35 years after Idi Amin, Indians again flocking to Uganda
By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS
Kampala : Thirty-five years after former dictator Idi Amin booted them out lock, stock and barrel, Indians are again returning to Uganda in large numbers and helping to rebuild an economy that was shattered following their exodus.
The capital Kampala is again dotted with Indian-run stores and businesses, and Indian faces are a familiar sight on the streets. A Bank of Baroda billboard stands proudly in the city centre, with a beaming face of Mahatma Gandhi.
There are also plenty of Hindu temples and - in keeping with the diversity of Indians - very many Indian community associations.
Indian High Commissioner Niraj Srivastava puts the number of Indians, including people of Indian origin, in Uganda at nearly 20,000, although only 2,000 of the estimated 55,000 forced to quit the country in 1972 have chosen to return.
Most others are beginning life anew in Uganda, opening a variety of shops and business establishments. There are also those who have come to the "pearl of Africa" - a country of 30 million -- to work in different industries.
"The Indian community has recaptured the position (it once had)," said Srivastava. "Today Indians are present in all sectors including manufacturing. They are employing tens of thousands of (Ugandan) people."
Agreed Jery Pacheco, who runs a popular restaurant, The Coconut Shack, and has lived here for 17 long years. "Yes, Indians are coming back to Uganda - and in large numbers. You can see them everywhere. And they are successful too," Pacheco, who is from Goa, told IANS.
The Indian Association Uganda is the leading community body that plays an active role in binding the many Indian groupings in the country. It brings out a publication, Namaste, which spreads the message of India to Indians.
Besides the Indian Association Uganda, there are also the Andhra Cultural Association, Bengali Association, Indian Women Association, Jain Samaj Uganda, Kerala Samajam, Karnataka Sangha, Lohana Community, Maharashtra Mandal, Ramgarhia Sikh Society, Sindhi Association Uganda, Tamil Sangam, Youth League, Rajasthani Association, Arya Samaj, Indian Catholic Community Uganda and Khoja Shia Ithnasheri Jamat.
There are at least a dozen shrines set up by Indians, including a Jain temple, a Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and a gurudwara in Kampala and a Ganesh Mandir at Entebbe, the nearest town where Uganda's international airport is located. There are also two churches and two mosques.
"Today Indians control more and more businesses," said James Mwangi, a Ugandan businessman who is into hospitality management. "So many shops are run by Indians. As of now they are the largest expatriate business community, ahead of even Kenyans."
Kenya, a larger and prosperous country, is Uganda's immediate neighbour.
Besides working for multinationals in various capacities, Indians run pharmaceutical stores, electronic and other shops, restaurants and bars, casinos, printing presses, tour and travel agencies and hotels.
Indian restaurants do booming business - catering also to Ugandans and other expatriates. Among the hotels are Govinda, Haandi, Nawab, Khana Khazana, Pavement Tandoori and Kati Kati.
There are also numerous Indian doctors.
The Indian story was not as rosy three decades ago.
In 1972, Idi Amin, eager to cement his domestic base, ordered the expulsion of all Indians, giving them just three months to quit, leaving behind everything they owned. The Indians had to comply, leading to a virtual collapse of the economy.
The present Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, took power in 1986 and began to actively woo the Indians again. He promised that Indians who return will be restored the property they had lost. Indian diplomats say he kept his pledge.
However, most of the expelled Indians had dug roots in Britain where they primarily went to and ignored his appeals. Just 2,000 returned to Uganda. However, other Indians have started to eye greener pastures in Uganda.
"The present government wants them to stay," an Indian diplomat explained. This year, when an Indian was killed in mob violence following rumours that a natural forest was to be converted into a sugar factory, the authorities cracked down hard and fast and arrested the rioters. They also promised protection to the Indian community.
Yet, minor irritants remain. Said an Indian from Tamil Nadu who did not want to be quoted by name: "The locals like most of us. Unfortunately, some Indians still don't treat Ugandans with respect. That is unfortunate."
Ugandan businessman Mwangi disagreed. "I think relations between Ugandans and Indians are excellent," he said. "The past is over. Today Ugandan people want to benefit from Indian skills."