Born and raised in Leicester, playwright Ashok Patel states that‘As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Expulsion of Asians by President Amin, there can be no better time to reflect on the events leading to that extraordinary time in Uganda’s history. Tempered by modern British and European ideals, Ugandan Asians and their families are looking back critically at their lives in Uganda. The arts have a unique place in human cultures, because it is through the arts that we can affect the hearts and minds of people.
In what he terms a ‘short elevator speech’ on behalf of AwaaZ Magazine, Dr Mohamed Keshavjee (MK) interviewed playwright Ashok Patel (AP) regarding the play.
MK: What is your play all about? What are the main take-aways?
AP: My play is called ‘Ninety Days’. It is mostly set in 1972 in Uganda. His Excellency President for Life, Idi Amin, tells all Asians that they are greedy, holding back the Blacks and exploiting Uganda. He announces that they have ‘Ninety Days’ to leave. Set in an affluent suburb of Kampala, capital city of Uganda, ‘Ninety Days’ examines the effect of Amin’s expulsion order on a young Asian couple, Sudesh and Geeta Mavani, their live-in worker Wynnie, and her new soldier boyfriend Joshua. On the backdrop of prejudice, hostility and appalling atrocities; loyalties and friendships collide with power and greed in the Mavani house as the clock ticks towards the Ninety Day deadline. In short, ‘Ninety Days’ is an examination of the relationships and prejudices between Ugandan Asians and Africans in that period.
MK: It sure is very different from the normal narratives that the younger generation are highlighting about the drama on the road to Entebbe. What inspired you to go beyond their narratives?
AP: I grew up in Leicester in the UK. Some 10,000 of the 28,000 Ugandan Asians that were accepted by the UK settled in Leicester. I had many Ugandan Asian friends and I eventually married a Ugandan Asian woman. Over the years I have heard many stories about the lives that Asians had in Uganda. These have usually involved their businesses and their firm grip of the economy, the great weather and their enviable lifestyles. I know that there were many Ugandan Africans who were distraught when the Asians were expelled, but there were also many that were dancing on the streets. I really wanted to explore these African voices and try to present their views and feelings as well as those of the Ugandan Asians. ‘Ninety Days’ explores themes of sexual and economic exploitation, racial stereotyping, fear, distrust and violence.
MK: Does this reflect a new concern among the younger generation, and what is its genesis?
AP: Many British Asians who have been educated and brought up in the UK have themselves experienced racism and thus are very opposed to it and have a strong belief in equality. Many have been shocked by ‘Ninety Days’ and have questioned their families about some of the actions that have been depicted in the play. There are many Ugandan Asians in the UK who are now admitting that they exploited the Africans, and that they could have taken less and given more in Uganda. Conversely, there are Africans who are saying that the charismatic Idi Amin was not interested in providing for the people of Uganda but only in holding on to power, and that he was not able to govern Uganda effectively. Ugandan society was gripped with fear by Amin’s State Research Bureau (SRB) and Public Safety Unity (PSU), and there was systematic murder and torture of hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans. Inflation was sky high and ordinary Ugandans were going hungry. In order to deflect the people’s attention Amin targeted the Asians as the cause of their misery and expelled them; and no doubt this increased his popularity. There were mistakes made on all sides.
MK: This view of the Expulsion is a controversial one, did you face any pushback?
I was concerned about the reaction from Ugandan Asian audiences. Many Asians and Africans have said to me that they have been shocked and emotionally affected by the play. However, everyone has appreciated that though it is a work of fiction, it is based on truth and honesty. It is a testament to the resilience and honesty of Ugandan Asians and Africans in Leicester that they are able to critically reflect in this manner.
MK: What in brief were your experiences growing up as an Asian in Leicester; and did they make you reflect on other such situations in Africa?
AP: My experiences with Ugandan Asians were generally good as I got to know them in Leicester. I found them to be hardworking and entrepreneurial. However, as Asians, we all experienced racism and prejudice from white people and, as I said earlier, I believe this experience of being on the receiving end of racism has made some Ugandan Asians reflect on how they themselves treated Africans in Uganda. To put it another way, perhaps some Ugandan Asians now understand how their African compatriots must have felt. There is a growing sense of regret about the treatment of some Africans by Asians and the lack of social interaction between the two groups.
MK: The narrative we are hearing today is from a new generation. How reflective do you feel these are of what the earlier generations’ actual experiences were, and might there be another layer that needs to be added and why?
AP: It was a very different era in Uganda in the middle part of the last century. British imperialism had left a strictly hierarchal society in Uganda, with Africans at the bottom. It must have been difficult to change such a rigidly structured society when the British left and there is some elements of truth in that line of argument. However, present generations would have liked to have seen some effort made by their forefathers to initiate the breakdown of this hierarchy and start the long journey towards a more equal society.
MK: What do you see is the role of the humanities in this process?
AP: The humanities play a unique role in the critical evaluation and analysis of human interactions, societal and individual values and expressions. They shine a light on the way we all live and relate to each other. Arts and the humanities help us in trying to make some sense of the world and the way we live in it.
MK: Do you see ‘Mississippi Masala’ being played out in the UK Asian society as a form of selective racism today?
AP: There is much social interaction between Asians and white people, but still relatively little between Asians and Africans and people of African descent. There appears to be considerable acceptance of marriages between Asians and whites, but there is still opposition to marriages of Asians to Africans and Afro-Caribbeans.
MK: As a member of the younger generation, do you see the Expulsion being celebrated as an event, a process, a reflection or none of these?
AP: I wouldn’t class myself as the younger generation! However, I have spoken to many young British Asians who had grandparents and parents who have their roots in Uganda. I think many of these young Asians don’t really know what happened in Uganda besides the common narratives of Asians being very successful there, having an enviable lifestyle in a beautiful country with great weather, and then Idi Amin threw them out. They are beginning to learn about the complex inter-relationships between Asians and Africans in Uganda at the time through programmes on radio and TV, articles in newspapers, on the internet and through my play ‘Ninety Days’. 50 years after the Expulsion, Asians are celebrating how they rebuilt their lives in the UK, and also reflecting on that era with honesty and truthfulness and are expressing some regrets about their lives in Uganda.
MK: Given your own academic background what made you go into drama? Was this readily accepted of a young Asian man in a mercantile culture?
AP: My background and training is in the biomedical sciences and I teach at Birmingham City University. My upbringing in the UK has had its difficulties and there have been times when I have been confused about my identity, my particular blend of British and Asian characteristics and influences. I have been drawn to the arts, and writing plays and short stories to try and express and examine my British-ness and my Asian-ness. It has been a cathartic and rewarding experience and I am much more comfortable being a British Asian now. I see no reason why I cannot adopt the best and reject the worst of both cultures.