Uganda - Exodus of the Ugandan Asians, by Mike Wickings (1972)

In 1972 I was called into the office of the reservations superintendent southern routes, and advised that I was being sent to Uganda to help with the massive increase in traffic resulting from the expulsion of Ugandan Asians.

I was to replace a fellow reservations inspector, who had been out there for 4 weeks. Most of the staff in the BOAC office in Kampala had been Asians and as they had all been given orders to leave, temporary replacements were being sent in to run the reservations/ticketing office. I flew out in a VC10 which was going on to Blantyre. When we landed at Entebbe, I was the only one to get up to disembark, much to the consternation of fellow passengers and the crew.

I had with me a suitcase full of uniforms for the other UK staff who were already there, as it was felt that we would be safer if dressed in uniforms with plenty of gold braid. This was subsequently shown to have been quite a good idea! Manning the office were 4 staff from Reservations Control, whose job it was to control the sale of seats on all the flights leaving Entebbe. There was also a cashier/accountant looking after all the finances. Although I had initially been posted for 4 weeks, I eventually stayed out there for 11 weeks, and while it was arduous work with long hours, we had some good moments and some most interesting experiences.

When the Asian families received their orders to leave, they were given a date by which they had to depart and a form which they had to present to the airline in order to get their tickets. They would usually come into our office as soon as they had the form in order to book the last possible flight out. They would them come back the day before travel to pay for, and collect their tickets. Because of the situation, we were only accepting cash payments and as they were unable to take any money at all out of the country, many were buying tickets through to USA/Canada or round the world first class tickets in the hope that they would be able to use them later for further travel. On some days we were taking nearly 250,000 shillings in cash.

In many cases, the customers would hand us whatever cash they had left, as they had no further way to spend it - and did not want the Ugandan government to have it. We initially refused to accept money but they just left it on the counter, so we decided to put out a charity box and all such monies were put in it. For several years the Asian staff had been collecting stamps for a local orphanage and these were collected each month by the little old nun who ran it almost single handed. When she came in we gave her the charity box as well, explaining where the contents had come from. We had no idea how much was in it until about an hour later when she appeared again, with tears streaming down her cheeks and proceeded to give each staff in turn a big hug and a blessing. It transpired that there was the equivalent of over 3,000 in the box, which was a huge amount in 1972 values.

As it was intended that BOAC would continue to operate to Uganda, we were asked to recruit and train local African Ugandans. One of those was taken on as trainee cashier. One of the important jobs was the banking of the day’s takings which we did every evening via the night deposit box at Barclays Bank, which was just around the corner.
After about 3 weeks, the cashier decided that he would show the trainee the procedure, and after a week's training showing him what to do, he asked him if he was confident to do it on his own. He said yes and we sent him off the following Monday evening at the close of business to complete this task... We never saw him or the money again!!

One morning on the way to the office, I saw a long queue forming outside a mens wear shop. It had been owned by an Asian but had been shut up when he left Uganda. The Govt had then sequestered it, together with all the stock, and ‘given’ it to a local trader to set him up in business. This was the first day of trading for the new owner.

I asked one of our new staff what was the reason for the long queue as mens wear was not one of the items in short supply at that time. He said that the new owner had no idea what he was doing and was selling everything for the 'price' shown on the labels. So shirts were being sold for 16 shillings and trousers for 38. This was about 80% less than the correct price and not surprisingly he had sold out by mid afternoon. He reopened the shop selling bananas the following week.

Idi Amin had declared himself a devout Muslim and had invited the King of Saudi Arabia to come and visit. Much to everyone’s surprise he accepted and on the day of his visit we all went on to the roof of the office to watch the procession go past. We left the office at 6.30pm to walk back to the hotel but when we got to the driveway that led up to the hotel we found a large crowd and armed soldiers manning the gates. We made our way to the front to find out what was happening and one of the guests we knew who was standing there told us that there was a state banquet taking place and no one was allowed to enter the hotel until after it was over and all the dignitaries had left.

At that moment an army officer came over, having noticed our uniforms, saluted the four of us and beckoned us through the barriers. I told the others not to say anything and just follow his instructions. He just wished us good evening and told us we could go to the hotel, which we did. We went up to our rooms, changed and met up in the deserted restaurant for dinner. As we were eating, the banquet room doors were opened and Idi Amin, the King and all their flunkies came out and walked towards us to get to the main exit. Idi Amin stopped at our table and asked us how our meal was and if we were enjoying our stay in Uganda and then carried on. About 30 minutes later, around 8pm, the other guests were let in and one of them came up to us and said what ‘lucky sods’ we were. Apparently the officer had thought we were the crew from the Kings plane and were returning to the hotel to join the group.

From Aug 72 until the end of the year 60,000 Asians were expelled. 30,000 went to UK, with the remainder going to USA, Canada, Australia or India. Many owned businesses, including large-scale enterprises, that formed the backbone of the Ugandan economy. Many Ugandan Asians were able to use their skills and expertise to re-establish themselves in their newly adopted countries and contribute significantly to the economy. Amin expropriated these businesses and properties and handed them over to his supporters. The businesses were mismanaged, and industries collapsed from lack of maintenance. This proved disastrous for the already declining economy of Uganda.

BOAC was operating up to 2 flights a day for several weeks, and was one of several airlines (including BCAL, which later became part of British Airways) which were used to transport the Ugandan Asian community out of Uganda.

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