A family friend Goswami Debarata, from Calcutta, has been a resident for about ten years and plans to go back in a few years.
Debolina Choudhary had been married only a few weeks when she left Calcutta to join her husband Prashant, who had relocated to Kampala four months earlier. Neither had visited the bustling capital city of Uganda, let alone Africa. Yet, this country, that threw out its entire Asian population not too long before, made sense for their short-term goals.

Asian immigration to Uganda is not a new phenomenon–it dates back more than a century when Indians were brought over to East Africa by the British to work on building railway lines. When the work was done, some remained to fill the vacuum of trade in an agricultural economy and went on to become successful entrepreneurs and eventually big stakeholders in the Ugandan economy.

Eventually, a harsh expulsion order in 1972 by Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin Dada removed this population–estimated between 60,000 and 70,000– in its entirety.

The Asians have trickled back in and it is not unusual anymore to find convenience stores on Kampala Road with proprietors of Asian descent. Or sari-clad women walking into the Hindu temple situated prominently in the heart of the city, while others shop in nearby vegetable markets. Indian restaurants appear quite popular and “chapatti” or bread, a mainstay in North-Indian diets, is as common on any menu as the local favorite “matoke,” or cooked bananas.

However, only about 10 percent of the 20,000 Asians in Uganda today are “returnees,” or Asians who were expelled in 1972. The majority are new immigrants like Prashant and Debolina Choudhary. Despite the recent history of turbulent race relations, Uganda has once again become a land of economic opportunity for these first generation Indians.

While working as a marketing executive for Pepsi Co., in Calcutta, Choudhary was told of better job prospects in East Africa, and soon a friend helped hook him up with a prominent mobile phone company in Kampala.

A year later, Choudhary entered the job market again, shifting to Rwenzori Beverage Co. Ltd., a leading producer of mineral water, where his new role as a marketing manager was more in line with his prior work experience.

“In India, there is a lot of tension,” said Choudhary of the long work days that have become the norm for working professionals. “It’s much more relaxed here and the salary is better.” His job perks include a car and round-trip airfares for his family to visit Calcutta once every two years, courtesy of Rwenzori.

They intend to spend a few years in Uganda, save a bit of money and eventually head back home to India or to move on to greater opportunities, perhaps in more developed countries such as the United States or United Kingdom.

“Uganda is being used as a jumping board for many Asians,” said Praful Patel, a third-generation Asian in Uganda and maybe one of Kampala’s few Indian residents with a Ugandan passport. “There is too much competition in India and it is much easier here, compared to those conditions.”

Ease of entry and work

Much like Choudhary, Jigish Vyas, 47, arrived in Kampala in 2000 with his wife and teenage daughter to work as the manager for Indian businessman Sanjiv Patel. He manages his boss’ financials and oversees client relations. He is his boss’ most trusted employee.

Moving to a foreign country wasn’t an issue for Vyas. His job involved a great deal more responsibility than anything he had while living in Ahmedabad, India. Obtaining a work permit was easy through the sponsorship of his employer and he continues to renew his work permit to remain legal in the country.

Omkara Maharaj, manager at Masala
Chaat House, has been in
Kampala since 1995 and
repatriates money to his wife and
children in Rajashan, India.
Vincent Okumu and Moses Etyang
work under his supervision.

For his newly-hired colleague Neeraj Patel, entering Uganda with a tourist visa was the only option as the 22-year-old did not have a job offer on hand. Uganda’s lenient policy of granting a tourist visa upon arrival at the airport has allowed some Asians to find jobs after entry, sometimes overstaying their tourist visas, subsequently apply for a work permit. The Asian community is tight-knit, he said, and the connections go a long way in securing a job.
The ease of entry and obtaining a work permit is one reason that Uganda appeals to many Asians, a sharp contrast to the entry process for countries like the U.S., where simply obtaining a tourist visa is difficult for many young men who appear as potential immigrants.

“It’s a funny situation–they [Ugandans] are good on paper, but not very flexible in their jobs,” said Sanjiv Patel. He refers to instances when he has observed reluctance among Ugandans to perform outside the job parameters. “Being Indian is what they [immigrants] have in skills.”

Not all the Asians work exclusively for Indian business owners, explained Patel of the Kampala-based Indian Association of Uganda. A third-generation Asian in Uganda, Sanjiv Patel returned in 1991after his family opted to go to India upon expulsion. Many Asians with professional skills are employed by Ugandan-owned businesses, too. In turn, Asians employ Ugandans as well, although a complaint with some Ugandans is that high-level positions in such companies are reserved for the Indians.

Masiga Dixon, 39, a Ugandan employee at the American Recreation Association, disagreed.

“Indians have been a big contributor to our economy,” said Dixon. “The ones who claim to suffer are at the low-paying jobs. The professionals are better off as Ugandans are getting more educated.”

Omkara Maharaj, 47, came to Kampala to manage a Ugandan staff at Masala Chaat House on DeWinton Road, a popular informal Indian restaurant. He arrived more than 13 years ago, leaving his wife and three children in Rajasthan.

He would rather his children continue their education in India and prefers to send them money periodically instead of forcing a move on them.

Like Maharaj, Jigish Vyas and Prashant Choudhary, many of the new first generation immigrants tend to be young men who come to find employment. Some are bachelors like Neeraj Patel who go back home to marry women from their communities. There are others like Choudhary, who bring over families and still others like Maharaj who prefer to leave their families behind. Citizenship is not desirable for any of them, especially when the process to renew their work permits is so simple.

Concern over race relations

However, the temporary patterns of settlement have raised concerns among some older generations of Asians living in Kampala.

Vali Jamal, the owner of CafĂ© Viva, situated on a congested strip of Kampala Road, is only too aware of the race relations debacle, a victim of Amin’s decree. He is critical of the lack of integration between the Asian immigrants and their hosts.

“They [first-generation Asians] don’t know anything about history,” said Jamal. “Their existence is superficial at that level and that is a very dangerous thing to me.” While Indian business-owners continue to harvest their investments in Uganda, they are distrustful of the locals, he said.

Jamal, whose grandfather arrived in 1904, is a third generation Ugandan. In the old days, the extended family business ranged from operating restaurants to cotton ginneries.

An economist at the United Nations for more than 25 years, Jamal returned to Kampala from Canada and may be one of the few Asian business owners with a 100 percent Ugandan staff.

He is not shy to admit that there are some skills lacking among Ugandans. While interviewing people for his restaurant, he found them lacking strong accounting skills.

“The labor force here has become undisciplined,” said Jamal. “As wages fell drastically, there was no full-time work, so they resorted to a more relaxed work ethic. Some of that has remained and for people investing, they can’t tolerate indiscipline.”

Despite this, understanding the history of race relations and efforts to improve integration is critical, he said.

April riots

On April 12, 2007, riots broke out in Kampala over an Indian-owned firm’s plans to develop part of a rainforest reserve. Demonstrators were against the proposed giveaway of part of the Mabira Forest Reserve to the Mehta group of companies to expand sugarcane growing.

There were scenes of Asian men dragged off motorbikes and beaten while others cowered in besieged city center shops, according to a Reuters report. An Asian man was stoned to death by a mob and at least two rioters were shot dead.

A media storm ensued with much talk of a resurgence of anti-Asian sentiment.

“This was an isolated incident,” said Sanjiv Patel, who was part of a delegation that visited India recently to lure investors and assure safety for Asians in Uganda. “He was intimidated by the mob and sped. He became a victim of circumstances.”

This was echoed by Eunice Kisembo, spokeswoman for Uganda’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. However it’s not hard to notice the lack of social relationships between the Asians and their hosts, she said.

“The Indian approach is a little materialistic and most often their interests are in repatriating profits,” Kisembo said. “We think Indians are xenophobic and discriminatory. Of course there are some who are genuine, but most want you for what you can offer.”

This can become problematic when unemployment rates among Ugandans are high, she added. There needs to be more efforts toward cultural sensitization, she said, and this is something that has been addressed with the Indian Association in Kampala.

Plans to leave

Prashant and Debolina Choudhary, proud parents of a two-year-old daughter, are settled comfortably in a housing complex opposite Kampala’s crowded Nakasero market. Their apartment building houses about 20 other families, all from India, which, according to Debolina Choudhary, made the transition easier as she found support and companionship from other young wives and mothers.

Doors are left open during the day as children run freely and the wide floor space within the building often becomes a cricket patch for young boys after school. The social network gives Choudhary the opportunity to spend a few hours during the week coaching her neighbor’s children, while tending to her daughter.

One neighbor, Asha Sharma, 41, reunited with her husband in Kampala in 2004, nearly two decades after her husband arrived there. Hailing from Rajasthan, Sharma raised their two children in Ajmer and joined her husband for short vacations.

Her sons, now 13 and 11, attend the Aga Khan International School and she hopes to send them back to India or England for their graduate studies. Thirteen-year-old Bhavesh Sharma, fondly called Bunty, is eager to go back to India, as much as he enjoys having his father in their daily life.

“There is not much to do in Uganda,” he says. “The knowledge is not as much as it is in India. Technology is better there.”

His words appear to reflect the sentiments of many Indian parents in Kampala, hoping to send their children back home for graduate studies or to the U.S., Canada or England. Eventually children’s graduate education and medical care, which many Indians believe to lack in quality in Uganda, become the tipping points in this community’s desire to leave this verdant country.

Jigish Vyas has his only daughter enrolled at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, a renowned design school in India. He doesn’t encourage his daughter to come to Kampala after graduation, as opportunities may be better there.

Even given the disincentives at the post-graduation level, the Indian community in Kampala is thriving. Apart from a small group of business owners, large and small, a good majority enjoy managerial positions with titles such as Marketing or Sales Executives.

“The average Indian works hard and likes others to work hard,” said Praful Patel. “It’s a big problem to make them [Ugandans] work. Out of eight hours, they are productive for maybe four or five.”

Debolina Choudhary is wary of safety in Kampala, following the April riots. “For one tree cut five Indians dead,” said one poster, according to a BBC News report. She realizes that there should be more cooperation, although it is a challenge given the suspicion that exists within both populations.

Eunice Kisembo agreed and can understand Asian mistrust given that they were thrown out in recent history. And so did Dixon Masiga.

“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Dixon said. “When there is not much integration, it makes me think that they are not really genuine. But, you know, if Mehta were to close its business for a week, we would have no sugar.”