Until I saw Uganda with my own eyes, I hadn’t really known what to expect. Although I’d spent the past 20 years imagining how this expedition might pan out, numerous setbacks had made me doubt whether I’d ever make it.
My early impressions had been pieced together from stories I’d heard from my parents as a child. Faded family portraits, black and white photographs of beach trips, wedding shots and the occasional sepia-toned image of either my mother or father in their youth added to the nostalgia and allure of a place that was worlds away from the life they’d created since being expelled from East Africa in 1972.
What was this place they once called home? The need to answer that question has become increasingly urgent in recent years as old age, illness and trauma claims too many people’s lives — with each passing, the oral history of the Ugandan Asian Diaspora fades further out of view.
My trip was an effort to capture some of the context before it’s too late.
I’d always been fascinated by my family’s origins, partly owing to a simple sense of curiosity, and partly because I wanted to be more confident than I was defensive when forced to answer to “where do you come from?” — whether it was a question put to me in the faceless terms of the myopic ethnicity questionnaire, or the playground or pub variation of “no but where do you really come from?”.
One of the most memorable stories was that of my parents’ experience of leaving Uganda, filled as it was with drama, conflict, love, loss, mystery and an unfinished conclusion that begged so many questions.
Like 70,000 other Asians who had made their lives in the former pearl of Africa since the early 19th century, my parents and their extended families suddenly found themselves homeless when Idi Amin, based on dream and psychosis induced delusions, decided that the people who had lived peacefully in Uganda and helped create the backbone of its burgeoning economy were a blight on the country’s future.
My family’s fate hung more precariously in the balance than that of many others owing to various political affiliations that saw them expelled with immediate effect. Their departure from Entebbe Airport was wrought with haste, panic and not much else because the urgency of leaving was all that mattered, there was no time or headspace for reflection.
As I watched the terrain of Uganda come into view from my own plane journey into Entebbe in March 2014, 42 years later, I felt a sense of responsibility rush over me. Somewhat selfishly, I had always wanted my own voyage of discovery. Was I about to trample over something sacred?
A roadmap of memories
Aside from the sketchy memories of their exit, the stories my parents more readily recalled related to their younger lives — of skipping down mango lined streets to school, feeling completely protected in an era where they had the freedom and security to play and grow undeterred.
In preparation for my own expedition, I’d asked them for the names of these streets, the locations of the grand family businesses I’d heard of, where they were married, where they roamed. I knew it would be foolish to go in search of the past, an obviously impossible task by definition, but I needed some kind of roadmap.
Finding Rubaga Road in Uganda’s famed capital of Kampala was easy enough. My mum hadn’t been able to recall the number of her childhood home on this seemingly endless stretch, nor any particular landmarks, just a sense of how she’d experienced the area as a child.
I couldn’t have asked for more — there’s a fine line between expressing curiosity and intruding on the refuge that people create in their minds when an old life has been forced into retreat, especially where the locations of happy memories were the same locations of the traumatic events that later unfolded.
In the three albums that are the visual archive of my family’s history, there are a handful of photographs capturing that era — one of my mum and dad’s wedding on Rubaga Road, a sunny scene, all 1970s yellow, gold, crimson and sepia. The view was so different as I stood there, trying to imagine my 22 year old parents in their own time.
One of the more notable points on my roadmap was the multi sports Nakivubo Stadium in central Kampala; the place where my father won his first — and last — ever trophy for racing his C2360 Czech motorbike. It would have been a proud moment were it not for two factors. Firstly, the fact that my dad’s father only found out about the race when he saw his son on TV, an unintended debut and the second reason; it was the exact same moment that Idi Amin declared that he wanted all Asians out of Uganda.
He was cutting them off and out, metaphorically and physically, as the tortured, dismembered bodies that filled Lake Victoria and the morgues showed in the months that followed. Mere seconds after my dad was celebrating his proud glory, the man whose hand he had just shaken snatched away his dreams.
Standing on the edge of the stadium, staring onto the pitch and imagining my dad careering around filled me with a deep and inexplicable sadness. My dad had told me before I left that there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about Uganda. I could now see and feel why — his success in establishing a business and raising two children in England, having started with nothing, is admirable beyond belief. Standing there though, I got a rare glimpse into what might have been.
A country of contradictions
Uganda today is a country of contradictions — an incredible natural beauty is juxtaposed with manmade chaos. That in itself is no different to any other country where the landscape has been ravaged by the selfish ventures of humankind.
But in Uganda, the sharp contrast literally jolts you from a feeling of awe to one of dismay — you can be walking along the roads of Kololo Hill admiring the city scape from afar when you suddenly find yourself narrowly missing one of the giant potholes that threaten to drag you into the Earth’s crust.
Perhaps that’s why my mum has never returned. The present-day reality would be so unrecognisable that it might cause her memories, which diminish with time anyway, to vanish completely. Then what would remain?
My father has returned since 1972 — in 1994, with his elder brother, the former mayor of Masaka, whose involvement in government politics was one of the reasons my family had ended up on Amin’s hitlist and was given just 48 hours to leave the country when the announcement was made (the rest of the Asian community had 90 days).
The dusty red clay road leading into Masaka from Kampala is precisely 81 miles, which I know from my dad’s diligent record of all the times he made the journey from his father’s and then his marital home into the city, sneaking out with his brother to watch James Bond films or to escape on his bike.
In the mirage created by the heat, everything seems to move in a slow motion haze, past the street sellers, the stalls of fruit ripening in the heat, the famous Equator line. My senses struggle to absorb the clashing stimuli — the smell of sweet fresh pineapple collides with the aroma of rotting mangoes which mingle with the stench of traffic fumes. The roads are strewn with rotting carrier bags that have disintegrated to the point of looking like strings swirling in the draft of each passing vehicle. The sweet and the sickly, the beauty and the dirt — all intermingle and blend into one hypnotising picture, overflowing with colour and exuberance.
On reaching Masaka, I was eager to find someone, anyone, who might know something of the of the time that my family were here. A man in a jelaba, the only Asian face I spotted from the curious crowd, by some miracle understood my ‘mission’. He interpreted my instructions of the places I wanted to see to a boda boda driver who spent the next four hours patiently driving me around, as I sought out places I only have the vaguest sense of — the area where my mother used to live in Musisi Gardens, the cemetery where my dad’s mother and sister are buried, the location of my father’s family business on Hobart Street. Miraculously, I found every spot.
That day was one of the most magical, breath-taking experiences of my life. I’d made it.
The past is another country
I’ve always been full of admiration for what my parents did for themselves and for me and my sister. Reacting practically to their expulsion, just getting on with the task of carving out a new life for themselves and then for us, working tirelessly at jobs and at finding their place in a new community, a new country, into which they’d been vaulted, while their families were scattered elsewhere — a far cry from the close quarters in which they used to happily live.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have led stable lives, it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to navigate your way through struggle, abandonment, and to feel like you don’t belong.
We often think of our family histories in terms of roots, stable, grounded and permanent. But roots are fragile and they can be ripped up and thrown across a thousand miles until they’re in a totally alien landscape.
Returning to England and to my parents, recalling the my experience was a somewhat strained test in sensitivities. While I felt so much closer to their history, I also felt the pain of distance — the distance between them, now grandparents in a happy home they created from practically nothing, and a huge distance from the lives they once occupied.
I may never be able to piece together the entire jigsaw of my family’s past, the moments that happened on the periphery, the times that weren’t captured in a photograph, the places I never got to see, the relatives whose stories were never captured.
But I can at least place them in another time and place now. Having a deeper understanding of the things they were forced to leave behind makes me infinitely more grateful for what they have built since.