Category Archives: True Story

A Coup in Progress

Idi’s Diamonds

 I was going home from Makerere University to Port Bell where my family lived. It was customary to check one’s post at any time of the day or night. The only thing that I was not aware of was that a full scale army coup was in progress.  I was coming out of the post office parking area with my post in my hand when a large truck with soldiers drove uphill on the road which connected the main street to the cluster of hotels. About a dozen soldiers jumped out of the truck and ran towards various positions around the building. Three came with bayonets held at the height of my chest and one of them knocked me over. Then another asked me what I was doing there while I was trying to secure my glasses. It was just past midnight and I said that I was taking post home. Without any notice, one of them turned his bayonet away and gave a loud whack in the small of my back with his rifle butt. I felt dizzy and crashed to the floor. Another or maybe the same man kicked me several times in my bottom. By that time more soldiers had arrived as I heard a type of siren; it could have been the loud horn of those large trucks driven by the military police. I think I was at kicked six times in the small of my back but fortunately not on my spine. I collected my post and my turban from the ground  and went home, feeling utterly dejected and almost in tears.

Two years later when driving a tiny Mini Clubman near the Blackwall Tunnel in East London I stopped at a zebra crossing only to realise that a huge truck had hit me in the back. My car was crushed almost into half but as I was young and adventurous, I came out of the car, hugely shaken and after much confusion decided to get the car towed away and taken to a garage. It was during the evening I realised that I had blurred vision. The consultant at East Ham hospital told me that my “previous back injury” had become aggravated. I started to lose the vision in my left eye and after many weeks of dilation, they decided to stop the medication to allow the eye to return to normal. Money was extremely tight and I could not afford a change of glasses every few weeks while the chart showing my eyesight was going up and down like data showing stock market collapse just before the banking crash in 2007.

I decided to get the bog standard National Health Service glasses, those worn mostly by pensioners and poor people. A few friends even had a laugh. The following week I had to go to the job interview when my confidence was at a low ebb indeed. I got the job! Perhaps the people on the other side of the table had become so used to my NHS specs and thought that it was simply a style statement.

Unknown to Idi Amin’s henchmen and those young soldiers, I did smuggle something very invaluable out of their country. It was my sore and swollen back and my left eye which was creating the sensation as if I had a inserted a heavy golf ball into my eye socket. I can promise that there was no outsized diamond in it. But the soldiers who gave me that pasting probably did much worse than me.  They were only ten or so years older than me. How did they survive their lives? Did they ever overcome the ferocity of their master’s voice? Yes, the good old dog listening to his master’s voice (HMV) comes to mind. Was it just the dog who described millions of circles on the top of gramophone records?  Give a thought to hundreds and thousands of child soldiers who were later ‘recruited’ by African armies. Worse still, think of the parents who never see their children again once they are abducted by armies and militias, even today.  My little mishap at the general post office was insignificant by comparison. I still have the glint in my eye.

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The Asian weltanschauung 2:

How did the Africans see the Asian émigrés?

 

My thoughts are turning to the forthcoming 40th anniversary of the Asian expulsion from Uganda. September 2012 will see the completion of four decades of life after Amin, an initial period of adjustment, but then onwards as hard work, reward and reflection for many Asians like me who arrived in the UK, and others in US and Canada as young graduates.

My title reflects on how the East African Africans saw the predicament of the departing Asians. The popular view was that the Africans were delighted beyond their wildest beliefs. It was a windfall, a lottery and a goldmine for people who always envied the Asian for their prosperity and accumulated wealth which came from ‘two centuries’ of hard work. There was also a great deal of sadness in the minds of the departing Asians. The vast majority of working class Asians had never planned to leave and had always seen their future in Uganda even though their plans did not reflect a real stakeholder status as citizens and nationals with a long-term commitment. Many took the world for granted in which the bus would wait for them at the bus stop until they were ready to climb in. However, the vast majority had no choices to make; they were working class Asians disguised as shopkeepers and artisans. What the African saw in the well stocked Asian shops was the affluent shopkeeper who often practiced unfair trade practices such as price discrimination. Did they know that the people who fronted the rich shops were actually poor people like themselves who were also being exploited by their richer relations?

There is a view that a vast majority of retailers used family members to subsidise labour costs; a practice which also earned the Asian shopkeeper extensive competitive advantage in the corner stores of United Kingdom, the US and Canada! Rich Asian ‘magnates’ have been accused of using labour from the extended family as a ‘competitive weapon’ but also sometimes as a device for  dodging taxes. Most importantly, they used family labour as a protection against industrial action and loss of stock through pilferage. These views actually distract the debate even if there was some truth behind these assertions. The vast majority of under qualified shop assistants would not have been able to compete in the real market place. It is arguable whether they had any more to offer than the ordinary African customers that they served in the shops. The practice of employing the family clan and the extended family to support the Asian entrepreneurs has also been responsible for their success in the countries to which they migrated. There is nothing wrong with this practice; only that it created an artificial labour market that subsidised potentially unprofitable Asian businesses which could not survive in a free market. The same has been attributed to Asian success in retailing in the UK’s high streets. Why does a shopkeeper have to employ staff if his wife, her mother and her sister as well his mother and his sister were able to offer help at a rate below the market rate? Besides, many hundreds of young women have been able to start families and look after their children in the ‘back room’ while the husband and father was working in the shop front?

After the Asians left and large retailing outlets were taken over by enterprising Ugandans, they also recruited family and clan connections to run their businesses and to subsidise costs. This is the nature of successful retailing all over the world; only that the Asians in East Africa were singled out for their success and for not offering jobs in retailing to African labour.

 

Then there was also the African houseboy, the cleaner, driver, and the gardener and in some families also the cook where religious beliefs about ‘purity of touch’ were disregarded and African chefs were allowed to cook. The concern about purity of touch worked something like this. Such was the concern of old Asian women in the Asian household that the African cook was either unclean or unsafe because he was a meat eater and a drunkard, or both rolled into one. Worse still the African cook could cough or spit into the clean food and render the entire cuisine unsuitable for human consumption.

Such worries about the unsuitability of the African labour in the vicinity of the Asian kitchen or even where they could touch their utensils also worked their way into how the Africans were sometimes offered food or drink. In many households in the compounds or ‘sakati’ where I grew up, the African ‘houseboy’ had been allocated an old tomato tin can to be used as a ‘cup’ for their water or tea. It was a multiuse cup; regardless of the contents and the temperature of the contents. The African staff  were offered old plates to eat leftovers of food. The African labourer had to wash their utensils away from the main Asian kitchen sink by using the tap which normally used for attaching the garden hose. Both sides, that is, the Asian family and their workers were pleased that the African was not hungry when they went to bed in a shack at the back of the affluent Asian household. Of course these practices were stemmed as the Africans asserted themselves through the power of their governments.

In other Asian households the long term African employee had won their respect and trust and they were even allowed to eat and drink from the same crockery as that used by the Asian family. I have to tell you this! Aloizio[1], our long-term African house worker became an ‘enemy’ of our mum when dad promoted him beyond her levels of tolerance and they often decided to have a beer or two to celebrate Uganda’s Independence Day on 9th October each year. Worse still, mum had to cook pakoras and bhaji which dad knew that both he and Aloizio really loved. Aloizio had come to our house as a young teenager and stayed for 60 years. However, he worked with our father on building sites for over 50 years and then was promoted to easier jobs in the house.

By the time we left Uganda, he had the freedom to ‘raid’ the kitchen (as his critics claimed) and to help himself with sugar, milk and tea leaves which he took to his purpose built home that our father had built for him at the back of our house. When we were expelled from Uganda, Aloizio was heartbroken and went back to his village. He knew that no one was going to offer him a job at his age. We never heard from Aloizio again. I do hope that he did not suffer too much.


[1] My spellchecker suggests Aloysius

Presenting Rashmi Paun

Rashmi Paun’s ‘Escape from Uganda’

I am delighted to present an emerging novel by Rashmi Paun with her kind permission. The work has been circulating on various Asian lists and probably elsewhere but I discovered upon contacting Rashmi Paun that the material is in fact a Prologue and that a more substantial novel is on its way.

I would recommend that you read Rashmi Paun’s contribution, which is provided in one of the pages listed above. I hope to talk to Rashmi soon and expect to bring news and insight into her work, motivation and why she is writing on Ugandan Asian issues.

I was interested in Rashmi’s story because it is authentic and written sensitively. I have felt for a long time that many serious experiences which may have had long-term effects seem to have been ignored or not made into news.

I remember the story of an Asian couple who were travelling on the Kampala-Jinja Road. When going downhill into a valley created by a local river, the driver lost control and the car ended up in a precarious tilt on the river bank. All seemed to be fine until the couple realised that their five year old daughter had fallen out and almost certainly washed away by the strong current of the river. Did the child drown or was she saved by a miracle or by local people? The couple never found out and had to leave the country. It must have been a major shock for them and their relatives. Did they get help in overcoming their trauma? I very much doubt it.

Over to Rashmi Paun…please click this link https://wahindi.wordpress.com/rashmi-paun-escape-from-uganda/  or go straight to the title given above as a page.

Rashmi Paun’s work has been featured by Kala Kahani, an arts organisation based in Leicester, England. Here is a link to their website which first introduced her work http://www.kalakahani.co.uk

Strike it lucky, a Ugandan Asian story

The Story of Daal, Rice, Achar and other “foods”

Following the Ugandan Asian expulsion, Lucky ‘Mann’ (not his real name) and his family went to settle in Canada. Lucky and his wife had worked hard while in Uganda and saved a bit of cash, enough to give them a better start in the new country of their choice than many hundreds of other Asians in the same situation. Lucky told this to me some time ago and I cannot say more for the reasons you will soon discover.

After the usual resettlement matters had been taken care of i.e. house, car, getting the children into school, Lucky started to miss the freedom he had enjoyed in his own business and the income that he become accustomed to. Here they were in Canada, while his extended family were seemingly having a great time in East Africa; enjoying the sun and having their clothes cleaned and ironed by Opio, the loyal house worker.

(I would never, ever describe these domestic workers as “servants”; it is such a mean and derogatory term. How can one be so big and important that another human being can be their servant? I will come back to discuss more of this major concern of mine, but at some other time.

One day, there was a knock at the door. At the same time Lucky heard the sound of a large truck with a loud engine coming towards his house. Lucky opened the door and found that it was a parcel delivery truck. The delivery man walked up to Lucky and put a cardboard flap with papers under his nose, asking Lucky to sign for accepting the delivery of a huge crate, the size of a single bed. But Lucky told the delivery man that he was not the man to whom the crate was addressed. He was not going to take the delivery. The man insisted, saying that as far as he knew, Lucky was also from Uganda and that perhaps he could help find the real owner of the crate, which had left Uganda about four months earlier. Lucky took the delivery with some guilt and some anticipation; perhaps the true owners could be found…. On the following weekend, Lucky and his wife started to open the crate, knowing that it was bound to carry household stuff that the unlucky person had sent to Canada but after such a long delay, the parcel was effectively lost. It is also possible that the owner did not pursue the post office believing that the parcel had never left the country; those very helpful people in East African Airways had indeed helped, but only themselves. Lucky got the packaging out of the way and saw that there were several round metal canisters with secure lids, also made of the same light metal. He recognised that it was the type of container which was used to store uncooked food, mainly lentils, rice, dry powders, haldi, red chilli powder and that sort of storable items, in his mother’s kitchen. Lucky put his hand into the first canister of urid daal to check whether it was infested with insects, soaked in water vapour or dry enough to cook. It was in good condition and Lucky decided to check whether the can was dry right down to the bottom.

He did not get a chance to hit the bottom. Instead his hand felt a solid object with a smooth surface. Lucky took it out and found that he was staring at a large gold nugget! He called in his wife who was also stunned by their discovery. They decided to shut the door and draw the curtains of the room, also remembering to push the children into the lounge to watch the television; weren’t there so many good programmes on Saturday mornings, beta? No go, go please okay? Lucky and his lucky wife went from one canister to another, opening in haste and rushing to pull out more and more nuggets of gold. The precious metal was found in all dry foods except the achars. Lucky and now his also lucky wife started to pack the gold quickly, almost expecting to hear a knock at the door. A passing truck got Lucky thinking that the delivery vehicle was back, coming to reclaim the crate. They worked out a plan… the crate had to be discarded quickly and the canisters had to be stored at the bottom of empty suitcases in the cellar. The gold had to be hidden away in the attic. Lucky decided that keeping the separated items in one location was not a good idea. They had to be dispersed. He spent the whole of his Sunday morning breaking down the crate into small pieces so that they could fit into the boot of his tiny car. After several journeys to the waste yard, the crate had been safely disposed off, just before the yard closed for the day. Lucky and also his get-quick-lucky wife decided to be patient and to hold on to their newly found treasure for a few months, until the Ugandan Asian ‘business’ had died down. Then one by one, after safe intervals, Lucky Mann and wife disposed off the gold and the refinancing of the poor, poor Ugandan migrants’ life had started.

No one knew where the true owners of the crate were. It was later generally understood that many departing Asians had stuffed gold or other precious items into cheap looking parcels and crates. One would hope that the majority of the owners were safely reunited with their goods. It was inevitable that some would not even leave the country and other crates would be lost in transit. Lucky’s gain was someone else’s loss. It took Lucky nearly 35 years to divulge their secret. I have not told you this story. I am merely reporting what Lucky told me.