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An Interview With Zul Dhanani, Emigre MAG
What is your name, date and place of birth?
My name is Zul Dhanani. My date of birth is January 8, 1945 in Kampala, Uganda.
You are of Indian descent, correct? Then why were you born in Africa?
Yes, I am. The Indians were brought by the British colonists from India to help build the railway from the coast of Kenya into the interior of Kenya and Uganda. My grandparents had migrated from India to Uganda in east Africa. My parents and I were all born in Uganda.
So after the Indians came to work, many decided to stay?
After the completion of the railroad, Indians had the option of staying in East Africa - and many did.
Did the community become prosperous? Why is that?
Yes, the Indian community became prosperous. They were experienced at commercial aspects of trade and many decided to start their own small businesses in East Africa. More Indians - teachers and other professionals - later migrated to East Africa. With a combination of better education, better knowledge of commerce and control of various professions, they had an advantage over the native Africans and became very successful financially.
Did most of the black African community accept your presence?
During the years the British colonists ruled Uganda, the Africans had no choice but to accept all foreigners. After the British left in 1964, some Africans became more vocal in their objections to the Asians who were far more affluent than the Africans. The Indians responded by opening their private schools to all students, subsidizing the fees for the Africans. I am one of the students who attended private school. Many Indians took in Africans as partners in their businesses.
What was the reason for the mass exodus of Indians in 1972?
The mass exodus of Indians from Uganda was a result of the Adreams' of one man - the president of Uganda in 1972 - a man named Idi Amin. He claimed that in his dream God ordered him to expel the Indians. Many believed Idi Amin was crazy as a result of syphilis.
Was there any resistance?
The Ugandan Indians, with support from Britain and India, tried to exert diplomatic pressures on Idi Amin. They also tried to have the United Nation Secretary General appeal to Idi Amin for fairness. Financially they donated larger sums of money to various local projects. It is said some even tried to bribe army officers to have them influence Amin into changing his mind. The Indians, however, did not make any attempts at armed resistance.
The Indians always had been a peaceful community in East Africa. They never did bear any arms. It would have been a futile attempt to try armed resistance against the militarily powerful Idi Amin.
What happened to your possessions?
The main exodus out of Uganda for the Indians occurred by flying out of the country's main airport at Entebbe. The 20-mile drive from the capital, Kampala, to Entebbe, was like running a gauntlet for the Indians. There were dozens of checkpoints on the way where the Indians were stripped of whatever precious possessions they carried on themselves. Some even had the 2000 Ugandan shillings (about $300) that Amin allowed them to keep, stolen by the soldiers.
What happened to your family?
I had already been sent to Scotland in 1965 to study medicine. In 1972 I wanted to return to Uganda, but could not, and so I stayed and practiced in Britain. My family was accepted as refugees in Canada. I joined them but found Canada too cold. In 1978, I migrated to the U.S.A. - to warm Texas. My brother, who ran a successful business in Uganda, had to leave behind his house, cars, furniture, jewelry, and all other possessions. He, his wife, his three children, and my mother were allowed to leave with only 2000 Ugandan shillings. Having Ugandan citizenship, the British did not accept them and, like thousands of others, were sent to detention camps. Eventually they were accepted as refugees in Canada.
Did you like Scotland?
I enjoyed very much my stay in Scotland as a student and an intern. It's a beautiful country and the people are very warm and friendly. I have gone back to visit.
What happened to your family?
My brother became a life insurance agent in Toronto. He became one of their top insurance agents for the leading Canadian life insurance company. His daughters all completed college in Toronto. Their good command of English and a willingness to work hard allowed them to become successful in their new homeland.
Where did you meet your wife?
I had already met my wife in Uganda. She is also of Indian descent. She was studying in England when I was studying in Scotland. We decided to go home to Uganda to get married in 1972. We had done all the shopping and she flew to Uganda. I was to follow a week later. The very day she flew to Uganda was the day Idi Amin made his announcement to expel the Indians. She had to fly back, and so we got married in England later that year. Neither one of us has ever been back to our home since then.
What has happened to Uganda since 1972?
Tribal rivalries combined with greed of the politicians led to years of civil war. With the Indians gone, there was no stability in trade or professions - especially in schools and colleges. Tribal massacres occurred. The economy was in a shambles. Eventually a man by the name of Musevani came to power ten years ago. Under him gradual peace and normality occurred. Indians were invited to come back to reclaim their properties and many did. The World Bank was encouraged by the constructive plans of the present government. International loans and investments have resumed. Last month President Clinton visited Uganda on his tour of African nations and had positive comments about the future of Uganda. That country was once described by Winston Churchill, the former Prime Minister of Britain, as the Pearl of Africa. It appears that Uganda has a chance to rise from the ruins of the 1970's and 1980's to once again become the Pearl of Africa.