What you need to know:
- Fifty years ago, hundreds of Asians expelled by Idi Amin’s government flew out from Entebbe International Airport to seek new opportunities mainly in the United Kingdom and Canada. In this 13th instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Subhash Nathwani spoke to Saturday Monitor’s Emmanuel Mutaizibwa in August as he concluded a trip to Uganda, 51 years after he departed for the United Kingdom.
“ My name is Subhash Nathwani. I am the ninth born out of 10 children who were born in Uganda after my parents migrated to the East African country in the early 1920s.
They were quite poor and worked extremely hard to bring us up.
While we had very little, we were very happy. There was great unity in the community irrespective of cast or religion.
We used to play with discarded bicycle tyres, home-made cricket bats and invented games using stones and sticks.
Climbing fruit trees was a great pass time. Children ran around the bushes barefooted and played with home-made football in all the playgrounds.
Life certainly was challenging but despite all the difficulties, there were genuine smiles and togetherness.
With time, education improved and so did the economy. The Indian community grabbed the opportunity and worked hard. My father had a small shop selling clothes and was managing to keep the family afloat.
Business roots in Uganda
In 1964, my eldest brother opened a bookshop and printer named Baboo’s Bookshop and Kitovu Printery respectively, and was very successful and soon we became the largest printers and stationers in Masaka.
With the success, we moved to Kampala and expanded the business to become the biggest wholesalers of paper, books and stationery in East Africa.
In 1968, the bookshop further expanded and established a footprint in Kampala. It was called APS artistic Printers and Stationery. Its office was moved from Kampala Road to Industrial Area on the outskirts of the city.
Within two years, we became the biggest printers in East Africa—if [President Idi] Amin hadn’t kicked us out, perhaps we could be the biggest in Africa. One day, Amin expelled us and we lost everything—wealth and business— all our money had been invested in the stock.
The community in Masaka was divided into a three-tier system. The British had pristine neighbourhoods. Their homes had immaculate lawns, golf courses peppered with verdant fairways, swimming pools; the Asians’ restless spirit of entrepreneurship brought them closer to towns where they built brick and mortar houses, while the natives lived on the margins cultivating to produce foodstuffs.
My wife was born in Soroti and they were the wealthiest family in the district.
I studied at Hill Road Public School in Masaka, which then had a population of 400 pupils but now 4,000. I almost cried when I visited the school upon my return from the UK recently.
The alarm bells of expulsion reverberated across East Africa when then Kenya President Jomo Kenyatta, ominously introduced the Africanisation programme.
I set off for Britain in 1970 at the age of 17, barely a year before Obote was overthrown.
The political situation was not favourable to the Asians. We were told that we needed a passport to do business. I had fear that one day, we were going to be kicked out. I spent about three months travelling around Europe before I reached the UK.
During this arduous journey, I first flew to Egypt and later across Eastern Europe by road and train, going through USSR (Russia), then Greece.
About 35,000 of Ugandan Asians had British passports. Britain accepted 27,000 as others were rejected.
The second biggest group went to Canada because of the Aga Khan’s clout.
Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims and one of the world’s most respected figures.
When Amin kicked them out, Uganda’s population was eight million and one percent were Ugandan Asians, who controlled nearly 90 percent of the economy.
I heard about the expulsion through the press. My family and I had bought a house on a mortgage at the time. About 30 family members came to my house, other [Asian] families went to camps.
Like a stateless community, many Asians often travelled to the UK and would be deported back to Uganda – akin to a shuttle cork trip.
Back then, people who had British passports were denied visas. They would kick you out (of Britain) and deport you back to Uganda. Uganda would send you back and the cycle continued.
I went to Bulgaria, then Yugoslavia, Hungary, East Germany, Denmark then UK. I was taken into a police station and detained for 21 days so that they could process my stay— we were about 20 people— many were thrown out and moved to Denmark and this was publicised in the media.
The Danes asked the Asians who had been expelled to ‘come to our country and settle here. The UK had a change of heart and allowed those expelled to come back and settle in the country.
I left the country with $250 and by the time I got to the UK, I only had $75.
When I arrived in the UK, there were lots of jobs, so I went to Birmingham. A friend and neighbour from Masaka Town took me to a job centre— I got a job at a flour packaging factory—I got seven pounds per week before I took off to London and got a job in a stationery business.
There were a lot of jobs but there was also a lot of racial discrimination against Asians and Blacks.
I worked in London for six months and returned to Birmingham and got a job with GKW, then the largest engineering company in Europe. But gradually, the family was woven into the British societal fabric.
I was expecting a job as a labourer, but they instead gave me a job in the export section of the company. I was the first person of colour to get this kind of job. Within three weeks, my employer realised I was hard working, I would go to office at 8am and leave at 6pm and work on Saturdays without extra pay. Three months later, I was doing as much work of three people would without any extra pay. My employer was amazed by my commitment.
I asked my supervisor why they gave this kind of job to a person of colour. I learnt that before I got the job, there was a Black guy employed at the same engineering firm and he was a graduate but had been sacked. The Black guy went to the media and the firm was accused of being racist. I worked there for a decade.
The first step I took in my entrepreneurial journey was when I set up my first company and a supermarket in a garage in 1972.
I imported footballs from India and sold them in the garage. Everything was sold and I bought a property and put all goods into it. I bought another property and sold it as well and I bought a warehouse. I established the second biggest sports equipment wholesaler business in the Midlands.
I set up the company in 1975 and in 1976, I bought a typewriter, I made some money and travelled to Seychelles, Sudan, Kenya, France, Madagascar, and Mauritius for business.
In the mid-1970s, war engulfed the Middle East and oil prices skyrocketed. This was when I opened up a supermarket and started selling hardware and building materials across the world.
Venturing into fuel business
My younger brother had a promotional business, then I went into fuel stations. I owned four fuel stations and oil companies wanted to work more efficiently. They created the dealer advisory council and I became their chairperson in the UK and I would speak to the UK company executives.
My other Indian friends who have roots in Uganda have since bought about 70 petrol stations— they are the largest retailers in the UK. In my opinion, when Asians were kicked out, this was the greatest opportunity for Ugandans to take the economic mantle. But as a result of corruption, they failed miserably.
When the Asians were expelled, we cried as they missed the food and favourable weather— it was so emotional.
But we found another home away from home as the British government espoused egalitarian values and gave the fleeing Asian Ugandans equal rights.”