Transcript: Tasneem Jamal: Uganda's Asian Exiles | Jul 21, 2014

Piya sits in the studio. She’s in her forties, and has dark brown, slightly wavy hair in a bob cut. She wears a blue dress and a beige blazer.

Forty-two years ago,
Ugandan president,
Idi Amin, expelled the country's
Indian and Pakistani minorities,
giving them 90 days to
leave the African nation.
Author Tasneem Jamal's family
was one of those that fled,
and she draws on that experience
in her novel
And she joins us
now in our studio.

A slate shows a picture of the book. The cover features an empty deck chair on a deck, as seen from below, against a partly cloudy blue sky. The name of the author, Tasneem Jamal, appears under the title: “Where the air is sweet.”

Piya turns to Tasneem and says Welcome to The Agenda Summer.

Tasneem is a slim woman in her thirties, with short black hair. She wears an orange sleeveless dress and small golden earrings.

She smiles and says Thank you.

Piya says OK, before we get into the book,
which we will do at some length,
tell me about your
family's connection to Uganda.

A caption appears on the screen. It reads "Tasneem Jamal, Author, “Where the air is sweet.”

Tasneem replies Yeah, it's--my grandfather
left Gujarat in India--

Piya asks India?

Tasneem says Yes, it's a state in India
in the western part of India.

The caption changes to “Uganda’s Asian Exiles, 90 days to leave.”

She continues He left in about
1920...1920--between 1920 and
1924. I'm not exactly sure
and he went on his own.
He was married at that point and
had one child and so he left his
wife behind and took a steamer
and went to East Africa and this
was a fairly common way that
South Asians moved to East
Africa.
It's a pretty sort of
logical route to cross.
It's just the Indian Ocean
you cross when the monsoons are
favourable people
used to go for many,
many years, sort of pre-steamer.
So that was how he came to East
Africa and then there were a
number of people from his
village who had settled in
Uganda, which was further
interior in the interior.
And so, he met up with somebody
from his family's village in a
town called Mbarara, initially
and then basically tried to
start a life, travelled around,
tried a number of businesses
over the years, started small
little shops called Lukhas.
And after a few years he was
able to bring his wife and young
son over and then that was
sort of how they started to live
there, had more kids.
Took a lot of years but
eventually started to prosper.
My mother's family on the other
hand came a fair bit earlier
from Punjab, another Indian
state and they came with really
what was the largest wave
of South Asians in the late
1800s, they came from--the
British Empire wanted to build a
railway into the interior of
East Africa from Mombasa and so
they recruited labour from
the Indian subcontinent and so
Punjab for some reason sent a
lot of labourers and so that was
where my--it would have been
my great-grandfather came.

Piya says Right, so your parents
both born and raised in--

Tasneem interrupts and says Yes.

Piya continues They're Africans,
they're Ugandans.

Tasneem says Yeah, well my mother
Kenyan, my father Ugandan,
yup.

Piya nods and says OK, And when you decided
to tell your story,
'cause you were
born there as well.

She gestures towards Tasneem, who replies I was.

Piya asks OK, how old were you
when you came to Canada?

Tasneem says Initially I was just, I was
almost four and then we actually
went back and then eventually
I was about six when I settled
here, yup.

Piya says So you tell your
family's story in a novel.
You could have done
it in a--you know,
historical non-fiction way.
Why a novel?
Why did you want to tell
it through literature?

Tasneem says It's a good
question 'cause I did,
I considered doing non-fiction
but I found growing up when I
would tell people about my
background I would encounter
this--well confusion.
It's complicated because I'm
Indian but I'm from Africa.
When I would tell people
that Indians were expelled from
Uganda and you know there
would be some sort of,

She shrugs slightly and says "Oh yeah, whatever you know,
Indians living in Africa."
There wasn't a lot of sympathy.
The sense was there was
a--people were just kind of
briefly there and
then they left.
And so I realized I needed to
explain the emotional connection
and the fact that Indians were
tied to the land in some way so
I wanted to express that and I
wanted people to connect to that
emotionally so I knew that I
needed to do it in a novel.
And I also--there are a lot of
nuances in the relationships
with the indigenous population
and I wouldn't want to make
blanket statements or
generalizations--which is not to
say that non-fiction necessarily
does that but I think that
fiction allows for ambiguity,
moral ambiguity and as I said
the nuance that--

Piya says OK, let's get into the
book because the story weaves
through different generations
of a South Asian family,
the patriarch is Raju.

The caption changes to “Travels and travails.”

Piya continues How are his experience or the
family's experiences reflective
of what really
happened in Uganda?
How true to what happened is it?

Tasneem ponders a moment, and then replies What I tried to do
was...there are so many stories.
I mean there were about 80,000
South Asians that were expelled
so obviously there are at least
that many stories and so I would
say that this particular story
would be a pretty good example
of how most people, most South
Asians would have experienced
East Africa, that initial
sense of being foreign,
of trying to negotiate this
really quite different place,
the languages, the culture and
then getting to a place where it
does, you're putting down
some real roots and then the
emotional and just the material
theft that happens at the end.
So it is I think a pretty good,
pretty good example of what most
people would have gone through.

Piya says And the story, the family is
Ismaili Muslims and I think it's
a community that few
Canadians know a lot about.
So who exactly are
Ismaili Muslims?
Who are Ismaili Muslims?

Tasneem says OK, so I can give you a
very quick Islam 101--

Piya laughs and says Go ahead.

Tasneem continues Just to explain
where they fit in.
So, there are the two major
branches of Islam the Shia and
the Sunni which I think
most people have a sense of.
Sunni are by far the greater
number of Muslims in the world.
Ismailis are an offshoot of
the Shia branch so a schism of a
schism essentially.

Piya nods. Tasneem continues And the major split in Islam
happened after the prophet
Muhammad died and the question
was who would lead the community
after he died.
And so there was a group that
felt elected leaders should lead
and so this was
the Sunni branch.
And then the group that felt
that Muhammad's cousin and
son-in-law Ali should be a
leader and his descendants and
so they were called Shiat Ali,
the party of Ali and eventually
Shia and then about
eight centuries later,
there was another breakaway
and that's where Ismailis sort
of became
their own and they are
currently led by the 49th Imam,
the Aga Khan who is a
direct descendant of Muhammad.
The reason, Ismailis sort of
figure in the story is when Idi
Amin expelled South Asians
he--in his initial statement it
was non-citizen Ugandans and
Ismailis for the most part
became citizens because
they were encouraged during
independence in 1962 by the
Aga Khan to become citizens.
You know the idea
was you live here,
you are prospering, there's
infinite potential in this
country so become citizens
and so most Ismailis did become
citizens.
The vast majority of Ugandan
Asians chose to take on what was
called British
protected person status.
So, basically they had British
status without the right to live
in Britain, was kind of a
bizarre situation but so that
when, when Amin expelled these
Asians those people with British
protected status went to the
United Kingdom and those with
Ugandan citizenship technically,
legally were able to stay but it
was clear in the behavior of the
military and of Amin's language
that it was not safe to stay and
so Canada took the vast majority
of those who were.

Piya says We have a
sizable Ismaili community.

Tasneem says Yes, that's right so that the
majority of those that came to
Canada were Ismaili.

Piya says OK, let's talk
pre-expulsion, the mid-20th
century pre-independence.
I mean what are relations
like for your family and other
families between you know South
Asians living in Uganda and the
indigenous and
African population?
What are relations there?
Are these communities
that are melding together,
are they living separate lives?

Tasneem says Yeah. No, there wasn't so
much melding together.
Colonial Africa was really
stratified so you would have the
European community, the South
Asian community and then the
indigenous African community
and they were literally quite
separate.
Like you know the indigenous
Africans would live largely in
the countryside.
The South Asians
were in the cities,
they were running
the small businesses.
They were pretty much the middle
class and then you had the
Europeans who in Uganda, there
wasn't a large settler colony of
Europeans, not like Kenya where
there were quite a lot but they
were there and you had things
like European-only Kampala club,
the country club in Mbarara.
My family's hometown was
Europeans-only for a long time
as well.
So there wasn't--nobody
was really encouraged to
intermingle.

Piya says Was there any animosity
between the various groups?

Tasneem replies If there was, it was usually
sort of under the surface and
then it would erupt--

Piya says So sort of
quiet acceptance,
you do your thing,
I'll do my thing?

Tasneem says Yeah, yeah.
There were sort a
couple of--in 1959,
I think it was, there was a
movement by a particular group
of indigenous Africans to
boycott Asian shops and so it
wasn't--it was there
but it was, as I said,
it would sort of erupt
and then it would go quiet.
But it seemed, it seemed to work
on a certain level but it was
clear that it was unsustainable.

Piya says And amidst all this
Amin rises to power,
just remind us
how that happened.

Tasneem says Yeah, it's, it's, um--so Amin
was a general in the Ugandan
Army and pre-independence--he
was a lifetime military guy and
he was one of only two African
officers in the army at the
time of independence so he was
promoted quite quickly.
And he actually came to power in
a coup in 1971 and at that time
the prime minister was Milton
Obote.
He was the prime minister at the
time of independence,
a civilian leader.
Uganda is made up of a number
of tribes and obviously there
is--they don't all
necessarily get along.
They certainly don't necessarily
want the same leaders and so
there was always tension.
And leading to independence,
like a lot of African countries,
people wanted independence
quickly so they made
arrangements with other tribes.
"This will be good,
we'll deal with it later."
And so a lot of things that
were supposed to get dealed with
later came to a head
sort of in the early '70s.
Obote had to rely on the
military in a few instances
to--just to simplify this a bit
to consolidate his power and so
he came to depend on Amin a
little too much and so there was
then, there was some tension
with Obote and Idi Amin and in
January 1971, Obote travelled
to Singapore for a Commonwealth
conference and
while he was away,
Amin staged a coup and
the military took over.

Piya says And, I don't know, I'm putting
this curtly but I mean what was
his beef with South Asians?
Why did he want them out?

Tasneem says Well it's funny.

She grins slightly and says It's hard to know.
There was, as I said there was
that quiet but every once in a
while erupting kind of attitude
towards South Asians and in the
period before
independence in Tanzania,
Kenya and Uganda and even in
southern African countries there
was some resentment
building towards South Asians.
This was a conspicuous group
I mean just racially but also
relatively wealthier group and
this is generally modest wealth.
Like you'd have a car, a home a
small business--

Piya says Wealthier than
the indigenous.

Tasneem agrees Much wealthier than the
indigenous population,
that's right.
And so as people were
thinking about independence,
race started to come up.
Like what makes an African?
What makes me a Ugandan?
So the Asian groups started to
become more and more conspicuous
and so politicians were
kind of scapegoating,
like if there were any issues,
things weren't going so great.
Economically they
would point to,
"Oh, it's the Asians."
It was a fairly simple argument.
With Amin, when
he came to power,
there was no sense that he had
any issues with South Asians.
He was, he seemed--everybody at
the time most people didn't
really have an opinion of him,
certainly Asians.
Who is this guy?
We'll wait and see.

She shrugs and says Shouldn't be a
problem, I don't think.
And so apparently one day when
he made this speech where he
said that he wanted
to expel South Asians,
he claimed that he'd had a dream
in which God told him to do
this.
There was also some talk that
there was a South Asian girl
that he wanted to marry.
He had a few wives and they came
from different tribes and so he
wanted a South Asian bride and
her family apparently you know,
hid her very quickly got her out
of the country or something

She chuckles and continues
And so some people feel that
personal rejection prompted him
to just utter
this in this speech.
I'm not convinced.
In my research, my sense is this
was a more systematic approach.
There was, there were things
happening behind the scenes.
For example, many, many Asian
applications of citizenship were
cancelled abruptly, suddenly.
This was before his speech that
he was going to expel them so my
sense is that it was not.
I mean there was this sort
of sense that Amin was this
bumbling crazy man
and he certainly,

She grins and continues you know, proved this with some
of the things he said but there
was a systematic, there
was stuff going on in the
background.

Piya says And when your
family or other families,
I mean here, you know, the
leader of the country where they
were born and raised say,
"It's time to get out."
What happens?
Do they put up resistance?
Do they--are they
just so scared?

Tasneem says Initially most people
kind of laughed it off.

She gestures dismissively and continues I mean he was always saying such
strange things that--

Piya says No one took him seriously.

Tasneem says No.
They said, "Oh he'll change
his mind in a couple of days."
And this thing about whether
it's theory about the rejected
you know, this woman's
family rejecting him,
"Oh you know, he'll find
another one and he'll be okay.
We won't have to leave."
And for a long--and in my
family in particular was highly
resistant to this to
believing this is even possible.
You know it was just so
outrageous and it was not just
leave but leave in 90 days,
hand over your businesses,
your accounts, bank
accounts would be frozen,
people were to be given
50 pounds sterling each,
that was it and the suitcases--

Piya pitches in and says This isn't modern day where you
can get out and move all your
money overnight by
Internet banking or whatever.

Tasneem says No exactly, so
people didn't believe it.
But then in September about
a month after the initial
expulsion order, some Tanzanian
troops and Obote's guerrillas
invaded Uganda.
It went very poorly but Amin's
response was to set up road
blocks, things got really very
ugly very fast and it seemed to
become an excuse to
harass Asians a lot.
And at that point it was
clear this was serious and then
people--

Piya says And in your book, the various
characters sort of react
to the expulsion, emotionally
some people, as you suggest,
say, "It's not true."
They're in denial.
Other people are absolutely
outraged being expelled from
their countries.
I mean, was that really
reflective of the diversity of
opinion and emotion--

Tasneem says Yes.

Piya continues --in the Asian community?

Tasneem says Yeah, I mean there were people
who were ready to go in a day.

Piya says It's like
we're getting' out.

Tasneem says They were just,
they were gonna go.
Yes, and I wanted
to reflect that.
You know, it's a human response.
I found a really good comparison
is when I was reading survivors
of the Titanic
sinking talking
about being told to get on the
lifeboats, you know, you're
on this nice warm ship and the
lights are still on and there's
these little rickety life rafts
and everything in their brain
was telling them to stay on the
boat.
And that was the sense I think
of people in Uganda that this is
our home.
This is ridiculous.
They couldn't even
conceive of going--where?
They didn't even know
where they were going.
That was the other thing.
It wasn't like, they
did have a home to go to.
This was home.

She frowns and gestures passionately.

She continues So, you know, I think there
had to be a period where people
could process this information.
And for a lot of people
you didn't have that luxury.

Piya says And one of the characters that's
so interesting in your book,
Mumtaz actually has sympathy
with the African population
saying that they felt exploited
by Asians and she kind of gets
that.
Was that a typical sentiment?

Tasneem answers I don't know if it was typical.
I think...I think there was for
a lot of people the relationship
with indigenous Africans
for a lot of South Asians,
it was complex because
you had grown up there,
you know like Jafar, the
character had close friends who
were African and felt just a
human connection but socially,
culturally there
were these walls.
So there was always a tension
and I think for Mumtaz in those
moments she could relate
emotionally to what they were
feeling and yet also be
frustrated and angry with it.
So I tried to show that there
are no--there's no good guys,
bad guys, you know?
Everybody is sort of
could have behaved better,
could have perhaps presented
themselves differently.
But at the same time in such
a stratified society it was
exceedingly
difficult to do that.

Piya says It's interesting that you
say there's no bad guys 'cause I
think most people would say,
"Idi Amin was a pretty bad guy."

Tasneem nods and sais Yeah, true.
What I think he represented--and
here I'll go a little bit into
metaphor for the
sake of the narrative.
He really embodied the rage
and a character says that at one
point in the book of you know,
hundreds of years of Africa of
the exploitation of colonial
legacy of--there's no question,
you know there's some scenes
where Mumtaz is at the Mbarara
hospital and she sees these
indigenous Africans just waiting
to maybe somebody will
give them some treatment.
They've walked probably for days
to come to the hospital and you
know she would have just walked
right by them and went into the
hospital and to be comfortable
with that kind of environment is
a challenge to somebody who's
even remotely connected to their
own, you know, emotions.
And you know, and Amin is a
product of something you know?
And so of that environment and
that attitude--

Piya pitches in That racism.

Tasneem nods and says Yeah, exactly, that racism.

Piya says All right, so now in Uganda, I
mean the expulsion was tens of
thousands, I think you said
80,000--

Tasneem says Yeah about 80,000.

Piya continues There are different numbers
kind of thrown out but tens of
thousands in any case.
Are there South Asians
still in Uganda today?

Tasneem says There are.
They're in I believe it
was the early eighties,
the Ugandan President Museveni
actually invited Asians to come
back.
They would be given their
property back if they came.
Remarkably few
wanted to go back.
Most were happily settled in
Canada and the UK and elsewhere.
Some people did go back.
Particularly if you had property
in Kampala because the rents
were very high and
you could actually,
you could get going start
businesses fairly quickly.
But, you know, I can't imagine
there's more than--I don't know
exact numbers but I'm
thinking around 12,000
maybe 12-15,000 Asians.
You know at their height
there was anywhere from
60-80,000.

Piya asks And are they treated well in
Uganda today?

Tasneem says I haven't spent a
lot of time there.
I've spent some time there.
Generally speaking, yes.
There have been
some outbreaks of,
you know there was some violence
against South Asians probably
about six or seven years ago.
I would say that there's
more tension there than there
certainly was in the
'60s, overt tension.
And I think that my sense of the
South Asians there is--they're
conscious that you kind of maybe
have to keep a foot outside of
the country.
But there's also new immigration
coming from India as well from
South Asian so there's that
whole--

Piya says New wave of immigration.

Tasneem says Yeah.

Piya says So your family comes, and what
year did they come to Canada?

Tasneem says Initially in '72 and
then settled in 1975.

Piya says OK, and you were a
young girl at the time?

Tasneem replies Yeah.

The caption changes to “A new beginning.”

Piya says When your family comes, your mom
and dad who grew up you know far
away, came in the early '70s,
what was the transition like for
them?

Tasneem says In some ways, it was
easy in this respect.
Uganda was a British colony and
so there were--you know
everybody spoke English.
Businesses, owning homes, all
these things were familiar.
So, you know, you had mortgages,
you had to have a merchant's
licence, you know all
these kinds of things were,
they go it.
They had district commissioners
but basically they got municipal
government all these kinds of
things worked quite easily.
I know my mother talks about
just how thrilled she was at how
wonderful the
public schools were.

She smiles and continues You know the doctors were free,
there were all these things
that--"OK, this is
actually a lot easier."
But of course there was just
the absolute shock of being
dispossessed and then
landing in a foreign place.
But the whole community came
together at the same time which
almost never happens right?

Piya says Communal experience right?
Everyone was sort of landing and
transitioning into a new life
together.

Tasneem says Yeah.
So you had your,
you had friends,
you had cousins, you had
uncles who were in town and that
emotional support was huge,
was really I think the key to
getting people going again.

Piya says You were talking
earlier about how people,
how South Asians were
living in Uganda would identify
themselves.
We're the Ugandans,
we're the Indians.
I'm curious how does your
family identify themselves?

Tasneem says It's a good question.
When I was younger the phrase
"back home" was used a lot,
you know?
My parents, everybody would be
sitting around and talking about
"back home" and it just kind of
faded from the vocabulary of the
household.

She laughs and continues My father, my sense is he felt
very Ugandan and he had a lot of
trouble letting go
and that was something,
that was a theme I wanted to
explore in the book was how hard
it is to let go of that
sense of identity you have.
And but it's interesting, when
my husband and I spent a year
living in East Africa recently,
my parents came to visit and
they were, they just
wanted to go home.

She laughs.

Piya asks Go home to Canada you mean?

Tasneem nods and replies Yes, to Canada,
yeah they found it,
they were uncomfortable.
The heat was bothering them.
You know just the lifestyle,
having to haggle all the time in
markets and you know they
felt thoroughly Canadian.

Piya says As you do.
I wanted to ask you, I mean this
is a book written by a Canadian
about a very Canadian experience
but can you just sort of tease
that out?
I mean what is the Canadian
story you're trying to tell?

Tasneem says The sense of—
even the title
I hope implies a
sense of movement of,
this impulse we all have to seek
a better life to go somewhere
where we can be who--we can be
authentically more who we are
and that sometimes we do have
to leave what we've known for
centuries to do that.
And so to me Canada is a
place that people come to.
I mean there's the indigenous
population but the vast majority
of people have
come from somewhere.
And so many families have
this kind of history,
whatever it is, wherever they've
come from and you know when I've
talked about my book to people
whose background is European,
you know they have
similar tales to tell, right?
So, what I kind of hoped is that
after people read this book and
maybe they order a pizza and
the guy who comes to the door,
they might look at him
a little differently,
like, you know,
"Where has he come from?
What has he walked
through to come to my door?"
You know, that there's that
everyone has this story of
movement.

Piya smiles and says Tasneem Jamal, thank you very
much for coming and spending
this time with us.

Tasneem smiles and replies Thank you for having me.

Watch: Tasneem Jamal: Uganda's Asian Exiles