Ugandan Asian Refugee Movement 1972

From Khoja Wiki

This essay and others like it on Khojawiki are written to provide context for the life and migration stories of individual Khoja families. We would like to add more such family histories of those who lived here, so our collective history is more complete. Please Click Here To Add Your Family And More Information To Our History

Khojawiki Uganda Expulsion Anthology 2022

Remembering the Ugandan Expulsion: 50 Years of History, Centuries of Amnesia

Karim H. Karim**

Special to Khojawiki

Our acts of remembering are selective. It is impossible to recall everything because massive amounts of information accumulate daily from our lived experiences. The brain copes by keeping conscious only some memories and storing away the rest. Remembering, therefore, constantly wrestles with forgetting.

External factors further constrict our recollections. Czech writer Milan Kundera remarked in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Narratives that are favoured by well-placed individuals and institutions shape society’s primary remembrances. Our efforts to form our own identity are continually subverted by the forces that want to construct an image of us that is beneficial to them. Dominant media, leaders, and even educators emphasize only certain parts of the past, which they repeat again and again. That which does not fit into the official script recedes into an incoherent, amnesic haze. The history that we believe to be the full story is actually a stitched-up patchwork, which those in hegemony insist we should adopt and cherish.

The 50th anniversary of the 1972 Ugandan expulsion of South Asians, including Khoja Ismailis, is currently being commemorated in Canada and elsewhere. This remembering has been placed into a larger framework of forgetting. Canadian Ismaili media are giving almost no attention to two centuries of the community’s settlement in Africa. A major theme of the coverage is “Routes to Roots.” But the roots of Khojas in India and Africa and routes through these places as well as the difficulties of settling in Canada are barely mentioned. After briefly stating that Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972, the items that are supposedly commemorating the historical incident jump right into current institutional events. The past’s repetitive disappearance after each program’s introduction is followed by a long and glowing narrative on organizational achievements in present-day Canada. This approach has made it obvious that the overriding objective is to use the Uganda commemoration for the community media’s own preferred messaging (i.e. “bait and switch”).

With the programs’ focus fixed on the organizational projects, corporatized structure is eclipsing the community and its history. Video after video displays smartly dressed people at spectacular locations greeting dignitaries who step out of sleek limousines. On offer are the classic tropes of the immigrant success story; the model minority having done good is richly lauded by prominent politicians. Narcissistic flamboyance is on full show.

“What is the now of modernity?” asks Homi Bhabha, Harvard professor and former member of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s steering committee, in his book The Location of Culture. “Who defines the present from which we speak?” He also ponders about the way that historical time is established by dominant voices. In an expedient reconstruction of facts, 1972 is generally inscribed in community media as the beginning of the community in Canada. (That it was the “first large-scale migration” of Ismailis to the country is stated occasionally, but this detail is obscured by the media items’ contradictory streams of words and images.) The Ugandan expulsion is made the origin story of Ismailis in Canada. It does not seem to matter that there were community members in the country decades before the 1970s, many of whom were crucial in assisting the settlement of Ugandan refugees. No acknowledgement is made of the scholarly discussion that the first Khoja may possibly have arrived as early as 1910. These details seem to be irrelevant in the communal media’s viewpoint because the organizational structure of which they are a part did not exist before the 1970s.

Official discourse on the commemoration of the Ugandan arrival also avoids mentioning the hard struggles of integrating economically, socially and culturally into Canadian society. No mention of mental trauma and broken families. No mention of the long-running misery of the poverty-stricken (i.e. the misplaced and forgotten “ultra-poor”). No mention of racism in Africa or Canada. A messy past is sanitized into a pristine present – a modernity that is progressing inexorably towards an even more fabulous future. The official line is the success story; divergent facts about any kind of failure are frowned upon and have no place in the organizational narrative.

Materials produced on the Ugandan anniversary by Ismailis working in the public sphere in Canada have stood in stark contrast. Omar Sachedina’s CTV documentary featured a family trip to Uganda that enabled viewers to see his mother’s pain as she struggled to revisit her memories. Zahra Premji’s interviews with former Ugandan refugees, for a CBC news item, covered some of the wrenching early experiences of coping with Canadian society. Salim Rhemtulla’s play, 90 Days, broached issues of deep attachment to Africa, racial tensions, fear, and violence. Rungh magazine editor Zul Suleman raised the uncomfortable reality that many of the immigrants who had an easier start in Canada were those who had managed to smuggle large amounts of money out of Africa. A conference at Carleton University, initiated by Shezan Muhammedi, opened other critical discussions. Discourses that ran counter to the official narrative also appeared in M.G. Vassanji, Sultan Somjee, and Mohamed Keshavjee’s articles in KhojaWiki.

Ismaili institutions have been vital in enabling the community to cope with the challenges of life in Canada. But jamati members also have an existence outside the formal infrastructure. Communal media’s disingenuous approach to the Ugandan expulsion’s 50th anniversary has placed long-standing disjunctures in the spotlight. It has made clearer how forgetting significant aspects of the community’s history has been part of a larger tendency to pour organizational resources selectively into studying and promoting knowledge about only certain periods, places, and people and to disregard others. Khoja Ismaili children are taught in communal educational settings about the Fatimids who lived 1,000 years ago but are kept ignorant about their own families’ valiant South Asian and African achievements.

There is hardly any trace of the Khoja past in any of the marvellous buildings and parks constructed by Ismaili organizations in Canada. Their cultural inspiration instead comes mainly from the Middle East. This process of erasure has been occurring place for a long time. It was in place around a hundred years ago when Gujarati and Khojki were dismembered from communal schools’ curricula. This short-sighted policy separated succeeding generations from their oral and written heritage. It made them increasingly deaf and blind to the treasury of Ginans that has nurtured the community’s faith and ethics for centuries.

Khoja Ismailis are burdened with a debilitating legacy of induced amnesia. Rather than recognize and repair the loss, the organizational march into the future continues to hollow out the past. Memories are manufactured within an official framework that erases vital aspects of the community’s history. This has produced a people with faded recollections of their own languages and priceless heritage. To misquote S.S. Sisodia, a fictional character of Salman Rushdie: The trouble with Ismailis in Canada is that their history happened overseas, so they don’t know what it means.

Let me conclude on an optimistic note. The IIS conference on The State of the Field in Ismaili studies, held in November 2022, opened with a strong panel in which Ali Asani, Wafi Momin, Soumen Mukherjee and Hussain Jasani spoke on the historical and contemporary aspects of the Satpanth tradition. Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s paper examined the endeavours of diasporic Khoja women in memory-work and placemaking through sharing food cultures. Canadian professors Zul Hirji and Shafique Virani’s respective presentations brought to the audience’s attention the largely untapped resources available for in-depth studies of Khoja presence in Africa and Central Asia.

Online sites like KhojaWiki,, Ismailimail, Ginan Central, and Simerg are also making accessible bodies of information that have been forgotten in organizational sources. Such enterprises of individuals, who care deeply about the community’s heritage, are attracting large followings. They manifest perspectives in which the present and the future have an integral relationship with the past and in which modernity and progress are not alienated from history. One can hope that their endeavours will foster a sincere and productive dialogue between the periphery and the centre.

**Karim H. Karim is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He has served as director of the School, the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Dr. Karim has held visiting positions at Harvard, Simon Fraser, and Aga Khan universities and has delivered distinguished lectures around the world. He is the recipient of the Robinson Prize for excellence in Communication Studies for his book Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence.

Among Karim’s other major publications is The Media of Diaspora, which has become an international reference work.''

Canada’s Ugandan Asian Movement of 1972: Roots and Consequences

Micheal J. Molloy, Adjunct Professor, Carlton University, Ottawa

Special to Khojawiki

THE team sent to Kampala by the Canadian government opened its doors to Asians seeking to come to Canada on September 6th, 1972. The lineup stretched for many blocks and on that day alone, the team took in 2,588 applications covering 7,764 people. (Mike Molloy was in Kampala and is well known to many of our readers. Ed.)

Mackenzie King’s Immigration Policy

For most of its history, Canada’s governments restricted immigration to people of European origins. Indeed, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced in 1947 that Canada would reopen its immigration program following 15 years of extremely limited arrivals due to the Great Depression (1929-39) and the Second World War (1939-45) he made it clear that immigrants from Asia in particular would not be welcome.

"There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. …The government, therefore, has no thought of making any change in immigration regulations which would have consequences of the kind."

There was little if any objection to King’s statement by the people of Canada. So, how was it that 25 years later, Canada opened its door and welcomed 8,000 Asians who were being expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin Dada? The changes in Canadian values, government policy and public attitudes that occurred between 1947 and 1972 are part of what Allan Levine, writing in Canada’s History magazine, called “Canada’s Slow Road to Tolerance” ( This article looks at some of the events and decisions along that slow road to tolerance that made the acceptance and welcoming of the Ugandan Asians possible. Post War Displaced People

One of the positive elements of Mackenzie King’s 1947 speech was that he recognized Canada’s moral responsibility to assist in providing solutions for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Second World War who were unwilling to return to their Soviet dominated countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. King dispatched the Canadian Government Immigration Mission (CGIM) to Europe and between 1947 and 1951 the CGIM facilitated the arrival in Canada of 186,000 displaced people. Despite the return of a million Canadian servicemen and women at the end of the war, the booming Canadian economy had created severe labour shortages and the so called “DPs” helped to fill the labour market gaps.

Impact of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948, the United Nations released the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (largely authored by Canadian John Humphries). Alan Levine’s highly recommended article describes the overt and deeply rooted racial prejudice and antisemitism that characterized Canada at that time. He traces how leaders like Ontario’s Premier Leslie Frost came to understand the significance of the UDHR and introduced legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing.

The Hungarian Revolt: Canada embraces its refugee resettlement role

In 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against the Communist system that had been imposed by the Soviets after the war. While the Canadian government dithered for a month, fearful of infiltration of Soviet agents and the arrival of Hungarians “of the Hebrew race,” the media and public were thrilled by the courage of the “freedom fighters” squaring off against Russian troops and tanks. When the government decided to act, it did so decisively: Immigration Minister J.W. Pickersgill was dispatched to Austria with full authority to slash the red tape and organize a movement that brought 37,000 Hungarian refugees to Canada. Aside from the infusion of some very creative people, the legacy of the Hungarian movement was that it established in the minds of politicians, officials, media and the Canadian public that resettling refugees was something Canada did and did well. As Canada sought a distinct role for itself in the international community, our immigration infrastructure, know-how and experience would enable Canada to play a major role on the international stage when crises involving displacement arose.

First Steps: The Bill of Rights and Ellen Fairclough’s 1962 Regulations

In 1960, Prime Minister Diefenbaker introduced the Bill of Rights which forbade discrimination in areas under federal jurisdiction. Immigration was one of those areas and it fell to Immigration Minister Ellen Fairclough (Canada’s first female cabinet minister) to remedy the inconsistencies between the Bill of Rights and Canada’s discriminatory immigration practices. Fairclough would have preferred to bring in a new immigration act but there was no political appetite for dealing with immigration matters at the Parliamentary level. Instead, she introduced the 1962 Regulations (regulations could be approved by Cabinet, not Parliament).

The 1962 Regulations removed most of the existing racial barriers and made it possible for immigration officials to approve the admission of people from anywhere as long as they had the skills, resources and attributes to establish themselves in Canada. This fundamental change was implemented with no publicity or consultations. This was an important step forward but there was no actual system that could explain to Parliament, the media or the public why some people were admitted and others were not.

Universality and the Point System

Real change came in 1967, when Immigration Deputy Minister Tom Kent, a British journalist, former editor of the Winnipeg Free press and strong advocate for human rights introduced the “Universality” immigration policy underpinned by the famous point system. Under the point system, a total of 100 points was assigned to qualifications and factors such as age, occupation, skill level, years of education, arranged employment, presence of relatives in Canada, economic conditions at the community of destination and the opinion of the visa officer as to the applicant’s personal suitability. Normally an applicant had to attain 50 points to qualify for admission to Canada. While not without its flaws the point system went a long way to eliminating arbitrary decisions and was applied without regard to location, race, nationality religion etc. The Universality system also established parallel systems for nuclear and extended family members. The immigration department established a network of area offices to deliver immigration services to countries with no resident immigration facilities. Immigration officials were soon interviewing people wishing to immigrate from over 100 countries and territories. The fundamental alteration to the character of Canada’s population so feared by Mackenzie King and his contemporaries was under way.

Ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol

While a Canadian diplomat by the name of Leslie Chace had chaired the international negotiations that led to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, the Canadian government declined to ratify the Convention under the misapprehension that it would impede Canada from deporting communist agents and agitators. The failure to sign the Convention in no way inhibited the resettlement of approximately 200,000 European refugees and displaced people in the post war decades, including 11,000 Czechoslovakians fleeing yet another Russian invasion in 1968-69.

The 1951 UN Convention, negotiated in the early years of the Cold War, gave protection only to people displaced within Europe and by events prior to 1951. In 1967 (coincidentally the same year Canada adopted the universality policy and the point system) the UN released for signature a Protocol to the 1951 Convention. The Protocol extended the reach of the Convention to the entire world and to people displaced by events after 1951.

Impact of Signing the Refugee Convention: Refugee resettlement extended beyond Europe

In the late 1960s, at the urging of the Department of External Affairs, the Immigration Department removed its objections and Canada ratified the Convention in 1969. A few months later in July 1970 the Immigration Minister submitted a memorandum to Cabinet which began as follows.

'Problem: While Canada’s immigration program was placed on a universal basis with the introduction of the new immigration regulation in1967, the selection of refugees has continued to favour persons of European origins

Objective: to establish a refugee program which will admit refugees who have good prospects of settlement in Canada without regard to geographic origin.'

The memorandum went on to make three suggestions to which Cabinet agreed:

First, Canada would adopt the 1951 Refugee Convention definition of a refugee as modified by the protocol. This meant that Canada would now recognize as refugees people who met the definition providing for selection on a universal basis. The definition now used by Canada would be:

Any person who, owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his* nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country: or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to that fear, is unwilling to return to it. [*Gender sensitivity was not a feature of the early 1950s.]

Second, a refugee from anywhere in the world would become admissible providing he was capable of successful settlement and did not have a contagious disease or a criminal record. The point system would be used to determine whether a refugee would be capable of successful settlement and immigration officers were reminded that they had the discretionary authority to override the point system if there was sufficient government or private assistance available to ensure successful establishment in Canada.

Third, the government agreed to an Oppressed Minority policy to be applied where minorities facing oppression in their home country could be discretely approved for immigration to Canada. [Source: Cabinet Document 1032770 July 27, 1970 and Cab.Doc 1116/70September 16,1970]

This is the refugee resettlement framework that applied to the Ugandan Asians, the Chileans and the first wave of the Indochinese until the 1976 Immigration Act came into effect in April 1978. The first people to benefit from this new policy were 228 Tibetan refugees from India admitted in 1970 at the request of the Dalai Lama. They were followed in 1971 by 100 Chinese families admitted from Hong Kong. In October 1971, multiculturalism, designed to protect and recognize the contributions of Canada’s diverse communities, became the official policy of the Canadian government.

Post-Independence Pressure on Asian Minorities in Eastern Africa

As the British colonies in East Africa (and Zambia) attained independence, Canada became aware of the pressures facing the Asian populations in these countries. Between 1966 and 1971 over 3,500 Asians immigrated to Canada from Africa. This included 700 people accepted by Canadian officers sent to Kenya in 1968 in response to pressure on the Asian community there. There was little interest in Canada from the community in Uganda with fewer than 500 immigrating to Canada in that period and by 1971 the interest of the responsible Canadian immigration area office in Beirut was focussed on Tanzania where the government was nationalizing the businesses and assets of the Asians residing there.

Having ousted President Milton Obote in a coup in January 1971 while the president was attending a Commonwealth Leaders conference in Singapore, Idi Amin Dada’s flamboyant pronouncements quickly won him international notoriety. Nevertheless his announcement, on August 4, 1972, that Asians with British passports had 90 days to leave came as a shock.

Trudeau had been at the Singapore conference when his friend Obote received the news that he had been ousted. On learning of the planned expulsion, Trudeau immediately informed his Cabinet that he (not Immigration Minister Bryce Mackasey) would take the lead in formulating Canada’s response. He immediately instructed the departments of External Affairs, Immigration and National Defence to begin planning. Conditions in Canada were far from ideal: unemployment was high, the economy was in bad shape and the government was facing an election. The area office in Beirut, with responsibility for Uganda, was originally informed that planners were considering a commitment to resettle 3,000 people. Normal selection criteria would not be relaxed.

The UK, beset with racial tensions and politicians like Ian Paisley stirring up fear and anger, attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Amin to relent. It also announced that it would meet its obligations to Asians with British travel documents, most of which extended consular protection to the holders but not the right to live in the UK.

Britain Requests:Canada Responds

On August 18th, the British High Commissioner to Canada met with Trudeau to convey a formal request for assistance. Cabinet met on August 24th and Trudeau released a statement that day deploring Amin’s actions which violated Uganda’s “obligations under the UN Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights.” The statement announced:

"In an attempt to ease this humanitarian problem, both on those forced out of Uganda and on the people of Britain forced to share their already overcrowded island with a tide of involuntary immigrants from Uganda, the Canadian government is prepared to offer assistance."

Trudeau stated that a team from Manpower and Immigration and National Health and Welfare would be leaving for Uganda to accelerate the processing of applications from Ugandan Asians and that the minister of immigration had been authorized to “institute a program of admission in an emergency basis” for those that would not normally qualify for admission. Trudeau closed by stating:

"For our part, we are prepared to offer an honourable place in Canadian life to those Ugandan Asians who come 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 ability and industry, make an equally important contribution to Canadian society."

Roger St. Vincent, Officer in Charge of the Beirut area office, arrived in Kampala on August 31. Canada had no facilities in Uganda whatsoever. By the afternoon of 5 September, as team members arrived from Ottawa, Europe, Beirut and Nairobi, he had, with the assistance of the British High Commission, created a fully equipped and furnished immigration office in an ideal building in downtown Kampala. Doors opened to accept applications the following morning, September 6, 1972.

Cabinet met again on September 13 and from that point on communications from Ottawa stressed the humanitarian nature of the operation and that no limit would be set on the number to be accepted. Later instructions directed that priority be given to stateless Ugandans and those with Uganda citizenship with no obvious destination.

The details of how the Canadian operation in Kampala operated have been reported elsewhere. See St. Vincent’s Seven Crested Cranes at ( cranes-roger-st-vincent) for a day by day account.

Final Count

In the course of 60 days, the Canadian team screened, interviewed, medically examined and issued visas to 6,175 persons. It sent 4357 adults and 69 infants to Canada on 31 charter flights where they were welcomed, rested, issued warm clothing and given permanent residence status at Longue Point Canadian Forces Base in Montreal. Another 1,725 travelled to Canada on their own. At their destinations the newcomers were assisted in finding accommodation and employment by the local Canada Manpower Centres and volunteer welcoming committee funded by the federal government. Another 2,500 arrived, mainly from refugee camps in Europe in 1973 and 1974, bringing the total to 8,000. The shockwave created by the Ugandan expulsion unsettled Asians in East Africa, Zambia and Zaire and over the next six years 27,000 immigrated to Canada.


In the years between 1947, when Canada’s Prime Minister announced an unabashedly race-based immigration policy and 1971, when the Federal government embraced multiculturalism, Canada obviously had changed. Obviously, racism did not disappear but at the federal and provincial levels the weight of government policies, public discourse and laws, including immigration law, recognized that diversity in Canada was a reality and a potential source of economic strength and cultural enrichment.

The critical milestones in the liberalization of Canada’s immigration and refugee resettlement policies were Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, Ellen Fairclough’s 1962 immigration regulations, the policy of Universality, the point system of 1967 and opening resettlement to refugees from outside Europe following ratification of the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol in 1969. These changes were government led and reflected a more confident sense of Canadian identity, distinct from both “mother Britain” and our neighbour to the south.

The government had been aware of the post-independence pressures on the Asian communities in East Africa having sent officers to Kenya in 1968. The Canadian media and public saw Amin as a buffoon but a dangerous one. The government knew just how dangerous he was. A month before the expulsion order, a Canadian official visiting Kampala interviewed a man who had just witnessed army trucks heading for Lake Victoria, piled high with the bodies of soldiers from the southern tribes. A full account was sent to Ottawa detailing the massacre by northern soldiers on Amin’s orders. A dictator capable of ordering the murder of his own soldiers would be capable of anything.

The decision to intervene after Idi Amin’s expulsion announcement was made in Canada. The speed with which the Prime Minister seized control of the issue and ordered External Affairs, Immigration and the military to start planning indicates that the PM had decided to act as soon as word of the expulsion reached Ottawa. The period between hearing about the expulsion on August 4 or 5 and the announcement on August 24th that Canada was sending a team to Kampala was the time it took for the civil service, in consultation with St. Vincent in Beirut, to determine what was possible, where the staff and resources were needed and where they would come from. The formal British request conveyed to Canada by British High Commissioner on August 18 was a factor that helped explain the decision but planning to deploy the team and preparations for a cabinet meeting and announcement on August 24th would have been well advanced by then. The British were knocking on an open door.

Resettling the Ugandan Asians fitted neatly within the refugee policy framework the same Cabinet had established in 1970 and was consistent with the new multiculturalism policy. The formal decision to dispatch a team was confirmed by Cabinet on August 24 th and the second Cabinet meeting on September 13 shifted the focus away from normal immigration selection criteria to a more humanitarian approach. There were minor course adjustments along the way, there always are, but the basic direction had been set.

Any doubts about whether these Asians from Africa would establish successfully were quickly allayed. A week after the arrival of the first flight, the Canada Manpower Centre in Vancouver reported that the Kampala Rotary Club had held its first meeting there. Educated in English and often possessing British qualifications, the newcomers settled in so quickly that most of the volunteer committees established to assist them shut down within six months.

Dr. Mahmood Mamdani: 'Uganda Asian Expulsion: What have we learnt in half a century'

A vIdeo presentation at Makerere University, Kampala, August 2022

In the first essay in our Uganda series, senior Canadian Immigration mandarin, Mike Molloy elaborated on the progressive development of the Canadian Refugee law until the Expulsion (click here to read) and today, we bring you a video presentation of an incisive lecture entitled, "Uganda Asian Expulsion-What have we learnt in half a century" by Mahmood Mamdani, acclaimed author and Professor of Government Studies at Columbia University NYC. Dr. Mamdani, a Ugandan refugee himself, puts the Expulsion in its historical context and provides lessons for the future of Uganda and other multi-ethnic societies in Africa and Europe.

The Uganda Expulsion and its Aftermath

©MG Vassanji October 2022
Special to Khojawiki

Fifty years on, is it really useful to talk about it. But for those of us above a certain age, that past lingers, in one form or another, variously articulated, with bitterness or nostalgia or a sense of opportunity lost. When the Uganda expulsions happened, I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and so was my old classmate since Std 1, Adil Hassam. We had left Dar es Salaam as patriots, proud Tanzanians. True, the government’s socialist policies violated what our families had been used to under the British. There were travel and foreign-exchange restrictions and the standard of education was on the decline—at least in our community schools, which were now administered by the government. Bureaucrats had to be bribed all the time.

But we of the younger generation who were from modest families supported the new socialism; it made sense to us. We recognized the racism under which we had lived in colonial times, with our status in between the whites and the blacks. And so we were happy to unga mkono for nation-building, go on maandamano against racist southern Africa, go upcountry to help count the census. At the same time the nation’s new rules and policies seemed mindless or designed simply to thwart us. All we wanted was to go to school or to our shops, go to jamatkhana in the evening, work hard and go to university if we could. Someone should have told us we were spoilt. It was a drag standing for hours in the sun to cheer Chou en Lai, Sekou Toure, Gamal Nasser, Fidel Castro, or Haile Selassie; now we realize that we lived in colourful, exciting times that make our kids envious. (Che Guevara, I later learned, had also passed through in secret.) We hated doing National Service after high school, going to the jungle to eat ugali and maharage day after day, and singing songs and marching. Now many of us count those weeks as among the best of our lives. We had the privilege of seeing another part of the country, usually in the interior, and living and sharing with our African fellow-citizens; and we softies who could not run a hundred yards before coming to a stop were physically toughened. And who can forget the starving tribespeople who watched us eat and then ran to the dump to grab our leftovers? If we hated having to pay bribes, we only had to look at ourselves in the mirror. I had my passport validated for the United States only through questionable means. It did not matter that I had received free high-school education followed by a scholarship to study engineering in Nairobi, including bus fare, and therefore was legally and morally obligated to stay and serve.

Tanzania was, therefore, a mixed bag of frustrations and euphoria. But it was home. I have always claimed that there is a difference between the government of a place and the place itself, where you kicked the sand, walked to school, played galoli and cricket; where the azan sounded and the temple bells rang and the jamatkhana clock tolled the hour; where Bhamji hit 105 runs against India (though we lost by an inning). The scout band marched smartly all through the streets of gaam and we ran alongside it. That was Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Adil Hassam and I missed it, proudly proclaimed it as our country to one and all who would listen. We made friends with other African students, and we were founding members of the MIT African Students’ Association. When Indian students would approach and ask us (as they often did in those days), Are you from India? No! we would answer cockily. I am from Tanzania! We had not an iota of doubt who we were and from where.

I always thought I would go back and teach. There were frustrations, but still that was home, and I would contribute. As students we had been told, You are the leaders of the future. We believed it. And we had been reminded that since high school places were so rare, we the privileged ones were like the boy in a starving village who has been given all the food and water left so he can go and bring enough for the rest of the village.

And so the Idi Amin news came as a shock. But it seemed an aberration. We had known even before we left that the man was mad. How mad, we didn’t know as yet. Asians left Uganda broken-hearted and in terrible condition. In Philadelphia I made friends with a family from a small town in Uganda that had been completely shattered by the expulsion. They just hung on at the fringes, never recovered, watched their kids drift away. My subject here, however, is about the other East African countries, mainly Tanzania. If it doesn’t fit into the theme of this fifty-years-ago series, I apologize. It is by invitation and could have been rejected.

Tanzania was different, that also we knew. Tanzania couldn’t be like Uganda. The countries were different, their ethnic compositions and their histories of Asian settlement were also different. We had Nyerere, MA from Edinburgh, translator of two Shakespeare plays, who had declared equal rights for all citizens. Moreover, not long before I left we were told by our own leader in unambiguous terms, Make Tanzania your home. The example of two boys, one Asian the other African, in a friendly boxing match in Kampala, was held up as an example of togetherness. But Idi Amin had poisoned the scene beyond mere rhetoric, and this only amplified Asian insecurity and fears in Tanzania.

What came as a real shock to us in Cambridge, Mass as we extolled the virtues of our country, was the news that Asians, Ismailis in particular, had started leaving our country in numbers. There was no expulsion. This overturned everything we had been led to believe about who we were, where our destiny lay, what futures we had; the exhortations and instructions we had received and accepted; what we had internalized.

We of my generation were naive and young, idealistic and quick to judge, not to say spoilt by colonial expectations. And our small minority Asian community in a small nation, in a typical frog-in-a-pond attitude, always believed it was on top of the world. But in reality we were historically and culturally naive and ignorant. Someone should have told us, our leaders, Look at the world around you; look at its composition, look at its recent history. It had seen tremendous hardships and suffering, was ours comparable? Europe had seen two world wars; there were millions of our parents’ generation there who could recall their dead—fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters. Japan too had been devastated. There were race riots in the United States and a war in Vietnam from where young people returned weekly in body bags. India and Pakistan had fought two wars soon after the gruesome violence of the Partition. There had been recent floods and earthquakes, communal violence in Gujarat. But we were still in thrall to the British Empire, believing that if we returned to the embrace of the Queen, all would be well. (This thralldom was demonstrated recently in a widely circulated posting on the internet saying proudly how close Ismailis had always been to the Empire. This when elsewhere the excesses of colonialism are being daily exposed, restitutions and recoveries of cultural artifacts are constantly demanded. It was embarrassing to read.) All the idealism, all the belief in Africa, the history and the institutions, the city centres we had built were to be left behind. Panic was created, probably, I believe, by those who already had property and money in UK and never had loyalty in the first place. (They never handed in their British passports as the rest had been advised to do.) If you are leaving tomorrow, go today, was the message that circulated in Dar. (To which I added: If you are leaving today, why didn’t you go yesterday?) No thought for age, education level, or economic status of the person being advised to get up and go. A beloved teacher to whom I wrote, reminding her of what we had been advised, how could that advice simply be wiped off, wrote back to say, When a ship sinks, you leave. To which I retorted, Only rats leave first.

An “exodus” started. Those who could get Canadian visas, left post-haste, selling their flats at cut-rate prices. In a tragi-comic example of the panic, a ship was rented, ss Sirdhana (dubbed by some wisecracks as ss Mowlana), to take people to Pakistan. What idiocy. Most of them returned. Many people as they scurried off, left behind precious cultural items such as ginan books, religious textbooks, old magazines, and other mementoes of our lives. (One Mr Mawji, a religious teacher I met, had collected precious copies from the auction house in Dar and deposited them in the Mombasa library, where I photocopied them. He would not let go sight of them.) Family albums were lost or thrown away. Families were split. The elderly, who would never be able to assimilate to any degree, were dragged along to die in misery and loneliness, often in drab nursing “homes.”

When I would visit Toronto from Philadelphia soon after this exodus, I would hear people proudly saying, “Forget Africa, we are Canadians.” (No need to go into the racist incidents that met them.) This was mostly bravado: if you’ve cut off your ties, might as well believe you’ve arrived in paradise. But Africa didn’t go away. It was always there. It was, as I often say, in the blood. Few people, in my experience, when they say I am Canadian, of Indian origin, will not add, But I come from Africa.

We Asians of East Africa have not done badly. Children for the most part have graduated from university, houses are paid up, there is leisure to travel. (Portugal is the recent craze.) We’ve not done badly, economically. In other ways? Families are split further; children go away to study and work abroad. (We are nomads, after all.) I have more than a handful of acquaintances, who approaching old age, tell me, You know, I have found out that I don’t belong anywhere. Where in the world can I retire?

During the recent pandemic, when life suddenly seemed precarious and obituaries a daily reading staple, the question of who we were and where we have arrived suddenly loomed large. I was privy to Whatsapp group messages (I don’t subscribe) chatting about Dar, what it was, what it is. It was not only nostalgia. (Though I have argued that nostalgia, though a filtered product, doesn’t grow out of nothing but a certain fondness.) All kinds of posts circulated, in English and Swahili: a bridge in Dar, a Masai singing Bollywood, a restaurant menu recited to music, a memorial to President Magufulli (who was not even liked). People are producing memoirs, to remember, to reclaim Africa in their heritage. Africa was very much there.

We have not done badly, it is true. While some men never found jobs (women found it easier), many elderly were thrown away, families were split, and we lost the spiritual ethos that had defined us and we so loudly proclaimed, we now have professors, politicians, media people, and businessmen and women in our midst. We were able to reclaim, from fragments that survive, our common ethnic (Gujarati) heritage that our elders threw away in what now seems typical communal contempt for the past and no loyalty anywhere. We’ve shed our former prejudices. More success stories will appear.

But when I read or hear smug statements declaring to the world how well “we” are doing, I imagine that boy from the village who had been sent out to bring sustenance for the rest of his village, now sitting in a cafe inside a five-star hotel, espresso or dry white before him, nodding, saying, We’ve done well. Of course that village may now be a bustling town; or it may not, still with no electricity, no textbooks in the only nearby school, and girls fearful as they walk to school.

MG Vassanji is a celebrated author, essayist and twice recipient of Canada's highest literary award, the Giller Prize as well being member of the Order Of Canada. His work has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and Swahili.

J.P. Kampala’s Flute Player Who Became a Reader of Gujarati

An essay on the native and foreign in me
Sultan Somjee
Special to Khojawiki

I met Jonny Virani at a seniors’ book reading of Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari (2021) in Burnaby, a sub-city of Vancouver. The book is the Gujarati translation of my ethnographic novel Bead Bai (2014). I was in a unique situation listening to the Gujarati rendition of the novel I had written in English. This article is a reflection on myself who had abandoned his mother tongue in his youth. Now, I am returning to it through the reader Jonny Virani and translator Dr. Navin Vibhekar. I view my loss in the wider context of language, colonization and migration.

Bead Bai a story set in mid-20 th century East Africa based on life of a Khoja Ismaili woman called Moti Bai who worked with ethnic beads and arranged them in colourful displays in the shop’s verandah. The flash back in the novel describe the first great migrations of the Khojas from India to Africa around 1890s. Moti Bai’s family bead shop was in a remote town in Maasailand near the Kenya-Tanzania border. The Gujarati title of the book, Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari, is from a proverb that was on Khoja bead shops in East Africa. It means ‘Genuine Traders of Fake Beads’. It’s a popular proverb that does not fail to bring a smile on lips of Gujarati speakers.

Jonny Virani’s fluency in reading and his knowledge of Gujarati impressed me, and I wanted to know more about this man in his 90s. He may perhaps be the only one from the Khoja Ismaili group of Uganda refugees in Canada who carries in-depth knowledge of his mother tongue and among those who love their mother tongue. By this, I mean not just the vast vocabulary that he has preserved in his nineties through the tribulations of expulsion from his birthland and re- settlement in a dominant English-speaking part of Canada, but also the nuances, metaphors and poetry that a native speaker of the language understands. A cultural language, no doubt, is foundational in shaping one’s values and worldview that starts while listening to mother’s lullabies in her lap. It brings comfort to be in one’s skin when thoughts of ‘What’s my heritage?’ pulse the mind as it happens at some points in life. Ancestral languages anchor and tell us about our origins, and implicitly about our identities.

With the advent of colonialism in eastern Africa, and its influence that spread and remained after independence, a new culture of ‘modernization’ evolved among both the indigenous elites and Indian settlers. It was a culture that took pride in speaking in English at home over their mother tongues. In Kenya and Uganda, English became dominant (from Latin dominus, meaning master), especially among the elites, while in Tanzania, Swahili was predominant. 1 English was literally the old master’s language and the culture that was embedded in it.

In time speaking in English cultivated a status. Alongside this, what happened was the lowering of the capacity of the mother tongues to conceptualize complex ideas and produce literature and beauty. It weakened, and, in some cases, rooted out native languages and aesthetics and, in that, the indigenous heritages and values handed down through them. We see this in some cultural communities today where after a generation or two under the influence of a foreign language, they cannot speak in their mother tongues, and if they do, they quickly revert to English when faced with an in-depth account. This is observable especially among the wealthier and educated classes sometimes called the upper classes. I was shocked when I met some Kenyan students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who could speak neither Swahili nor their mother tongues. When I queried, “How come you don’t know Swahili or your mother tongue?” Some replied with pride, “My second language is French,” others said, “German.” I realized then that they were mostly children of the wealthy who had studied at the former Europeans only or international schools commonly known as ‘High-Cost Schools’ in Kenya. However, indigenous languages continued to flourish in villages through Oral Traditions that include songs, storytelling and rituals. Among the east African Indians, the equivalent of Oral Traditions was the theatre in the ‘vernacular’ languages, music parties and religious chants and rituals. Nevertheless, the decline of the linguistic heritages weakened the anchor of communal

1 Kenya was declared a British colony in 1920 and Uganda became a British protectorate after World War I. In German ruled Tanganyika, Swahili was the administrative language that was changed to English when it became a Territory under the British rule after the Germans lost the war and consequently its colony. Soon after independence, Swahili was re-introduced as the national language of Tanzania.

dignity and identity for it broke the culture’s back. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying: “To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them.” Like me, Jonny Bapa studied Gujarati in school to grade V. But, unlike me, he continued reading Gujarati books and magazines all his life. I stopped reading and writing in Gujarati after grade V when my mother enrolled me in a mission school where we spoke and wrote only in English. This was an abrupt change in my life like a jolt that shook my body. In the mid-fifties, my community in Kenya was abandoning its mother tongue spoken at home in favour of the language of the colonizer, and my family went with the flow. I had to repeat grade VI because my English was not up to the standard required.

The decolonization movement that marks the current decade of 2020s, arrived at the public forum with headlines about toppling and, sometimes, the quiet removal of statues of slaveowners and colonials. These included statues of Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill. In Canada, the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, was removed from the precincts of the City Hall in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Sir John A. Macdonald was a leading architect of the abhorred residential schools where children were punished for speaking in their mother tongues as it was in Kenya in the 1950s when I was in school. Erasing the mother tongue by the colonial-settler government is said to be an instigation of the cultural genocide of Indigenous people macdonald-statue-victoria-city-hall-lisa-helps.

In 1986, the famed African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, wrote about ‘Decolonizing the Mind’. Today, it’s a global movement hotly debated in universities and widely written about. At the core of ‘decolonizing the mind’ is reclaiming of cultural languages made redundant by colonization. The First Nations on the American continent are a splendid example of communities engaged in an effort to regain their languages.

In an article titled Preserving Mother Tongues: Why Children of Immigrants are Losing Their Languages, Karina Zapata shows how closely tied language is to identity. She writes, “Now, at 23 years old, Daignault finally understands the important things she lost along with her mother tongue (during migration): a connection to her culture, a sense of belonging and even the confidence to identify as an ethnic woman.” November 12, 2019, Calgary Journal. are-losing-their-languages.

What I found fascinating was J.P. Bapa’s passion for music was comparable with his passion for reading Guajarati literature and watching Gujarati plays. When I first met him, he had a stack of books and a stack of gramophone records by his sofa in the living room. As an ethnographer, I know that language, visual art, and music are relational human abilities that affect communication and formation of ideas and philosophies. As Bapa reads, I observe his expressions that are telling when he smiles, or when he laughs to himself or pauses to reflect. Like He paused for reflection as he read a descriptive paragraph in Bead Bai about Moti Bai’s mendi (henna) night before the marriage ceremony. In fact, Bapa read the lines twice. This was when the silk bandhani (Khoja wedding shawl) was laid on the teenage bride’s shoulders by her mother-in-law, Ma Jena Bai. It became a pivotal moment in Moti Bai’s life. The bride felt the radiance of the bandhani’s sparkle of zari embroidery enveloping her bodily. It was a paradox of being celebrated on the outside while within she was conflicted by the burden of thoughts of responsibility she would carry as the keeper of her husband’s family honour, procreation to sustain the patriarchal lineage and household duties. This was a metaphoric picture of the enigma bore by many an Indian woman who, while she is decorated with jewelry, her heart carries silent pain and obligations of the being a woman.

A writer would know how the artist in oneself draws on images and linguistic nuances, metaphors and poetry that elicit emotions. Sometimes, Bapa points to the richness of the Gujarati expressions in Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari to the delight of his avid listeners who are all Ismaili Khoja seniors. We know that arts work in relationality referencing on the senses and sense memories. This connection reminds me of a writer I read and liked when I was in school. Ernest Hemingway (Nobel Prize 1954), once said to a New Yorker reporter that he had learned a lot about writing from Johann Sebastian Bach, the famous German composer and musician (Kulansky, M. The Importance of Not Being Ernest, 2022, p.20). What I understand by Hemmingway’s comment is that Bach’s music spoke to the writer about how tones and rhythms refine art. Both writing and music as art share them.

Take two common words in Gujarati to illustrate the unconscious influence of music on language as said by Hemmingway. Ooth and soo are both sonic words. Both can translate to non-spoken cultural expressions showing how words impact us bodily like reflexives. We say ooth for waking up or standing up. In conversations, we raise a hand gesturing ooth. In contrast, we say soo for sleeping that has that cajoling laying down soothing sound to it. Gestures that go with soo show going down. Ooth has a sharp and hard sound whereas soo is soft, and calming to the ear, the sense of hearing. Related words such as sookh (peaceful happiness), soondar (beautiful), sooambri (calm and gentle) are soothing. The word-sounds imply actions and values in sonic languages like Gujarati. Thus, loss of a language changes not only the mind but also the body, the repertoire of our sensed knowledge and heritage. We see this when the younger English-only speaking, and often mono-cultural generation, imitates accents and gesturing that go with words of their Gujarati elders as funny.

The translator of Bead Bai in English to Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari in Gujarati is Dr Navin Vibhekar, an accomplished Gujarati writer who has received accolades from Gujarat’s Sahitya Academy. Navin Bhai Vibhekar is the winner of the highly contested Parishad Award. He was once a beloved doctor of Moshi in Tanzania who has done a splendid work of the translation of Bead Bai that enhances what Jonny Bapa calls the mithass or ‘the sweetness of the story to the ear’. Navin Bhai has published over 40 books in Gujarati including books on Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere. In an interview (Opinion Magazine, 2015), he told me that he researched and wrote these books on African leaders because he wanted to create an awareness and understanding of Africa in Gujarat.

During our book club sessions, Jonny Virani Bapa, when pointing to the figurative lines in Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari, praises the translator Navin Bhai for his excellent work. Sometimes, Bapa re-reads some lines to us with a comment that they are better rendered by Navin Bhai in the poetics of Gujarati than how I have written in English in Bead Bai! He read the English version while he was in a care home convalescing from the knee operation earlier this year. I agree with Bapa for English is my fourth language after Gujarati, Kutchi and Swahili. I learned my first languages in my childhood ‘naturally’ so to speak, in a shared cultural environment of the family, playmates and community. English on the other hand, was the language I learned ‘officially’ so to speak, sitting rigidly at a desk in a school and often cramming lines and English vocabulary from books.

While listening to Bapa reading my book in my own mother tongue, I realized that English does not give me as much of the depth, the rhythm, and the personal connection that Gujarati does. Could it be my ancestral genes speaking to me? I don’t know but what I know is that Gujarati affects me bodily. Perhaps there is some truth in recent research that shows we inherit memory through our genes. However, I constantly write, commonly speak and always give lectures in English. While writing Bead Bai I would listen to Gujarati music, ras-garba, and watch plays in Gujarati on the YouTube everyday without fail so I might absorb the rhythm and lilts of Gujarati in my body. It was the language and milieu of my characters. I also went to the jamat khana everyday to listen to the ginans and observe the chanters’ expressions. Thus, I attempted to convey the semantic and cultural nuances of my childhood language into English. On reflection, I am thinking how difficult it became at times to transport the subtleties and intonations because I had fully embraced a foreign language over my mother tongue as my own, and, through it a heritage and a worldview from elsewhere. The change happened at school as if seamlessly from one grade to another up to the university while not only neglecting my own linguistic heritage but also at one point in life, looking down on it, and even intently blocking out my first language ‘interferences’ while speaking in English. In fact, the better and more we spoke like the English, the more educated, if not more intelligent, it was considered. That was the standard I followed. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o calls it creating the ‘Other’ in oneself.

Episodes during our book club when comparing the English and Gujrati versions, whether vocalized or in thoughts, flashed momentary feelings about my belonging, my honesty and my fakeness about language. I had willfully put on a garb of someone else to appear successful as an academic and a writer, the way I was taught in school, sometimes under the threat of the cane or some other form of punishment, and the way my community measured its modernization and even integration into the Western society. The journal writer and Indian classical dancer, Neera Kapur Dromson wrote how she was punished for speaking in Punjabi at a secondary school in Nairobi’s South C area in the 1950s (Old Africa magazine issue of 2021). As I reflected on myself, my curiosity led me to listen to casual remarks about Jonny Virani’s life. These were dropped occasionally at the chai-nasto breaks during the reading of Khota Moti Na Sacha Vepari. But I learned much more during the grand party celebrating Jonny Bapa’s 91 st birthday on March 31 st , 2022, when his extended family members had gathered to celebrate their beloved Bapa.

Growing up in Kampala, Jonny Bapa learned to play vasani, that is a Gujarati flute, and he played the vasani at music parties. “I am from a musical family,” he told me. Both his parents, Khatija Bai Khanji and Mohammedali Bhai Virani were music lovers. They kept a fine collection of records of Indian music from popular movie songs to classical ragas that Jonny Bapa listened to in his childhood. He still listens to his old favourites as his mood tells him, and as the time of the day speaks to his memories. His sister Rashida Bai, sang at music parties where he played the flute, and his elder brother Amir, played the tabla. His younger brother, Anwar, played drum in the community scouts’ band while JV’s daughter, Shelina, graduated with an MA in kathak dance. Shelina trained under the renowned Roshan Kumari who founded the Nritya Kala Kendra, an institution of learning in the Jaipur Kathak Garana (genre), a much sought-after school by the aspiring students of kathak. Shelina teaches kathak in Vancouver and choreographs beautiful ras garba during festivities to the admiration of the Khoja community. Her students include seniors who benefit from balance and posturing while dancing to the music set to mathematical beats. Their footwork, hand gesturing and concentration on the music that they know, provide an excellent exercise. It not only benefits them physically but is also helpful mentally. The Uganda Asians like other East African Asian immigrants to Canada brought with them their musical traditions and the elders among them speak in Gujarati. When they felt a little settled, they started the popular ‘music parties’ drawing on ghazals and filmi songs from memories and setting them to tunes of their beloved harmonium. Prior to the pandemic, I used to go to Sunday afternoon musical gatherings of ‘music parties’ of the East African Asian immigrants and refugees from 1972 onwards. There would be both the listeners and singers sitting on the floor around the harmonium in an apartment in North Vancouver.

J.P. told me that his love for music was nourished in his childhood listening to K.L. Saigal (1904 –1947), the legendary Indian singer whose songs such as Diya Jalao (film Tansen, 1943) and bhajans like Maiya Mori Main Nahi Maakhan Khayo (film Bhakta Surdas,1942) are unforgettable melodies that hum to memories of Indian song lovers. He would listen to his parents’ gramophone and the trove of records that pulled him into the aesthetic sound realm of Indian music especially what he calls ‘semi-classical’ music. Jonny Virani’s official name is Sadrudin but, he says, “From childhood everyone called me Jonny. I grew up with that and did not question it.” He lives near the Darkhana on Canada Way in Vancouver, and he is known simply as J.P., the eponym given to him by his Kampala friends. “J,” he said, “is for Jonny, and P, for Papa. My grandchildren call me Jonny Papa.” He laughs.

My encounters with J. P. led me to think about the Gujarati culture in landlocked Uganda, its continuity and evolution blending sparingly with the indigenous African culture. This is noticeable in the Uganda Asian cuisine that includes banana (matoke), peanuts in dals and peanuts grounded to make a pulpy source to go with a regular Gujarati meal. Some Uganda Asians speak Luganda, Teso, Lango, and other African languages. African languages and culture stood side by side with their Indian inheritance best displayed during folk drama and dances, songs, storytelling and reading in the older days. J.P. Bapa quoted some of his favourite writers such as Vasant Lal Raman Lal and Kananya Lal Munishi. He regularly read Akhand Anand and Chakram. I could not but admire this 91 year-old Bapa. Gujarati arts (plays, poetry, dances, writing) are vivid on the Indian diasporic stage, not to mention in Gujarat itself with a population of 45 million that is almost as many as we are in Canada. Needless to say, I feel a little envious for being apart from the evolution of the Gujarati diasporic arts and language. Gujarati literature and drama, especially when performed during community festivities often draw from the imagery pictured through ancient orally and bodily transmitted legends. The Ismaili Khoja trove of ginans not only emotionally illustrates this but also how they are preserved bodily and evoked bodily (i.e. in the senses) through 600 years in the languages considered archaic today. Mahabharata, the longest poem ever written about 3000 years ago, and stone sculptures of the Ajanta Caves (2nd century BCE to about 480 CE) are often resources for themes and dance poses. The Vedic ragas at the base of Indian music, are said to be from this period. When I was researching on the origin of the su-astik (spelt as spoken in Gujarati as I speak it, to avoid it’s meaning to the European eye) while writing Bead Bai, I came across a picture of the su-astik on the British Museum website. It was engraved on a stone seal excavated at the Mohajan Daru- Harrapa archaeological site in the Indus Valley. The Mohajan Daru-Harrapa civilizations are 3000 years as old and their influence covered the present day Gujarat, Sindh and Kutch. We see the su-astik stenciled in rice at Khoja weddings. This visual feminine art memory has been carried from mother to daughter and aunt to niece, indeed a collective community cultural memory for over 3000 years in the region where Khoja languages and arts were born. I have seen the su-astik at the old Ismaili cemetery in Kariokor in Nairobi and on the 1920 donor’s plaque at the Khoja Mosque (1920), the Ismaili jamat khana of Nairobi marking a milestone in our settlement in East Africa. Through symbols like the su-astik, we pass on as our Khoja heritage as we do through the bandhani, the earliest record of which is also in the Ajanta caves. The caves in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state in India date back to 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE.

J.P.’s wife, Roshan Bai, ran the famous Saree Centre on Allidina Visram Road downtown Kampala. Jonny Bapa and Roshan Bai made frequent trips to India because of the saree business. Bapa told me that when he landed in Bombay, he would scan the newspapers and mark the Gujarati plays he would like to see. Normally, he saw a good number of plays before returning home to Uganda. The saree shop that had semi-classical and popular Indian music playing the whole day long, was at a corner away from Kampala’s main jamat khana built around 1936 sitting high and elegant on a high ground. A flight of solid wide concrete steps leads up to the prayer hall. The steps are where bridal couples had their pictures taken with their families against the backdrop of the jamat khana architecture as they stepped out of the prayer hall into new life. Thus, one finds the jamat khana in many of the Uganda refugees’ family photo collections making it an iconic feature of the presence of the Satpanth Khoja community in the heart of Africa at the equator. A framed family marriage picture on the steps of the Kampala jamat khana sits in a glass cabinet in Bapa’s living room.

Meeting Jonny Bapa and hear him read in Gujarati, and having known Navin Bhai Vibekhar, I am filled with admiration of how they have held up to a heritage that I had discarded. As I age, I have some regret, if not an embarrassment from the guilt of not able to write in my mother tongue, the bedrock of my identity, the script I would have liked to pass on to my children. That was unquestionably a responsibility entrusted to me by my forefathers. My body tells me so. Gujarati, in fact, is the largest growing and most vibrant language of the Indian diaspora in the Western hemisphere according to Opinion, a London based bi-lingual Gujarati-English magazine. I would have felt my belonging to my roots, to my identity and to myself, sharing my books with fellow writers in Gujarati. In all, my life as a writer would have been richer if I were a part of the Gujarati diaspora’s literary and arts world.

Building the Ugandan Asian Archive

A Portrait Series

Link to Uganda Asian Archive

The Uganda Collection at Carleton University

The Uganda Collection at the Carleton University Library consists of archival material that highlights the expulsion of South Asian people from Uganda in 1972, and the resettlement of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada. The collection includes three scrapbooks, hundreds of clippings from national and international newspapers, and a memoir that documents the Canadian immigration team's experiences in Kampala during the expulsion. The collection also includes numerous oral history interviews from Ugandan Asian refugees who recall their experiences of the expulsion decree and their subsequent resettlement in Canada. The initial collection was transferred to Archives and Research Collections through the efforts of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and the Fakirani family, and continues to be built upon by members of the Ugandan Asian community. The collection is digitized can be found online at:

40th Anniversary Lecture: Ugandan Asian Refugee Movement 1972

The 1972 Uganda Asian Refugee movement was the first test of Canada's "Universal" immigration policy as applied to refugees. The talk will examine the reasons behind General Idi Amin’s decision to expel Uganda’s small but dynamic Asian community and the Trudeau government’s reaction to the expulsion within a new Immigration and refugee policy framework. It will describe how a small, hastily assembled team went to Kampala in September 1972 and moved over 6000 refugees to Canada by the 8 November deadline imposed by the Ugandan government. Finally it will examine the impact of the Ugandan experience on the refugee resettlement provisions of the 1976 Immigration Act and on the subsequent Indochinese refugee program of 1979-80.

Mike Molloy, a retired Foreign Service Officer, is president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and a Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He was a member of the team sent to Uganda in 1972 in September 1972 where he managed the unit that interviewed the refugees. His subsequent career included implementing the refugee provisions of the 1976 Immigration Act, including the refugee sponsorship program, coordinating the 1979-80 Indochinese Refugee movement, and managing Canada’s relations with the UN High Commissioner for Refugee in Geneva. He held various Director General level positions in the Immigration department, was Ambassador to Jordan, coordinated Canada’s Middle East Peace Process activities and since retirement has co-directed the Jerusalem Old City Initiative at the University of Windsor. In the course of his career he served in Japan, Lebanon, Minneapolis, Geneva, Jordan (twice), Syria and Kenya.

Title: 40th Anniversary Lecture: Uganda Asian Refugee Movement 1972, Presenter: Mike Molloy

Transcript of Mike Molloy on the Uganda Refugee Movement-Oral History Project, Carleton University. Ottawa Canada

Historic documents of 1972 immigration of Ugandans to Canada given to Carleton (story by Marcus Guido)

Blair Rutherford (left) helps accept the documents on behalf of Carleton and says they’ll help students in a variety of programs study and research as the university puts them online just after the fall semester starts. (James Park Photo)

Carleton University has received what is believed to be “the most comprehensive collection of documents” reporting the immigration of 6,000 Ugandan Asians to Canada in the summer and fall of 1972.

The Canadian Immigration Historical Society and its partners officially handed over the collection to the university on June 20.

“At the time when this was happening people’s minds weren’t on preserving history, but this is what this archive does. It actually preserves our history as stories,” says Salim Fakirani, who was only two when his family left Uganda at the exodus order of dictator Idi Amin.

Uganda Asian Exodus Files Handover

(Left to right) Blair Rutherford (Professor of African Studies, Carleton University), Patti Harper (Head, Archives & Research Collections, Carleton University), Ginette Leroux and Jolene Beaupre (secretaries during the expulsion in Kampala, Uganda) and Roger St. Vincent (leader of the Canadian team in Kampala, and author of "Seven Crested Cranes").

Photo by James Park, 2012.

(EDITOR, KHOJAWIKI: May Ellen, Ginette Leroux and Jolene Beaupre made such a powerful impression on the Asians applying to come to Canada during those first weeks of the Kampala operation that there is a reference to them in Tasneem Jamal's novel, "Where the Air is Sweet",


The collection will be accessible on the Internet by Sept. 28, just after the 40-year anniversary of Amin’s order, says the society.

It includes hundreds of British, American, Canadian and Ugandan newspaper clippings and a day-by-day narrative of the three-month immigration process conducted by Canadian immigration officials based in Uganda. “It’s a significant event in Canadian history. It’s the first large-scale non-European immigration to Canada … so it’s worth studying from an academic standpoint,” says Fakirani.

Many of the Ugandan Asians who travelled to Canada had university degrees from England, says Ginette Leroux, a visa worker who helped hand out about 2,600 immigration applications a day during her month’s work in the East African country.

“They were very pleasant people and they were very educated people. I think we were lucky to get them,” she says. “I think as far as immigrants and immigration goes, we got the cream of the crop.”

The collection couldn’t have come at a better time for the university’s Institute of African Studies, says professor and director Blair Rutherford, as there’s a new first-year course starting in September that looks at African refugees.

It should also help students in courses such as history, anthropology and political science, he says. Graduate students will benefit, too.

“We have students who do master’s and PhD theses on this topic. In fact, I know a few students looking at Ugandan Asians in Canada, so this is excellent material they can access directly on campus.” Fakirani looked over the collection before it was given to Carleton and says more than just students and researchers will read its contents.

“It’s just unbelievable the amount of documentation there is of what happened during that period,” he says. “For those interested, including the South Asian community, it’s incredible.”