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Meet the compiler of Ugandan Asians’ history

One remarkable thing about this year’s Independence day was the fact that medals were given out to some Ugandan Asians, 21 in all, by the Gen Tumwine-led medals committee.

A one Dr Vali Jamal was one of them. One of the achievements Jamal has under his belt is his ‘million-word book’ on Uganda’s Asians.

DR VALI JAMAL holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cambridge University, UK, and a PhD from Stanford University, California, USA.

He worked in Uganda’s ministry of Commerce and Industry between 1964 and 1967, was a lecturer of Economics at Makerere University between 1972 and 1973 and the Senior Economist of the International Labour Organization (ILO) from 1976 to 2001.

His book, Ugandan Asians: Then and Now, Here and There, documents contributions of the Asian community to Uganda from the start of the British Uganda Protectorate in 1894 to date.

He has been compiling the book since 2007. He is married to Mbale-born Zaibun Mitha and together, they have two children. Racheal Ninsiima caught up with him and below are excerpts of an interview she had with him.

Congratulations on this high national award. How did you feel and how did it happen?

I felt overwhelmed. Never did I imagine I would be amongst 20 Ugandan Asians to be awarded on our national day. I was recognised in the academic category.

Asians, or Indians as we call them, then played immense roles in opening up the country physically through the construction of the Uganda Railway from Mombasa [to Kampala]. They also went out into the interior to open up dukas (small shops) there, collecting produce from the farmers and selling goods to them.

How about your million-word book? Wasn’t that also the reason for the award?

I think so. I had suggested to Professor Kagonyera last year that with my book due out soon, it would be good to award some of them [Asians] with Uganda’s highest civilian medals. The book is quite scholarly. It has archival material from UK, Canada, USA and India on [those countries’] decision-making in resettling the expelled Asians.

The role played by the Aga Khan with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the role of the Aga Khan’s uncle, Prince Sadruddin, at the UNHCR, come through clearly from the archives.

I drew upon my research papers on the Uganda economy to make scholarly comments on the fall and rise of the Uganda economy. My forte is income distribution and poverty and some of the statistics pop up every now and again. New words are invented on the go and that also contributes to the scholarliness of the book.

What does the book expose?

The book records the story of the Asian expulsion of 1972 in people’s own words and of the Indian/Asian settlement in Uganda from the start of the protectorate in the words of the descendents of the Indian pioneers. It goes even further by recording the Asian success story in the diaspora countries and their return to Uganda in the early 1980s, again in people’s own words.

It’s been nearly six years in the making, now nearly 1,600 pages, worth up to one million words, with over 4,000 images. The book is a credit to, not only Uganda Asians, but to Uganda itself, by recording one aspect of our history and by showing gratitude to the current government for opening the doors to the re-entry of Uganda Asians from mid-1980s onwards.

It records the fall (under Idi Amin) and the rise (under NRM) of the economy and shows the racial diversification of the current Uganda economy. The economy collapsed at the departure of the Asians in 1972 and had a giddying rise after 1986.

What were your intentions for writing such a detailed book?

People often ask me this question and what my expectations for it are. Quite simply, history has to be recorded and in this case, it is only someone of my generation who could do it as we have the memory of the 1972 expulsion and memory of what our father told us about how it was when our grandfather came to Uganda. My own grandfather came here in 1903 to work with the great Indian merchant, Allidina Visram. That generation is passing on.

There were 80,000 Ugandan Asians in the world in 1972, meaning 12,000 households. By now the number should be down to 4,000 household. So, I wrote this million-word book for just 4,000 households. It took me over six and a half years. Had electric power been available on tap, it would have taken me one and a half years less.

What’s next for the book and what are your expectations for it?

The book in its draft form is well known to His Excellency the President, several Uganda ministers, government officials and academics, including Ambassador Wanume Kibedi, the commissioner of Immigration and Prof Mondo Kagonyera, Chancellor of Makerere University. The book will be launched in March 2014.

As for my expectations, clearly it’s not the sales. I just hope my book is taken notice of in serious publications including journals. I think I shall be called upon to lecture at universities and I am hoping the book will be adopted in the high school curriculum in Uganda so that students can learn that aspect of our history.

The president’s endorsement of the book as a national asset is already 30 per cent of my reward. What is left is for the book to be supported to ensure it is published in sufficient quantities and at a reasonable price.    

Is this the first major publication you will be releasing?

I have quite a number of publications on the Ugandan economy, starting with my dissertation; ‘The role of Cotton and Coffee in Uganda’s Economic Development’ at Makerere University.


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