Escaping a dictator's whim

Natasha Fatah on Uganda's loss and Canada's gain

Imagine being born in country where your family has lived for three or four generations, where you went to school and speak the language and that you consider home.

Then imagine you are told that you are an outsider and you have to leave.

Nearly 60,000 people experienced just that in 1972, many of them ending up in Canada.

At the time, these refugees were a potent symbol of Canada's generosity, but theirs is also a story that is almost too easy to forget.

As it happens, I am working on a new show for CBC Radio which is to be called Promised Land and, for research and to gather interviews, I went to an incredible event just outside of Toronto.

It was a reunion picnic of more than 900 South Asians who gathered to share memories about the good old days in their homeland before they were forced to leave 38 years ago.

Asian emigrants board plane at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, in 1972. (Roger St. Vincent Collection/Government of Canada)

At the event, I heard beautiful Bollywood love songs from the 1960s interspersed with the occasional upbeat tune in Swahili.

Many of the men and women were wearing Indian cotton tunics — shalwaar kameez — but you could also see a great many African dashikis.

You see, when these South Asians were kicked out of their homes, they hadn't been living in the strife-torn areas of Pakistan, India, or Sri Lanka.

Nope, all these South Asians were tossed out of Kampala and other parts of Uganda by the mercurial military dictator Idi Amin, setting off an exodus that was felt around the world.

Forced out

Thousands of these former Ugandans found refuge in Canada, including Anwer Omar, a very close friend of my father's and one of the first people to befriend us when we came here 20 years ago. He's really like an uncle to me.

As he entered the picnic grounds he told me that he didn't want ever to go back to Uganda, that he would prefer to remember it the way it was.

My guess is that the pain of being forced out of your country in the first place can be pretty overwhelming. But as the day went on, I could feel his mood softening.

There is much history here.

The merchant class

In the late 19th century, thousands of Indians went or were sent to Eastern Africa by the British to help build the railroad.

Idi Amin, Uganda's former military dictator, was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Ugandans during the 1970s. He was ousted in 1979 and died in Saudi Arabia in 2003. (Reuters)

As tends to happen throughout the world and throughout history, these migrant workers, as they would now be called, decided not to return to their birth country and remained in Africa, where they had families and built their lives.

Many of the Indians — Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — would go on to become the merchant class of what became Uganda, living prosperous lives, and enjoying the good life.

And while individual Indians often had close personal relationships with black Ugandans, the South Asian community, for the most part, stayed separate from their African neighbours.

That segregation, along with the division of wealth, no doubt contributed to the unpredictable Amin's decision in 1972 to suddenly announce that all 60,000 "Asians," meaning Indians, would have to leave Uganda within three months.

New lives

Many Indian-Africans had been there for three generations or more and considered Uganda their home. Some had maintained the British citizenship of their ancestors who had originally come to that part of Africa searching for the source of the Nile.

But most were simply just Ugandan citizens who had suddenly become completely stateless people.

The nearly 7,000 who found refuge in Canada — Ottawa responding to a British appeal to help relocate them — would, for the most part, go on to build new lives again for themselves here.

They would also open the door for a wave of other South Asian refugees from central and north-eastern Africa in the 1970s. But despite the large influx for the time, theirs is a story that looks like it could easily be forgotten.

Here's why: When I came back from the event, I posted an update on my Facebook page letting people know that I had met all these fascinating Indian-Ugandan-Canadians and was working on a documentary about their escape from Uganda.

Suddenly, from out of the woodwork, several South Asian friends, some of whom I have known for at least 10 years came forward and told me "Oh yeah, that's how my family came to Canada."

Thirty-eight years later, in May 2010, a reunion picnic at Wildwood Park in Mississauga, Ont., for Canadians of South Indian origin who were expelled from Uganda in 1972. (Natasha Fatah/CBC)

In our conversations, it had never come up, and if hadn't been for a simple status update I may have never known. The fact is, I didn't even realize that Uncle Anwer had come here from Uganda until I started working on this show.

So if Anwer's children, and the children of other Indian-Ugandan immigrants, seldom, if ever, refer to their African heritage, then their children certainly won't. And that connection between India and Uganda will almost certainly be forgotten.

At this point, things have changed a bit and Uganda has opened its doors to its former Indian citizens.

The government is encouraging Indians who were forced out in 1972 to come back "home"' and some have indeed returned to restart businesses and purchase homes.

But most, like Anwer Omar, seem content with their lives in the West. Though it is clearly not easy to just set aside your own history. 

After spending the day walking around, meeting old friends and being reminded of the life he left behind, Anwer turned to me and said that, well, maybe he would like to go back after all, just for a visit — to show his Canadian-born daughters where he grew up.