‘They arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs.’ Stripped of their wealth and livelihoods, 27,000 shivering Ugandan Asians arrived in Britain in 1972, to the condemning echo of Enoch Powell’s ‘River’s of Blood Speech’. Over forty years on, Ugandan Asians are Britain’s most successful immigrant community. Their strength lay not in materiality; in what they own or the inheritance of empires, but in knowledge that could build ownership and create empires. They had been here before.
In the maze of pothole-ridden streets we arrived at the feeble looking Parikh ancestral home in Sojitra, in India’s northern Gujarat state. The latest squatter catches our sight through the gaps in the door and approaches to let us in, his child scurries out past us like an ant, doing well to avoid the freshly laid cow dung by the stone carved doorstep. Inside, the wooden stairs lacked sturdiness, the roof fought a dying battle with even the gentlest summer breeze, and the weak walls allowed the ringing of prayer bells to resonate through as darshan was called at the Vaherai Mata temple nearby. Though the physical foundations were weak, the life lessons learnt inside were character building, and continue to be felt generations on.
Eighty years before, under this very roof would have stood the dejected figure of my great-grandfather, Purushottam Parikh. At the age of seventeen an immense burden fell on his young shoulders. His father had passed away leaving behind an extensive family and the debts he was unable to fulfil as a merchant. ‘Parikh’ as those closest would call him, took the decision to migrate to Uganda with his wife and father-in-law, where thousands of Gujaratis before them had become the powerhouses of the growing Ugandan British empire. Innate to the Ugandan Asian persona was the willingness to take risk, for many like my great-grandfather, their circumstance left them little choice.
‘They would have been like Ram, Laxman and Sita,’ envisaged my grandfather. When Ram is depicted next to his brother Laxman and consort Sita-this form of the Hindu deity is known as Ram Parivar. Parivar, meaning family has always been focal to the Ugandan Asians’ story; it is treasured as a resource. After finding work as a Barclays Bank clerk in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, ‘Parikh’ would regularly return to India to invite and initiate his younger brothers into the opportunities of ‘the pearl of Africa’. By his early thirties he was a manager at Barclays.
‘A pin-drop silence’ would befall the office floor when ‘Mr Parikh’, one of the most senior ranking non-Ugandans, entered. Outside the orange-hues of the African road dust would linger in the air as he strode assuredly. Immaculately coiffed and suited, accompanied with his stylish pocket-pen, his panache was not unfounded. In 1953 he had received a letter inviting him to come to Britain to witness Queen Elizabeth II‘s coronation as an esteemed Barclays Bank employee. He dreamt to experience life in the ‘western-world.’ Yet after enthusiastically purchasing new suits and pressing his trousers for his visit he suffered a fatal heart-attack at the age of forty-three, months after declaring that he had finally fulfilled his father’s debts.
At the core of the Ugandan Asian personality was endeavour; whether to reach the heights of society, provide for a family or pay-off debts. Parikh’s dream lives on in his legacy. Idi Amin forced his family’s exile to Britain and Canada without the wealth that he created. Instead, they left with the charisma and fortitude he had shown them, in order to rebuild it.
As the morning traffic on Belgrave Road in Leicester basks in the scent of a fresh batch of mogo, or cassava, and another sari shop in Wembley refills with the latest silk styles from across the globe, Ugandan Asians look into their rich and diverse heritage for strength. Their talents were forged in India, their mettle was tested in Uganda-but they flourished across the world.