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Asia

Negotiating History in Uganda

30 years ago, on 11 April 1979, Uganda’s notorious dictator, Idi Amin, was finally chased from power. In the eight years of his bloody reign, hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered. He also ordered the expulsion of about 90,000 people of Asian origin, mostly Indians, giving them just three months to leave the country. Many lost not only their homes and businesses but also their identity. Some came back and Uganda has become a popular destination for South Asians but the wounds of history are difficult to heal.

Idi Amin, President of Uganda, was ousted 30 years ago -- he expelled thousands of South Asians during his brutal regime

Idi Amin, President of Uganda, was ousted 30 years ago -- he expelled thousands of South Asians during his brutal regime

For the 77-year-old industrialist Mahendra Mehta, it is still painful to remember the days of October 1972 when he had to leave Uganda although he was a Ugandan citizen and even a member of parliament:

“That was the beginning of a new life. I had to start working from scratch and to try to forget Uganda, which had been my home for so many years,” he says.

Mehta went to Canada with his wife and their two children. But he missed Uganda: “I did not feel very comfortable living in Canada. The culture was different, the climate. I was too much of an African.”

When he was allowed to return to his home country after Idi Amin’s fall from power, Mehta took up where he had left and started running his businesses in Uganda just as before. He now employs about 15,000 people worldwide. His empire is worth 350 million dollars.

Idi Amin accused Indians of exploiting Ugandans

It was this ability to be successful businessmen that Idi Amin used to justify his expulsion of the Indian community from Uganda. The British brought many Indians to former British East Africa in the late 19th century to help build the railways.

Later, the Indians built factories in the agriculture-based country and became the elite. After independence in 1962, most of them got Ugandan citizenship. Idi Amin accused the Indians of exploiting Uganda and its people. He expelled them.

But when current president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni came to power in 1986, it was clear to him that only the ousted Indians would be able to revive the shattered economy after years of bloodshed -- only they had the money to invest in coffee, rice and sugar. Only they would developing the manufacturing sector and develop the country. So he invited them back.

Difficult issue of reconciliation

Many chose to return but it has not been easy, as Peter Atekyereza, a sociologist at Kampalas Makarere-University, explained: “The issue of reconciliation must be based on mutual respect. Not by saying ‘although I am seeking reconciliation I am higher than you’. Their reconciliation won’t take place. If it takes place, it will be cosmetic.”

The Indians who returned know the local language and consider themselves Ugandans. But about 90 percent of the 15,000 Indians in Uganda are actually first generation. Many consider the country as one where they will only spend a few years. Their community is not homogenous: Like India itself it is divided by religion, caste and place of origin.

That is why almost no intercultural marriages take place -- neither with other South Asians, nor with Africans. Indians have their temples, gurdwaras and mosques. They buy from Indian jewellers and Indian-owned shops.

But Uganda’s High Comissioner to India, Nimisha Madhvani, herself of Indian origin, remains optimistic that there can be more integration: “Everybody here has something to offer, each culture. And even if you look at Uganda, we are all in different tribes. The Acholi learn from the Basoga. The Acholi from the Lungi. It is a melting pot and now it is very smooth. We are all benefiting from the inter-exchange of food, dance, music, education.”

  • Date 10.04.2009
  • Author Priya Esselborn 10/04/09
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LrtF
  • Date 10.04.2009
  • Author Priya Esselborn 10/04/09
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LrtF