East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians


Uprooted 50 Years Ago

– Exhibition –


I returned to my birthplace on January 28, 2012: 39 years, 3 months and 11 days since my feet touched the fertile soil of Uganda. When I was expelled in 1972, I experienced a short stay at Houndstone Camp, Yeovil, before arriving at Greenham Common, while my family waited to be housed.

I was six years old when I departed Uganda, now returning home felt as if I was returning to a mystical place that existed only in my mind. Although excited at the prospect of returning, it was the thought of retracing the path of my parents and what they endured that inspired me. As an adult, I wanted a better understanding of the trials my father, as head of my family had faced.

I had been told by many that after the expulsion of Asians, Uganda’s businesses, schools and medical centres had deteriorated, so I was intrigued to know if this was true. It struck me that if conditions had worsened, then the tyrant Amin had not only condemned us, but his own people too. I visited my family’s former shop in Jinja. It was now owned by two Ugandan ladies as a garment shop. Initially they were warm and welcoming, but as soon as I shared my history of the shop and asked to take some personal photos I was asked to leave. They feared that if I returned to Uganda I would evict them to claim back what once had rightfully belonged to my family. This saddened me. I came to realise that suspicion and fear remained after all these years because they had come by property that was snatched from us and later acquired by them.

Later, I walked to my former family home. Memories that had lain dormant were suddenly awakened as I recognised familiar feelings and images from my childhood.

A middle eastern lady living in our former house allowed us to come in. My goodness! I could suddenly associate the visions of a place I had in my head with reality. The kitchen looked the same, the outside yard seemed smaller, but the outside washbasin and bathroom were bizarrely still there! The house had changed very little: it felt like a time warp. It was both surreal and emotional and memories four decades old came flooding back.

As I explored, Uganda felt shabby and neglected and in need of attention: buildings were damaged and decaying, which pained me. Uganda had the opportunity and potential to be great, but the lack of investment, initiative and entrepreneurial flair was missing, so my hometown had degenerated. I genuinely believed it was these skills that Asians contributed to it in spades, just as we did and still do in the UK.

As we were approaching the 40th year since the expulsion and I was preparing for an exhibition in 2012, I wanted to research the events of 1972 and visited the museums, libraries and local newspaper office. No one seemed to have documentation nor any information about the expulsion. Why? I could not understand. Such a historical major event and yet hardly any records about any of it. Finally, we went to Makerere University and were lucky enough to find some newspaper archives. I was astounded that a human exodus on such a large scale, a tragedy of such huge proportions could be hidden from view.

In December 2021, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda again. This trip was very different to that in 2012. I, along with the ‘Once Upon a Time 50 years Ago’ team had a private audience with Yoweri Museveni, the President of the Republic of Uganda. It was under the tree at his home where he expressed and repeated his apology for the tragic events of 1972. However, he also reminded us that whilst Asians were in Shepherds Bush he was fighting in the “bush” for freedom. Regretfully, my father passed away in 1990, but I wondered how he would have felt knowing I had received an apology after all these years. Life had come full circle, but I couldn’t share this sweet and poignant moment with him.

During the 10 days of the trip, we travelled to Jinja, cruised along the river Nile, watched the sunset set over Kampala and visited Lugazi, where my family had lived 1954 – 1960. Whilst we were in Lugazi we had the honour of meeting and dining with Mr Mahendra Metha and his charming family. The Metha family are very well known and respected within the Asian community and by Ugandans for their entrepreneurship and successful sugar plantation, which they had to abandon in 1972, but later revived. Businessmen like Metha, I realised, are the heart and soul of a community, providing income, work and prosperity wherever they establish themselves. Surely, they should have been be praised for their efforts, rather than punished?

Although my trip to Uganda in 2012 was emotional, I found this last trip even more so. I have spent the past year listening to people’s memories of the expulsion, learning even more facts about the devastation that was caused by Idi Amin. It was not just the lives of the Asians that had been ruined during his brutal nine years in power. Amin expelled the Asians, decimated the economy and was responsible for mass violations of human rights. Approximately, 500,000 Ugandans were killed from ethnic groups to government ministers to the Archbishop of Uganda. He basically brought economic ruin to the country motivated by his own selfishness, greed and obsession for power! How short-sighted, bloody-minded and unnecessary it was to rip people lives apart for very little gain, but a great deal of harm.

There is so much more to this story.

This exhibition has been very emotional for me because my family’s history is mixed with those of others who experienced the same. We did not migrate from Uganda to explore distant shores; we were forcibly evicted and banished from our home, culture and country of birth.

I cannot even begin to comprehend what my parents went through: the heartache, the trauma of packing up their WHOLE lives into one suitcase; arriving in a strange country they knew very little about; penniless and with five children to support and protect. But, watching them rebuild our lives from nothing, gave me strength, courage, resilience and perseverance to build a successful life for my own family. Personally, I feel many of those expelled have not let obstacles hinder progress but have worked patiently and diligently to grow into useful wise and productive human beings.

I feel I am who I am today as a result of the endeavours and sacrifice of my parents and for that, I am grateful.

Pragna Hay