Play Review: Play Marks 50 Anniversary of Ugandan Asian Exodus

Photo: Reception of Ugandan-Asian Refugees at Longue Pointe, Canadian Forces Base, October 1972© Government of Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada (2022). Source: Library and Archives Canada/Department of National Defence fonds/e011052358

On May 27, 2021, I attended online the public reading of playwright Salim Rahemtulla’s new play 90 Days directed by Melissa Oei and presented by Western Gold Theatre in Vancouver, as part of their Asian Heritage Month celebration. In April, Western Gold Theatre put out a call for plays by Asian-Canadian playwrights. Rahemtulla’s play 90 Days was selected for its important story of the forced expulsion of Ugandan Asians in 1972 by then President Idi Amin. This workshop presentation is this play’s first development process on its way to a theatrical performance planned in 2022 to mark the 50 year anniversary of this historical event.


Rahemtulla places the play well into its tragic history. The play 90 Days is set ten years after Uganda gained independence from Britain. There is a racial hierarchy based on skin colour established by British imperialism with the Asians sandwiched between the Europeans at the top and the Africans at the bottom. Africans though largely unemployed have small plots of fertile land for subsistence farming. The total population of Uganda is 10 million people, which includes 80,000 Asians. Many of these Asians are 3rd generation descendants of Indians brought by the British in 1894 to build the railway and descendants of Indian traders who came in the nineteenth century. Over the years the Asians who are Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians transformed Uganda from a subsistence economy into a market economy. The Ugandan Asians form the middle class and pay the lion share of taxes. They have developed a “dual consciousness” and perceive themselves as Indian Ugandans or East-African Indians.  For more on the socioracial milieu of Uganda at the time of expulsion, please see this informative clip: https://youtu.be/p-i0JVip9N4L.

The playwright decided to write about 90 Days saying, “that was a life changing moment for me and my family.” Rahemtulla who is Ismaili chose to write from the familiar perspective of his own community. Ismailis are a sub-sect of Shia Muslims whose spiritual leader is His Highness The Aga Khan. In fact, Rahemtulla revealed that he was born and grew up in Uganda and that his play is loosely based on his own family who were living in Uganda in 1972 while he was studying in England.

90 Days is set in the home and downstairs store of a middle class Ismaili family in the capital city of Kampala. The head of the family is Yusuf Rahim  (read by actor Dhirendra Miyanger), his wife Parin (Nimet Kanji),  daughter Shamira (Sabrina Vellani), and son Nasser (Karthik Kadam). There is also Uncle Munir Kassam (Munish Sharma), son Zul’s letters from England, and actual radio announcements of Idi Amin’s decrees are read aloud by Patrick Allan.  

The play opens on January 25, 1971 at home with Parin carrying platefuls of hot food to her family around the kitchen table. Their chatter is interrupted by the sound of gunshots. Nasser notices military tanks rolling by on the road. Yusuf asks Nasser to put on the radio: “Uganda’s army has seized control of the country. Major General Idi Amin Dada has been appointed as head of military government. The previous government was involved in corruption and failing to maintain law and order.” Parin hopes that Asians don’t have to flee. The next day she pins Idi Amin’s photograph next to The Aga Khan’s, saying soldiers will know they approve. Yusuf initially says, “Change is good” since the Obote socialist government’s plan was to take a 60 percent stake in the country’s Asian-owned businesses. Hearing people making merry outside, they step out on the balcony and Nasser notices that some Asians are celebrating too.

Fast forward to June 20, 1972.  The family is in the shop looking through boxes and the radio is playing an Indian song. When Nasser wants to switch the station for English songs, Yusuf admonishes him to listen more to Indian songs, “Be proud of your roots…. In times of distress people always search for comfort in their roots.”  So true. The playwright uses both English pop songs and the western TV series Bonanza to define both the era and highlight the generation gap. The beautiful dialogue flows into genuine conversations sparkling at times with wit and humour. This English play is peppered with some Kutchi and snippets of Swahili adding to its cultural authenticity. The narrative and dialogue was effective in creating vivid characters that are easy to empathize with. The cast did a compelling job of expressing the roller coaster of emotions into the voices of characters grappling with this unexpected crisis of being forced out of the country they thought was their home. I  love how the small talk (about: all the fun they had on safari, the next holiday to Murchison Falls, long distance Kenyan runners, Indian food, and guests coming from Nairobi) brings this East-African Indian family to life.

It is August 4, 1972. As Nasser is doing his homework in the living room, the song on the radio ‘Fool on the the Hill’ is cut by Idi Amin’s latest announcement: “His Excellency declared that in a dream God has bid him to expel the 80,000 Asians living in Uganda holding British passports. He accuses them of sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption. They have been given 90 days to leave the country.” As Nasser freezes, countdown ‘90 days’ flashes on the back wall. When Nasser informs Yusuf, he just laughs it off as a silly threat to get more international aid, saying Amin will change his mind because the British government will never allow it. When Nasser reminds him of the Ugandan saying in Swahili  “Toka  Wahindi” which means “Asians Get Out” Yusuf retorts that they may say that, “…but in their  minds, they know Uganda’s economy will collapse if we left.”  Parin comments, “good thing we have Ugandan passports.” Ironically, there are seven hills in Kampala so the song foreshadows Idi Amin as the fool on the hill.

Now each act starts with a count down to number of days remaining to the deadline. At the time, the playwright was studying in England and remembers, “ being so worried ….countdown was actually happening in my mind.” On countdown 75 days, the radio announces that the entire Asian population including Ugandan citizens must leave. “That means us,” says Parin. Nasser wonders how schools and hospitals will operate. Two days later, the radio announces that Asians holding Ugandan passports can stay if they can get their citizenship verified. “Tomorrow he (Amin) will announce everybody can stay,” remarks Yusuf.

There is talk of: business slow down. half empty classes, closed cinemas, disappearances, Asians stopping looters are killed, and long queues of Asians forming at consulates, vaccination clinics, and airline offices. Munir visits Yusuf to say he is stateless now because his Ugandan passport was declined. He reports British are protesting against Asians coming and the government has appealed to other countries to help out. He has heard Canada is taking 6000 Ugandan Asians who are educated or skilled. So he is counting on his banking experience to get to Canada and urges Yusuf to leave too. However, Yusuf remains in denial even when his house fills up with overnight guests on their way out. Yusuf ecstatically announces, “We can stay!” when their Ugandan citizenship is verified even though he knows they must carry their papers everywhere to prove they are Ugandan citizens. Yusuf asserts,”My parents worked so hard to build this store – I will never leave it.” Later, Yusuf explains that he is just too old to start again from scratch.

Zul’s letters from England tell how British cities are taking out advertisements in newspapers advising Ugandan Asians not to come. Also the papers are calling it ‘The Invasion of the Asians’ and National Front members are beating up Asians. Since UK reluctantly took in Ugandan Asians holding British passports, Zul urges them to try instead for Canada because it is more welcoming. The playwright said that his own family upon expulsion was scattered in Malta, Austria, and Quebec. Then in 1973, they all moved to Vancouver and he joined them the following year.

We see a gradual escalation of threat to personal safety: army check points, Munir’s wife’s cousin is shot and his dead body thrown to crocodiles in the Nile River, Munir is dragged off the airport bus to prison because he managed the bank accounts of a wanted rich Asian man who has fled the country, and the army enters the mosque. As the sense of danger mounts in the home, a heated argument ensues as to who should apply for Canada. Although, Shamira does not want to go on her own, she does apply, is approved, and departs for Canada with 2 suitcases and $100 in personal allowance permitted by Idi Amin.

On countdown 13 days, soldiers arrest Nasser in the shop for allegedly overcharging on sugar. Yusuf’s African friend Amos goes to the police station and gets Nasser released. Parin now insists the family must leave because next time they may not be so lucky. The final straw for Yusuf is when 3 days to deadline, he learns that any Asians remaining in the country after the deadline must assemble at Kololo airstrip to be counted and must pick a village to go to, for they will not be allowed to remain in Kampala. Yusuf now is furious and makes the decision to get out. At this late date, the family’s only recourse is to apply for refugee status with UNHCR.

On the last day, the Rahim’s visit the family grave and Yusuf in tears with his heart bleeding asks his parents in Kutchi to forgive him, “muke maaf karo.”  They return home and as they wait for the taxi, Yusuf inquires as to their destination. Nasser tells him they will find that out on the plane. 

I was glad to see Rahemtulla navigate the topic of “social distance”  between the races because Idi Amin did cite racial segregation as another reason for his decision. Parin scolds her daughter for having African friends and worries if Zul has a white girlfriend. Shamira rightly counters, “it is good to mix” because the times are changing. So clearly Parin wants her children to exclusively date and marry within their own culture but then so do most parents of all races.

The playwright did not use the one sided explanation of social attitudes held by Asians towards Africans for the cause of the expulsion by showing that contempt towards “the other” existed in both groups. Nasser recounts how an African classmate asked him, “Why are you still here?” And when Nasser who was born in Uganda replied, “I’m Ugandan,” the African just laughed at him. At the same time, Rahemtulla presents characters in both groups who have positive attitudes towards the other group. When Shamira tells her African boyfriend Kizito she is leaving he says, “You were born here and you have as much right to live here as I do,” adding Amin would turn next on educated Africans.

Playwright Rahemtulla uses the economic explanation for the expulsion when Yusuf wonders if sharing of wealth could have prevented this mess. Since the press also used the economic explanation for the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin, that is how the world has come to understand it. However, scholar Meir Amos employing a more comprehensive approach reveals that Asians were not the only victims of violent ethnocentrism in Uganda’s storied history (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232920204_Violent_EthnocentrismRevisiting_the_Economic_Interpretation_of_the_Expulsion_of_Ugandan_Asians).

Rahemtulla presents Canada as the promised land, but this is only partly true. Parin points out that Canada is a popular choice because people are saying that Canadian immigration officers are much nicer than the British. Shamira who applies at the Canadian office affirms that she was treated very well. However, Canadian scholars point out that Canada had a whites only immigration policy from 1867 to 1967. The arrival of Ugandan Asians to Canada came just one year after then Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau had introduced the policy of  Canadian Multiculturalism in order to meet the population needs of the country. Interestingly, the Ugandan Asians were the first large group of non-European immigrants and refugees to be accepted by Canada.

Although the Canadian government welcomed coloured immigrants, majority of the people of Canada not so much ( https://pier21.ca/blog/jan-raska-phd/canada-s-oppressed-minority-policy-and-the-resettlement-of-ugandan-asians-1972). In fact, the Liberal party went onto lose the next two elections because many white Canadians were unhappy with multiculturalism, regarding it as a doomed social experiment. At any rate, Ugandan Asians were educated people with skills and despite the prejudice and racism they encountered in Canadian society managed to build new lives here. Today most Canadians of all ethnocultural backgrounds including those of European descent view cultural diversity as a positive characteristic that defines and strengthens Canadian society.

Some viewers inquired about a sequel but the playwright said his focus was on 90 days. It would be interesting to see the presentation of Canadian society in a sequel about the “settlement” experience of the Rahim family. The Aga Khan facilitated the resettlement of Ismailis in Canada through his friendship with then Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau formed during their student days at Harvard University. Some of these Ugandan Asian refugees were the first South Asians to settle in Canadian cities and towns. The Ismaili Council also loaned money to assist Ugandan Asians to start up businesses in Canada. The Ugandan Asians also had the advantage of speaking fluent English which helped them to integrate smoothly into Canadian society.

I cannot help but draw a parallel to the rise of populism around the world in the last decade and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. Civil strife and wars in numerous countries around the world have forced people to flee for their lives, resulting in the global migrant crisis.  Interestingly, issues like migration, national identity, citizenship, and belonging have intensified in the political discourse of many host countries. The elusive question what does ‘belonging’ to a nation state mean in a globalized world of diasporic communities continues its never ending search for an answer.  Rahemtulla says he follows news and sports in Uganda and still has a “very strong attachment to Uganda.” However, Rahemtulla emphasizes he loves Vancouver and that Canada is home. In a way, perhaps 90 Days is a play about the unrequited love of Ugandan Asians for a country that turned on them. However, such unrequited love in this case is understandable because interestingly even many first time visitors upon seeing the iconic landscape of the East African Savannah report a déjà vu feeling of coming home  – for after all scientists tell us our species home sapiens did emerge in Africa to globalize the whole world. We are all out of Africa when we go back in deep time. Yes, there is something bewitching about the East African Savannah with its iconic thorn (acacia) trees dotting its grassy plains where an astonishing diversity of animals (like zebras, giraffes, elephants, lions, gnu, gazelles, rhinoceros, ostriches, vultures, go-away-birds, amongst many others) freely roam under its blue sky dome that is imprinted in our genetic code which recognizes its ancestral homeland.

With Asians gone, the Ugandan economy collapsed as predicted. Idi Amin’s brutal regime (https://www.nytimes.com/1972/11/12/archives/if-idi-amin-of-uganda-is-a-madman-hes-a-ruthless-and-cunning-one.html) ended when he was ousted in 1979 and fled to exile in Saudi Arabia where he died in 2003.

In 1982, President Milton Obote back in power gave Asians 90 days to repossess their properties but few did (https://www.upi.com/Archives/1982/11/22/President-Milton-Obote-Monday-held-talks-with-the-Aga/8507406789200/ ). Then again in 1992, President Yowerei Museveni invited Asians to return and jumpstart the ailing economy but understandably not many went back

 (https://www.csmonitor.com/1992/0317/17041.html).

People want to hear our stories. About 230 people tuned into this 75 minutes online reading of the 90 Days play. Director Melissa Oei pointed out that movies and documentaries have been made about Idi Amin but no play has ever been staged about the expulsion from an Asian perspective. It is important to actively remember the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in order to preserve this moment in our collective memory so that future generations can get to know their cultural history. Also sharing our stories makes it harder to dehumanize us as “the other.” Kudos to Salim Rahemtulla for creating this brilliant 90 Days play of remembrance of the 1972 expulsion of Ugandan Asians.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the playwright Salim Rahemtulla for permitting the generous use of select quotes from his play 90 Days which will premiere in September 2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Also like to thank Western Gold Theatre for kindly providing a video recording of the online reading of 90 Days.