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Ugandan Asians come to Britain
Pambazuka Press

‘On the face of it, life in the camp, with its surface calm and order, presented a sharp and favourable contrast to the open terror living in Uganda. But it was the Kensington camp, and not Amin’s Uganda, which was my first experience in what it would be like to live in a totalitarian society,’ writes Mahmood Mamdani, in ‘

‘YOU’RE COLD. Why don’t you go downstairs and get a warm sweater and a coat? It’s free. There’s a women’s voluntary organisation that hands it out. Come, I’ll show you where it is.’ Ben led me downstairs, to the WRVS clothing room.

‘You are...?’


‘OK, Mr Mamdani. I have got a coat just for you. It’s a Parisian cape. Only slightly worn. Not more than two years old. And a hat to go with it. My, it’s from Harrods too.’ She examined the hat, and then added, ‘Harrods – that’s where the rich in this country do their shopping.’

Fitted in my Parisian cape and a Harrods’ bowler hat, with wire-rimmed glasses, a bushy moustache, and curly black hair coming out from under the black hat, I must have looked quite ridiculous. As I strolled out into the car park that fills the space between the two large concrete buildings that were the camp, the young Nigerian car attendant looked me up and down:

‘Hey man, what you need is an umbrella.’ He broke out into peals of laughter.

Standing next to me was a smartly dressed middle-aged lady, waiting to pay her parking fee. Trying hard to conceal the smile on her face, she turned to her dog, a well-groomed white poodle that she led by a chain. I followed her gaze. Heavens, even the dog was clothed! There seemed a curious similarity between the poodle and me: both dressed in the ways of an alien world. For a few seconds, the car attendant and the lady seemed to share this realisation – and they laughed freely. The next moment, however, the lady seemed embarrassed and apologetic; she hurried through the ticket payment and hastily walked to her car. The Nigerian just shook his head.

‘The Man’s got you, boy.’ I wondered whatever he meant, if anything at all.

What I couldn’t miss was the fact that there was something wrong with the cape–hat–Asian combination. Once back in the room, I discarded the bowler hat. It was time for my morning visit to my parents.

Unlike most other couples, who shared rooms with single and other married people, my parents had a room all to themselves; two beds fitted into a six by eight box-room. I met my father in the corridor. Mother had been sick the night before, with vomiting, fever and fainting spells. Would I take her downstairs to the Red Cross? At the Red Cross – a storeroom converted into an emergency health centre – there was a line of eight people, most of them down with flu. It meant a 45-minute wait.

‘You have a slight fever. Look, why don’t you take some codeine water? Four times a day. It will also help you sleep.’

That night, however, the vomiting increased and the fever would not subside. The next day, the lady at the Red Cross arranged an appointment with a local doctor.

‘Take her in a taxi. I’ll reimburse you.’

Partly dazed, mostly ill with fever, Mother could hardly walk. I helped her into a taxi, and to the doctor’s.

‘She’s in a terrible shape. Could she please see the doctor immediately?’

‘Yes, but first her name and address.’

The doctor looked an amiable person, immaculately dressed. His office seemed more like a lawyer’s library.

‘She has been here before, hasn’t she?’

‘No she hasn’t.’

‘And you’re quite sure?’

‘Yes, quite.’

‘Well, they all look the same, don’t they?’

I gritted my teeth, blood flowing to my eyes. I tried to look at my mother, and think of her illness, and forget about this doctor.

Back at the camp, I walked up to the canteen. A meeting was in progress, addressed by the camp administrator and his assistant, Mrs Maxwell.

‘I don’t want to see anybody but camp residents eat here. If you have any friends or relations from Leicester or Southall coming to visit you, you must come to me before you take them into the dining room with you. For each guest, you’ll have to pay 25p. And remember, only I can grant permission.’

‘Under what circumstances would you refuse permission?’ I asked.

‘Do you live here?’


‘Well, that’s for you to find out.’

The meeting moved onto the next point on the agenda: the menu. There had been complaints about the monotony of the diet.

‘This is not your home. It’s a refugee camp, remember. You can’t expect everything here.’

‘Sir, it’s not that the diet is monotonous, it’s deficient. You can see the lines of people at the Red Cross every morning. All we eat is starch: rice, wheat, flour and potatoes.’

‘Yes, but remember it’s you people who want to cook your own vegetarian food. The non-vegetarian kitchen has no such problems.’

‘True. But, don’t you think you should ask a dietician to look at the menu, and then, if need be, add things like cheese, eggs and greens?’

‘Hindus won’t eat eggs.’

‘Not all. Many vegetarians will. The others will eat greens and cheese.’

At this point, Mrs Maxwell came to the rescue: ‘What we need is a catering committee. Mr Mamdani, since you are so concerned, why don’t you join it?’

‘Certainly, I’d be delighted.’

‘And yes, that reminds me, we also need a welfare committee to deal with the problem of cleanliness. In fact, it should meet tomorrow. And there should be a catering committee person on it. Mr Mamdani, could you be that person?’


The next morning, at 10am, the welfare committee met. Mrs Maxwell took the lead.

‘Now, cleanliness is a primary problem. The toilets need to be watched everyday. Children are sometimes very careless. Many adults, used to Asian toilets [where the toilet bowl is in the ground and the person squats over it"> are finding it difficult to use European toilets. People can take turns keeping watch. The rooms are not always clean. There must be inspection every once in a while. No socks on the floor or on the radiator. Clothing should be in suitcases or cupboards, where these are provided. Beds should be made and floors swept. We’ll need a voluntary committee for this, to keep watch and inspect. The welfare committee can’t do everything. Every room must have a representative who is responsible for its cleanliness.’

Quite incredible, I thought; the response to every ‘problem’ is another committee! Pretty soon, we will have another problem: too many committees.

‘But surely, Mrs Maxwell, you don’t want to turn this place into a boy scout camp, with guards and inspections all over the place,’ I interrupted.

‘No, not quite like that. But we need some order. Otherwise the situation will deteriorate.’

After some more discussions on how and when these committees were to be elected, the meeting focused on catering.

‘Mr Mamdani, you’re the catering representative. Do you wish to say anything?’

‘Yes, I have decided to call a meeting of those who eat in the vegetarian kitchen this evening. We can have a thorough discussion on the menu, and on cooking and cleaning responsibilities.’

‘Have you checked with the camp administrator?’


‘Well, I suggest you get his permission first.’

‘His permission? Just because we are going to meet and talk about food? I see no reason for that.’

‘I strongly suggest you do that. If you insist on making trouble he could take action against you.’

‘Action? Like what?’

‘He could throw you out of the camp.’

‘OK, I’ll talk to him.’

The next afternoon the catering committee met with the camp administrator. I had been elected ‘Chief Catering Officer’.

‘So, Mr Mamdani, you want every person in this camp to have milk, besides drinking it with their tea and coffee?’


‘How can I sufficiently impress upon you, Mr Mamdani, that milk in liberal quantity is drunk only by a small minority of wealthy people in this country. This is not East Africa. Perhaps you should go to Leicester and Southall and see what people drink down there.’

‘Well then, you must have a substitute for milk. Surely you realise that for most of us, this is our first winter. We need a healthy diet. Already a quarter of the camp has succumbed to flu.’

The next week, the health visitor came. Sure enough, he found the vegetarian diet deficient. His recommendation was that it be daily supplemented with a pint of milk for children, and a half pint for adults, two ounces of cheese, dry or tinned fruit, and greens for everyone.
To the outsider, the vital issues of the camp would seem petty. The most important were: Is anyone using more blankets than they are entitled to? Did anybody consume more milk than they were entitled to? Why did Mr Patel take food into his room? Does Mr Desa have the doctor’s permission to eat in his room?

In the camp there was no personal life, and this was not just because of the technical limitations of space. Far more important was the way the camp was run. The dictum that an administrator must gain the greatest familiarity with those who live and work under him had been closely and faithfully followed by the camp authorities. It was, however, the familiarity the master has with the affairs of the servant, not the familiarity a member of a family has with another. The contacts between the officials and the residents were thus limited to formal ones. But for these, the separation between the staff and the residents was complete.

An event which highlighted this separation was New Year’s Eve. The canteen at the camp had two rooms. For two days prior to New Year ’s Eve, one of them was decorated rather colourfully. On the final day, a record player with loudspeakers was installed. The New Year ’s Eve party, however, was exclusively for the staff of the student centre and the camp administrators. Music blared while wine and champagne flowed. Guests came and went in flowing gowns and formal attire. In the next room were the camp residents, some watching television, others playing darts and the rest writing letters. For us, it was just another evening.

The only exception to administrative exclusiveness were the volunteers, two women: one American and the other English, both students. As time went on, however, and ‘trouble’ began to brew in the camp, their sympathies with the residents disqualified them as ‘loyal’ members of the staff.

Under such circumstances, the way an administrator gained familiarity with a resident was by collecting information about them. But what meant familiarity to the administrator spelt control to the resident.

With a limited staff of fewer than ten, and residents numbering over 250, only limited control was possible. The administration, however, had sole control over resources: possible job and accommodation opportunities. These opportunities were never advertised on the camp bulletin boards. The larger of the two boards displayed a notice in bold capital letters: HAVE YOU CONSIDERED EMIGRATING? And then gave a list of emigration opportunities to Sweden, Iran, Chile, Argentina, etc. The second board contained scores of short notices on internal camp affairs: meal times, committee meetings, etc.

Information about jobs and accommodation – information that a resettlement board should freely provide – was carefully guarded by the camp staff. Around it, an elaborate system of patronage developed. Access to this information was given as a reward to those who donated voluntary services. It was tacitly understood by all that voluntary services were not just confined to the physical work that would have to be done in any institution: washing, cleaning, keeping records, etc. Voluntary work also meant, to put it bluntly, informing on fellow residents: from reporting those who consumed more than their fair share of milk or took their food upstairs to their room, to noting down the names of those who spread ‘dissatisfaction’ about the camp. Not surprisingly, those who felt the most inadequate in the English environment, and the least able to carve out an existence for themselves, were the most apt to offer these services. Gradually, a most unhealthy environment developed.

On my second day at the camp, a friend, Ben and I were sitting in the room reading. Mr B, a voluntary messenger, came in and turned to my friend.

‘You are wanted in the office.’

‘Me? Why? I haven’t done anything wrong. Did I do anything?’ Written on his face, unmistakably, was the expression of fear. The camp administrator seemed omniscient. Or, as Ben put it more graphically: ‘If I fart in this room, Mr Engel knows about it.’

For the first few days we were not really interested in the camp. What preoccupied our attention was the world outside the camp: Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street. As time went on, however, it became impossible not to become aware of the camp, not just the people who lived in it, but the camp as an institution. The camp was run by a core of people hired by the Uganda Resettlement Board. The board had apparently decided that the top brass should be individuals familiar with Uganda, preferably with Uganda Asians. Given the historical relationship between Britain and Uganda, these people were inevitably colonial civil servants or soldiers. The administrator of the Kensington camp had previously been a CID officer in Uganda.

In the person of a colonial bureaucrat one found both the eternal quest of the bureaucrat for the perfectly ordered universe and the rather blunt conviction of a colonialist that there existed a natural hierarchy in the world, that some people were just born better than others. It was a view of the world that seemed to permit of only two kinds of people: friends or adversaries. In other words, you were guilty until proven innocent.

The staff was also all bureaucratic personnel, most of them highly trained in the administration of things. Together, they had successfully turned the camp into a total institution, like a prison or an insane asylum. With the distinction between private and public life obliterated, with all living subject to control and reduced to dependence, complete with an elaborate network of informers, the Kensington camp gradually became a nightmare in totally controlled living. There was no escaping the camp. On the face of it, life in the camp, with its surface calm and order, presented a sharp and favourable contrast to the open terror living in Uganda. But it was the Kensington camp, and not Amin’s Uganda, which was my first experience in what it would be like to live in a totalitarian society.


* Mahmood Mamdani is director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research.
* This extract is taken from Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians come to Britain’ published by Pambazuka Press (ISBN-10 1-906387-57-5).
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.