40 years ago in a place many describe as heavenly a military man had a dream. In this dream he was told that all foreigners should be given 90 days to leave the country. The country was Uganda and the man that had the dream was Idi Amin.
Idi Amin’s name conjures up an image of a mad despot of a man. Seems the world has always been plagued by the distortion of power and the abuse of leadership. An illness of the world and for the 80,000 or so non Ugandan passport holders who had 90 days to get out!
Most leaving were Asians and 2 in particular were very close to me, as in 1972 they came to live in the UK with all they could carry out of a country that they once called home. My Aunt and Uncle, who to this day hold Uganda in the highest of esteem, a country where they had once thought they would live for ever.
Idi Amin was one of the most feared men back in the day and today I want to pay homage to the role he played in history of the lives of those he displaced and share the story from their perspective.
Speaking to my Aunt and Uncle I have been touched and deeply moved for their love and respect for Uganda and her people. It really is a bitter sweet love story and I wonder how many Asians who were part of this exodus in 1972 continue to hold Uganda as a place they were simply forced to leave. If they had the choice they would have stayed. A shared karma which suffice to say has had a happy ending for most. It seems that Uganda attracted a certain type of person that was resourceful as well as brave and confident and prepared to make the best of everything.
Military Dictator, Amin, announced the action on his mythical dream on August 4th 1972. Foreigners had 90 days to leave. For the first month my Uncle said no-one could really believe it. It was a threat that was taken seriously but there was disbelief and after that the exodus began.
People from all over Uganda moved towards Kampala as they made their way to the airport in Entebbe. Entebbe to Kampala is a mere 21 miles or so and just that short stretch of road alone had 5 checkpoints and at each checkpoint the military robbed and harassed those leaving. While in Kampala the Asian community opened up their homes to house those who were displaced. Food, water and shelter were not in short supply, after all Uganda was part of the Africa that we know of in our dreams. A land fertile and rich so not a surprise that people who gravitated to make it home, shared the same spirit of abundance too.
For those leaving they locked up their homes and businesses, took what they could fit into suitcases, and wore what jewellery they could. For some this was lost at various checkpoints for others it was buried in their gardens and left in banks.
Surprisingly when many returned 5-10 years later their buried jewellery remained and where their properties had been occupied they also got rent and many managed to sell their homes too. Not everything was lost. It was Idi Amin and his regime that was cruel and evil not Uganda after all.
The madness of Amin may have displaced at a conservative guess 80,000 people from the place that they called home, but it was the locals who suffered terrible atrocities because of him.
The constant political fighting in a Military State, headed by a man so incredibly evil, and where those who acted for him were his imbeciles. The police could do what they like; torture and killing became an everyday fear and experience for Ugandans. Where basic food costs increased and poverty became a symptom and life experience. Let’s face it if you can’t eat then you will steal and loot to eat. It would be too easy to say why not farm and grow your own but in a country where riches became the spoils of a few, it is an easy thing to say but not a reality that could manifest for all.
The Asians who left were the lucky ones. I could tell from speaking with my Uncle that there is a place in his heart where he grieves for a country which had little to no corruption before Amin. A home where foreigner and national lived side by side in harmony and in community. The local populace were not ignored before Amin came in and like all corrupt power, when it is for the good of only a few, problems start.
David Cameron take heed, you might not be Amin but to ignore the needs of the majority creates unrest however civilised in comparison to Uganda in 1972. To take care of all which is how the energy of Uganda pre-Amin has been shared with me is something that is hard to find even now.
As the 90 day exit invitation was drawing to a close, the situation became scarier. At the airport scheduled planes would not arrive, but still as you waited people in Uganda would drive to deliver food and drink. Taking care of each other at this time of upheaval and uncertainty.
My Aunt who was about 6 months pregnant was due to travel back with her young daughter, coming to London. Instead they had to fly to Nairobi and at that time, the Kenyan authorities wouldn’t let them leave the airport. She waited 2 days for a plane to take her back to London, again being fed by the Asian community who came to the airport.
Once in London and joined a little later by my Uncle, my relatives came to stay with us. I only know this from stories and the photographs I have seen. Being born in 1972 my memories are only made from the stories I have been told.
For some they did not have relatives to share homes with and the British Government set up camps for people so stay. One, two even three months while they were rehoused and supported to make life anew, the support is remembered as brilliant and without fault.
I asked my Uncle why did he not go back to make home there, he answered with a ‘how can you go back?’ And maybe that is the truth you can’t go back you can only go forward.
Happy to know now, that once again Uganda has a return of foreigners who enjoy living with the national populace, side by side in community.
Kampala for me conjuring up an image of a place where dreams are made and love affairs created. I admit I have a deep connection with Africa and a love for her land and people, foreign and national alike. I am biased and not ashamed to admit it. It has shaped my life as many of my family moved from India to East Africa, so it has been a place in my ancestry.
I hope now that whether resident or not, that to read and to understand the plight of Africa and her people makes you stop and think about what you can do to assist her people claim back the dignity of a land so beautiful and abundant and rich.
The past has gone and as my Uncle said you can’t go back. In this 40th of year of that evil man Amin’s exodus plan and the hurt that followed for Ugandans it is time I believe for each of us to look forward and see how we can contribute to changing the world. Just a little part we can each play and maybe in 40 years’ time the story being shared will be of a time when Africa was free of the humanitarian disasters that plague the heart and soul of this land.
Sarupa Shah is the Armchair Guru. She helps women get control of their dreams and make them a reality.
photo credit: Espen Faugstad