Saturday June 21 2014

No home like Uganda for Sudhir’s uncle, Babulal

Babulal Valji Ruperelia

Babulal Valji Ruperelia 

My father came to Uganda in 1907 when he was two years old and grew up in Jinja, where my grandfather established a business. I was born in Kampala in 1929.
My grandfather, I was told, had established a business partnership in Jinja with three other brothers. They were dealing in fabrics and foodstuff, supplying the whole of Busoga region. By that time, there were very few shops.

When my father came of age, he moved to Kampala where he established a motorcycle spare parts business on Aldina Visram Street, now Luwum Street. We used to stay just behind the shop so my early life in Uganda was spent in the city centre.
As children, we roamed the city with the Constitution Square, present-day Golf Course and the Kabaka’s Lake as our playing areas. We used to walk to those places because there were no taxis in Kampala those days until the early 1960s.

For my early education, I went to Old Kampala Primary School but my two sisters did not because by that time, girls were not much considered in education.

At the age of 11, in 1940, my family and I went to India and returned after six years in 1947. My father had returned a year earlier.

When my father came back from India in 1946, he didn’t have money to start his own business. So he sought employment and worked as a manager at Town Talkies cinema in Jinja before moving to Mbale’s Krishna cinema in the same capacity until 1954.

I rejoined him in Mbale after returning from India, now aged 18years, and he took me to a private school called Pillay. We were only four students in the class. After eight months, I stopped schooling at Senior Three and looked for employment.

In 1948, I came to Kampala and started working with Standard Chartered Bank as a clerk for one and half years, before joining the customs in the same capacity for seven months. From there, I went to an Indian law firm for another 18 months, before ending my formal employment with British American Tobacco.

Into the business world
In October 1956, I moved from Jinja to Katwe-Kabatoro in Kasese District to take over a government shop whose operator had gone bankrupt. I had to pay government Shs32,500 for the shop, but I never paid in cash, I was allowed to pay in equal installments for six months before I could fully own the shop.

I stayed in abatoro until March 1962, dealing in general merchandise for the start but, along the way, the demands of the clients dictated what I stocked. In Kabatoro, I had two categories of clients; the tourists going to Queen Elizabeth National Park and the African population from Lake Katwe.

Lake Katwe was predominantly an African area while Katwe-Kabatoro was an Indian community. There was only one Indian in Katwe who owned all the shops in the area, the Africans were mining salt from the lake.
From Kabatoro, I went to Katwe African area where I rented a shop and started dealing in general merchandise between 1964 and 1966. After a short while I took over a fuel pump station next to my shop from a Muganda friend supplying paraffin.

Goods used to come from Kampala and I was using my trucks - a Mercedes and Ford Lorries - which I had acquired during the years at Kabatoro.

In 1966, I left the shop in Katwe under the care of my in-law and went to Kasese were I opened another shop dealing in general hardware, later diversifying into things like motorcycle spare parts and other small spares that were highly demanded by the community.

I stayed in Kasese until 1972 when Amin made the announcement ordering all Asians of British citizenship out of the country.
The coup
The coup did not affect us in Kasese and I am sure even the Indians in Kampala were not affected, though many of them jubilated Milton Obote’s fall.

Obote had wanted all British Asians out of the country, so when he was toppled there was cause for jubilation, but little did they know the worst was yet to come.
At the start, all seemed well.

The economy started falling because of Amin’s policies which countries like America and Britain and others did not support. But when he expelled the Asians, the economy took a turn for the worst.

The expulsion
When the expulsion was announced, I was not worried because I knew I was a Ugandan. My concern was my wife who was a British subject. Unfortunately, the government was not clear on people who had non-Ugandan wives or husbands.

I sent a telegram to the immigration office inquiring about my wife’s status but got no reply. With no response, I didn’t wait for chances; I sent my wife and children to Britain in October 1972. I stayed and carried on with my business until when I sold it off in December 1972.

I sold it at Shs80,000 to a Munyakole man who cheated me by paying me only half of the amount. In January 1973, I moved to Kampala. I decided to sell it because we were only two Asians left in Kasese. It was no longer easy to do business; leaving the shop unattended to and come to Kampala to buy merchandise was not easy.

Moving to Kampala
In January 1973, I joined my brother-in-law on Bukoto Street in Kamwokya. He was alone and he needed company. After three years, I moved out in a much smaller place, only to return after six months. However, in 1973, I had to travel to UK to see my family for a few months.

Air tickets were sold in Ugandan currency and one was allowed to carry a travel allowance of 50 British Pounds, which had to be applied for and was subject to approval or rejection.
In 1976, one of Amin’s minister for Trade, and later Information, Edward Lorika Atio, wanted someone to look after his factory in Kawempe, making polythene sheets and socks.

One of my Asian friends introduced me to the minister but I gave him a condition before I could start working for him.

I told him to get me permission for my wife and children’s return from Britain.

A few weeks after starting work, the permits were issued and my wife and children returned in January 1978. By the time they returned, I had moved from Bukoto to the Sikh temple in Nakasero.

I was a manager of the factory with my office on 6th Street, Industrial Area. My role was marketing, securing raw materials and taking care of Atio’s finances.

Being a minister he easily accessed foreign currency to buy raw materials from Kenya, while the hardware was from China. He was making good money. I worked with him until April 1979 when Amin was toppled and Atio fled to Kenya, though by that time, he was out of cabinet.
During Amin’s time I never felt threatened, we used to go to Cinemas till 11 O’clock in the night. There were no racial discrimination, many Ugandans were congratulating us that we were brave we stayed behind.

Business through Post Office
Before working with the minister, I was getting parcels through Post Office containing small things like spare parts, tube valves and other small bits from the UK. This was the only alternative as no person of Asian origin was allowed to rent a shop or a house.
Those of us who stayed behind were allowed to retain the houses we were staying in but the rest were under the care of the custodian board. During this time, we used to line up for essential commodities like paraffin, sugar, cooking oil and others in industrial area near the 6th street. When Amin was overthrown in 1979 we were happy thinking things would get better.

New Life
After the fall of Amin, I worked with Mukwano’s brother for a year as a cashier until I got into problems with Muwanga (Paulo). I was arrested from my work place because I was working with Mukwano’s brother. Upon release I decided not to go back.
I stayed for one year without work until February 1982 when I mobilised finances and paid Shs10m in goodwill for a shop on Kampala Road called Sekabanjja City Fashions Limited. It belonged to a one Sekabanjja, an auditor and was being managed by his wife.

Unfortunately, I could not change the name so I worked under the previous name. I started importing goods from Kenya, Taiwan, Japan and did other general businesses. In 1992, I changed the name to Downtown when we started a forex bureau.

Asians return
When Obote allowed the Asians to return, some of us were happy. Many of the returnees consulted me before coming back. Some of them came when they had nowhere to stay; I housed them for a couple of weeks or months until they set themselves up.
One such a person was Sudhir Ruparelia, my nephew. When he came back in 1985, he stayed with me for four months. I had helped him secure a Ugandan passport before coming back in 1985 from UK.

Besides helping returnees, those who were not coming back, especially the elderly and the sick, asked me to sell their properties and send them their money.

Giving back to community
Uganda is my country and it has been good to me. I decided that in my old age, I should give back. I had adopted a young girl who I sent to India to study medicine; when she came back I decided to open this Free Homeopathic clinic. The only payment there is Shs3,500 for the registration but the subsequent visits are free.
Unfortunately, people refrain from taking these free services thinking they are not effective. On average, we get about 15 people but when we go to our monthly camp in Iganga, we take care of up to 300 people. This is one of the ways I can give back to my fellow Ugandans.