Log in
Updated today

Dr Jamal Vali chooses Uganda over Kenya, Canada

Dr Jamal Vali is a Ugandan of Asian origin, an economist who worked for the International Labour Organisation for 25 years.

He holds a BA from Cambridge, and a PhD from Stanford University, and is currently writing a book on Ugandan Asians.

Dr Vali told his story to Simon Kasyate on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme.

Am I right to call you professor?

Doctor would be nice.

I introduced you as a Ugandan of Asian origin, what exactly is your life story?

I am Ugandan by association. I am actually Kenya-born but from 1946, our family lived here. My father established the first branch of what is now the DT bank in 1946, when I was six years old.

We’ve been here up to 1972 when the expulsion happened. I come back here in 2005 to do something to be back again in Uganda and then I got writing this book since 2007.

So, in 1946, where exactly did your family settle and what was your childhood like?

When we came in 1946, our first home was on Lubaga road, as Lubaga road branches off from Namirembe road. And it was the very first house on that road, now it’s become a supermarket.

I remember how, in 1946, coming from Mombasa, where I was born, everything looked so green and the flowers looked so colourful. Afterwards, we were on Martin road and finally, at the expulsion we were on what was called Borap avenue but is now Malcolm X, where my father built his first established kind of home.

Which school did you go to?

I went to the Agha Khan school, then under the mosque on Namirembe road. The teacher [would be] rotating from class to class because there were not enough teachers. I think there were a hundred or so students then starting their primary one.

After that I went to a government Indian school which is now the Old Kampala school near the Gaddafi mosque, where I finished what is now S4. And it’s from there that I went to the UK for my A-levels.

You must have found a sparsely-populated Kampala… what are your childhood memories of Lubaga road?

Lubaga road was part of what we can call Old Kampala, and the centre of Old Kampala was now what we call the Gaddafi mosque which then was the museum hill. If you put a pointer of museum hill and draw a one mile circle, then within that circle lived 80 per cent of Asians that lived in Uganda in the 1950s.

So, Old Kampala was so much an Indian kind of area and we knew each other by name. Now, when I look at my book, you can see how these people have become, some have become billionaires. Well, they were neighbours and we played cricket together, we played traditional games together, we climbed trees to bring down mangoes and guavas and we went out to picnic together to Entebbe.

Entebbe picnic was very important. Every family practically went on a picnic to Entebbe once every month. We cooked our food, spent the morning up to the evening at the Botanical [gardens], and then went on to the beach and had some more fun.

One thing that I did is that my father, being with the DT bank and having an assurance agency with the Diamond Jubilee insurance company, which still exists, he would go out to the countryside to sell insurance, and I used to go out with him. So, all these names that I now I read again in my book –  Bamunanika, Kaberamaido, Mitalamaria and all that – are places I travelled to with my father.

To what extent did you Asian children interact with the other folk, black Africans, for instance?

We have to admit that interaction was very limited; most of our people were owners of shops or ‘dukas’. So, the interaction was with customers. Some of us were dealers of cotton, so the interaction was with the farmers of cotton.

And most ‘duka’ people bought produce from farmers; so, there was that relationship with the Africans.

It seems that the relationship was largely not cordial and friendly but one that was based on the principle of business; why was the Ugandan Asian group too close to themselves as opposed to opening up and dealing with the nativ

Basically, traders are what they are; they buy from people and sell to them goods, etc. It is no relationship. But we have to admit that there was [some times], some acrimony.

There were accusations that Asians were cheating in buying cotton, short-paying, etc. But we have to address that question because that led to the expulsion in 1972; it is not something that we should gloss on.

It is something that is addressed in this book –  that yes, that lack of a close relationship, perhaps empathy with the Africans, the locals, did contribute finally to the 1972 expulsion.

Now, let’s play your first song Dr Vali…

The person who was close to me was my elder sister, she was the first Asian to be trained as a teacher, she taught at Agha Khan School. When we lived on Borap avenue, we used to play classical music, she was very fond of classical music. The tune I would like to play is Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven

At that early age, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be in the future?

I can’t say that. I never thought I would ever be an economist. In those days Asians were doctors, lawyers and accountants.

They also had ‘dukas’, everybody of them had businesses hence the economist in you maybe?

That was totally out of question in our family. My father himself was manager. I was an educated person and in our house the top never [thought] about trade. Was economics in my mind? No, it was not.

My elder brother went out and he knew that I wanted to be an engineer. So, he was encouraging me to become an architect so we could work together. I went into college and I wanted to do drawing and I was so hopeless. So I said it’s a no for me.

So, I went to Cambridge trusting to do Engineering, I was so hopeless in the labs that I went to my tutor and I said am not getting anywhere. So he said ‘do you want to do law?’ and I said ‘no I don’t think’. I said ‘I want to do economics’.

My father was one of the very few Asians of that time who completed his education, and so he was inclined towards academics and in that way I ended up being an economist.

You talk about your sister who is somewhere buried in Kampala… [Let us talk about your family]

We were seven in that family. There were three in front of me and three came after me. Two of my sisters were born in Uganda. My mother herself was a Mbale born; my mother is born in Mbale but very much a Mombasa person because she lived most of her adult life in Mombasa. She was a housewife and she was a very kind person and people remember her.

You went to Cambridge, one of those top-notch universities; was Makerere an option?

It was not easy for Asians to get into Makerere; we are talking about times which were still British times. I graduated from school in 1957, so now am faced with decision of my father, it’s a decision of what to do about my further education, and it was very common in those days for Indian Asian students to go to UK…

[Chooses, ‘She Was Only Seventeen”  by the Beatles, reminiscent of his life in the UK-and this song reminds him of the Beatles’ concert in Cambridge he attended.]

You are at Cambridge… how was life for you as an Asian fresh from Uganda?

UK then was a very nice place to be. I think it still is but well a bit overcrowded. People were very very real then. In London you saw Asians, West Indians, Africans and Indians; so in London there was no kind of racism.

At night we were about twenty of us who went there for A-levels and one person there was in fact from Uganda; the name was Ddungu; I’d like to meet him. He was the only African at Norwich City College.

He was a very good friend of mine; he was the one who took me to a pub for the first time and all I could think of was to order Guinness because I had seen the billboards advertising Guinness.

How did you get into Cambridge? Did you pass so highly or was it some kind of pull and push?

My admission was first at Manchester to do Engineering; once again, as I interacted, I said ‘no, I have to go to Cambridge’. Now I’m already admitted, I’ve finished my two years. So I wrote a letter to Cambridge from College. I wrote a letter in my own handwriting; Dear master College, I’ve just finished my A-levels, these are my grades and I would like to be readmitted to the College.

And so they wrote back: ‘this was August and the term was starting in September. They said I was late for this year but said I run for the next year. And my brother said: ‘yes go for it’. There was no guarantee that they were going to do that.

In that time I did what they call S-level, this was a scholarship level, so I did my mathematics and physics at a scholarship level to fill up time and to vanish my credentials. I got admitted to Cambridge, then I do a hitchhike from England all the way to Uganda and going over seven European countries.

Hitchhike, how long did that take you?

Hitchhike in quotation marks because once I got to Greece, I had to cross in a ship to Alexandria; then I take a local train or local bus, and I sailed after night across that river Malakal, which is in the news for its oil, to Juba and from Juba I towed on to Kampala.

Why did you take that long route? Was it just an adventure?

That is the only way I could come back, I could not afford, and my family were quite moderate in terms of the money.

Were they moderate or were they simply not forthcoming with giving it to you because your dad was manager of a bank?

There was a big family to support, there were still children, and there were still sisters who were going to school. So, money was never flowing.

I managed to come back to Uganda after three years of being away. These days people come back for studies every three months; every vacation they are here. What do they learn? We learnt a lot from being alone in England.

You were determined to return to Uganda to pursue what  vocation or career?

Once I finished Cambridge, I came back. We are talking about 1964. I applied to civil service, I was interviewed by Martin Aliker, and he also interviewed me when I was going to apply for a Uganda government scholarship to go to Cambridge.

So my education was financed by the government of Uganda and to give back, that was the only avenue for an economist. I applied to work in the civil service and I was taken in by the ministry of commerce and industry. The minister was William Kalema.

I worked in the Uganda civil service from [19] 64 to [19] 67. At that time my post was Uganda Nile because I was Kenyan and I did not have a Ugandan passport. Now I have to think of what to do. I got married in that year.

Can we play your next song?

We are going to be playing Cat Stevens Wild World; that’s an adviser for a young girl that my wife did not obey.

Why do you say she didn’t obey?

[Laughs strongly] My wife comes from a very well-established family and in terms of social standing, it has to be admitted that they quite got a lot. We met in London in England.

She was doing secretarial and I had just finished my Cambridge so I had certain credentials to be aspiring to that kind of level. We had met earlier while I was still at Cambridge and then we met again.

How was it like starting up a family? You were just starting up with your job…

We came back together in the same flight. It was very unusual.

You hitchhiked from London to here?

No, no; that was in 64. Now we are talking about 67. But there is this interlude you should ask me about: What did I do when I went back.

Absolutely, I’d love to know what you did in there and how you got to meet your wife.

There was an industry [of] which I was assistant secretary. It was the first grade a graduate would be. My responsibility was to give protection to infant industry, in other words in those days I had to be establishing if imports are coming in, they had to be protected and economic logic we provided for that in terms of these industries.

Within two, three years in the meantime they have to be protected, so under my responsibility, I had to deal with a number of people applying and their portfolio and give secretary protection.

Well, you get down to meeting a wonderful lady who you eventually marry…

We came back here in 67 to get married and it had to be in Mbale. That is the custom, that you have to get married in the town where your wife was born. So our marriage was in January 1967 and then I went back to England. I did some studies towards masters, I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I felt a little bit lost. My brother again intervened to say, ‘you apply to study further and you apply to go for food research institute and study about food’. I did not know about that. I was taken and given a scholarship.

So here I am; I’m married and 1968 we go to Stanford with my wife. Now I am working towards masters. My master’s were successful. the professor said that ‘this is not the end of the story’; I had to go on and go on with the PhD.

This PhD was in what subject?

My PhD was built on cotton and coffee. So I got to know about the Ugandan economy, built analysis of income distribution that we have alluded to.

You have had quite a life. You had this wonderful PhD on the impact of cotton and coffee on the Ugandan economy. How were you able to carry out your research, do your data, and speak to your correspondents?

I was here in 1972 to collect data for my dissertation. By then I had two children; they were two years and one year and I was stationed at Makerere Institute of Social Research and was collecting data.

Hon Kivejinja told me that his father would come back and say ‘here I’ve earned, take this, you grow cotton for the country, for yourself, pay taxes and bring back some little biscuits and sugar.’

And that’s just about it?

Well, that’s to exaggerate but the division, the income was cued in that way. I think it’s probably even true now. President Museveni often quotes to us that the coffee we are drinking in a box in California, it is going for five dollars; that coffee in Uganda the farmer gets 50cents. So the division has been like that.

1972! You were in Uganda collecting data and then it hits you that people like you had to leave the country by presidential decree...

Then I was recruited to teach at Makerere. They had started a course, MSC in Agricultural economics and Professor Jacob, a lawyer, had asked me to teach a course in microeconomics. So I was teaching at Makerere when the announcement came and that was that.

That was the end of our life here. We are now scrambling countries to go to where my father, was trying. My sisters were trying on their own with their husbands where they could be accommodated. My father my parents had Ugandan citizenship; my mother being born in Mbale, so she had a right.

My father had registered to be a Ugandan citizen and passports were thrown away during verification. So, it was like this, in 1972, there were 80,000 Ugandan Asians out of a population eight million and that is [one] per cent of the people.

Some 60,000 had England passports, 10,000 had Indian passports, and 20,000 were Ugandan citizens. Half of the people who claimed were citizens, their citizenship was rejected; my parents falling in that category and then the Canadians came along and they picked up quite a large number of people.

The Agha Khan played a role because of his relationship with Freda so we thank the Agha Khan in the book. And in my book I managed to get access to the diary of the chief of the Canadian mission that came up to pick us up; so there is something new there.

So, you are Canadian citizen if I’m to take you on to that, on that regard from the expulsion of 1972

No, I might say I retained my Kenyan citizenship. My parents became Canada citizens.

Are they still alive?

My parents have passed away in the last ten years.

But how much bigger family do you have in Canada?

I have four sisters, one of them came back where she had immigrated from. She is married to a Swedish person and she has now left Canada. Now I have three sisters in Canada. One of them had come back in 1962, she had a farm in Luweero, on 1,000 hectares.

[Selects Carol King ‘Far Away’ as a tribute to his family which is far away from him presently.]

You returned to Uganda most recently to stay. What motivated you to return?

I have always wanted to come back. Once my parents passed away and I thought well enough to be on my own I decided to come over to look things over and I established a restaurant. It failed miserably, it was going to be the pillawo place in Uganda and it got nowhere.

Looking at the notification of writing this book, you’ve taken seven years, do you still have seven years until you accomplish it?

No, it has to finish now. We are at the stage now of how to do the launch. The launch will be in quotation of a big government person whose name I don’t want to mention.

Well, I’ve seen a foreword from the president of the republic; so, perhaps that he would be or will be the guest of honour...

I hope so. It’s a book that deserves to be propagated because it’s out of the ordinary and it took so long.

There is talk that to hide anything from a Ugandan, put it in a book. Don’t you think you have simply buried your story in this book?

Simon, if half the population buys it, then it’s your responsibility and you are fulfilling it through this programme to make it known. It will be on BBC, CNN…

We are glad it is on Capital radio before it soars. Well, that said, it is our tradition here to ask a hypothetical question; if you were marooned on a desert island, what or who would you carry with you?

I think I would take my book because it’s so….

I can see it’s five kilogrammes

I think I would take the Qur’an and I want to be spiritual. Plays his favourite Indian Song by Mukesh, dedicated to his daughter

Comments are now closed for this entry