Uganda Asians, Uganda Asians book, and the incidental Ismaili angle
By Vali Jamal, PhD, writing in from Kampala Uganda
As we approach the Diamond Jubilee of Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al-Husseini, His Highness Aga Khan IV we take note of the book on Uganda Asians by Vali Jamal, PhD, which he has just completed which has materials related to the Imam and Ismailis. We asked Dr Jamal to tell us the reason for writing his book and point out the special Ismaili angle in it. The book ended at 2277 pages in six parts, weighing in at 11.2 kg. It took over ten years. It should launch in Uganda in October, with subsequent launches in UK, Canada and India.
The emotional-cum-mental roots
If I think about it, my presence in Uganda in 1972 and why I was here and what ensued constitute the reason for writing this book. I was here collecting data for my dissertation at Stanford – The Role of Cotton and Coffee in Uganda’s Economic Development – so I experienced the expulsion at first hand, but the study of cotton and coffee in Uganda was practically the study of the racial division of labour in those two activities – Africans as farmers, Asians as crop processors and shop-keepers, and Europeans as exporters – and my estimates of the ensuing income inequality in my dissertation showed the economic underpinnings for the expulsion. Writing the dissertation was itself an emotional experience because of the expulsion. I always kept thinking about Uganda and our life there. I so much wanted to return. In 1982 I sneaked into Uganda from a family wedding in Kisumu with a guest who had returned to live in Uganda. I saw the utter devastation of the countryside as we drove in from Kisumu, and Kampala was in even a worse shape. I saw plantains and cassava growing outside our house in Kololo. I was then already working for the International Labour Organization (ILO) since 1976, recruited based on the promise of the work done for my dissertation. In 1984 I had my first mission to Uganda for the ILO. The mission was received by President Obote. I even asked him about our home in Kololo on Borup Avenue (by then called Malcolm X Avenue). I documented the huge decline of the economy after our departure – a fall in GDP of 33% – and yet there was no visible food poverty as the agriculture sector survived intact. Kampala had become a shamba city, with food crops growing everywhere. Thereafter I had a mission to Uganda every two years. During the mission in 1992 I was helped by the then Minister of Labour Hon Okurut to initiate the process of repossessing our house on Borup Avenue. At the same time my brother-in-law Amin Shivji secured the repossession of his 1,500-acres farm. So I learnt first-hand about the emotion-packed repossession drama. I returned to live in Uganda in 2005, simply because it was home. The country was on the mend. Of course I kept on looking at the statistics of the growth of the economy and income inequality. Returning Asians had contributed to the revival of the economy but Africans had filled the vacuum in the commerce and construction sectors, so that while income inequality worsened, at least the top 1% class now comprise Africans as well as Asians.
So, to sum up: I have strong emotional roots in Uganda, going in fact to my childhood in the 1950s, made stronger because of the expulsion; and I have strong scholarly roots in Uganda for having studied its economy from the start of the Protectorate until 1972 and regularly from 1984 to 2000 and 2005 to now. So, I was in Uganda at crucial turning points of its history and economy and can make visual comparisons of what I see now to how Uganda was at those pivot points – and I have statistics to back me up.
“Evolution” is very much the story of how the book’s writing proceeded, something important to understand to understand why the book is so long and took so long. The book actually started as a magazine for the Aga Khan’s Golden Jubilee in 2007 and then morphed into a magazine for the Commonwealth Conference in Uganda that November. The rationale for the Aga Khan magazine was to record people’s memories of the Imam’s coronation in 1957, while that of the Chogm magazine was to record people’s stories of how they coped through the expulsion. The Chogm magazine failed to appear but I kept on writing.
I discovered several new facts in writing the book – that 100 or so Asians never left Uganda despite the expulsion, five thousand ended up in UNHCR centres in five European countries, and a dozen or so of our people trickled into Uganda soon after the fall of Amin. It is well known that a bulk of our people went to UK and Canada, but less so that quite a number went to the Scandinavian countries, Austria and Holland. Altogether I have more than 500 first-hand stories in the above categories in my book, done through interviews and submissions. I had to ground all the stories on how people came to be in Uganda so I did a section about our pioneers and a section on people’s memories of their Uganda childhood. These again were stories in people’s or pioneers’ descendents’ words. I was conscious all the time that Uganda Africans suffered even more during the dark decades and I compiled 44 stories via interview and autobiographies. These then are stories in the “oral history genre”, about two-thirds of the book.
I had to have a “pure history” section, starting with Amin’s coup and leading to the expulsion and the deterioration of human rights after we were gone, including roles played by countries and UNHCR. I did that from chapters in books, newspaper articles, a UN human-rights mission to Uganda, the diary of the Canadian mission’s chief, Roger St Vincent, and minutes and memoranda I had collected already in 2001 from HCR files in Geneva. The book discusses the reasons for the expulsion based upon my own dissertation. Towards the end there are light pieces on the “socio-economic history” of Asians in Uganda, including the evolution of living standards, education standards, male-female equality, family size and eating habits, and then, of course, like for a film that knows it’s going to be an epic there is a “diary” of doing the book. What was going on in Uganda and the world during the ten years of its writing and what I myself experienced is recorded there. My own bereavement – passing away of my daughter – is recounted with a tribute on the very last page of the book. There is a photo collection of people met in doing the book, running to 15 pages, in lieu of putting photos in the middle of the book.
The Ismaili angle
While I did not write the book to extol His Highness the Aga Khan or the Ismaili community, as history would have it, His Highness did play a very significant role at the expulsion in 1972 in resettling us in Canada and it is also historically true that Ismailis played pioneering roles in East Africa at the turn of the last century under the guidance HH Aga Khan I Hassan Alishah Mehlati through his friendship with the British Raj. The present Aga Khan’s role is done through the diary of the chief of the Canadian mission and people’s stories. Then, fortuitously, the Aga Khan’s beloved uncle Prince Sadruddin played even a bigger role in the Uganda Asians’ resettlement as the head of UN High Commission for Refugees in 1972. I recorded this role through extracts from selected UNHCR internal memos.
My book is not “history” in its pure sense, but it does record for Ismailis several landmarks in Ismaili history through people’s stories – role played by Aga Khan I, when our first council in Uganda opened, who was the president (my grandfather second president), when and where our first school opened, how our schools were repossessed after 1992 – but these landmarks are embedded in people’s stories. The Aga Khan Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah’s role in the East African Welfare Society and construction of the Kibuli Mosque is recorded through rare souvenirs, as also the role of the present Aga Khan in the construction of the Wandegeya Mosque. To do a real history you’d have to go into Ismaili council archives. Unfortunately all our documents were lost at 1972.
The book has also an Ismaili angle in making a direct connection between Uganda Asians’ successful resettlement in Canada and the establishment of the Global Centre of Pluralism in Ottawa. Our success in Canada clearly contributed to Canada incorporating multiculturism in its laws in 1987. That then encouraged the Aga Khan in establishing the Global Centre in Ottawa.
At a personal level I learnt a lot about our life in Uganda. I could write a great multi-generational/multi-family novel out of it. But would I do such a book from here on? Not from here on but certainly if this was 2007. It is history that had to be recorded and it could only be done by one of us, moreover one in his 70s, with memories of the father’s stories of the grandfather’s pioneering days and memories of the expulsion intact. Of course he had to be here during the expulsion. I always knew the sales would not go beyond the “low hundreds”, such being the demographics, but all the same I would still do the book if this was 2007 since history has to be recorded and this was our last chance to do it. I just hope it is taken notice of in serious media and journals.
About myself and family
I am an original Uganda Asian (since 1946), Kenya citizen, BA Cambridge 1964, PhD Stanford 1976, Senior Economist with UN-International Labour Organization 1976-2001, and author of six books on African economies. My grandfather came to Uganda in 1903 at the age of 15 years as an agent of Allidina Visram. At 1916/17 he was the President of our Uganda Council and in 1926/28 Mukhi of Mombasa jamat. My father was sent to Uganda in 1946 to open the first branch of Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust by Count KR Paroo under the instruction of our Imam Sultan Mohammed Shah. My father was DJIT’s manager from then until 1964.