Migrant Workers and Amin Nostalgia in Kampala

Adam Apolot worked as a security guard for a gated apartment complex near the Kamwokya neighborhood in Kampala, Uganda. Originally from a rural area in Teso, a region in Eastern Uganda, he worked 12-hour shifts every day from 7am to 7pm before being relieved by his only co-worker, Muhammed Aate. Muhammed, a Lugbara man from West Nile, worked the night shift, and both men migrated to the capital for employment, like many of the precarious workers scattered throughout the city who send money back home to their nuclear families and extended kin networks. The small apartment complex they guarded was three stories high, with 12 apartment units in total. Of the 12 apartments, 10 of them were occupied by South Asian families, most of them Gujarati traders. Every unit had a balcony where pots of tulsi (basil) plants grew, tended to carefully by the wives who stayed home during the day while their husbands left for work. The guards did not only ensure the security of the property, but were also called to run errands for the women. Interactions between the guards and the women were polite, if terse.

On the surface, Adam and Muhammed shared a great deal with the people they were charged with protecting. Like the South Asian families, they were also in a city that was not home and were working to fulfill familial obligations. Though they did not reside across national borders, both men fiercely clung to their ethnic identities despite the cosmopolitanism of Kampala, and they were in constant contact with people from their home region. Likewise, the women in the complex would have daily video chats with the family members they left behind in India. In this way, the guards and the tenants were all a part of their respective diaspora communities, navigating feelings of ‘longing and belonging’ (Pattie 2008) that inevitably accompany a person outside of their homeland.

Their shared identity as outsiders in Kampala deepened the friendship between the two guards. Stereotypes and prejudices against people from West Nile and Teso were openly discussed by Ugandans, with many accusing people from these regions as being ‘fierce’ and ‘warlike’, attributes that were blamed for their relative ‘underdevelopment’. Despite working 12-hour shifts, Muhammed and Adam would have long conversations whenever they met to relieve the other of their duties. Often, these conversations centered on what has become an important part of the social fabric in Kampala: WhatsApp content. During their daily exchanges, these often-contained clips of Idi Amin’s speeches making explicit references to the Asian expulsion. They watched these videos as they wandered the grounds and ran errands for Asians in the housing complex they were responsible for guarding.

A popular clip of an Idi Amin interview showed the dictator calmly discussing former conservative Member of Parliament for the United Kingdom, Enoch Powell. Powell gave a rather infamous speech as an MP that has been branded the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (1968), in which he argued that immigration policies in the United Kingdom were a threat to the ‘indigenous’ English population. The MP argued that immigration to his country must be controlled, explicitly speaking about Black immigrants being a threat to white Englishmen. At the time of the speech, he was immediately met with resistance from other MPs amidst debate surrounding the Race Relations Act of 1968, which made discrimination based on national origin or race illegal. The British journalist, clearly in disbelief that an African leader could support a man in favour of expelling African migrants from the United Kingdom, presses Amin: ‘I know that you’re interested in, and indeed actually go along with, much of what Mr Enoch Powell has been saying recently.’ Amin responds:

‘Mr Powell Enoch is a full supported (sic) by me of what he has said. He’s not discriminating against any races, but he wanted indigenous Londoners, their children, to have a bright future. He does not want England to be colonized by Africa, by Asia. London for Londoners, Scotland for Scottish, Wales for Welsh, Uganda for Ugandans, Rhodesia for Zimbabwean people – not for the white minority regime, and South Africa and Southwest Africa for the black majority. But, London can have any technical assistant, anybody they wanted to employ in London. But, they are not to dominate the people of England.’

The striking part of this interview, and indeed of all the clips that circulate on Ugandan social media, is how rational Amin’s propositions appear; those who watch them often feel as though he was fully justified in his analyses. The dangers of his brand of nativism are lost, as he simply appears to be pushing against ‘minority rule’, such as that of apartheid South Africa. Just as then – Rhodesia’s minority population should not control the whole of the country, what makes the case of the United Kingdom being controlled by African and Asian immigrants any different? These kernels of truth in his calmly bombastic assertions make them all the more dangerous in the current socio-political climate. One evening, as Muhammed watched an Amin speech, he revealed his true thoughts on the former dictator’s policies: ‘Yes, all you foreigners should go! You should go, and then qualified people can come back.’ Despite my shock at this, he was quick to reason: ‘Asians love to segregate themselves so much.’

          The resentment held by the guards against the very people they protected forces us to see how Amin’s expulsion continues to inform the present, even, and perhaps especially, 50 years after its happening. Edgar Taylor’s (2016) excellent dissertation historicizes the infamous expulsion and challenges us to see the act not as a one-time blip in an otherwise romantic history of cosmopolitan exchange between the sub-continent and East Africa. His historical understanding of the disconnect between elite Asian traders in the political sphere proclaiming to speak on behalf of the entire community, and the small Asian shopkeepers in the periphery making minimal profits, enables us to see Asians in Uganda not as a unified group, but as a diverse array of people. While Muhammed accused Asians of being too insular, Taylor’s work shows that many of the members of Uganda’s always evolving Asian population historically did indeed form deep connections with the place and people.

          Despite these connections and despite having a presence in Uganda predating British colonialism, Taylor’s rendering of the boycott of Asian shops in 1959 shows how anti-Asian sentiments were able to be weaponized. Asians who saw themselves as members of the community, spoke local languages, and in their own accounts were generous to local populations by offering goods on credit to those unable to afford to pay up front, still reported that they were not safe from the resentments of Ugandans who believed their economy should not be controlled by outsiders. Yet, the ability to give local Ugandans goods on credit was itself unfree of hierarchy. The example of Taj, an Asian businessman who set up several shops throughout Buganda, is illuminating:

‘According to his own telling, the relationships that he cultivated in Gomba, whether at his shop or through his charity or political work, were mutually warm and sincere. When the boycott of Asian shops began in 1959, some of his closest colleagues and beneficiaries of his charitable work were among its harshest enforcers. From the other side of the counter, the attributes of thrift and aid could be seen as upholding an unethical hierarchy and the abuses that it enabled, particularly when mediated through credit and unequal access to capital’ (ibid., 3)’

          Ethnographic accounts and personal histories such as Taj’s enable us to see Amin’s expulsion of Asians as part of a longer history that is complex, but also has threads that connect the past and present. For the purposes of this contemporary account, perhaps most striking is Ugandans from across the country in Kampala holding strong opinions about the presence of Asians. Throughout fieldwork in Kampala amongst migrant workers, the idea of Asians being members of the Ugandan community was not a popular one, and such sentiments were openly discussed. Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians is not a forgotten event, and is present in the popular imaginary of Kampala, especially because Asians are not confined to the capital city. Asian traders and shopkeepers have a presence throughout the country, from remote parts of the North to blossoming industrial centres in the West. In other words, migrant workers are not encountering Asians for the first time when they move to the capital, instead moving there with preconceived notions about the community. As migrants take positions as precarious labourers and become members of Kampala’s underclass, economic anxieties intensify. Rather than having ample opportunities to make money to send home to their families, the more common story told by migrants is the inability to make ends meet in the city. Frustrated by a constant lack that a move to the capital cannot fill, Asians continue to be an easy target 50 years after their expulsion. Evidenced by Muhammed and Adam, proximity does not always facilitate knowing.


  • A PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, has conducted long-term fieldwork amongst migrant workers in Kampala, Uganda.

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