My Grandfather: Noordin Mohamadali Sham
Speaking to a little girl the other day, I asked her age, ‘7 years and 3 months’ she replied without so much as a breath of hesitation. There are not many people who grow up nowadays without knowing their age, yet this was the case with my granddad.
The youngest of twelve children born to Rehmatbai Abdulali and Mohamadali Bhodalbhai, my grandfather, Noordin Mohamadali Sham, came into the world in the living room of the family home in Rajkot, India. His birth was never registered, something not uncommon in India at the time when birth certificates were not considered as important or necessary as they are for us today.
Prior to the birth of my Grandfather, his parents had suffered great sadness following the death of two of their sons Akhbar and Taher. Akhbar had died aged 18 after falling from a building rooftop whilst picking fruit from a tall tree and Taher had passed away at the age of 8 due to an unknown illness.
When my granddad was what he believes to be 6 years old, further tragedy hit the family when his mother, Rehmatbai, died suddenly from a brain tumour aged just 46.
Out of all his siblings, Noordin was closest to his older sister, Sugra, so when she got married in 1941 and moved to the city of Kampala, Uganda, he decided to emigrate with her leaving behind his father and the rest of his family.
It was at this time that my grandfather signed an affidavit declaring his year of birth as 1931 to the best of his knowledge, making him ten years old. This was required in order for him to obtain a passport and It is from this year that he has calculated his age ever since.
The journey from Rajkot to Kampala was a long and tiring one, starting with a train from Rajkot to Bombay (Mumbai). Although planes were in existence by this time, fares were expensive and so from Bombay, Noordin and his sister boarded the ‘Karagola’, a ship bound for Mombasa, Kenya. A journey that would take ten days and cost the equivalent of around nine pounds in today’s money.
It was the midst of World War Two and with the constant threat of attack from the Japanese, a journey by boat was dangerous.
“Every day we had a survival drill and we were taught how to put on life jackets in case there was an attack. We ate all our meals during daylight hours because every night the ship was put into blackout and we would spend the night in complete darkness to reduce the risk of us being spotted”
“All the passengers would sleep on the deck every night under a tarpaulin roof, there was nothing else to do. It wasn’t a nice cruise boat that you would see now, but it was big, there were about 1200 to 1300 people on board”
“During the day I would sit at the very front of the boat, near to where the anchor was and spend the day there just taking in the sea breeze”
As it turned out, this ship would be the last to make this journey during the war.
“We heard that the next ship that set off after us was torpedoed by the Japanese, killing everyone on board.
Apparently the Japanese had warned the captain to offload his passengers onto another boat for safety, they only wanted to attack the ship itself, but the captain refused and he was overhead calling for help instead. I found out later that one of my old teachers was onboard that ship.”
All journeys between India and Africa were halted following this incident. However despite the danger some companies still operated smaller sailboats which were used by those who desperately wanted or needed to travel from one country to the other.
“The sailboats were much smaller than the ship that we travelled on, they could carry only 30-40 people and were much less stable, I knew someone who fell into the sea during bad weather. It took much longer too, anything up to a month depending how strong the wind was”
From Mombasa my grandfather and his sister took the train for the final leg of their Journey.
“Seeing Mombasa was strange, back in Rajkot although we knew the war was happening, we were very sheltered from it, nothing changed for us. But in Mombasa you could tell something was happening, while we were there, the whole city was braced for evacuation due to the threat of attack”
For the first few years after arriving in Kampala he lived with his sister, his new brother- in- law, his brother-in-law’s three cousins, the wife of one of the cousins and their two children as well as his sister’s two new stepchildren in a small house behind the family’s shop on Burton Street. One of these stepchildren was Rukaiya, who was around the same age as my grandfather and the girl whom he would go on to marry at the age of 21.
Life in Kampala was good, within a week Noordin had been enrolled into the Old Kampala primary school
“I didn’t know a word of English before coming to Uganda where we would be taught it every day at school”
“From Monday to Friday I would go to school, come home and then spend the rest of the day helping out in my sister’s husband’s watch shop, on Saturday’s I would work in the shop for half the day and then for the rest of the weekend I would be free. I would meet my school friends and often we would go and watch a film at the drive in cinema or go and eat ice-creams at one of the parlours”
After completing primary school my grandfather chose not to completeany further education.
“I enrolled into the secondary school but I failed one of the first exams and after that I just left it and decided to go and work permanently with my brother in law and that’s what I did for the next 11 years”
The ship companies starting operating on the India-Africa route once more following the end of the war in 1945, but it wasn’t until 1951 that my grandfather returned to India for a three month stay to visit his family.
“Everyone was so excited to see me when I went back, two of my sisters who lived in Bombay came with their families to meet me at the port, I stayed with them for a few days before heading to Rajkot to see my father and the rest of the family”
“My dad was just so happy, ten years is a long time, I had left Rajkot as a child and now I was back again all grown up. Before I left for Uganda once more, my dad gave me a shirt that he had made for me from the very best material he could buy, in Rajkot no one bought ready-made clothing, everything was hand stitched and made to measure.”
This trip would be the last time my grandfather saw his dad, learning of his father’s death seven years later in 1958 by telegram. By the time of his next visit to India in 1963 two of my grandfather’s brothers had also passed away.
Shortly after returning from India in 1951, my grandfather married my grandmother, Rukaiya, and a few years later welcomed the first of their six children, a daughter named Rukhsana, followed by another daughter Jamila in 1956.
Bringing up their daughters for their first few years in the same house where Rukaiya had grown up and where my grandfather had lived since arriving in Kampala, it was only after the birth of their third daughter Shirin (my mother) that the family finally moved into a house of their own, a two-roomed building at 5961 Kampala Road, the city’s main street.
By 1968, Noordin had become a father twice more, to sons named Aftab (1962) and Mufazzal (1968) and financed by his brother-in-law, had begun his own business as a watchmaker opening a shop named ‘The Moonlight Watch Company’ in the city’s market square.
In August 1972 Idi Amin issued a decree expelling all Asian’s from the country. News channels reported that they had just ninety days to leave with warning that anyone remaining in the country after 8th November risked being imprisoned in military camps.
“It hurt, It felt like I was being betrayed by what I had come to see as my own country, until then I had thought Amin was a good leader. A few people we knew were taken away by the Ugandan army, my friend’s father-in-law was forced into the boot of a car and a member of my mosque, Najar, and his son were also taken away. They were never seen again, they were most likely murdered whilst in prison”
The irony is that just a few months earlier we had been planning to send Rukhsana to England to study, our business was running well and we had got to a point where we could afford it but now we would all be going. I had mixed emotions, I was incredibly sad but at the same time also excited that I was going to see a country that I had always heard so much about”
The family left for England In October 1972, having been forced to leave behind most of their possessions.
“We couldn’t take much with us, just what we could fit in our cases. We left stock in our shop which would have been worth around 200,000 shillings (equivalent to around £10,000) as well as around £10,000 in our bank account which we were never able to recover”
“Some of our valuables we left with people in Uganda who promised to send them to us later on, but they never did. At the airport the security guards would take people’s jewellery, money and anything else that could be of value. I arrived in the UK with just fifty four pounds in my pocket”
Emerging from the plane at Stanstead airport on a cold October day, Noordin realised just how different life in this country was going to be. “I had never felt cold like it, I knew straight away that it was something that I would never get used to.”
After two months at one of the Ugandan refugee camps at RAF Faldingsworth, my grandfather and his family were settled into a large house in the affluent area of West Bridgford, Nottingham where he had found work selling watches in department store Pearsons.
“It all happened fairly fast, the children were enrolled into schools, we had a house bigger than we had ever dreamed of, I had a new job, I couldn’t believe how generous the British were to us, they gave us everything”
“In West Bridgford people were so kind. When my daughter Tasneem was born shortly after moving in, a neighbour that we hadn’t met before brought round a gift, when out walking people would stop and offer us lifts as we were new to the town”
Now retired, My grandfather visited India once more in December 2011, during which time he uncovered old school records which revealed his true date of birth, 4th May 1927, making him 84 years old today.
With the 40th anniversary of their expulsion approaching I asked if he would return to Uganda
“Now I couldn’t, looking back Amin in a way did us a favour, England was good to us and my children are successful. But having said that I do miss Uganda, we worked hard yet we still felt free, it was so relaxed and I will always see it as my home”