Before the Expulsion: The History of the South Asian Community in Uganda
by Olivia Musselwhite
In August of 1972, General Idi Amin announced the expulsion of Uganda’s South Asian population. In accounts told by members of the Ugandan Asian community in Canada, the expulsion announcement was sudden and unexpected. By the time that the expulsion was announced, there had already been many generations of South Asian families who viewed Uganda as their home.
The migration of South Asians to Uganda began prior to the arrival of European colonialists. In the 2nd century, South Asian communities began participating in a growing network of trade in the Indian Ocean and in the Arabian Peninsula, establishing themselves in Uganda as traders and shopkeepers (Muhammedi, 2017). South Asian people were not the only ones making their way to East Africa, and it soon became a rich multicultural center of opportunities (Melady & Melady, as cited in Muhammedi, 2017).
In the 19th century, there was an influx of South Asian people voluntarily migrating to East Africa for political, social, and economic gains (Muhammedi, 2017). In the 1840s, European colonialists had moved into East Africa and South Asian workers were brought to Uganda and Kenya as indentured labourers to build railways (Muhammedi, 2017). The workers were known colloquially as coolies, coming from the Hindi world “quli” meaning laborer (Muhammedi, 2017). The Ugandan railway took five years to complete (from 1896-1901) with 32,000 workers recruited and 6,724 choosing to stay in East Africa (Muhammedi, 2017).
After the railway was built, Asian migrants set up small shops or dukas along the railway routes, working long hours selling small quantities of exotic consumer goods to farmers in exchange for food items (Muhammedi, 2017). Over time, their shops were diminished by competition from local Ugandans and the Ugandan Asian community moved on to wholesale and manufacturing (Muhammedi, 2017). Britain viewed Uganda as a crown jewel of Africa and as Ugandan trade rapidly rose, the British turned to the Asian community rather than local Ugandans to run their operations (Bennion, 2002). Eventually, Ugandan Asian businesses dominated the production of Uganda’s main exports including wool and coffee (Jamal, 1976). In Carleton University’s oral history project interviewing Ugandan Asians living in Canada, some interviewees spoke of their families who owned stores that were successful, providing them with a comfortable life in Uganda. Many interviewees spoke fondly about growing up in Uganda.
The voluntary migration of more South Asians from Goa was also encouraged by British recruitment campaigns, bringing government officials with the purpose of replicating bureaucratic systems of colonial rule already established in India, working in the public sector and as shopkeepers, tailors, cooks, and stewards (Muhammedi, 2017). Many Goans aimed to go home after working in Uganda, giving the impression that the Asian community in Uganda had selfish interests (Muhammedi 2017). Even though this idea did not reflect the aspirations of the entire Goan community in Uganda, the idea still labelled Asians as foreigners or indentured labourers who “forgot to return home” (Muhammedi, 2017).
The second and third generations of the Ugandan Asian community began obtaining specialized training and university degrees in East Africa, which led to their contributions to law, medicine and teaching (Muhammedi, 2017). By the time of Ugandan independence in 1962, the Ugandan Asian community made up a small portion of the population but earned a large percentage of the national income (Mahoney, 2022). By the early 1970s, it was estimated that Ugandan Asians controlled around eighty to ninety percent of the commercial sector and Ugandan trade (Muhammedi, 2017). Their professions secured them middle and upper class positions in society, encouraged by British imperialism that actively sought to make the Ugandan Asian community a buffer between the imperialists and local Ugandans (Muhammedi, 2017).
The majority of local Ugandans remained wage labourers and domestic servants, with the general perception being that the British had wealth and power, the Asian community had wealth without power and the African community with neither wealth nor power (Cosemans, 2018). During Milton Obote’s presidency starting in 1966, tensions between African and Asian Ugandans was already heightened and Obote pursued what he called the “Africanization” of Uganda, restricting movement of non-citizen Ugandan Asians in the economy to fill positions with African Ugandans (Mahoney, 2022).
The deep historical roots of South Asian people in Uganda are complex, with South Asian communities migrating to Uganda for new opportunities, contributing to East Africa’s future as well as investing in their own. Many generations of South Asian families recognized Uganda as their home before their sudden expulsion, uprooting themselves once again and starting new lives across the world.
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Jamal, V. (1976). Asians in Uganda, 1880-1972: Inequality and expulsion. The Economic History Review 29(4), 602–616. https://doi.org/10.2307/2595346.
Mahoney, J. (2022). Chronology. The Uganda Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Carleton University. https://carleton.ca/uganda-collection/chronology/.
Muhammedi, S. (2017). ‘Gifts from Amin’: The resettlement, integration, and identities of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 4438. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/4438.