading houses and producers of household goods that became famous brand names- soaps, washing powders, off the counter medicines also became dominant. But they had to externalise their profits to meet the needs of international investors and shareholders. They were also mostly the producers who added more value than the growing numbers of Asian traders but who made up for low value addition by sheer numbers.

The Asians had rooted themselves in the countries of their adoption, namely Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania but also Zambia and Malawi where their presence was probably more acceptable than the MNCs. The Asians were noted for creating highly effective distribution chains, taking goods from the main cities to the villages. The Dalgetys and Motor Marts had no compunctions either. They were the mega-traders who wanted to move profits out of Africa to satisfy the appetites of shareholders.

The Asians were also investing more and more, in the main, but they were involved in creating baseline infrastructure – low cost local shops and housing for the lower paid where as the MNCs, driven by the quest for larger profits were investing in 5 Star hotels, office blocks and manufacturing plants.

However, some of the innovative examples of diversified investment came from the Asians, who were good at spotting niches – fishnets, plastics, furniture to meet local needs.

Since independence, African entrepreneurs have taken over the low cost import substitution industries (toothpaste, matches, writing pens, notebooks) where as the Asians started to move into high cost investment – medicines, telecoms, banks and computers.

So why did the Vice President of Uganda want the Asians to go back to Uganda?  Idi Amin had removed the low cost baseline commerce that the Asians were traditionally good at.  But they also provided informal loans and working capital to each other, a market that major commercial banks did not break into.

In East Africa, the loans that ‘lubricated’ Asian commerce and trade were guaranteed by the Asian mega-trader and not the commercial banks. The Asians had access to private sources of commercial lending or trade subsidies- many an Asian importer or manufacturer was willing to give credit to their own kith and kin; sometimes families and relations who had been set up to share the risks and rewards  through the ownership of the supply chain….

An interesting example of the impact of this form of intra-Asian finance was the building construction industry, which was dominated by the Sikhs. The more successful Sikh owned building firms were also informal money-lenders. They provided trade guarantees and working capital to the subsidiary companies in the food chain, thereby tightening their grip over the entire sector.  It suited the rich Sikh builders to fund the baseline providers of services– the less well-off but highly skilled plumbers, electricians, painters and carpenters in return for guaranteed access to cashflow. In the same way the Gujarati traders at the top of the pyramid were prepared to fund the dukawalla who was willing to work in the villages. By providing trade credit, perhaps goods on 60 days credit, the top Gujarati trader was a) expanding his own trading influence, b) taking lower levels of risk by funding trusted borrowers and c) ensuring loyalty of the trader in the charo, who would not normally switch suppliers. The Ismaili community also had internally sponsored ‘banking practices’. The Ismaili ethic of sustaining the whole community was partly funded by the internal but informal money sources.

The  financing and co-financing practices of the mafia come to mind, except that the Asians were not  ruthless. This is not to say that they did not make their fellow traders suffer; there was anecdotal evidence of traders and suppliers being pushed to the edge where the ‘patriarch’ of the business line was occasionally offended. There was a further factor at work here. Where business was funded through caste-based “clans”, there was also intermarriage. The sponsor of working capital would not fund a business if the owner’s son was not minded to marry sponsor’s daughter. Let us leave it at that….so as to protect confidential information.

Returning to the Uganda Vice President’s visit to Canada to woo the Asians, it is not generally understood that the Asian community’s commercial dominance  in Uganda had been secured by living in the country for over a century, by accepting a subservient role in business compared to the British multinationals that eventually bore the brunt of Ugandan President Milton Obote’s and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda’s “watershed speeches” when they nationalised British multinationals and in the case of the latter also drove them into the ground by failing to run them profitably. The only stable element in the commerce of these countries was the Asians; they were too small to be nationalised and too intricately connected to allow African governments to dismantle them…  Only Idi Amin had the brutal force to evict them lock, stock and barrel.

But there was a further tragedy. Asians who had progressed through trading were looking at other opportunities. They had amassed considerable wealth but the younger generation was not always interested in retailing. They were more interested in making inroads into high value added industries in manufacturing and technology. Their parents had created the financial leverage through success  in retailing but it was the younger generation which was going to move into the higher levels of investment opportunities. Idi Amin booted out potential entrepreneurs who were going to create thousands of jobs through industrial development.

It is no longer a case of replacing one group of departing Asians with another group of Asian people. What may be missing in Uganda today is the cultural and economic cohesiveness which held Asian trade and commerce together but more importantly the delicate interdependencies and the informal funding mechanisms which created access to internal sources of low cost finance and also guarantees for accessing growing local markets for higher value goods. It had taken a generation of Asians to secure that. The next generation is looking at new and vastly different arenas.

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When in Uganda in October please dont forget the children

When in Uganda in October please do not forget the children in need

Thank you to over a dozen readers who have contacted me since my first post in January this year. Many more have read it and forwarded it to others.  Many of you have subscribed since then. To all of you my sincere thanks, Asante, shukariya and meharbani. I promise to be more active in the next few months. I also have a proposal.

No one responds more to charitable giving like the British people.   Those of us who follow the massive British public appeals at Christmas and other times, such as the Sport Relief Appeal, Comic  Relief and Children in Need appeals on BBC television also know that each appeal breaks records. Is it because the BBC has discovered a formula for adding fun to charitable giving? It is more than that. It is about engaging people who then feel not only to take part but also to attract others like minded individuals to participate actively in fund-raising. Proceeds go to local and overseas charities and good causes. Let us try to take concerted action to benefit Uganda’s growing number of children in need.

The Asian expulsion from Uganda took place nearly 40 years ago. Many former Ugandan Asians are planning to go there for a reunion and to meet old friends. Others will be going there for rediscovering the country that they left behind and to marvel in its growth and hopefully, its prosperity. A few may also have an interest in exploring opportunities for returning… Uganda’s economic growth at around 5% per year compares extremely well with the prolonged aftermath of the economic recession and slow growth if not the static economies in Europe.

‘Uganda is booming’ declared a visiting Asian from Uganda at a recent get together in London. He and his friends are enjoying barbecues every day of the week while the money machine continues to spill out new contracts and attractive opportunities, he insisted. However it was his concluding remarks that spun a few heads. He finished his highly motivational speech with ‘Do you know that you guys are wasting your time in the UK?’ Thankfully the reaction to his taunt was highly variable and no one was willing to share his invitation to go back to Uganda to gain the riches that he was promising…… What has changed?

Many former Ugandan Asians in the gathering left in 1972 and are now too old to consider going back to participate and even rejoice in Uganda’s economic boom. How does one define Uganda’s prosperity anyway? Everything is relative; who is prosperous and who is poor? Others felt that they did not wish to give up their personal and professional gains in the UK and elsewhere to start a new life in Uganda. Several people felt that they could offer more support to Uganda from their relatively comfortable and prosperous life from the UK.

However, the options for supporting worthwhile causes in Uganda have not been promoted by official agencies or NGOs who could tap British Asian goodwill at an important time such as the 40th anniversary of the Asian expulsion.

In the early sixties, as a ten year old I used to take bottles of milk and cakes for my mum to Sanyo Babies Home on Namirembe Hill. The charity was located very close to the famous cathedral. Is the Sanyo Babies Home still operating on the hill? Could we consider talking to a major national UK based charity which looks after abandoned children and orphans to support a major UK-wide appeal? That would be my preference.  Over fifty years later, I still remember the clean rooms and well managed Sanyo Babies institution and my vote would be for donating money to needy children or any worthwhile Ugandan causes.

This is for Ugandan children who may be in similar need today. They are still a part of us:

Tumhare Hain Tumse Daya Mangte[i]

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPTmsFITtT0

I will donate my entire airfare to Uganda and back in the forthcoming months provided a worthwhile programme of action is set up by people going to the Reunion. And yes, would it be a good idea to adopt a Ugandan charity or to work with a major UK charity to support programmes in Uganda?

Let us discuss the options and opportunities.

 

Pani re pani tera rang kaisa

Pani re pani tera rang kaisa…

Welcome to 2012 and bucketfuls of dreams, aspirations and perhaps a few regrets as well.  There will be more commentaries on each of these during this year. There is a song at the bottom but you have to read this first!

My use of the word ‘bucketfuls’ is intentional. A recent television advertisement by Water Aid, the UK based charity, affected me a great deal. Of course their work is commendable and the charity deserves every support that they can get. This blog is fiercely independent and does not claim to, or aim to, represent Water Aid or any of the two more charities that I am going to adopt for 2012. Why all this hassle? What is it about water that moves us most?

My mum used to believe that giving water to anyone who was thirsty was the most humane of all acts of ‘charitable’ giving. The whole aspect of charity is also debatable and I will return to this some other time or add a link here later. But offering water to the needy was seen as the greatest of all favours that mum could perform. Each of the words in italics suggests an assumption which will also be discussed when I return to charitable giving. My mum died 51 years ago and she taught us to offer water to any passing traveller and even our African neighbours from the adjoining ‘shambas’.  This one is for you, mum.

The television advertisement for Water Aid featured an appeal for funds. The charity presents its credentials and seeks funding for improving access to clean water in some of the poorest parts of the world. The advertisement shows poor children drinking dirty and polluted water. The pictures are not for the squeamish but there is a view that charities do tend to use the bleakest and most upsetting pictures of people undergoing immense suffering when they try to raise funds. Most people have mixed views on how charities should present their case. However, as the prime focus of Water Aid is to create access to safe and clean drinking water for some of the neediest people in deprived areas of the world, one could hardly expect them to use a less convincing approach. The pictures and cases that they use are very moving and perhaps justly so. Now there, I have said it. Let us not be critical of the campaign and but more supportive of the need.

Just in case you are thinking of sending in the money, here is the link to their website: http://www.wateraid.org/uk

A visit to the site is highly recommended. I found that Water Aid has been working in Uganda. Please click this link to discover for yourself: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/where_we_work/uganda/

Water Aid’s work in Tanzania is shown by this link: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/where_we_work/tanzania/default.asp

So, would it be a good time to support Water Aid in the countries where some of us were born and bred? It is really up to you. My role is to provide the information. If you are interested please visit the main site at http://www.wateraid.org/uk

Water Aid is also supporting various projects in India and Pakistan. Please do not allow yourself to be distracted by news about India’s economic growth and how it is now one of the fastest emerging economies under the group of BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Some people refer to BRICS, the ‘S’ is for South Africa. Pakistan seems to have missed the economic miracle and for some it may be more deserving of help. Water Aid’s work in these countries is shown by the following links:

India: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/where_we_work/india/

Pakistan: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/what_we_do/where_we_work/pakistan/

Remember this blog is not appointed by Water Aid and the writer is not an authorised fund raiser for this charity. The rest is up to you.

If you are still reading this you deserve a small treat. Here goes:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ol8fY8sExDI

And, promise not to be too distracted by the wet saris….

The Wahindi Weltansschauung

How the Africans saw us: The Wahindi Weltanschauung

There were at least three predominant scenarios in the world of the wahindi or the perception of East the African Asians’ weltanschauung[1]at the time of the prime and decline of the wahindi fortunes in East Africa. The scenarios were:

  • ·       How the Asian saw the African
  • ·       How the African saw the Asian or the wahindi
  • ·       How the wahindi saw the wahindi
  • ·       How the world saw the East African Asian. This was never a consideration.

All of the above worldviews have interesting and inspirational properties. I intend to develop them in the next few posts.

How did the Asian weltanschauung manifest itself? An assessment of Asian worldview is itself beset with many difficulties. These scenarios are interesting, ranging from heart warming to stupid according some Asian perceptions. The Asians were such a diversified group that what was ‘good’ for one community was probably ‘dire’ for another section of the community. There was no single common denominator which could be used to assess the wahindis’ accommodation for other people in an alien African environment. We were all wahindis but each community was different.

For the majority of Asians, ‘wellness’ could well have been equated to sound working opportunities and beneficial conditions in an economically and politically safe environment. The majority of Asians had little or no stake in the political process. Where the ogre of intra-African tribalism reared its ugly head in the towns and cities, the Asian was not too perturbed; it was ‘their’ problem, meaning, that it was the Africans’ millstone around their necks. Life in Kampala or Kitgum was fine as long as the wahindi did not feel threatened by outbursts of ‘the African problem’; a term sometimes used, even sympathetically, to refer to African tribalism. Ironically, it was easy to condemn African tribalism when the majority of Asian populations could not come to terms with their own differences. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims worked in competition to build their own separatist infrastructure such as schools, sports clubs and community centres until the onset of independence. Then, by one universal decree, the owners of community institutions had to open their doors to ‘the Africans’. The arrival of African children in Asian controlled schools was reasonably well managed. It is not known whether any of the management boards in Asian controlled schools actually developed proactive diversity policies to welcome African students…..an aspect that Asian parents declared to be their human right when they migrated to the UK…. That is another story for another day. There were tensions in some Asian households. How were they going to allow their daughters to go to school where African ‘boys’ (then suddenly perceived as men) were also going to study in the same schools? It is not possible to provide the evidence but it is safe to claim that a few Asian families found that this was a sufficient reason to move to safer schools in India or Pakistan. A number of families withdrew their older teenage girls from secondary school and the search for husbands was prioritised.

Another factor came into play. What was the point of educating Asian girls when they were only going to be married off? For the heads of many families, which had suddenly provided eligible young men to rescue the teenage Asian girls from mixed race co-education, it was unthinkable for them to send their young daughter-in-laws to ‘work for money’. Forcing newly married girls to enter the job market was below their ‘status’ in life. ‘We do not do such things in our family’ my best friend’s father told me. ‘It is a reflection on us, you understand? The society would think that we are unable to sustain them in a household where we, the men, do not earn enough money that we have to send our daughters and daughter-in-laws to work? Noh! That is not for us’.  Consequently a few emissaries were also sent to Nairobi to find eligible young men in the Asian community in Kenya. Some young girls were despatched to India and Pakistan to find suitable husbands to protect family honours in East Africa.

Thirty years later I met a middle aged Asian parent in Southall, West London. We had a long chat at ‘Sagoo and Takhar’ and I decided to agree with most of what he had to say in order to lead him on with his thesis. ‘The day when you send your daughters to university you lose them’ he concluded. ‘They will not be able to marry anyone you choose for them’. There is a variant to this view. What was the point of educating young girls when they were only going to marry’?

 

 


[1] A comprehensive world view (or worldview) is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics. It is a concept fundamental to German philosophy and epistemology and refers to a wide world perception. Additionally, it refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts with it. See the details in wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_view for further illumination.

 

Commonwealth Games in India: Mr Lalit Banoi, go buy a decent suit and tie

Does the public and the consumer matter? A good PR team must be put in place to deal with the international media.

There is no doubt that the current media frenzy has caught the Commonwealth Games authorities in India by surprise. The media is having a field day in raising penetrating questions with potential spectators In India and millions who will watch on international television netwroks, dreading about the news from the games- will they or wont they take place?

As a first safeguard, let us not allow the bureaucrats to derail the Games which have been reported to have cost India close to £2.5 billion to put up. Those of us who want the games to succeed have been appalled by the way the people who front the Games Organisation have been driven to the defensive by a spate of allegations regarding corruption and incompetence. There will be plenty of time to address these allegations later. The Games have well wishers and consumers all over the world. They will have seen these allegations as a poor reflection of the value that the Games are expected to deliver. Many people in the UK and Canada may have been planning a holiday and trips to the world famous landmark sites in India after they have been to the Games.

‘Commonwealth Games on a knife-edge’ the media says this evening. Participating teams are waiting for positive signals before they make up their minds. Can it be confidently stated that given the time and close supervision by higher authorities, the Games will be successfully hosted? Cleaning up post-construction debris and restoring accommodation to international safety standards is not rocket science. These actions can be delivered in good time. However, the Games need a consumer focus – a regular reminder to millions of potential spectators who may not even be going to India but may have invested in large screen high density television sets and who first watched the 2010 World Cup Football (which was a phenomenal success by all accounts), and now the Commonwealth Games and then the London Olympics 2012.

The saddest aspect of the defensive action has seen poorly presented bureaucrats with creased short sleeve shirts with little or no media management skills taking tough questions from skilled journalists. They have been highly defensive with little or no regard to the concerns of millions of consumers worldwide. India deserves better.

If the Games wish to retain interest of the international consumer, it is not too late to mount a strong defence by appointing skilled PR and media specialists to come to the forefront. In the meantime, Mr Lalit Bhanoi, please convince us that you not only take the criticism seriously but that you also respect the international consumer. Appearing on international television with a crumpled, half sleeved yellow shirt with open buttons and no tie does not reflect professionalism that the games demand. Yes, as a proud British Asian, the writer may have ‘conservative’ tastes but as a subscriber to an expensive international TV sports channel, the consumer is entitled to be addressed by a professional marketing and public relations team which can provide evidence of achievable targets and not grudging statements and even reckless remarks.

As a consumer with Indian ancestry, I also expect to see high standards of accountability. Mr Bhanoi instead decided to challenge the critics regarding cleanliness of the athletes’ accommodation. He said something to the effect on NDTV, the New Delhi Television Station :

“I am sitting here which is a clean place but they will say that this place is not clean’ referring to heads of overseas teams with noticeable arrogance. “Okay then, we will go and clean up the place [ if that is what they want]”. The Commonwealth Games Authority would do well to take total control of PR. It is they who should be held to account and not Mr Bhanoi.

Consumer confidence will return when more reassuring messages are broadcast, not only to defend an interview but to project the reputation of the Games. Yes, also make sure that any premature trials for failure must be held in private. India can deliver. India must deliver. It is hoped that by the time the closing ceremony tales place the current crisis will have been forgotten.

In the meantime, Mr Lalit Bhanoi, go buy a decent suit and tie and help India and Indians to hold their heads high.  Come back to the closing ceremony in your new suit.

Crime in Nairobi: Is it time to keep things in perspective…?

Many people have sent me the report which I reproduce below. I do not know the source of the publication and could not ask for permission to reproduce it. I take it that the article is taken from one of the English language dailies in Nairobi or perhaps an online version of a local paper.

 The report makes serious reading. I have not been in touch with the situation in Nairobi and have no idea what is happening at the street level as far as law and order is concerned. However, many people will be quick to generalise that things are falling apart and that the authorities have lost their grip on crime prevention or containment. Others may even assert that the forces of law and order had been colluding in the crime and that they also stood to gain. This assertion will need substantial evidence if it is going to win my interest; in the main the rumour factory goes into overdrive and people churn out stories to destabilise the situation and cause unrest.

 When I lived in Zambia during the late 1970s, there were reports of similar events and in one case the Asian family had to hide under their beds for several hours before they could summon help. The story in Nairobi will have been a most traumatic situation for the family concerned and one hopes that they will soon recover. What can any police force do to enforce law and order? In Nairobi, the authorities are probably doing their best and the gang which was responsible for the reported attack may have slipped through the security net or had been watching the trading patterns at the liquor store. It is likely that  popular ‘lambasting’ of Kenyan authorities will follow and many assertions will be made on how they may have failed to address the crime. No police force wants such an embarrassing crime story at their doorstep. It would be well to maintain a responsible approach and to understand these unfortunate developments in their proper context.

 Critics may argue that it is easy for outsiders to comment when they may be enjoying the relative safety of London, New York or Toronto. The fact is that dangerous criminals can spring up anywhere and create serious problems for everyone when they resort to violence.  An Asian family has been robbed of all of their expensive belongings, cash and credit cards, i-pods, cameras, laptops and other high value items; they live in the heart of  ‘stockbroker belt’ in Surrey, south of London. It is possible that the criminals did not even know that the house belonged to Asians but it has been argued that occurence of similar robberies suggest that Asian families may have been targeted. Luckily the family was away at the time of the robbery.

 It is essential that such incidents in Nairobi or Kampala are not used to politicise public opinion and to pass judgement on the entire system of law and order. Prevention must remain a priority for everyone and to adopt an anti-African sentiment is unfair.

 There is a final point. People always look back to the days when one could leave one’s front door unlocked and have cars without alarms. Windows were left open on warm and muggy nights and no one ‘dared’ to lift an item form the vehicles. In London, the milkman left your supplies at the doorstep and parcels delivered during the day when the owner was absent were always left in a hatch. No one took them. Then one day, I discovered that our milk bottles had been pierced, leaving a number of small holes in the lid made out of silver foil .  The birds had struck when they had found the shiny lids too much of an attraction.  I have to yet to figure out whether the birds knew that there was milk in those bottles and that they belonged to Ugandan Asians…..

One wishes the family in Nairobi well and hopes that they will have the courage and capacity to cope and recover from their ordeal. This is a difficult time for Asians in Nairobi but they must maintain a sense of balance and perspective….

 Gangsters Hack To Death Nairobi’s Wine Seller In West Lands

Date: Tue 02nd February 2010

 BY MAXWELL MASAVA

 A city businessman was on Sunday night hacked to death by gangsters who raided his home in Westlands. Vinod Ruparel, who owns Slates and Whitaker Wines and Spirits shop. in the city centre, bled to death after the four men cut him up with a panga during the 10pm robbery.

 His 28-year-old son Roop was seriously injured and was admitted to the MP Shah Hospital where doctors operated on him late yesterday. He sustained a deep cut on the right side of his face. The panga missed his eyes with an inch, doctors said. Ruparel’s wife was also slightly injured and was too traumatised to talk to the press at the MP Shah Hospital.

 According to Gigiri police, the father and his son were accosted by the gangsters as they drove into their compound next to Graffins College on Westlands Road. The pair had driven in from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at about 10 at night. The gangsters took the whole family hostage for about an hour as they ransacked the house for valuables.

They stole electronic equipment, cash and other valuables before leaving. their victims half dead. Relatives and friends who visited the young Roop at the hospital said only Ruparel, his wife and their son were at home when the attack happened. The family’s other son and two daughters were away.

 “It is not the first time gangsters are trailing people in this area. We wonder what the police are doing to safeguard our lives,” one of Roop’s friends said.

A Vice President’s Dilemma

Uganda’s  Vice President Visits Canada

 

There has been some discussion about the trip that the Vice President of Uganda has made to Canada to try to lure former Ugandan Asians back to the country from where they were expelled.  They were the engine of commerce and investors in economic development of Uganda. It is said that the GDP of the country fell by 40% when the Asians finally vacated their key positions in the economy.

What was it about the Asian community that made them so special?  Can the Ugandan authorities not replace them with other very successful operators of trade and commerce such as the Lebanese, the Chinese or even the Nigerians who now buy their stock in Hong Kong and sell the items in Zambia?

There are five elements of interest in relation to the emergence and consolidation of the Asians’ grip of the East and Central African economies. The Asians became the more favoured and notable producers of wealth in the East and Central African countries because their main “rivals”, the multinational corporations (the MNCs) were detested by many African governments. Large MNCs like the British banks and producers of goods that became household names- soaps, washing powders, paracetamol (provided by companies such as Reckitt and Coleman) wanted to externalise their profits to please their British shareholders. They were also mostly the manufacturers who expected more added value than the lower value adding Asian traders but who made up for this through their numbers.

The Asians also wanted to root themselves in the countries of their adoption, and consequently their presence was probably more valued. They created the highly costly distribution chains, taking goods from the main cities to the ‘charo’. The Dalgetys and Motor Marts had no such interest; they were mega-traders who wanted to move large amounts of money out of Africa.

The Asians were also investing more, in the main, in baseline infrastructure – low cost local shops, schools, clinics, housing for the lower paid whereas the MNCs, driven by the quest for larger profits were investing in 5 Star hotels or similar ventures.

Some of the greatest examples of diversified investment also came  from the Asians, who were good at spotting niches – fishnets, plastics, furniture which met critical local needs.

Over a period of time, African entrepreneurs have taken over the low cost import substitution industries (toothpaste, matches, writing pens, notebooks) where as the Asians have started to move into high cost investment – medicines, telecoms, banks, computers.

So why does the Vice President of Uganda want the Asians to go back to Uganda?  Idi Amin had removed the low cost baseline commerce that the Asians provided.  There is another major factor at play here and I have just begun to see the impact of this on the UK economy- the provision of working capital by the commercial bank has dried up after the banking crash. Many small companies are starved of working capital.

In East Africa, the loans that ‘lubricated’ Asian commerce and trade were also guaranteed by the Asian mega-trader and not always by the commercial banks. The Asians had access to private sources of commercial lending or trade subsidies- many an Asian importer or manufacturer was willing to give credit to their own people; sometimes families and relations who had been set up to share the risks and rewards by the older patriarchs of Asian commerce.

I have seen the impact of this form of intra-Asian economic specialisation in the building construction industry, which was dominated by the Sikhs. The more successful owners of Sikh building firms were also informal money-lenders. They provided trade guarantees and offered working capital to the subsidiary companies in the supply chain, thereby tightening their grip over their dependency.  It suited the rich Sikh building contractor to fund the baseline services and suppliers – the Sikh plumbers, electricians, painters in return for guarantees relating to quality of services but also incrementally rising loyalty. In the same way the Gujarati traders at the top of the pyramid were prepared to fund the dukawalla who was willing to work in the charo. By providing trade credit, i.e. goods on 60 days credit, the top Gujarati trader was a) expanding his own trading influence, b) taking lower levels of risk by funding trusted borrowers and c) ensuring loyalty of the trader in the charo, who would not normally switch suppliers. The Ismaili community also had internally sponsored ‘pseudo’ banking practices. The Ismaili ethic of sustaining the whole community was partly funded by the internal but informal money sources.

The intricate financing and co-financing habits of the Mafia come to mind, except that the Asians were not at all ruthless. This is not to say that they did not make their fellow traders suffer; there was anecdotal evidence of traders and suppliers being pushed to the edge where the ‘patriarch’ of the business line was occasionally offended. There was a further factor at work here. Where business was funded through caste-based “clans”, there was also intermarriage. The sponsor of your working capital would not fund your business if your son was not prepared to marry his obese and ugly daughter. Let us leave it at that….

Returning to the Uganda Vice President’s visit to Uganda to woo the Asians, it seems that the Asian presence in Uganda had been secured by living in the country for over a century, by accepting a subservient role in commerce and business compared to the British multinationals that eventually bore the brunt of Ugandan President Milton Obote’s and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda’s “watershed speeches” when they nationalised British multinationals and in the case of the latter also drove them into the ground by failing to run them profitably. The only stable element in the commerce of these countries was the Asians; they were too small to be nationalised and too intricately connected to allow African governments to dismantle them…  Only Idi Amin had the brutal force to evict them lock-stock and barrel.

However, it is not just a case of replacing one group of departing Asians with another group of incoming Asian peoples. What will be missing is the cultural cement which held Asian trade and commerce together but more importantly the delicate interdependencies and the informal funding mechanisms which created access to low cost finance and also guarantees for access to local markets at low cost.

The New Migrants – Lives of the Asian Elderly

The Not-too-good side of Wahindi in Migration

The New York Times provides interesting accounts of the lives of elderly Asian and other migrants following the change of legislation which allows the elderly to join their sons and daughters who have made new lives in the US normally based on professional achievement or through success in business. Please see:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/us/31elder.html?pagewanted=1&hp

It should be pointed out that all the cases presented by the New York Times are not the typical subject of this blog- the East African Asian. But the stories also reflect how the Wahindi Mzee are going through difficult times in many cases. For the uninitiated, the ‘Mzee’ is an elderly person and the word also conveys a  form of respect in the way elderly persons are addressed in the Kenyan culture.

The temptation of the elderly to join their sons and daughters does not always bring peace and happiness for all in the family and also in the community.  The elderly spend their time in the streets for a combination of reasons, all a consequence of accepting an invitation to uproot themselves from their homes in India and elsewhere  to live a better life in Fremont, Southall or Toronto, to

  • Live in with the sons and their families especially where daughters-in-law will agree or where the son is the dominant partner.
  • Live in own accommodation provided by the sons (and daughters in many cases) and planned for in advance of their arrival- the best option- and still visit their grown up children and have the best of both worlds.
  • Live in rented accommodation or at the bottom rungs of society in isolation, even in poverty. When the families fall apart, the culture of the extended family takes a hard hit and the older people suffer in the fallout.
  • Live in own accommodation in the inner city areas. They may be enjoying the fruits of their retirement and may be enjoying their pension just as many other old-age pensioners. Why should they not venture into the city, they say?

 

In a few cases, the migrant elderly are on the street as a result of misfortune, excessive alcohol abuse and inability to go to the Sikh and Hindu Temples where active alcoholics may even be barred.

 

The comments that I make here focus on the Sikh elderly mainly because their arrivals into these cities are well known and almost predictable in numbers. The fact that the elderly are able to migrate is not entirely due to changes in legislation; the strong joint-family cultures can provide an extremely useful cushion for both the elderly and their sons and daughters where the arrangements work well. The pull of family values must still count otherwise it is difficult to see why some elderly people will give comfortable and secure lives in the home country to live in isolation in the US, Canada or UK.

 

What also merits discussion is the academic analysis of migration, the politics of decisions made by Western governments and the economics of the decision.

 

  • The costs of assimilating elderly migrants must be lower than the cost of losing competent professionals whose parents and relations the elderly people generally tend to be. There is no evidence of such an analysis that I have seen and besides, should cost be the sole criterion for decision making in relation to the migration of the elderly? Do policy makers in immigration policy carry out a cost-benefit analysis of the decision to accept elderly migrants? Do they indeed and should they really?

 

  • It also depends at what age the elderly first arrive in the new countries of choice. It is most likely that the majority will have worked in the labour force, paid their taxes and made a contribution to their pensions. They may also have their own homes, savings and in some cases, even a motorcar.  

 

The problem is not of economics but sociology. It would appear that the elderly migrants who tend to resort to spending their leisure time in the street could come from a combination of backgrounds; they could be relatively new arrivals, they could have fallen out with their sons and daughters or they may prefer to be on their own. But there is also the distinct possibility that a very few of them could be brave and adventurous and might have deviated from the trodden paths of other elderly migrants to go have a look at the ‘big city’, to learn how it works and see the sights for themselves.

 

However, the three New York Times articles tend to highlight the lives of the elderly who are not in the street by choice. These people are unhappy and reflect a sad and unplanned turning point in their lives. In that respect Fremont, Southall and Toronto have sadly a lot in common as far as the quality of the lives of the elderly migrants are concerned.

 

But it is not doom and gloom in all cases. In my next posting I look at some humorous aspects of extended family in the West. There is another dimension – the word ‘Mzee’ has been used in the above introduction.  Its true meanings are reflected the Kenyan culture and its attitudes towards the elderly. There are also many other interesting approaches to how the African in general treats their elderly in traditional and modern societies. This will be covered in a future post but any advanced thoughts are welcome, especially from East Africans. I am interested in how forms of address reflect cultural recognition of the elderly, how the emerging African societies in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are coping with strains and stresses of changing times in Africa and also the impact of urbanisation on traditional values.

Wilbur’s Reincarnation?…A new role for Wilbur in British public life

A True Story

 

This, as I say above, is a true story reported in today’s Sunday Times of 9th August 2009.

 

Wilbur the cat was sniffing around in its owner’s garden and enjoying the warm weather. During this time of year, the grass grows very fast and if you do not cut it regularly, it can become even harder to control, not to mention that it provides safe havens for visiting animals, pests and vermin.

 

Getting back to Wilbur, its sniffing and enjoyment of the smells of the new grass did not last long. The neighbour’s 13 ft python (Named here as ‘Taboo’) had escaped but the neighbour had not realised this.  Wilbur must have come face to face with Taboo and in one swoop at lightning speed, Taboo must have struck Wilbur and taken care of his feeding requirements for a few days. It appears that a python can take as many as two weeks to digest large animals… and so no trips to Sainsburys. But how do they know that Wilbur has been eaten by the snake?  Well, Wilbur’s remains were found in the snake and ‘x-rays’ have showed the metal tag that Wilbur has been wearing. The tag was a good idea..Wilbur never ran away from home but the tag helped its owners to identify the snake in its death.

 

Wilbur’s owners are reported to be devastated and feel very strongly that the neighbours’ python must be put away as well. The only problem is that pythons are not covered in the UK’s Dangerous Animals Act. They are not animals; therefore they cannot be classified as dangerous. There is no need even to build prisons for snakes. Taboo is safe and well for the moment. Wilbur’s owners have started a campaign to have snakes included in the Dangerous Animals Act so that Taboo’s relatives can be apprehended in every corner of the UK. The sleek, slimy, slithering Taboo has caused a problem for its entire community. Wilbur’s owners are also reported as saying that its death should not be in vain. Wilbur has become a campaigner from his cocoon inside the snake! Taboo goes around with utmost impunity as there are no indications that it was killed when it was found – the people who may have tried to kill it would have fallen foul of the law.

 

I am reminded of the many dogs that the Wahindi had in East Africa and how they were always at the mercy of Taboo’s African ancestors. The Asians did not seem to like cats as much as the English do and I have never fully understood the reason. Was it a cultural difference? Are cats considered to be evil and dirty? Did the Asians find that they could not cope with the cat’s dietary requirements? One thing I do know that Gujaratis had vegetarian dogs. They ate daal, bhat, vegetables with relish. I am not sure if they were fed with yogurt or ladoos because I have never heard of a dog with a sweet tooth. And the Sikhs fed their dogs with meat and left over bones in plenty. No research was carried out to show whether diet had a special effect on the dogs’ ultimate purpose – to provide security for its owners. Very few dogs enjoyed the comforts of the sofa in the owner’s house and almost all dogs belonging to the Wahindi slept outside and offered splendid service throughout their lives. Their favourite areas for sleeping was under the owner’s car…what fun to sleep under a sleek, brand new Mercedes? 

 

Our dogs were looked after by the house worker… that task was in his job description right from the start. The owners provided the essential cleaning agents and powders to keep the dogs clean and free from fleas and smells. It is not known which dogs were prone to more illness – the vegetarians or meat eaters. One would expect that the dog as a carnivore must have missed their true diet when they were brought up as pets in vegetarian households. Our dog was known as Jimmy and there so many stories to tell. Jimmy came to our household as a puppy and lived till the age of 13; in the UK Jimmy would have had a bus pass and could have claimed a pension if we had been skilled enough to register it as a human being. All I can say here is that the UK benefits system has been exploited by many people of all backgrounds…it would be very sad if our Jimmy was to spend some time in prison. Thankfully, Jimmy spared us the trouble; he died in 1971 and who knows? Jimmy might have anticipated the expulsion……

 

Talking about Jimmy, there are many stories to tell. He did a perfect job as a local guard dog and by feeding him with ghee and meat, we turned Jimmy into a local legend. Many Africans said that to hear Jimmy’s loud bark was enough to stop people passing by the roadside where Jimmy could see them from the gap under the door of the sakati, or yard. Did you have a Jimmy? I think the naming of the dog also conveyed a story and created the cultural framework between the dog and its owners. I am yet to figure out why many Asians spoke to their dogs in English, as we certainly did. Perhaps if Jimmy had been named Ranjit or Kaku would we have spoken to him in Punjabi? I am aware that one family of Gujarati dog owners had named their dog as ‘Moti’. But I am not aware if Moti was spoken to in Gujarati. There is certainly no information to confirm or deny that Moti enjoyed the poetry of Kavi Kalidas. By the way, if you happen to get your hands on a musical rendering of Shakuntala, one of Kalidas’s epics, do let me know. You wont, because I think I have the rare copy of the dance-drama which was performed at the Bhavan Centre nearly 20 years ago.

 

Let me hear your stories about dogs. The Chinese say that the best way to judge the character of a person is to ask him to describe his best friend or his worst enemy. Their comments can be so revealing. Let us beat the Chinese; they have no monopoly of wisdom. How people describe their dogs in this blog will emerge as a new science…and very soon we will attract competition. You see, copycats can be ruthless.

 

In the meantime spare a thought about Wilbur. If you are a lawyer, please send your suggestions which can be passed on to Wilbur’s owners on how they may proceed to work non-violently to change the law. In the meantime, it is clear that Taboo the python certainly had no respect for Gandhi ji.

Leadership at the time of need -2

I am going back to my views on Asian leadership at the time of expulsion. Let’s revisit the second question which was:

  • Did the Asian leaders fulfill the implied obligations that the departing Asian community had expected?

On reflection, why was there an ‘implied’ need or obligation? Leaders are appointed as leaders because they are expected to lead. Are they? Really? It really depended on the interpretation of their role by the leaders themselves. In the absence of a politically affiliated framework, Asian leaders in East Africa saw themselves as religious or faith leaders most of the time when they were elected in faith- based organisations. It was also a role which many performed extremely well – making arrangements for regular events according to the cultural calendar, such As Diwali, Gurpurb, Eid and New Year celebrations. Arrangements for marriages, deaths and other functions connected to the rites of passage were also well managed considering that many volunteers were involved. Even the cleaning of the food halls and the communal kitchens was carried out by volunteers – in most cases the paid African workers were not particularly welcome in the communal kitchens, where ‘kosher’ food was prepared under vigilance. This policy reflected more the puritanical outlooks of the management and the members of the organisation.

Were the Asians fully aware of the implications of African independence on their status as non-citizens? It would seem that they understood the meaning of independence more in relation to concerns for work permits, jobs and trading licenses than in the context of self-determination of a people who were taking control of their own destiny. Besides, independence was not altogether a new experience! One did not need to be reminded that it was India that had first attained independence! A few farsighted leaders arranged the odd talk or advisory session during the period immediately before independence of Uganda. One that I went to attend dealt with ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ after the country became independent.  There was no mention to the people they would do well to have valid travel documents for the whole family. It must be granted that if the briefing process was not carefully managed, the leaders could be exposed to risk and accused of creating a panic during the run up to independence.

However, when the Asian expulsion was announced, there was no advice given to people who had been caught unprepared. Most of the leaders did not organise meetings to discuss the situation with the communities that they were leading. There was very little mention of support that could be arranged or really, needed to be arranged to help the departing families prepare themselves for the ordeals ahead of them. It seems that the leaders either failed to rise to the challenge or did not recognise that they had a responsibility. This is the reason for describing their leadership role as real and ‘implied’ roles.

One of our friends, Ranjit (not his real name) was caught in a situation where his British passport had been replaced by his newly acquired Ugandan Citizenship. He did not wish to stay in Uganda. The best option for him was to queue outside the British High Commission and to seek support for his application to go to the UK, a nationality which he had only recently given up. It had become known that the average waiting time before one could see an officer in the British High Commission (BHC) was twenty four hours. So about six of us went to offer moral support and also to queue for Ranjit…and give him breaks.  We arrived at the BHC at around 9 am hoping for the best. A long queue had already formed and people who were joining it the back could not even see the BHC building. The queue was moving at snail’s pace but people were talking, comparing their passport ‘situations’ and reasons for being in the queue, their family needs and how they were facing immense challenges. There was some humour from time to time and also commotion when the queue became unruly. The policemen would walk over to the queue and ordered the people to sort themselves out. The queue itself was very vigilant; making sure that no one was jumping the queue by performing a number of ingenious tricks backed by spurious explanations.

 

It was early evening and some of us had left our homes 12 hours earlier. There was a constant number of people coming to the queue and speaking to the person in front or behind. Almost all of these people were family members or friends who making sure that their relative was safe and comfortable. Then it was noticed that a particular man who was carrying a large bag with a strap over his shoulder was receiving quite a lot of visitors and all of them were very polite and formal towards him. Every conversation ended with      “So you’ve got everything, all the documents and everything will fine, Okay? Okay, yes? Yes.”And the man would reply with confidence that they would get their entry visas into the UK by noon the next day. He even said to some people that he had already spoken to a Mrs. K at the High Commission and ‘Kai Wandho nathi’ i.e. there was nothing to worry about. Then, a man came to check that the person in front of me was really the person who had his case to present to the High Commission. I asked him how many entry visa cases he was going to present to the BHC officers when he reached the desk. He ignored my question. “How many passports are you carrying?” I asked with some sternness which even surprised me. He replied “Not too many, don’t worry”. “How many passports are you carrying?” I asked loudly. He replied the number was 25 but most were for families with similar problems. I said that how I wished that his services were widely available and asked him how much did he charge per case? Maybe Ranjit, my friend should have asked for his help? He replied that he charged up to 1000 Ugandan shillings or more depending on the case, per passport. I suddenly told him very confidently that I estimated that he had 200 passports in his bag; which he contested with equal vigour. Then he said it was only 50 passports and it dawned on me that my friend Ranjit’s case would not even be heard as we would run of out of time. I asked him how many passports he was carrying for his own family. He replied, with considerable irritation that he was just acting for other people. I then told the person behind me that the man probably had 200 passports in his bag. The word started to spread and then someone shouted “Get rid of the Passport Agent, get rid of him”.

 

The policemen on guard suddenly realised that they had a worthwhile task to deal with and so they walked up to him, with me, aged 22, looking into his bag. “He is an agent and making money out of the needs of desperate people,” I spoke with great confidence, drawing on my investigations and feeling morally very superior but almost addressing the police. The policemen decided to deal with the easy issues first and said “Misita Seengh, you keepi quiet or I willi senda you home.” That was it. He had succeeded in silencing me with those few words. Then another man in the parallel queue said to the policeman,” Bwana, he is an agent and he is not here for his own family. He is making money…look at him, the evil bastard.” The policemen turned to him and said,” You! You willi not sweayar in thisi q, I am in chargi”. That brought the other man to silence. The policemen and the ‘agent’ were then involved in a conversation for quite some time. And then he turned around and summoned the Military Police van “He is an agent, take him away”. A loud cheer and hundreds of claps were followed by a sudden silence.

 

What were they going to do with him? It was too late. My intervention was probably going to lead the agent to prison and even death, I thought with increasing remorse. I spoke to the man in the parallel queue and he replied “Don’t worry, Sardarji, he will pay a few hundred bob and will be back in this queue tomorrow.” That sounded very reassuring. By this time it was dawn and in a few hours our friend Ranjit would be back from home and make a case for his entry into the UK. I moved out of the queue and someone else took my place to await Ranjit’s arrival. At exactly 9.36 am, Ranjit was called into the British High Commission by someone who said that she was Mrs. K. By 9.43am, Ranjit was out of the building. His case for an entry into the UK had been rejected. We had queued for over 24 hours and it took 7 minutes to dismiss his application.

How many hundreds or even thousands of people had a problem similar to Ranjit? Did the Asian leaders have a role if not a duty to help the very people who had donated small amounts of money to build the institutions that had given the leaders the power to lead?  Here are the scenarios that a proactive and problem solving leadership might have considered:

  1. Start negotiations with the British High Commission to try to agree some issues in principle. They could have tried to negotiate a simpler method for processing documents.
  2. Appoint a few lawyers with experience of immigration law to work urgently with families needing support. Once their documents had been validated, the lawyers could have been supported to work outside the queuing system since the principle of  ‘first-come first served’ did not apply.
  3. Seek collective guidance from the embassies of other countries to help arrange safe passage of Asian families to their countries.

 It is not known whether any such attempts were made by Sikh, Hindu and Gujarati community leaders. The Ismaili community stole the honours; they were well represented, supported and also funded by the community leaders and The Aga Khan, their spiritual leader. Having said this, it became known later that a few poor Sikh families were offered confidential help to buy air travel tickets.

It remains to be judged by posterity whether Asian leadership had failed to rise to the challenge of supporting their communities immediately after the expulsion. It is difficult to be conclusive at this stage because more reliable information and evidence is needed. However, it is unlikely that accurate information will be available for very much longer. The majority of the older leaders are no longer alive. In the absence of records, an issue to return to at another time, it is almost certain that Asian community leaders failed to lead conclusively and comprehensively. Their communities were on their own, with little or no support.