Tracing the genesis of the Sikh Community is to go beyond 120 years into the history of East Africa. They originated from Punjabi in Northern India. The first batch of Sikhs to arrive in the region, according to Justice Anup Singh Choudry, were soldiers brought by the Imperial British East African Company (IBEACo) in the 1880s to serve in the police force.
These provided security for the company’s premises and stores. They were also sent to protect the East African railway under construction and the caravan routes to the mainland.
Members of the community talked to were not sure of the exact date when the first Sikhs reached Uganda and their identity. However, they all concurred that by 1900 there were Sikhs in Uganda.
This is buttressed by evidence that the first Sikh temple (Ramgharai Sikh Temple) in Nakivubo was built in 1910. It was a temporary structure. Temples (named Gurdwaras in Punjab) were icons of their presence in the different towns in the country. Soroti, Fortportal, Tororo, Jinja, Mbarara and Mbale are some of the districts in which such temples sit.
In their maiden years in Uganda, the Sikhs gained popularity for their prowess in building and carpentry, says Parminder Singh Katongole, deputy treasurer of NRM. “Any Ugandan builder or carpenter, who learnt the craft between 1940 and the 1970s, is likely to have learnt from the Sikh,” he states.
The Sikhs also thrived in other disciplines such as; politics, business, sports and security.
In Mbarara District, the mark of the Sikh’s impact takes the form of a street and market named after one of their own; Markhan Singh, a successful Sikh businessman that operated from the district. Singh dealt in long haul transport services. At the height of his business he owned about 100 trucks and employed 400 Ugandans.
Sardar Singh Gupta (SS Gupta) was another prosperous Sikh businessman who lived in the district. He doubled as a board member in a number of schools in Mbarara such as Ntare School, Nyamitanga Muslim School and the Church Missionary Society School.
Current status of the community
The setting of the Sikh community has not changed much. Katongole says there are more than 800 Sikh families in the country. They are no longer active in the Police Force and national sports, but they are vibrant in business, politics and the judiciary. They are more pronounced in the fabrication and long haul transport businesses.
Many a Ugandan can only identify a Sikh by their beard and turban. And when the Sikh’s name is unknown to the Ugandan, the latter will likely invoke the former’s moniker, Singha Singha.
How did the name Singha Singha come about? The origin is not clear. “But one would assume it is derived from Singh, the name of every male Sikh. The Swahili pronounce it as Sing-ha. Thus Singha Singha applies to the whole male Sikh community,” explains Justice Choudry.
The turban and beard show respect of Sikhism (the Sikh religion) says N.P Singh, the Secretary General of Sikh Association of Uganda.
The Sikh etiquette
When a Sikh is baptised, he is referred as Khalsa, meaning, The Pure. A Khalsa is expected to follow the Sikh code of conduct and wear prescribed physical articles of the faith. One of them is never to cut their hair and the beard. The hair is required to be under the turban.
“A Khalsa also has to carry a wooden comb to properly groom their hair. This is a symbol of cleanliness. They are supposed to don specially made cotton underwear as a reminder of the commitment to purity,” explains the Secretary General. “A steel bangle signifying bondage to truth and a ceremonial sword are the other two physical articles we wear.”
N.P Singh notes, Sikhs, especially the young generation, find difficulty in their bid to live by the Sikh code of conduct. They have to bear explaining themselves over and again, why they do not cut their hair. The adults are not spared. Some have been labelled Osama Bin Laden (the fallen leader of Al –Qaeda) because of their long beards.
The turban, steel bangle and Punjabi, the Sikh language, are the distinct features of the Sikhs from the rest of the Asian community. The Sikhs, also, do not worship idols.
In a Sikh home
When a Sikh is born, the Holy Book is randomly opened and the child is named after the first letter, on the first verse of the random page. For example, if the letter is P the child is given a name that begins with letter P, if the letter is A, their name has to start with A.