Tag Archives: Uganda Asians

The foods that no one ate

The Story of Daal, Rice, Achar and other foods….


Following the Ugandan Asian expulsion in 1972, Luckymann (not his real name) and his family went to settle in the ‘Newfoundland’. 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 agenda 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 now in  the ‘Newfoundland’, 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.

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 reversing into his drive and 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 sense of guilt and some anticipation; perhaps the true owners would be found…but where was he going to look for them?

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  the ‘Newfoundland’ 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 sheeting that was very popular with the wahindi. He recognised that it was the type of container which was used to store uncooked food, mainly lentils, rice, dry food powders, haldi, red chilli powder and other masala ingredients, in his mother’s old 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 so stunned by their discovery that she had to rush to the toilet.  When she came back 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…there so many good programmes on Saturday mornings?  ‘Now please go, okay beta?’

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 his wife decided to be patient and to hold on to their newly found treasure for a few months, until the Ugandan Asian ‘matata’ had died down.  Then one by one, after safely long intervals, Luckymann 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. Luckymann’s gain was someone else’s loss. It took Luckymann over 20 years to divulge their secret. I have not told you this story. I am merely reporting what Luckymann told me thirty years ago.  I have since lost contact with him.


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.