Uganda, After Idi!
By John Nazareth
We had just returned from a driving holiday, my friends and I. We had been in neighbouring Kenya taking in Nairobi and Mombasa. We were still in a holiday spirit returning from Jinja from a Ken Antao's 21st Birthday Party in Jinja when we caught a snippet on the radio "President Amin has a dream ... Asians are to be expelled from Uganda". We don't think much of it - must be some joke.
Cynthia, my girlfriend (future wife) had a few days earlier left on a holiday to the UK.
And as the days passed it slowly sank in.
I was working for the Ministry of Finance and Planning as a Statistician. At a young age I was in charge of collecting and publishing Uganda's trade statistics, preparing background to the national Budget; it was a great job and times were good. I was contributing to my country in a way I did not think possible. I was a first class citizen with no complaints.
Socially, life was also good. I was the Sports Secretary and Hockey Captain of the Entebbe [formerly "Goan"] Institute. Everything centred around the Club. We were still primarily involved with Goans, but Uganda was integrating. I had studied at an African Highschool (St Mary's College) run by Canadian missionaries, and attended Makerere University there with African colleagues. Africans members constituted 30% of the Entebbe Institute - primarily Civil Servants as Entebbe was the centre of the government. In addition to Goans, we had every kind of members: every tribe of Uganda (Baganda, Basoga, Luo, etc), all types of other Indians (Ismailis, Boras, Patels, etc.), and others (British, Israelis, ...) Friendship was quickly becoming raceless. Indeed, the newly elected President of the club, Dr Peter Tukei, would have been elected regardless of the Expulsion; he was a very popular person and had previously been Vice-President.
Life during the Expulsion turned upside down. Times were tough; we laughed we cried, but in a strange way it was a happy period, an intense period. We truly lived like there was no tomorrow. Most of my family members were Uganda citizens; we thought we would be staying. But my mother, my Aunt Lily and many other would be leaving. (My mum and [late] dad had always thought that they were "too old" to be taking on a new citizenship, not fully realizing then the implications.) And for citizens, we still had to go through the process of verifying our citizenship. And the Uganda government took every excuse to take away our citizenship on some pretext.
I remember queuing outside the Immigration department, sleeping on the streets for 36 hours with my two brothers and sister, brother-in-law and friends. My brother Peter was subdued. His Renunciation of British Citizenship had been mishandled by the Uganda Government several years ago as he had been one of the first to become Ugandan. He expected trouble, and was right; his citizenship was withdrawn. My sister Ruth lost her citizenship because she didn’t have some document that I later realized didn’t apply to her. I almost lost mine because I only had a photocopy of my citizenship, and the officer almost tore it up. I pleaded for time to find the original, noticing from the corner of my eye an old classmate from St. Mary’s College as immigration officer two booths down. I rushed over to him: "Hey Katabula, are you there". "Hey Nazareth, throw it over." Stamp! Stamp! My brother David and I were verified. Peter was subsequently exempted from the Expulsion as he held a senior government post, also in the Ministry of Finance. Ruth could stay as her husband Cyril had his citizenship verified, but she had to resign from her job. Given that I had thrown in my lot with Africans, this was a heartbreak.
And so it went with everyone. And the deadline approached.
If it were not so serious the Expulsion could be funny. President Amin would one day be expelling more and more categories of people, and the next day his ministers would be exempting more and more subcategories, being horrified at the loss to the country. One day it was British Asians, another day all Asians - citizens included. Then the university guild president implored President Amin not to expel citizens (and promptly had to flee for his life); Prof Ali Mazrui also pleaded with him, saying that Asian citizens had consciously chosen to bond with Uganda and were thus stronger citizens than natives who never had to choose. President Nyerere of Tanzania offered to take in any Ugandan citizen who was expelled. President Amin relented and we were allowed to stay. Although he changed his mind, it was now clear to all what his intentions were
With so many losing their citizenship, what to do? The Goans met at the Kampala [Goan] Institute to discuss strategy. The Goan Association used its saved funds to pay for fares out of Uganda for the poor. My brother Peter and I formed the centre of those who wanted to stay. We thought that we should form a group to fight back for the citizenships lost. It ended with us fully expecting a core of us to remain behind.
Then came the UN to take stateless people, and Canada to take anybody (ie regardless of citizenship) who wanted to leave and who qualified. Until then most of the 24,000 Asian Uganda citizens had intended to stay behind. All of a sudden there was a new game in town. Everybody was going to leave now. Well almost everybody. My family stubbornly decided to stay put. A few of my good friends, Ralph Cordeiro, Pio Gomes who were leaving for Canada in one of the early airplanes twisted my arm and made me promise to apply to come to Canada. "When you are called for an interview you choose". I relented and promised to apply (but with no intention of leaving).
Meanwhile my Permanent Secretary (Deputy Minister) I.K. Kabanda called me and said "John, I want you to know that not all Africans hate you. We hope and pray that this will soon be all over so that you can lead a normal life. You can come in to work when you wish, and leave when you wish." I will never forget his graciousness (and made it a point to seek him out when I returned to Uganda 21 years later). Joje Waddimba would say to Peter when he was leaving several months later "I wish my mother were dead. Because of her I remain here. If it were not for her I would leave this cursed country."
And the d[r]eadline approached.
Trevor Remedios was going to stay. He was a citizen. Then one day he was stopped at gunpoint by a Kondo (robber) and had his car stolen - with his Red Card (ID Card) in it. To the UN queue. He would spend 3 months in a UN camp in Rome and then head for Norway. (Eighteen years in Norway, then he too would come to in Canada after hearing of the greatness of this country from his friends and kinfolk.)
Young as I was (25 years) I ended up being the Club volunteer barman, together with Claude De Souza. The bar - the centre of stories. Chris Ssengendo was there one night with his cousin visiting from Kampala. His cousin's eyes were red. I inquire with Chris. "Don't ask. He works at the dreaded Makinde Prison. He had orders to spend all of last night executing [political] prisoners with a hammer to the head." We Asians were being expelled, but black Ugandans were being slaughtered.
Joe Mendes was in a state of panic because his daughter was terrible ill and the deadline was in 3 days. He has already sold his car. I lend him mine. (Friends leaving keep cars with me to sell. My friend Dominic Miranda had left his car with me as he proceeded to Nairobi – on his way to leave the country. I have three.) Drinks to drown our sorrows. Next day ecstacy; he has been allowed to stay till his daughter is well. Drinks all round on Joe.
Gasper is sitting quietly in one corner of The Bar. John Sequeira (the President of the Club) plonks himself on the next stool and slaps Gasper on the back. "So how's everything". Gasper turns and sobs on John's shoulder. He had just put his beloved dog down.
Life started becoming more dangerous, but one got used to it. One day I am stopped by an army roadblock at Kisubi. An army private asks for Shs. 10 to let me through. I have no skill in bribing people and fork out the note nervously - to the wrong officer. "Sir, do you realize what you have done! It's time for Makinde [a dreaded prison from which few left alive]." Just then at the opposite window I notice an old schoolmate from St. Mary’s among the armyfolk and wave to him. He comes round to me and says "John, I will call him to one side to talk. You just drive off and don't look back." Phew!
The tension in Uganda is so thick, one could cut it with a knife. One day in September I am near Neeta Cinema and notice people running. Others saw them and they started running. Within half an hour most of the people in the centre of Kampala were running in different directions. I hear rumours that Entebbe was being bombed as external forces wanted to attack Amin. I phone my mother in Entebbe and she says everything is normal. The following day I realize that the running started when people witness the kidnapping of the Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka from the High Court by soldiers, who stuff him into the trunk of their car and drive off to murder him. Kiwanuka had incurred the wrath of Amin because he refused to convict two American reporters whom Amin wanted disposed of.
Everyone is leaving, the deadline approaches. Cousin Joan and Tom Francis are getting married, rush to Christ the King Church. Later, on the way back to Entebbe from Kampala, hear that Flora and Ludger Gomes are getting married. Rush to Sacred Heart Church in Entebbe. Make it in time - and Flora asks me to be Ludger's Bestman.
And finally the November 5, 1972 deadline arrives. So many friends have left. I already tearfully bade my mother goodbye. She left for Kuala Lumpur Malaysia (where she has many siblings) and my Aunt Lily, for Goa. We register at the Entebbe Club Cricket Pavilion, as all “exempted” Asians have to, and then find out that Pam Da Costa's mother was accidentally exempted, and has to leave the country in 24 hours. I rush her to Kampala to get her papers in order. The next day she is gone.
Past the Deadline, a strange calm has descended. There are still around 5000 Asians left who are citizens or who have been exempted. The Africans have a quiet admiration for those who stay behind in spite of all the harassment. But now is when the killing of Black Ugandans starts in earnest. One gets used to seeing bodies by the roadside every day. A friend, Godfrey Kiggala is killed because President Amin likes his girlfriend.
Now begins my education of Canada. Up to this point I had only heard of Montreal and Winnipeg and wheat through my geography classes. My friends Ralph, Pio and Clarence write to me from Canada and fill me in: Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver. Sounds like a great country and great people.
In May 1973 I travel to Goa for the first time. Cynthia and I get civilly married in Goa where her parents are resident (having retired and left Uganda just 6 months before the Expulsion). I hope to take her back to Uganda later to marry in Church. I return to Uganda to work out everything.
Everyone is happy at my marriage. Mr Kabanda, the Deputy Minister, Mr Geria, the Minister, give me letters of recommendation to support my application for Cynthia's return. The Permanent Secretary for Immigration tells me to come on Monday for the papers. On Monday on the way to Kampala I hear this newscast "The Minister of Immigration has been removed by President Idi Amin because he dresses very poorly." There go my papers. Nobody in the ministry wanted to make any decision without a minister.
A few days later I get called by Henry Kyemba, a minister in President Amin’s government. I am told that Amin would like me to accompany him to the Non-Aligned Nations Conference in Algiers. (Apparently Amin wanted to show the world that he was not discriminating against Asians. As a Uganda citizen working in the Ministry of Finance I seemed an ideal candidate to take on such a conference.) Kyemba tries to persuade me saying: “President Amin could make things happen: I hear that your brother is having difficulty with his citizenship. When you are back it will be restored. I hear you are having trouble getting your wife here. Don’t worry – when you are back she will be here.” My head was spinning. I pleaded for time to think about it. I go back to Entebbe and talk to Joje Waddimba – a friend of Kyemba’s. “I do not want to take favours from Amin - a man whose hands are filled with blood. Who knows – if he is overthrown when we are in Algiers, I will be identified as Amin’s man.” Joje passes on an excuse to Kyemba.
In the meantime, more Goans leave and soon there are now just three Goans left in Entebbe: Arthur De Mello, my brother-in-law Cyril Fernandes and I - and we were all staying in the same house. My brother Peter left to take up a Fellowship at Yale, brother David left to marry his girlfriend Lydia in Canada, sister Ruth left to join my mother (now in London) ahead of Cyril. All of a sudden I realize what Goans mean to me. I had always taken them for granted as I had various friends of all races, and had come to accept myself as an African. I still have a lot of friends in the Institute. But all of a sudden the Goans are gone, and it feels like the death of a parent; the friends cannot fully compensate. (This experience makes me play a leadership role in the Goan community several years later in Toronto.)
In September 1973 I left Uganda, taking two years of Unpaid Leave to do postgraduate studies. I went through Goa, getting married to Cynthia at St. Jerome’s Church in Mapusa. We then proceeded to the UK where I studied for a year at the London School of Economics and obtained a Post-graduate Diploma in Statistics. The situation in Uganda had now taught me to hedge. I was hoping that President Amin would be overthrown while I was studying. But just in case, I decided to apply for Canada from the UK as most of my family and wife’s family had gravitated there. We were accepted. But I had heard a lot of the need for "Canadian experience", so I completed my Masters in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Toronto instead of the LSE.
It is June 1975 and as my studies at the U of T are at an end I realize that President Amin is there to stay. With a heavy heart I finally send in my letter of resignation to the Ministry of Finance, thanking them for giving me an opportunity to serve my country. A tear rolls down my cheek.
Postscript: I obtained my first permanent job in Canada with De Havilland Aircraft on June 3, 1975 – on the feast-day of the Martyrs of Uganda. The Martyrs make sure that Uganda will remain in my heart.