East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

Arrival at RAF Greenham Common

Uprooted 50 Years Ago

– Exhibition –

Arrival at RAF Greenham Common

Over the course of the expulsion over 4,000 Asians were accommodated at the resettlement camp in Greenham Common. The arrival of Asians to Newbury was met with some hostility, much the same in other parts of the Country. Despite this there was still a warm reception from many of the locals and those working in the camps. There were volunteers from the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, The Salvation Army and The British Red Cross, all of whom dedicated huge amounts of time to help the Asians settle. While at Greenham, the Asians had to adjust to a new way of life. Many of the men worked in the canteen preparing and serving food. Many women joined groups where they would spend time cooking and doing crafts with the volunteers. Some young people between 17 – 25 years old joined the British Red Cross Society and could be seen racing though the camp in their roughly fitting, blue nylon coats, proudly sporting the BRCS badges on their lapels.

Greenham Common Resettlement camp opened on 1 October 1972 with a capacity of 1400. It was the second largest camp of the 16 throughout the country. It closed on 30th June 1973, those who had not been offered permanent accommodation by then were moved to another camp.

West Malling in Kent was one of the last to close on 15 January 1974.

On an early morning in June, Vanravan put on his woollen jumper over his grey shirt. He looked out from his brown framed window and saw a view warped wet with water. The early morning mist rising would have normally shivered his bones, but now in June, he knew it would clear as he walked five miles to the farm. At 4.00am, when he woke up, he looked across at his wife as she slept, her sadness was deep; her breathing was heavy: Ingerland had waterlogged her spirit and grounded her inner butterfly back into a scrawny caterpillar again. Expelled from Uganda with only a suitcase and fifty pounds; confined to a ‘Resettlement Centre’ for eighteen months had humiliated all that had coloured her beautiful into squashed spinach-green. A two-bedroom house sleeping six was to him only temporary, though to her it felt interminable. He crept down into the kitchen and saw his lunch, prepared at night, separated into metal pots, stacked and tied into a tea-towel. He hooked his finger through the knot and at 4.30 am left the house to feel…

...the Ingerlish Sky:

Oh, how it droops with fatalistic entropy that narrows its scope and thickens grey dew to thud down slantingroofs and thump to the ground. Early summer’s dour sour light breaking through…

As Vanravan walked five miles to the farm, passed tightly packed angry terrace houses and into open fields, he recalled his full life in Uganda, without self-pity or shame. The smell of Mother Earth that awakened English earth felt heavy and autumnal, whereas in Africa, she danced the morning earth awake. Bending and pulling up onions, cutting cauliflowers and cabbages; hauling wheelbarrows across fields from 5.30 am to 1930 every day, with a five mile walk home, was a far cry from his thriving business back home.

…They knew the coins of cabbages would become pounds; they would save enough to be businessmen again. They were grateful for the work; for the chance to put a little aside to make a new life. From these blood-mud-sweat bestial beginnings, within ten years they would buy houses, create businesses; educate their children to be professionals and become respected members of their communities. All from fifty pounds and a suitcase.

In a bubble, I see our street in used-to-be images, all trim and neat. In this soap bubble, rimmed by rainbow rays, I see our house; its pebble-dashed cream fascia bordered by mop-headed hydrangeas coloured pink, lilac and sea-blues. In this soon-to-pop nubble, I see the choreography of two-step gardening with neighbours nodding and clipping their shears in unison. I see England identified as England before it burst POP to become forever Ingerland.

We moved into the street in 1972 and were the first Asians to do so. At first, we aroused curtain-twitching curiosity; whispers whisking up and down from house to house about a brown-skinned family that had moved into No.10. We were placed under surveillance. We saw shifty-eyed glances towards our house as our neighbours walked by to detect if their sense of order would be disturbed by strange curry smells spiralling, or by contagious weeds spreading wild across our front gardens, signalling imminent decay.

They needn’t have been concerned because we were obedient Asians: familiar with the rules of our imperial subjugators; used to assimilating our tawdry habits with those of our acknowledged betters. We dutifully mowed our lawn, up and down never sideways, shampooed and set our hedges, scrubbed and polished our driveway into a yellow brick road gleam. We timed our chores to their time signature: we worked when they worked, when they hung out their washing, we did too and when we cooked our flavourful-food, we hermetically sealed every pore of our house lest any curry-smells escaped. Thus, the conformity and continuity of the street, with its scripted expectations were met and we were forgiven our trespasses. Or so we thought.

“Hello, Gladys. Have you seen them new people at no.10?” asked Doris, shuffling up to Glady’s front gate, looking left and right as if she were on a secret ‘Moneypenny’ mission.

“I’ve heard about them, but I haven’t seen them,” replied Gladys, “Do you know anything?” “Well, Beryl, who lives next door to them, says they are growing strange vegetables in the back garden.” Doris looked left and right again as she answered.

“Strange vegetables?” asked Gladys.

“Beryl said they looked like runner beans, but they aren’t. If you know what I mean.”

“I wonder what they do with them?” said Gladys genuinely perplexed.

“Some sort of curry I suppose,” replied Doris, “there’s all these strange smells around that house.”

“I know. I went passed there yesterday and had to hold my nose because it was that strong. I don’t know how they can stand living like that; it must stink inside that house!”

Gladys and Doris nodded in agreement while turning their heads conspiratorially left and right: as if they were collecting vital secret data for the Home Office.

“Sheila, from Wellesley Street, said there was a family moved there last month. She told me that she saw two people moving in, but saw hundreds coming out of the house.”

Both women puckered their lips and folded their arms.

“Anyway, I’m off to the shop for some potatoes. Let’s just hope they don’t send any more of them over.”

“Too right.” said Gladys.

“I’ll keep my eye on them to make sure they don’t fill up the loft and basement with brown babies.” said Doris as she waved goodbye.