Different Shades of Diaspora — My Lived Experiences from East Africa

Urmila Jhaveri

I consider it an honor, privilege and a pleasure indeed to be here and thank the organizers of JNU - GRDFT for inviting me to address this distinguished conference. I would also like to thank Dr. Sadanand Sahoo and Lavanya Regunathan Fischer for their help and encouragement. I must also confess that I feel very nervous being here because I am not an Academic like you all are. In fact, as I understand it, being Diaspora myself I am a part of the subject matter under discussion.

My paper is based on our personal experiences gained during a life time lived in East Africa since Colonial times, sharing pre and post Independence struggles and its great and no so great moments. It is a long story, difficult to describe within a short period. However I will try to give a glimpse of a few salient points of our experiences from East Africa with the hope that this brief account of mine will be of use to researchers and scholars interested in this part of our history.


Migration from India to Africa has been going on for more than a century and a half. This flow turned into a great influx during British Raj in India due to its scorched earth policy which caused horrific famines and prompted young men barely in their teens from Gujarat, Punjab and coastal regions to cross the mighty Indian Ocean by dhows and reach Zanzibar, Malindi and other villages on the coast of East Africa in search of better life.(Sourabh,2015) 

In addition many Lohanas and members of other communities from Gujarat converted and became Ismaili Khoja, migrated to Africa and settled down well with the full support of the Agakhan. (khojawiki.org)

Apart from that, the British brought some 31,983 indentured laborers as coolies to build the railways in East Africa. Many of these artisans were devoured by man eating lions and succumbed to the hazards of jungle life by scores.(Agora, 2015)

These young migrants, unskilled and starting from scratch cleared the jungles inch by inch, followed the Rail, opened their small shops - dukas in their tin roofed shacks and huts and started planting seeds brought from their villages in India. (Kersi Rustomji, 2015) 

They thus opened up vast areas of the hinterland and steadily laid the foundation for development where nobody had dared to go. Gradually many of them through sheer dint of their hard work became renowned entrepreneurs, industrialists, businessmen and philanthropists. They built schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, ran many welfare organizations and donated handsomely for worthy causes.


My own story began in early 1920s when my Gujarati parents Labhuben and Tarachand Gandhi arrived in Zanzibar by dhow from Jamnagar – Gujarat where my father joined the Arab Sultan’s government as a customs officer. I was born in the nearby island of Pemba in 1931.(presently part of Tanzania) My father then moved to Dar-es-Salaam and joined his elder brother to help run,’ Gandhi Medical Store, established in 1925. I grew up in Dar-es-Salaam during the harsh colonial regime, got married, had two lovely kids Atool and Abha by the time I was 21 years old. And together with my husband Kantilal Jhaveri took part in post and pre independence struggles in Tanganyika - Tanzania. We experienced the exuberance of achieving independence and the birth of a new nation as well as the trauma of the Zanzibar Revolution, forced marriages, Army mutiny, Nationalization of assets, Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Uganda debacle and so on.

Now after spending, eight decades of my life in Dar -es-Salaam, here I am as a returnee holding an OCI card (Regunathan Fischer & Shah Ramnik, 2015)   and a family spread out across the continents. We moved to Delhi for medical treatment where my husband passed away in 2014, leaving me to finish the rest of our ' manzil ' as best as I can.


Tanganyika was a British Territory and similar to Apartheid in SA all aspects of our lives were strictly controlled:  Europeans, Asians, Africans were completely isolated in separate compartments; Europeans occupied highest positions and best localities, they were the Boss. Africans were placed in the lowest rung and the Asians were kept in the middle buffer zone to keep the status quo against the Africans and keep them down trodden in the lowest rung as part of British divide and rule policy.

Moreover there were Hindus, Muslims and their sub casts. Inter community relations were generally harmonious and we were all Indians.  But the rivalries between the two communities flared up from time to time after 1947. People thus continued to lead their lives absorbed in running their businesses, bound by the strict restrictions set by the Colonial Government and their own self imposed conventions. I grew up in this environment, unmindful and preoccupied with growing up wide eyed and learning lessons.

At the onset of World War II, our family had bought a sisal farm in Pugu from a German friend.  Before leaving in a hurry, he had confided that there were Diamonds and Rubies on his land.  Consequently my father was running the farm and exploring for diamonds and rubies. It was like a thriller. We lived right in the jungle in a two roomed brick house with kitchen in the open verandah and the toilet in the garden. And in the dark of the nigh we used to hear elephants trumpeting, lions roaring and monkeys chattering while sharing my mother’s bed safely tucked under a blanket.

Bapuji never found any diamonds or rubies with his rudimentary equipment. Ultimately, they sold the farm. Since then rich veins of minerals have been found in that region.

He then bought a huge coconut farm in Bagamoyo. Situated on the edge of blue –green expanse of the Indian Ocean, it was serene and peaceful. However in the days gone by Bagamoyo was a notorious terminus from where dhows sailed with traumatized and chained human beings as a commodity for sale in Zanzibar and onwards.

The spacious central two storied building that we used to occupy was formerly the Head Quarters Watch Tower of the slave traders. It was surrounded by about 30 dingy rooms where these captives were kept. The huge creaking gates were locked up at night for fear of lions entering the compound and attacking goats and people. But in spite of all the precautions we could still hear the lions growling around and donkeys braying in fear.

To celebrate the harvest season Bapuji used to organize the traditional Ngoma dance. It started with melodious Tarab songs, drums rolling, hips swinging gracefully, bells jingling, and ended with young men with painted faces adorned with cowry shells, animal skins, bobbing feathers and eyes flashing making fantastic somersaults. It was all very exciting and marvelous fun.


By 1943, Hitler was poised to attack EA any time.  In Dar -es-Salaam we had a complete black out at night. Trenches were dug all over the town. Medicine and grains were in short supply. The army was on the move and prisoners and people were being ferried across the borders. For weeks on end we watched convoy loads of traumatized Europeans being herded as German prisoners. All this while, my parents were getting worried. They decided to reach the safety of, 'Desh' - in India and stay in the family home in Jamnagar for the duration of the war. But the steamers had already been withdrawn, as a number of them were torpedoed and drowned in the Indian Ocean. The only option was to travel by Dhow. Bapuji hired Bijli the Dhow belonging to Kasimchacha. He was ready to set sail for India and had already made provision for water to last for a month. Bapuji - my father filled up enough food stuff and medicines, and my mother - Ba performed a short  puja and thus began our 'Sindbad the Sailor safari 'when we siblings were just kids , unaware  of what or where  my parent's Desh (India) was !

For more than a month Bijli sailed through rough and tough high seas and silent nights. We were told to be quiet and not allowed to light a candle, even smoke a bidi or to make any loud noise for the fear of being spotted by the enemy.

We watched shoals of whales and sharks with their calves and the play of nature, splendid and at times furious. Kasimchacha warned us not to disturb the huge mammals in any way.  ‘Otherwise they go crazy with fear and can even over turn a smaller craft.  They follow a liner or a dhow feeding off its discharge.

To avoid German and Japanese submarines Kasimchacha sailed close to the coast line and bypassed Mogadishu and Aden. But while crossing the Indian Ocean to reach Socotra Island, Bijli weathered the worst storm of our journey. Miraculously we survived, but then mid ocean, the wind died down leaving Bijli becalmed and unmoving. It was a perfect target for any passing submarines. Our drinking water was rationed, the sun was mercilessly hot, and we were thirsting for water in the middle of the deep ocean. Everyone including Kasimchacha started to prey fervently. Up to now our journey was an adventure with the added sense of mystery and danger, but now we were in real trouble.  As we waited and watched the clouds anxiously, the wind lifted suddenly and Bijli was on its way following the stars once again. Kasimchacha knew the sky and the stars as the palm of his hands and narrated fascinating stories about his travels to distant lands.  Relying only on a compass , binoculars , a small courageous crew of only 5-6 daring family members plus his own navigating skill , our captain Kasimchacha brought us all safely on the shores of Gujarat.

Our fragile, perishable yet indomitable Bijli was but a tiny speck in that vast ocean, carrying equally fragile yet strong cargo of human beings. Amazingly similar to all those sailors in their Dhows from yonder days we also traversed the mighty Indian Ocean towards an unfamiliar destination in search of security !


Those days the term Indian Diaspora was not yet discovered .We were all classified as' British protected persons' holding British passports issued by the Colonial governments in India and EA. After the partition of India and Pakistan we were identified as Asians still holding British passports. Our status changed when the East African countries gained independence and granted Citizenship to Asian applicants who qualified.  While the Indian professionals employed by the newly independent countries were known as Indian Expatriates.


In 1945 we returned to Tanganyika - a country which was still being ruled by the British with an iron hand. For us life began in earnest once again, mine on a different mode! Soon I was married to Kanti Jhaveri.

As a young student Jhaveriji had joined the Quit India movement started by Gandhiji in India and had organized a strike in his college. He was arrested and jailed in Rajkot. After arriving in Tanganyika as a young lawyer, he continued to take interest in freedom and human rights issues and got involved in the political struggle in Tanganyika immediately

At the time the Indian Association in the country was facing problems due to the India Pakistan divide. This prompted the leaders of both the communities to change its constitution and rename it Asian Association.  They joined hands with Julius Nyerere and his party TANU and played a pivotal role, collectively and individually in the just starting struggle against British rule. To my mind this stabilized the tense relationship between Tanzanians and Asians during that highly sensitive period.

Jhaveriji was much involved in this movement. I remember many late night meetings, often attended by Julius Nyerere with his comrades to plan the strategy for gaining independence, being held at our home and in his chambers.

Soon in 1958 Nyerere was charged with anti - government libel and sedition.  K.L. Jhaveri and N.M.Ratansi led by Mr. D.N.Pritt QC appeared to defend him. The atmosphere in the country was explosive and turned into relief and celebrations when the verdict came out as a token fine.

Apart from being President of the Tanganyika Law Society for 15 years and an elected MP before and after Independence Jhaveriji served as a member of many important commissions and committees including Judicial Service Commission and Africanization Commission, Legal Corporation and so on.

The country was on the march. I was an active member of UWT - National Women's Organization Central Committee from its early days. It was our task to visit regularly the women at grass root level, understand their problems and help provide solutions. This gave me the rare opportunity of visiting all corners of the country. In fact at the time I was the only Tanzanian woman of Indian origin to do so.

We used to visit and stay overnight in Ujamaa villages and settlements all over the country right in the jungles where there was no nothing. Toilets were a hole in the ground with snakes dangling and wild animals roaming at night. Water had to be fetched from miles away. Apart from that the rural women were strictly bound by social taboos and restrictions.  Domestic violence and the threats of instant Talaq were the order of the day for them.

Once after spending the whole day in the fields tilling the land and meeting people in one of the villages, our group returned to our rooms for an early night. Suddenly we heard the drums beating and people rushing about in panic. The village elders advised us that a group of witches were organizing a Ngoma dance under the Mbuyu tree. It was all about sorcery and not pleasant either. We should switch off all the lights and be quiet. Especially the Muhindi Mama.  (Indian woman)  Because if they sensed her presence they will definitely come to get her. I spent the night in a dark room under a blanket with some of the my colleagues while, Mama Sofia Kawawa who was the Prime Minister's wife and a couple of senior members stayed in the front room in case any unexpected guest turned up to investigate! We spent the night listening to drums beating frantically, dreading the knock on the door and left early next morning before the villagers woke up from their stupor.

Once in Dodoma, our delegation consisting of 10 - 12 members was being shown around the main hospital for mentally disturbed patients. The senior medical officer had explained that some of these patients were violent and had to be locked up. Some were just ranting away and left alone and others remained stark naked shouting for attention. We were warned not to laugh at all. While we were moving around a scantily dressed young man followed me purposefully and held my hand firmly. He would not let me go and started talking earnestly. Somebody whispered in my ears, Mama take it easy, and so I kept talking to him as we walked hand in hand. This went on for about half an hour before he lost interest and let me go. Now after all these years I find these experiences surreal.

Time does not allow me to continue but I would like to add that my best moments came when I met the women, shared problems, meals and songs, watched a teenager learn a craft and grandmothers learning to write her name alongside her grandchild. And not to forget, holding hands with an almost naked mad man and listening to witches' call at night! My involvement with these simple folks helped me to become a better human being and enriched my life to a depth beyond description, which shines within me like light house beacon.


On December 9 -1961 we all celebrated the Independence of Tanganyika with equally great expectations and aspirations under the leadership of President Julius Nyerere. From the beginning the President had insisted that Asians born and brought up in Tanganyika and for whom it was the only home should not be considered any lesser Tanzanians.


Meanwhile in Zanzibar people were getting restless against the Arab Sultan. They staged a bloody revolution and toppled his regime on 12 January 1964. Within a week this was followed simultaneously by Army Mutiny in Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda in quick succession. The Sultan fled from Zanzibar and scores of Arabs were killed on sight (Jacopetti, 1964) .

The Revolutionary Council members in Zanzibar married many Arab and Asian girls -teenagers and under age picked up from classrooms while parents tried to escape with their daughters under cover of darkness. In Dar -es-Salaam as well the mutineers had gone on rampage, looting Indian shops and killing the Arabs. It was all a very frightening situation as the President and his PM had gone incognito.

In Dar-es-Salaam, Manmohan Shukla and a group of Sikh boys were arrested when they were counting bullet marks on the Gurdwara wall. So as an elected MP, Jhaveriji was going round to the police station with Mr. Tara Singh to get them out. Others requested him to chase their car which had been hijacked by the mutineers. By and by President and the PM returned and the mutineers were disarmed with the help of British Government. To avoid any further upheaval Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined hands and Tanzania was born on 26 April 1964.



Fortunately the Zanzibar Government allowed the resident Indians to take certain amount of cloves with them and leave if they wanted to. Many resident Asians of long standing took advantage of this offer and left.

In1967, President Nyerere established Arusha Declaration, codifying Leadership code and

Ujamaa - policy based on Socialism. This was followed in 1970-71 by nationalization of all private properties, banks, hospitals, schools, foreign trade, industries, and so on. Foreign travel and even educational allowances for students studying in foreign institutions was stopped. Our two houses were nationalized and our kids barely in their teens were left dangling without any support in a foreign country. It was a very distressful chapter of my life.

These whole sale take overs and restrictions affected Asians drastically and over night there was an exodus of Asians from Tanzania. With the help of the Aga Khan most of the Ismaili families migrated to Canada, Europe and Australia, while others found their own way out. In addition, Africanization policy resulted in 3750 British passport holding Asians leave Tanzania for Britain.


From 1952 to 1960 Kenya had suffered the bloodiest Mau Mau uprising against the British during which time, according to Kenya Human Rights Commission some 90,000 Kenyans were executed and 160,000 were detained and tortured during the crackdown. This had started the trend of outward bound migration of Asians from Kenya. It was followed by Africanization. In addition in 1968, a new Immigration Bill introducing quota system to limit the entry of Asian immigrants holding British passport in Britain was introduced in the British Parliament. Before it became an Act,  majority of the Asians who were affected left Kenya overnight in a hurry.


That apart, the worst blow fell in 1972 when some 80,000 British Passport holding Asians were forced to flee with their lives to Britain when Idi Amin of Uganda expelled them with a short notice of 90 days.

It so happened that on August 4 1972, we went to receive our niece Vinodaben, who had arrived by early morning flight from Nairobi and were surprised to see that she was detained inside the airport. Upon enquiry we were informed of Idi Amin's order expelling the British passport holding Asians from Uganda. It was shocking news. She was put on a flight back to Nairobi. In Nairobi Airport they took away her passport and brazenly told her that they had misplaced it and that her luggage has been sent onwards to Germany. She spent two frightening days and nights in the Nairobi Airport anxiously chasing her passport and ultimately reached Kampala sans her luggage. By that time the situation all over Uganda was getting worse day by day with looting, shootings and killing indiscriminately. It was no longer safe, so once again she was on a flight to UK.

But her nightmare was just beginning again. At Entebbe Airport she was searched at gun point. They snatched all her jewelry, money and all her certificates including all her official papers and then only allowed her to proceed onwards.

By and by like her all those 50 - 60,000 British Passport holding Asians including our family left Uganda penniless and scarred. And each of them has equally horrible experiences to recount!

Their properties and businesses were randomly appropriated and mismanaged beyond salvation. That apart, Amin's henchmen carried out systematic genocide so much so that it was alleged that so many corpses were dumped in Lake Victoria that drifting corpses regularly blocked the Owen Falls hydro electric Dam. His actions affected us all as we all had extended families and friends spread out all over EA.

Lots of water has passed under the bridge since then .The new settlers that is 'double and triple Diaspora‘ have migrated and re migrated  in the Western countries, Canada,  America where they have created all kinds of interesting roles to suit the changing environment world over. They enjoy Indian music, movies, food, and fashion, follow Indian culture, customs in their own way and celebrate festivals with gusto. That notwithstanding their home remains their new homelands and now there is no looking back for them.

Perhaps some of them may be lost in the maze of life but then on the other hand most of them have set their priorities right and aspire to reach highest goals and surpass new horizon in their new found home lands!

I thank you all for your kind attention.


Postscript; eventually before the ninety days notice expired, Motabhai and family including my 95 years old Mother-in-law-Ba left Uganda and settled down in Britain. Late Motabhai and Bhabhi used to remember fondly the kindness and care given to them by the British people when they had arrived in the country painfully scarred. Especially pointing out that even close family members would not have been able to look after our Ba so lovingly!

Born in 1877 Ba followed her husband to Rajkot at a young age. After his death she came to Jinja - Uganda to join Motabhai around 1948. In 1972 following Amin's diktat migrated with the family to UK. She died peacefully in her sleep in 1981 at the age of 104 in Red Bridge -Illford.

Vinodaben retired recently after working all these years with Kodak Ltd. Vipinbhai a Banker who was Departmental manager in the Barclays Bank Kampala opened his little corner shop in Letchwork, worked hard and opened his own high street stores in London. He is now retired. Late Illaben qualified as a nurse initially, continued her education and branched out in banking and insurance while earning and raising her family. In fact, those enterprising Asians expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin thank the despot for creating the crisis, which enabled them to start their life afresh. Our son Atool & family are in Dublin, daughter Abha & her family in Delhi, granddaughters Ratna is in New York with UNO, the second one Meera in Rome with UNDP. Rohaan a banker is in Zurich and the youngest Roohi, an established artist is getting ready to get married and moving on!

In retrospect, it is gratifying to see our new generations well settled and independent, owning properties. Best of all their kids are well educated with the added advantage of having a fighting chance to prosper and progress in a developed country.


Sourabh NC and MyllyntausTimo (2015), ‘Famines in India in the Nineteenth Century’ available at http://www.environmentandsociety.org/exhibitions/famines-india/timeline/famines-india-timeline, Last Accessed 27 January 2016. Also see India's forgotten holocaust by Churchill

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_major_famines_in_India_during_British_rule, Last Accessed 27 January 2016

http/khojawiki.org/Gujarat Famines %26Khoja Migration

Somjee, 2013, ‘Bead Bai’, 2013 and the blog on the book by the author available at http:/thebeadbai.blogspot.ca/. Last accessed on 27 January 2016

http/khojawiki.org/Gujarat Famines %26Khoja Migration


The Agora, (2015) ‘A Tale of Two Railways’, available at http://www.theeagora.com/the-lunatic-express-a-photo-essay-on-the-uganda-railway/ Last Accessed on 27 January 2016

[Dukawala; Kersi  Rustomji (2015) , ‘Ode to the Indian Dkawala on the East African Plains’, available at http://simerg.com/essays-and-letters/ode-to-the-indian-dukawala-on-east-african-plains Last accessed 27 January 2016

Regunathan Fischer, Lavanya and Shah Ramnik, (2015) The right to Belong ;An Overview of Historical and Recent Developments in  Indian Citizenship Laws , the Journal of Immigration and Nationality Law Vol,29, no .3 of 2015, pp 256-272        

Jacopetti/Prosperi's full 1964 documentary ‘Adios Africa’, available at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICgj03-Jo0Y, Last accessed 27 January 2016

Below is an excellent link that describes the full history, including photos of Kampala at the time of expulsion of Ugandan Asians prepared by The Canadian Immigration Historical Society

http://carleton.ca/africanstudies/wp-content/uploads/Molloy-UGX40-fall-speaking-tour-Carleton-shared.pdf Last Accessed 27 January 2016

e.mail : [email protected]

Paper presented at the GRFDT National Conference on Migration, Diaspora and Development at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi during 20-21 February 2016

Category :- Diaspora / Features