In September 1972 Idi Amin made one of his crazy announcements: he said he wanted all Asians to get out of the country in 90 days. We didn’t take it seriously. But then we started seeing tanks.
At first we didn’t take this seriously either – or at least I didn’t. In fact, I thought it was really cool – seeing tanks and soldiers for the first time.
But very quickly things changed. They took my father away, as he ran a big business for scrap metal and so they saw there was money to be made from him. They held him for ransom. My uncle Navinmasa was a barrister who had lots of political connections, and so he helped to get him out of prison. We realised very quickly it wasn’t safe anymore and we had to get out.
I was 13 at the time and I was just a kid. Playing sports was my greatest passion and so to be honest one of the biggest things I was worried about was of the 200kg limited allowance we were allowed to take with us. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take any of my sports equipment with me.
I brought clothes and I remember packing a razor as being 13 I was looking forward to my first shave. My Mother had so many precious things to bring but we couldn’t. I remember driving to Entebbe with a suitcase of cash to bribe them to send one box to the UK. That was a scary journey as it was in the dark and we were stopped many times by army patrol. We hoped the box would arrive in the UK as, despite the bribes, we weren’t sure it would.
My mother (Ba) and I packed our things as best we could and, on October 2nd 1972, the two of us left Uganda. Our Father stayed behind in Uganda. My elder sister (Pratibha) was already married and settled in the UK, and my second-eldest sister Raju was in India at university. I was a Ugandan citizen and so was my father. We had thought that this might help us when soldiers took him – we said, “We are Ugandan Asians and not British Asians,” and we showed them our passports.
But the soldiers simply took our passports and ripped them up! So, without passports, we were stateless.
Thankfully Ba had a British passport, so she could go to UK. But Dada and I were refugees. However, as I was underage, I was able to get a minor addition on my mother’s passport. This was strange for me as I was used to my independence, and I regularly used to travel to Kenya on my own. We flew on my first commercial flight to the UK which was exciting for me. I had only been in a plane once before which was a 3-seater. I had got a birthday gift from Navinmasa and my dad to ride in this small plane a year before.
We arrived on 3rd October. I still have Ba’s passport which has the stamp on it of 3 Oct 1972.
I remember queuing up for days on end at British High Commission. We waited hours on pavement outside only to be told to leave once we got in.
I missed my friends. I missed the weather. I missed the freedom.
In Uganda, the life was good. As kids, we were on our own and we filled our own schedule. I was good at squash, tennis, badminton, swimming and running. This all disappeared. When we came to London it was October and it was cold. I had never seen a cold day before this. My mother had no coat, only a sari and open-toe sandals.
I remember the feeling of cold toes which I hadn’t felt before.
We had to take a bus to whomever was going to keep us for the next 2 weeks. Lots of people let us stay with them but it was hard for them too as they were also trying to settle into a new life and were limited with space and money.
The box we had sent arrived in the UK, with lots of things missing. To be honest, we weren’t worried about possessions but worried about what to do now we were in the UK and how to get the family back together. When I went to school they teased me as my vocabulary was so wide, as in Uganda we had been privately educated and my command of English language was much better than theirs so from this perspective some of the other kids thought I was quite posh! But my clothing firmly put an end to that view, as I wore cheap clothes, and they didn’t think this was so cool! I was fortunate not to have an issue with the language, but Ba did as she couldn’t speak English and learned fast.
You ask me if I was scared, and to be honest I wasn’t scared at all. Perhaps because I was a 13-year-old kid and at that age you feel invincible and see it as an adventure. But I do remember feeling anxious for Ba. We stayed with different relatives and Ba didn’t like this. Tradition was mothers don’t take anything from their daughters – ever – not even a glass of water. We stayed with my elder sister and Ba used to cry all the time because she didn’t like this.
The hardest bit for me was worrying when I heard my mum cry herself to sleep every night.
My dad was still in Uganda. He finally got left with the last refugees when the UN came in and moved them out, and he went to a refugee camp in Italy. He then went to American from there. I was actually an American citizen for 6 months. I told my father I want an English education and after another year he came to the UK. It took 2 years to get my family together.
Looking back, life in Uganda was very good. What was my favourite memory there? I have many, but one that stands out is one mountaineering trip.
I used to love mountaineering. I remember getting to the top of Muhavura Volcano. I walked to the edge of the mountain and look downed and saw clouds were below me and I remember feeling something very spiritual. I felt God in that moment. On one hand I felt insignificant and on the other hand I felt extreme joy. I didn’t know what it was. That was a special, special moment.
I loved the wildlife and nature in Uganda. And the freedom.
But back to the UK, like most immigrants, we experienced a lot of racism. People kept calling us “Pakis” in a very derogatory way.
There were people called skinheads who had shaved heads and they would go around beating up “Pakis.”
Looking back, we did have racism in Uganda and now I recognise it was Asians being racist to the Blacks.
In the UK we found some shops wouldn’t serve us. They would spit on the floor next to our feet and say go back to where you came from.
I realised after, that the Pakistanis came before us and they didn’t integrate that well. People called us smelly. The first year was tough, as I had to fit in. The other kids at school used to say I was different, but they didn’t like my friends. There were 4 or 5 of us from Uganda in the same school. I was staying with Kamukaki and Shanti dada in Wealdstone. Blackwell High school between Hatch End and Harrow. It was a large school.
For the first 5 or 6 years we weren’t able to keep in touch with people back home. There was no social media or mobile phones. Even landline phones were very expensive. So, the only way to keep in touch was by letter and we didn’t have our friends’ addresses. I just made new friends. Sandhya Samani was in school. Aditi and I met there.
Looking back, perhaps it was the best thing that could have happened to us. Amin went on to slaughter many people. God was protecting us and saved us all. I am grateful for the opportunities we had, and although we came here with no possessions, we had family and that was all we needed.