Tuesday, 01 November 2011 14:25

Uganda's Reluctant Hero Sugra Visram

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By: Awaaz Team

Sugra Visram was born on 15 July 1923 in Nasambya Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. Her mother, Kawkab Aha Mirza was also born in Kampala but her parents were from Iran. Sugra’s father was Mohamadali Jamal who had emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan at the age of twelve and joined the well-known firm of Allidina Visram. He developed a cotton and timber business, his wife did social work in addition to raising seven boys and seven girls.

Sugra grew up in Kampala and completed her secondary education at the old Kampala Senior Secondary School. She mastered several languages learning some from her ayah, the household staff, friends and family. She became fluent in Cutchi, Gujerati, Hindi, Kiswahili, Luganda and English. The family were Muslims from the Ithna-sheri community which in those days did not fully support the education of girls. The Jamals, however, encouraged their daughter to study and participate in extra-curricular activities.

She met Haiderali Visram at a drama class and two months after leaving school in 1941, got married to him. The marriage ceremony was performed by Prince Ali Khan at the Kampala Jamatkhana. Her husband was the grandson of Allidina Visram, one of East Africa’s best known pioneers. Allidina Visram was an Ismaili Khoja who had emigrated from Cutch in 1863 at the age of twelve and made his initial fortune in a chain of stores between Bagamoyo and Ujiji. When the Uganda Railway was built, he opened over 170 branches of Seth Allidina Visram & Co. in British East Africa and Uganda, sailed dhows and a small steamer on Lake Victoria, and employed at least 1,000 Indians and several thousand Africans on sugar plantations. He became known both as the ‘Uncrowned King of Uganda’ and, because he always carried the Union Jack and the Aga Khan’s emblem, also as the Prince with Bandera Bili (two flags).’ At his death in 1916 he was eulogized as the ‘friend of Kings, Kabakas and Chiefs and of Ministers, Envoys, Generals and Admirals.’ Many years later his grand-daughter in law was to ally with another Kabaka, Mutesa III.

Allidina Visram had only one son, Abdulrasul, and six grandchildren, four boys and two girls. They were Hussein, Abdul, Kassamali, Haiderali, Katija and Shirin. All now have passed away. Abdulrasul maintained his father’s business interests and shared his political concerns, his son Haiderali concentrated on doing business in Uganda. But none of the progeny acquired the fame of their forefather, strangely enough Allidina Visram’s mantle was to fall on a daughter in law from a different community.

To facilitate the marriage, the Jamal family almost entirely converted to Khoja Ismailism. The transition took two years to complete. It was not a great divide to cross as most of the Ithna–sheris on the Indian subcontinent were originally followers of the Aga Khan. Sugra found her adopted religion to be more liberal both in the interpretation and practice of Islam. She never wore the purdah, though her mother did so in her early life.

Because she grew up in old Kampala and Mengo, which were areas of mixed Asian and African population, she had many friends of both races and her fluency in Luganda helped her to integrate further. She was very aware of her own good fortune both in terms of economic stability but, more importantly, of the liberating influences in her childhood and now, in her marriage. She had a strong desire to assist other women to improve their positions in all fields and Haiderali encouraged her in the social work she undertook. Immediately after marriage, Sugra joined her husband’s business-office, in the afternoons she ran a nursery school. From 1950-51 she was headmistress of the Ithnasheri School.

My initial goal was to help the mothers and children of Uganda to get a good education, obtain better living conditions and have the economic ability to provide a healthy diet,’ Sugra says. ‘The ultimate goal was to empower women to the point where they would have equal opportunities with the men in every field of endeavour. Despite ups and downs, women in the country have made substantial progress. Certainly, more work needs to be done. The work of advancing women’s rights was from the beginning tackled jointly by African, Asian and European women. This still is the case today. The only period when it was not so, was during Amin’s brutal regime.’

She identified the first step towards her goal as the need to help mothers and children with schools fees and family planning. With the help of international organisations and local organisations she was instrumental in setting up a family planning organisation in Uganda. Sugra defined family planning as spacing of children according to the health of the mothers and the financial status of the family. ‘I am happy to say that I was given encouragement and assistance not only by women but by men as well, many of whom were in high government offices.’

Her aim was to give women in the country a stronger voice and influence in what was going on in the country. This was truly remarkable as in the 1940s and 50s, feminist movements in the West were still unheard of in this part of Africa. To achieve her goal she either joined, or set-up, the following key organisations :-

  • Kabaka Yekka Women’s Wing for both Buganda and Uganda :- She was the chairman.
  • Uganda Council of Women, which she joined in 1944 and became its vice chairman :- The members raised funds in a number of ways including coffee mornings and afternoon teas. All money collected went either to help pay schools fees of the poor or towards small grants for struggling small holders to increase their crop yield.
  • Muslim Women’s Association :- This organisation was founded in 1945 and again, Sugra was appointed vice chairman. Funds were raised along similar lines to the UCW. The money collected was used to help African Muslim Women. The MWA was particularly keen to encourage the women to mix with those of other religions. Amongst other donors, the Aga Khan and Prince Amin helped tremendously in the development of the MWA. Land was given to them by Prince Amin whilst the Aga Khan provided finance.
  • Young Womens’ Christian Association :- When the YWCA wanted to open an office in Kampala, they asked Sugra, a non Christian woman, to join them in order to quickly establish their presence in the country. Thus she became a founder member and took on the role of treasurer. She describes the work as ‘arduous but enjoyable.’ They had monthly meetings and, quite early on, decided to set up a hostel for young girls. The aim was to provide living accommodation at a minimum charge to young girls who had come to Kampala from rural areas to further their education. ‘The organisation went from strength to strength and I am glad to say is still in existence and carrying out good works to this day.’
  • Family Planning :- A family planning facility was set-up with the assistance of Pathfinder and the International Planned Parenthood Family Association (IPPF). Although at first there was some opposition to their work in this field from the usual conservative sources, the association grew rapidly with the assistance of prominent and influential governmental and non-governmental people. For the first time women and families had access to a well-equipped clinic, which not only issued all types of birth control drugs and devices, it also provided highly trained doctors and nurses who could advise and check out women for cervical cancer. Support was also given by all the top doctors and consultants at Mulago Hospital. From its initial single clinic in Kampala the organisation grew to cover all the regions of Uganda.

Sugra states that ‘there were other organisations that I was a member of. Many of these, like the YWCA, continue with their work today. Up to quite recently, I was active with Uganda’s First Lady’s organisation, UWESO which as you know has helped many hundreds of orphaned children.’ Her modern outlook and intelligent interest in current affairs were much needed assets to the executive committee of the Uganda club, the board of governors of the new African Girls School and the Red Cross where she was listed as a blood donor.

In 1959, Haiderali introduced his wife to business. Quite unannounced he bought a dress shop and requested her to manage it. Totally without any previous experience she tentatively agreed and soon found it absorbingly interesting. Testing her own potentialities she began to expand her business horizons, and as always in the direction of women’s needs. She designed office space in the shop, the Nouveau Marche, and started a driving school for women. And who was the instructor? Herself of course! She was the first Asian woman to get a driving licence way back in 1941 when she was a bride – the three to four pupils she instructed daily had full confidence in her and enjoyed the course as much as she enjoyed coaching them.

Anil had been sent to school in England in 1952 at the age of ten. Sugra visited him and made most of the opportunity to learn all she could about the textile industry. She went round factories in Manchester and studied the window displays of London’s smartest shops. But Sugra did not believe in ‘all work and no play.’ She embarked on a glorious holiday on the Continent during which she played her first game of roulette at Monte Carlo, winning the magnificent sum of three pounds. Life was a gamble for Sugra as she moved in unchartered waters and it is hardly surprising to learn that she was an ardent adherent of the football pools.

Soon after Uganda’s independence Haiderali Visram encouraged his wife to go into parliamentary politics as this would enable her to promote women’s rights on a national platform. She was elected as member of Parliament for the Kibuga area. The fascinating series of events which propelled Sugra into Uganda’s parliament are captured in the Eastern Eye article, dated 22 August 2003. ‘One thing that pleased me over the years,’ she admits, ‘is that being amongst the first women to be elected to parliament, motivated and encouraged the young women of Uganda to get into politics and achieve high office. I am always happy to hear young strangers say to me your example made me determined to succeed at university and seek political office.’

She was an outstanding and most unusual woman especially in the Asian community and in Islamic society. Stunningly beautiful and superbly poised, bold and vivacious, she engendered confidence and charm. The Visram home in Queen’s Road, Kampala where they lived for 17 years, reflected a cosmopolitan background. Traditional Indian objets d’art rested side by side with modern lamps and ornaments; unusual flower arrangements expressed another facet of her vibrant personality. The couple had three children: Anil, Allidina named after his illustrious great grandfather and Feisal named after the ill-fated king of Saudi Arabia who was assassinated by his nephews. ‘I was able to manage both career and family demands smoothly because of the total support I was given by my husband, children and friends. It also helped that we were well organised,’ claims Sugra.

‘The Asian people were very happy and proud that an Asian woman had taken the first step to bring all the communities together, and to learn from each other whilst helping each other. The overall aim was to speed up the social and economic condition of Ugandan women since they could make an increasing contribution to the overall progress of the country. Certainly, the education, outlook and ambitions of the children and youth in every society, are shaped by women. For me, great hope lay in the fact that women were advancing the causes that would bring benefits to the family, people and the country. That they are now marching at an accelerated rate towards an equal position with men gives me satisfaction.’

In 1966, when interviewed by a reporter from the People newspaper, she was asked why she was interested in politics. Sugra answered: ‘I have always had a desire to serve my country . . . I also feel that my social work has been responsible in my taking an interest in politics in view of the confidence I had developed amongst people of all races.’

In 1965, she opposed the Amendment being proposed to the Penal Code in the National Assembly because as she says: ‘It took away the rights and privileges of an individual and could also act against political organisations which did not see eye to eye with the government.’ Regarding the election law she considered it unsatisfactory and felt that all the candidates’ names should appear on the voting paper to allow the voters to make their choice. Also if a member wished to cross the floor, they should be required to contest a fresh election.

Her term in parliament took a dramatic turn in 1966 when President Obote decided to change the constitution to make Uganda a one-party state and compelled all members of parliament to join his party, the Uganda Peoples’ Congress. Being a woman of principle and courage, Sugra opted to walk out, the only woman member to do so. ‘The greatest difficulty I had to overcome was to pick myself up and continue working for the good of the country after I walked out of the parliament on a matter of principle,’ concedes Sugra. ‘I did so when Obote abolished the universally agreed original constitution and brought in his own. It was virtually a mechanism to open the way for a one party system. There was no doubt in my mind that it would lead to the end of democracy in Uganda. It goes without saying that it was a horribly frightening experience with potentially disastrous consequences, but I had to be true to my convictions.’ Elected by the people in 1962, her parliamentary term officially ended in 1970.

She not only walked out of parliament, but six years later, at the age of 49, had to ‘walk away’ from her home and beloved country. The tragedy that Idi Amin wreaked on the Pearl of Africa is well-known; how it impacted on the Visram family is related in the Eastern Eye article. ‘Along with what must have been the majority of Ugandans and the Western countries, I rejoiced when Idi Amin overthrew Obote. No one had any inkling of the horrors that he would subsequently unleash on the country,’ Sugra reminisces sadly. ‘With only one suitcase per person, we boarded the plane for London.’

Fortunately her son was living in the UK so at least they had a home to go to. Gradually they ‘picked up the pieces of their shattered lives’. Sugra got a job working for the Commonwealth Institute and continued championing the rights of women, now, internationally. In the education department, she taught children about other members of the commonwealth, their interests and traditions. She also became active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Welcome to London and the Red Cross.

While she was able to adjust to her new life and develop new interests, the memories of her motherland gnawed at her. ‘I miss Uganda in all aspects. I miss the country’s beauty, its ideal weather, its fertile land, its beautiful lakes and rivers, its sweet tasting water. I could go on and on. It is after all my homeland,’ says Sugra ruefully.

Her husband, Haiderali, passed away in 1988 and in 1993, after an exile of over 20 years, she returned to Uganda; to see her friends and the country, and meet with relatives in

Kenya. She also needed to attend to the family property. Whilst she was there President Yoweri Museveni invited her to become his Special Assistant for Inward Investment into Uganda. ‘I was highly honoured by the offer and could not refuse it,’ was Sugra’s reaction. ‘It meant that I would be headquartered in London from where I could reach out to commercial and government organisations to acquaint them with advantages of opening businesses and industries in Uganda.’

‘I met many friends who had in fact returned to Uganda to re-establish their old businesses. These were early days in the transformation of Uganda. Bear in mind that the country was totally ruined before Museveni took over. Now you could see positive signs of the country being rehabilitated. Major projects for rebuilding roads, the national grid, the water system, in fact, the whole of the infrastructure were under way or in the final stages of planning. The health and education facilities were being revived and expanded. The goodwill of the western countries was clearly in evidence and this was complimented by the dynamism of the people and governmental institutions. The not so good developments in the country are the problems with neighbouring countries such as Sudan and Congo. Uganda’s greatest strength at the moment is the goodwill it has around the world. The western powers view it as a model of reform in many ways. They certainly want Uganda to adopt a multi party system.’

‘People were very afraid to visit never mind invest in Uganda because of its horrific recent history. With others I worked extremely hard to re-establish Uganda’s former image as The Pearl of Africa. As the President’s Special Advisor for Inward Investment into Uganda I introduced many small and large investors into the country. These came from many parts of the world including the UK, Europe and the Middle East. Most of the enterprises set up have flourished and are doing good business. It was a difficult but rewarding job. We had to work very hard to attract the solid investors as well as to identify the opportunists.’

Apropos of her close connections with the Baganda Royal family, Awaaz asked her if it was time to do away with the institution. She replied unhesitatingly: ‘I strongly feel that the Baganda Royalty should be preserved. If we compare Uganda with the UK then Buganda is akin to England and the other Kingdoms can be likened to other parts of the UK. Just as it is unthinkable of not preserving the UK Royal Family it is as unthinkable of not preserving the Buganda Royalty. To millions of people, it is a fundamental part of their identity.’ In 1966 she had stated that she did not consider the Kabaka Yekka to be a royalist movement. ‘It however believes in monarchy and we respect all the rulers inside and outside the country,’ she added.

Sugra still maintains a home in Kampala but, because of her children, is resident in the UK. She is now retired and spends most of her time with family and friends. Of her three children the eldest Anil Visram is married and lives in London. He is an IT and Telecoms Consultant. The second born, Allidina Haiderali Visram (Nizoo), also married, is a Mechanical Engineer and works as a Technical Director in an Oil and Gas Industry. Feisal Visram, the youngest, is a Database Marketing Consultant and runs his own business.

Awaaz enquired about the situation of South Asians in post-Amin Uganda, especially as a racial minority. Sugra responded thus: ‘Asian resettlement in Uganda has not created racial divisions. It has helped to develop and expand the country’s businesses and resources. Most Ugandans have welcomed their return and have appreciated the investment and resultant employment opportunities that have grown as investment has progressed to diversely operating businesses in the commercial, industrial and service sectors . . . However, it is a fact of life that there will always be a small disaffected group in any country you choose to name, who see people of a different origin as easy and convenient scapegoats for their failings and misfortunes. There is very large onus on the media and government to make such behaviour unacceptable and untenable.’

‘For the minority to feel more rooted and secure I would say to the media and opportunistic politicians, stop using the minority as scapegoats and whipping boys for the ills of the country. People who have been investing labour and finance, in building enterprises, perhaps for generations, have benefited the country immensely. Give them the peace of mind to continue doing so.’

Her advice to South Asians, though addressed to those living in Uganda, applies to all of us in the region. ‘The Asians must mix socially and economically with all ethnic groups in Uganda. They must do their best to give the youngsters there opportunities in businesses and industries run by the Asians. Where ever possible they must support charities that help mothers and children. As a numerical minority we must integrate with the majority. This means examining closely held beliefs and attitudes and casting them aside. Just as importantly, the passing of prejudices to children must not take place.’

And finally back to the concern which has been the central pillar of her psyche, the subject of women. She does not agree that a woman’s place is in the home. ‘Though it is her duty to look after the home, she is also in a position to devote quite a lot of her time in working for the betterment of her country and the society,’ she said. The best advice she wished to give to South Asian women was ‘to work closely with her African sisters in endeavours that improve women’s and children’s positions . . . I think the women of South Asia should get together and raise their voices, share their problems, set up organisations to seek assistance in finance through larger financial organisations. There are many examples of women getting together to obtain microfinance and making such a good job of it that they have set up substantial businesses and industries. It is also important for them to ensure that their daughters get educated and are liberated from customs that are designed to curb their independence and talents. To that end, it is important for them to educate their young sons to see their sisters as equals.’

In politics Sugra sees no gender-based differences, both men and women are equally principled, it was a matter of the individual character of the person. Her experience is that men and women in political positions had acted in a highly principled way whilst others in similar positions had brought little credit to themselves or their gender.

Sugra Visram is now eighty years old and though she leads a much quieter life, she keeps herself well-informed and in touch with day-to day events. This very unusual woman who lived way ahead of her times, is indeed a role model for us all. Awaaz feels privileged to bring her story to its readers.

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