Tag: Uganda

The following oped was published on Huffington Post Canada on Sept. 4, 2015.

When I was three, the same age as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach this week, I became a refugee.

But my family did not face the choices his family faced. My story had a different ending, a happy ending. It did because the government of Canada responded to a humanitarian crisis by putting human beings — and their need for shelter and safety and comfort — above everything else.

My story had a happy ending because Canada chose to treat desperate people in desperate need with honour, with a conviction that these people could and would benefit Canada.

It was 1972 and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin conducted an ethnic cleansing. Ugandans of South Asian origins, including me and my family, had 90 days to leave or face unimaginable consequences.

In that moment, everything changed. Homes, businesses, cars, possessions were to be handed over. Bank accounts would be frozen. Law-abiding, gainfully employed people — with houses and mortgages and so many plans — were homeless, stateless, adrift.

The majority of 80,000 Ugandan Asians held British travel documents, one of colonialism’s many messy legacies. The United Kingdom was faced suddenly with tens of thousands of Asians descending on their tiny island with its big unemployment problem. Chanting slogans such as “Keep Britain white!” Britons took to the streets to protest. The media joined in, penning editorials explaining why the Asian horde must not be allowed to overrun the country. The Town Council of Leicester published an advertisement in the Uganda Argus newspaper, telling Ugandan Asians to stay away from their town.

Britain appealed to Canada to help alleviate their burden.

It was August 1972. The Liberal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was preparing for an October election, and unemployment was high.

Yet Canada acted quickly, announcing an initial admission of 3,000 Ugandan Asians and the immediate dispatch of a diplomatic team to Kampala. “This step will enable us to form a clearer impression of the numbers involved and of the extent to which exceptional measures may have to be taken to deal urgently with those who would not normally qualify for admission,” Trudeau explained.

An ad hoc diplomatic office was set up in Kampala by Sept. 6, leaving precisely 63 days to process the visa applications of thousands of people in a country with a highly unreliable telephone system and rapidly deteriorating security, and to airlift them out of the country before Amin’s Nov. 8 deadline.

The Canadian team going at full tilt — six days a week, 10 hours a day — was efficient, exhausted and, by all accounts, compassionate.

On Sept. 27, 1972, the first plane-load of Ugandan Asians arrived at CFB Longue Pointe in Quebec, where a welcoming centre had been set up. There, arrivals were given warm outer wear for the sudden shift in climate and, because someone had the forethought to train Canadian army cooks in preparing Indian food, they were given something familiar to eat.

According to the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, Canada handed out 6,175 visas over the 63 days. Thirty-one chartered flights carried 4,420 people to Canada. Another 1,725 travelled on commercial flights. More would follow over the next few years.

Idi Amin continued his atrocities in Uganda, where up to half a million Ugandans died before he was ousted by Tanzanian forces in 1979.

When Trudeau announced to the Canadian public his intention to admit fleeing Ugandans, he set the tone for the entire undertaking.

“For our part, we are prepared to offer an honourable place in Canadian life to those Ugandan Asians who came to Canada under this program. Asian immigrants have already added to the cultural richness and variety of our country and, I am sure that those from Uganda will, by their abilities and industry, make an equally important contribution to Canadian society.”

The Ugandan crisis of 1972 is not the Syrian crisis of 2015. According to the UNHCR, since 2011 fully half of Syria’s 22.5 million population has fled, been displaced or died because of the conflict. These numbers are staggering.

But staggering numbers have not stopped Canada before. The Ugandan Asian immigration movement and the successful integration into Canadian society of those who came under it would bolster Canada to take on the massive Indochina refugee program, which in 1979 and 1980 alone brought 60,000 people safely into Canada. From 1975 to 1999, 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos would settle in Canada through this program.

Life was kinder to Alan than the world was. It set that child, still more baby than boy, gently on a beach as though he were a porcelain doll, and brought into focus the human plight of a refugee crisis that is shaking Europe and the world. So that when we look at him in all his unspoiled beauty, his humanity and our own is not lost in a sea of overwhelming statistics and unstoppable brutality.

To give of yourself to alleviate the suffering of another is a privilege, its rewards incalculable. When we deny Alan and so many others like him, we deny ourselves.

Canada can do better. We have done better.

photo7I had a the honour of being a part of the launch at Carleton University in Ottawa yesterday of the Uganda Collection — an archive of over 1,000 newspaper clippings, two video recordings, and a personal memoir that documents the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972.

This is a magnificent collection (now digitized and therefore preserved) of a very important event in Canadian history.

Senator Mobina Jaffer, herself a Ugandan Asian expelled in 1972, spoke at the event, as did Michael Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and an immigration officer in Kampala at the time of the expulsion. I was thrilled to participate by doing a reading.

The collection includes this now infamous ad  the Leiceseter town council placed  in the Uganda Argus in 1972 (and which was referenced in Where the Air Is Sweet).


1db52c66a5f762d1990d27e1e9ac401eI found this 1908 poster (on Pinterest) advertising the Uganda Railway. According to the poster, East Africa comprises “nature’s zoo.”

I’m really glad it’s no longer 1908.

A number of people have asked me, with respect to Where the Air Is Sweet, and also with respect to my place of birth (i.e. Uganda), how was it that South Asians came to live in East Africa in such large numbers.

Late in the 19th century the British empire wanted to build a railway (the Uganda Railway) from the Indian Ocean to the East African interior. And they recruited labour from the Indian subcontinent to do this dangerous job. Many South Asians came and many stayed on. Many, many died.

To be precise, 30,000 South Asian labourers died constructing the Uganda Railway.

This is yet another reason I want to document and honour the role Asians played in the history of East Africa.

As my June 3rd pub date draws closer, a question has been popping up in my mind:

“What do I want to achieve with this book?”

The answer is somewhat obvious: Success, of course! In all its myriad forms. But the thing is, I have been successful with respect to the book. I found time and space to write it. I finished it. I found an agent to represent me. We sold it. I edited it. And edited it. And edited it. It’s about to be published. But I feel a need for something. I still want something. What? Sales are important, positive reviews, media attention, more time to write my next book. These are reasonable responses.

And yet my mind, unsatisfied with the answers I am offering, keeps asking the question.

And so I have been sitting with it. And sitting with it has taken me back to the impetus for writing this novel. What is it that has given me the energy and the willingness to spend money (giving up and turning down well-paying jobs is spending money), the willingness to take time away from my small children, the willingness to give up every safety net I have carefully woven in my life?

Of course I want my book to sell. But if I wanted money and material security I could have kept my job or worked at advancing my “career.” Attention, not so much. I generally hid in the newsrooms in which I worked. Figuratively, literally.

Media attention can drive strong sales, as can positive reviews. And I want my book to reach as many people as possible. But why? To what end?

I often like to read interviews with authors I love. Old interviews, new ones, whatever I can find. Recently I came across a 2003 interview in Quill and Quire with Ann-Marie McDonald. In it she discusses her second novel, The Way the Crow Flies. Something she said, and the way she said it in this interview, grabbed me, held me. Answered my question.

She is speaking about endings, and what constitutes a happy ending.

“I always think the happy ending today is when the story comes out. When there’s a witness. When you know that the story, in its fullness, will be released and returned to the people who should have had it all along. I think that’s a happy ending. That’s a release.”

Ugandan Asians leave Entebbe, Uganda. Photo: NHQ/AC Roger St. Vincent Collection PH-437

Ugandan Asians leave Entebbe, Uganda. Photo: NHQ/AC Roger St. Vincent Collection PH-437

What gave me the guts to spend money, to take time away from my precious children, to be certain in the face of apparent uncertainty was the knowledge that I was bearing witness. The story of the Ugandan Asians has never been told, not in any meaningful way. My fictional story tells of truths these people lived. To share their story is what has compelled me. To share their story is what I want to achieve with this book.

I have my happy ending. It’s here. The story is written, freed, and soon it will be returned to the people who should have had it all along. And how grateful I am for the privilege of being able to give them what was always theirs.

Everything else is icing on the cake.

I had a wonderful conversation earlier today with Mike Molloy, senior fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, and former Director General, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and former Ambassador of Canada to Jordan.

In the early 1970s Mike was a junior immigration officer at the Embassy in Beirut, which was responsible for immigration from East Africa. In August 1972, when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda, Mike was integral to coordinating the Canadian effort to secure shelter for these Asians.

In a makeshift diplomatic office in downtown Kampala, Mike and the Canadian team processed more than 6,000 refugees in 60 days.

His lecture on this extraordinary effort provides an excellent overview of the context of the central event in my novel – the Asian expulsion – and tells the fascinating story of the Canadian diplomatic efforts that followed.

Highly recommended viewing!

I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.


Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

Where the Air is Sweet_finalsmallWhere the Air Is Sweet is the title of my first novel. It is being published by the wonderful people at HarperCollins Canada. The publication date is May 2014. The on sale date (when you can buy it from booksellers) is June 3.

Here is a blurb about the novel taken from my agency’s website:

In 1972, dictator Idi Amin expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda. Though many had lived in East Africa for generations, they were forced to flee in 90 days as their country descended into a surreal vortex of chaos and murder.

Spanning the years between 1921 and 1975, Where the Air Is Sweet tells the story of Raju, a young Indian man drawn to Africa by the human impulse to seek a better life, and three generations of his family who carve a life for themselves in a racially stratified colonial and post-colonial society. Where the Air Is Sweet is a story of family, their loves, their griefs, and finally their sudden expulsion at the hands of one of the world’s most terrifying tyrants.

In the writing of the novel, I relied, in particular, on two excellent books for background of the Idi Amin years. General Amin by David Martin and A State of Blood by Henry Kyemba. Both books provide some great insight into the politics of the time.

I also relied on family members’ recollections. I was born in Mbarara, Uganda (where a good chunk of the novel is set) in 1969, about three and a half years before Idi Amin expelled Asians (South Asians) from Uganda, a group which included my family. Officially he expelled only non-citizen Asians, but it was a little more complicated than that. In any case, I obviously have a personal stake in the telling of this story.


Asian Ugandans board a plane at Entebbe, Uganda,
in September 1972 after Idi Amin’s expulsion order.

I have read a number of long and short histories on Uganda, encyclopedia entries, news articles, whatever I could get my hands on. I was astonished by the almost complete absence of information about Asians. In a book-length rendering on the nation of Uganda from pre-independence until today, it was not uncommon to find a lone paragraph (made up of about two sentences) that summed up the entire history of Asians in Uganda (a history that spans a century or more), including their expulsion.

Someone had to tell their story. So I did. It is not the story. It is one story.

Get in touch with Tasneem

For book club or media requests, please get in touch with Tasneem below.


Yay! Message sent.
Error! Please validate your fields.
© Copyright Tasneem Jamal