New exhibition charts tales of those kicked out of Uganda…
IT’S ONE of the least recognised chapters in our nation’s history – but thanks to a new exhibition which came out of a pioneering project, it will be preserved for generations to come.
The ‘Making Home’ exhibition opened on September 6 at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London, and offers a fascinating and revealing portrait of what is was like for an Asian community expelled from Uganda to have to make a new home in the UK.
Some say it was the best thing that ever happened to them – but the trauma for many leaving behind established businesses and a very comfortable existence, in the main, was immense and not much documented – until now.
Bringing together personal testimonies, archive material, newspaper stories and contemporary portraits, the Making Home exhibition is one of the most comprehensive and moving projects of its kind.
On Thursday evening (September 5), Karen Brookfield from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supported the project to the tune of £86,700, said she was hugely impressed and declared: “What an incredibly professional exhibition”.
The vast bulk of the project was assembled with the help of some 60-70 volunteers, many young, in education and with little to no knowledge of an event that took place more than 40 years ago.
Jayesh Amin, project co-ordinator, said: “This will be there for future generations to enjoy. A lot of hard work went into this from October and it took time to finding people to interview and was hard tracking people down. We have interviewed people who were directly affected and the exhibition is a wonderful achievement for all concerned.”
At the core of the project is the testimony of those who had to flee Uganda and arrived in Britain following brutal dictator Idi Amin’s decree.
In 1972, he told Asians there they had to leave Uganda – they had initially been brought to East Africa to work on the railways by the British colonial authorities, and many had stayed building businesses, and laying down roots which counted for nothing in Amin’s eyes.
There had been resentment that the Asian community was insular and claims that they did not share their wealth or treat black Ugandans fairly – and Amin simply capitalised on the alienation.
A daughter of one black Ugandan professor, interviewed for the project, told www.asianculturevulture.com “Everyone knew it was wrong, but Idi Amin was brutal and killed many black Ugandans and he just fed off some bad feeling.”
Around 30,000 Asians landed up in Britain following the crisis – almost double that number found their way to other countries: the US, Canada, Australasia, and a small number to Europe and India, which initially didn’t recognise or welcome them.
There was huge popular opposition here – much of the tabloid press ran stories describing how difficult it was for Britain to accommodate these refugees and there were marches against the influx of so many Asians.
What transpired was one of the most remarkable tales in human history – this community that arrived with nothing, became one of the most successful in material terms.
Even a casual perusal of any Rich List of Asians in Britain will show you many who started their journey to wealth in Britain as penniless East African refugees.
The project has also uncovered hitherto to unknown aspects about the Asians in Uganda: there were mixed relationships and these have been documented in ‘Making Home’.
Video interviews have been taken and these will be available and lodged with the London Metropolitan Archive. This preserves an oral history that would be otherwise lost.
Among those who attended the launch were Lord Rumi Verjee and a member of the Madhvani family, one of the country’s richest Asian families in Uganda at the time of the expulsion.
They ran a huge sugar business and their industries accounted for a significant proportion of Uganda’s GDP at the time.
Manubhai – who somehow avoided execution, having been imprisoned by Idi Amin, fled to Britain and died in May 2011 – always mourned for the country he loved and left.
His ashes were taken back to Uganda and he was hailed by the post Amin leadership ‘as a son of Uganda’.
The project was co-ordinated through the Centre for Asian People, a social resource, developed out a community centre in Wood Green, and was supported by Amphora Arts, which organises the South Asian Literature Festival and other reading-centred projects, and Collage Arts, formerly Haringay Arts Council, a creative body that fosters talent and cultural expression.
The exhibition will go on tour – even to India, and is on display at the RGS’s public space in Kensington Gore, close to The Royal Albert Hall, until September 16.
It’s free and well worth catching if you’re interested in the history of this particular Asian community, which came with nothing and now are among the country’s most successful.
- Making Homes – Exiles: The Ugandan Asian story, has been extended until September 18, Royal Geographic Society (IBG Exhibition Pavilion, entrance Exhibition Road ) 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. Daily, 10am-5pm.
- On Friday, September 13, it will be open till 8pm.
- On Saturday, September 14, there will be talks by leading members behind the project between 2pm-5pm. Giving these short informal talks will be Jayesh Amin (project co-ordinator), Sunil Shah (curator), Suman Bhuchar (exiles editor), and volunteers Farhana Ghaffar and Rajvi Kotecha and artist Neishaa Gharat. There will be an opportunity for questions.
Picture: © Elixabete Lopez Photography