Exiled from Uganda: the Asians searching for meaning
Forty years have passed since Idi Amin, the violent dictator of Uganda, expelled the Asian community from the country. Asians were, he said, "bloodsuckers" who "milked the economy" and refused to integrate. Many Asian families had been settled in Uganda for more than 100 years and had made a home and a life there. They were given just 90 days to pack up their belongings and leave. The majority left for the UK, holding British passports as a result of Uganda's former status as a part of the British Empire.
It's a history that many first-generation British Asians have inherited but don't necessarily know all that much about - it isn't a history taught in schools. But a new project, Exiles, which launched this month at the South Asian Literature Festival in London, aims to document the story of Ugandan Asians in the form of videos, photos, stories and archived documents so that future generations can look back and understand what it meant for their families to be forced to flee from their homes.
"These are stories that need to be told," says Jayesh Amin, the co-ordinator behind the Exiles project. "These were ordinary people who experienced the trauma of leaving everything behind and starting a new life in Britain. For many, that has been a story of remarkable success for them, their children and grandchildren. It's a story that is waiting to be heard."
The Exiles project is being produced by the Council of Asian People, a charity based in London, and is depending on young volunteers to come forward and assist in interviewing and filming Ugandan families whose stories will form the basis of the project. The Exiles team says there is a need to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of the Asian community from Uganda, as well as to celebrate the contributions Ugandan Asians made both in East Africa and in the UK.
Sidika Hudda, a 33-year-old from London, agrees. Both her parents were born and brought up in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, while she has spent her life in the UK. Hudda says she was aware her parents had to leave under Amin, but it wasn't until recently that she had started to consider what that really meant, not just for them, but also for her.
"My parents didn't really talk about Uganda much, so I never felt a connection to it. All I really knew was that my dad didn't want to leave. When they got to the UK, I think they chose to remove themselves from the memory of what happened," says Hudda. "But more recently, I've been thinking about identity, what it means to be a child of refugees, what impact it had on my upbringing and what effect it's had on my own sense of self. It's very important to understand where you've come from."
The unwillingness of Hudda's parents to share the pain of being uprooted and thrown out of a country is echoed by others. Sharmila Chauhan, a playwright who also lives in London, says: "My brother and I always felt our parents were reluctant to talk about what happened in East Africa. I imagine they didn't want to look back but look forward. There's always been an undercurrent of melancholy and nostalgia there.
"At the same time, it's very important for us to understand the journey our parents went on. But it's taken time for us to ask those questions and there's a need to capture stories before generations die and stories are lost."
Neema Karia, 25, says she's been feeling the urgency to explore her mother's stories of life in Uganda ever since her grandmother passed away earlier this year. "I feel like I've lost a big part of my identity and I feel sad and annoyed with myself that I didn't think to ask my grandmother about Uganda," she says.
Karia's mother was 6 years old when the family was forced to leave the city of Jinja. Her mother's father owned a shop, and the day they left he threw his keys away because he didn't want to simply hand his business over to Amin's men.
The family arrived at a resettlement camp in Newbury, Berkshire, and Karia and her mother moved back to the town a few years ago.
"We've come full circle - my mum's life started here and has now ended up here, too. We live miles away from the camp she was in and that's also made me want to know more about what she went through."
Karia is now organising her own exhibition to commemorate the experience of her family and others like them, which will take place in Newbury later this year.
"I want younger generations to know what our parents and grandparents went through, because I don't want my heritage, as a British Ugandan Asian to be forgotten," she says. "I want to pass it on. I need to answer my own questions about the past so I can be more sure of who I am."
For more on the Exiles project, visit www.asiancentre.co.uk.
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Updated: November 29, 2012 04:00 AM