How tracing my Ugandan-Asian heritage has helped me connect with my roots

My grandparents and forefathers were born in Gujarat in north-western India, another place that gives me goosebumps when I visit. But all our family history is in Kampala. My cousins and I spent much of our Eighties childhoods at family gatherings, listening to the raucous laughter of adults reminiscing over a life left – of pranks played, road trips taken, picnics eaten. They recalled day trips to Jinja, stopping for roasted corn, sweet, deep-fried mandazi balls, or a ‘Rolex’ – an omelette-filled chapati – on the way. Even now, I can hear their voices echoing in my mind when I walk along buzzing Kampala Road. My mum used to love the drive-in cinema and dressing up in her Sunday best. She pointed out where Avenue Grocers once stood, the grocery store my grandfather – my father’s father – set up with his brothers. An adventurous soul, my grandfather was always seeking new, interesting ingredients. Four generations on, that habit has stuck with us, too. 

Boats at JinjaCourtesy of Meera Dattani

Leaving Uganda is as big a part of the family story as returning. A British protectorate until the 1960s, it was one of many countries the empire had encouraged thousands of residents from its prized colony, India, to move for work. Many Indians set up businesses – textiles, coffee, tea, retail – and thrived. But the colonialist legacy – two tiers of social status, Indians above Ugandans – would not end well. 

Many Asian families had servants, a term I always had trouble with, and in some cases, those servants were not treated well. In time, I’d have braver conversations with my family about this.

Independence came in 1962, but by 1971, a military coup led by dictator General Idi Amin resulted in the exile of Uganda’s second president, Milton Obote. In August 1972 Amin issued a 90-day expulsion order to the estimated 80,000 Ugandan Asians, before appropriating their businesses and homes in an economic war. Known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’, Amin was also responsible for the massacre of up to half a million Ugandans during his eight years in power.

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