Ugandan Asians Then and Now: Coming to East Africa

Workers stand at the Railhead in Makindu where the construction had stopped. Courtesy Photo.

What you need to know:

The story of the Uganda Asians has never really been fully told. In an upcoming book Vali Jamal helps answer some of the questions and uncovers never-before-told stories of a resilient and enterprising people and their love-hate relationship with the land many called home.

A common myth is that all Asians came to East Africa as coolies to build the “Uganda Railway” at the end of the 19th century. Idi Amin used this as one cornerstone of his expulsion policy, contending that since the railway had been completed Asians should now go back. History of course records that Indians had traded with the East African coast since time immemorial. They were mostly people of Gujarat.

Indians had settled in Zanzibar from quite early on, but their numbers increased sharply when in 1849 the Sultan of Oman moved his seat of governorate to the East African island, taking with him Indian traders who had been the linchpins of his trade and finance.

In the 19 century, Zanzibar was the first port of call for the dhow-sailors from India. In 1875 its population was listed as: 2,725 Khojas; 814 Hindus; 543 Bohras; 116 Memons; 59 Goans. The common concept that Indian migration started with the railway settlement is proved wrong from the above statistics, a full quarter of a century before the railway’s commencement.

However, large-scale migration into East Africa does date from the construction of the Uganda Railway. The first batch were indeed the railway workers, followed in parallel by traders. In total, over 31,000 labourers were imported during the six-year period of construction.

Construction of the Uganda Railway line started at Mombasa in 1896 and reached Kisumu, on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, in 1901. A disassembled ferry was transported to Kisumu by sea and rail where it was reassembled and used to provide a service to Port Bell and, later, other ports on Lake Victoria. A 10km rail line between Port Bell and Kampala was the final link in the chain, until 1931 when the main line was extended from Nakuru to Kampala. The railway is metre gauge and virtually all single-track. The project cost around 5 million pounds to complete [equivalent to about half a billion US dollars in today’s money], and the first services started in 1903.

The events for which the construction of the railway is most famous were the grisly killings of a number of construction workers in 1898, during the building of a bridge across the Tsavo River. A pair of maneless male lions stalked and killed at least 28 Indian and African workers. Some accounts put the number as high as 135.

Most Asians after 1910 or so were not descendants of coolies [and] most railway workers could be categorised as skilled craftsmen, rather than coolies; the people who established the trading networks were from a different class than fundis.

Disease and accidents claimed the lives of 2,493 of them, an average of 38 per month. Another 6,454 were seriously injured. Two man-eating lions caused some of those casualties. The ones who came to build the railway were mostly from the Sikh community, in East Africa in those days sometimes known as “Kalasingha,” from one Sardar Kala Singh who came to Kenya in 1896 and travelled all over the country.

The Sikhs had the skills and the strength to withstand what in the end required a lot of physical labour. To lump them all as “coolies” militates against the facts and is simply and deliberately derogative, something that suited the colonial times. Most belonged to the Ramgharia sect. In 1908 when Churchill praised the Sikh soldier in his book, African Journey, he was referring to the smaller section of Sikh Jats. Both groups came from what was then the Punjab in northwestern India. Today, all over East Africa they are in construction-related industries and in trucking.

Skilled workers
With the completion of the railway in 1901, initially to Port Florence (Kisumu), most of these skilled craftsmen were repatriated to India. A majority of the workers that the British brought in were at least semi-skilled, not load-carriers. One-third of those who came were in fact clerks and guards that stayed behind to run the railway.

With the railway completed, what the British desperately needed was to make their colony pay, and for this they resorted to their proven formula of inducting their new subjects to grow exportable crops in exchange for basic consumer goods; cloth, pots and pans, and cooking oil.

The intermediaries for this exchange had to be Indian traders, the British themselves disinclined to go out from their enclaves in Entebbe and Kampala for this and the Africans were yet unproven in trading.

Cotton was an early success, by 1915 obviating the need for Britain to subsidise the colony. Coffee, tea, and sugar followed. Rubber and cocoa were tried. Asians played important roles in the actual propagation of all these crops, apart from supplying consumer goods. They were familiar with these crops in their native India. They brought back seeds from India and found early markets there for cotton. Almost immediately they took to processing these crops to prepare them for export – or in the case of sugarcane, for domestic consumption.

Wealthy Baganda traders were almost eliminated as likely rivals to Asians when the Buganda Agreement of 1900 made land ownership more lucrative than trade.

Indians gained control of retail and wholesale trade, cotton ginning, coffee and sugar processing, and other segments of commerce. African attempts at breaking into cotton ginning were determinedly put down.

The Book:
The book, Uganda Asians: Then and Now, Here and There, We Contributed, We Contribute, is a comprehensive attempt to tell the story of the Uganda Asians and their contribution to the social, economic and political development of Uganda.

It tells the story of the arrival of the Asians in Uganda, their rise to economic success and to the middle-to-higher echelons of the civil service, as well as the sudden rapture when they were expelled by the Idi Amin regime in 1972, rolling back in three months what had taken more than 70 years to build.

The book’s greatest strength, however, is its people-stories. Told simply but powerfully, they give a face to the statistics and give humanity to the issues of identity, inclusiveness, belonging, loss, fortitude, and finding opportunity when the chips are down.

Widely researched, and designed cleverly by local designer Chris Ssegawa, the book is both interesting and readable, despite being over 1,000 pages long!

As far as helping tell the untold story of Uganda’s Asians, this book is a national treasure, which will, hopefully, get the recognition it deserves during the upcoming Independence Golden Jubilee celebrations. Initially planned for release during the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala, it is probably just as well that the book is set to finally hit the stands in the jubilee year – which also marks 40 years since the expulsion.

In a way the book is not just about the resilience of the Ugandan Asians but about the resilience of all Ugandans, mirroring our undying determination to always pick ourselves up and try again.

The author
Vali Jamal, PhD, has been there, done that, bought the ticket, and now, has written the book. Born in Kenya, Dr Jamal and his family left Uganda during the expulsion in 1972 and eventually settled in Canada.

He obtained a BA from Cambridge and a doctorate from Stanford and had an illustrious career at the International Labour Organisation before returning to Uganda, first in 1982 briefly, and then after the death of his father in 2003. The book, which has taken more than five years to write, is actually the labour of a love that goes back decades.