My Mother: Shirin Mnyusiwalla
It was just a normal day and a fourteen year old Shirin Sham (now Mnyusiwalla) was sitting at home watching the news on TV when she realised her life was going to take a wild new turn. The newsreader had just announced that the entire Asian population of Uganda was to be expelled from the country, and they had just ninety days to pack up and leave the country she called home.
Born in the city of Kampala, Uganda, in 1958, the third of six siblings, my mother had a completely different upbringing compared to that of my brother and I.
“Schools were completely different for a start, we started at 8am and finished by 1pm and we would only get a twenty minute break during that time. We didn’t have laptops, computers or mobile phones back then so we were always completely reliant on books and encyclopaedias for information and calculators were barely used. We were made to use our brains a lot more”
A typical day consisted of school, at the Old Kampala School, an hour at home for lunch, madrasa, (religious school) from two till five pm, and then dinner at home followed by homework before going to bed.
“We never used to go out, not like you would do now, apart from school we spent most of our time at home apart from the weekends, we’d always look forward to the weekends. On Saturdays we would head over to our friends house to watch television, it was a luxury in those days”
“Sunday was treat day, we would wake up early and get dressed in our best clothes to go for a car ride with my parents to a place called ‘RP Barot’ a drive through sweet parlour where dad would buy us Ice creams and paan, before heading to my grandmother’s house which was one of the biggest houses in Kampala”
In contrast, home for my mother, her four siblings (her youngest sister was born in England) and her parents consisted of a two roomed building on Kampala Road, the city’s main street, a far cry from our three bedroom semi in West Bridgford
One room used as a bedroom for the children while the other room was the parent’s bedroom, which during the day would also act as the living room and study. The corridor between the rooms was used as the kitchen/ dining room with cupboards for storage and the outdoor toilet was a two minute walk away.
“It was scary to walk to the toilet after dark, so if we ever needed to go for a wee during the night we’d use the drain outside, but not before waking up my dad so he could chase away the cockroaches!”
“We were always satisfied with the simple things in life in those days, we weren’t overindulged with materialistic things and it taught us to appreciate and although we had a tiny house, I always remember being happy in it.”Reading this you may have expected my mother to be scared at the prospect of leaving behind her friends, her house and everything that was familiar to move thousands of miles away to a new country but the reality was different.
“That news report was the first I or anyone had heard about us being thrown out, it came out of the blue, but my first reaction was more of excitement than anything else. My uncle and two of my aunts had gone over to England a few years earlier and I remember always thinking how lucky they were and now I was getting that chance, the thought of leaving Uganda at that time seemed fantastic”
Things moved fast and on a cold, grey day in October 1972 my mother and her family landed at Stanstead airport. From there they were taken to RAF Faldingworth in Lincoln, one of many camps across the country set up by the British Government to handle the thousands of Ugandan refugees.
Almost overnight people had to get used to a completely different way of life. From tropical weather, from settled and comfortable lives they had found themselves living in an army hut, adapting almost overnight to a foreign lifestyle, climate and even diet. However every effort was made by the British people to make them feel comfortable and at home.
” We came to England during the winter, it was never cold in Uganda and we’d never owned coats or jumpers so weren’t equipped to cope with it. Big companies such as Marks & Spencer had donated vast amounts of clothing and in our camp there was a big warehouse where we were able to go and pick out whatever we wanted and as much as we wanted. The people who ran the camp also made sure the heating was on all the time”
The camp became a kind of mini-community with its own library, school and a kitchen that was open 24 hours.
The children had the chance to attend the school for a few hours a day if they wanted to and they were taught English, Maths and Science by teachers who had volunteered their time. My mother was one of those who took up this chance.
“It was strange, even though my English was good, I sometimes struggled to keep up, and the British people seemed to talk so fast. The volunteers would often use language that we had never heard of, for example they’d say things like ‘hello me duck’ and I’d be so confused wondering they were calling me a duck!”
Eventually my mum and her family were relocated to a big five bedroom house in West Bridgford, Nottingham, a place where I would spend the majority of my childhood, and soon she was enrolled into one of the local schools.
“That house was amazing to us, compared to where we came from it was a palace, when first telling us about it my dad said ‘wait till you see the bathroom, it’s almost as big as our whole house in Uganda!’ “
The first day at Rushcliffe Comprehensive proved to be an eye-opener and the glimmering image of an exciting foreign education that she had back in Uganda disappeared fast.
“Just the size of the place amazed me, it was so big and in a way it scared me. I felt so alienated amongst all the British people, they were not used to foreigners and I was only the second Asian person in the whole school.
My sisters had joined the same school but left after only a week to join the college. I felt insecure and I used to follow the only other Asian, a girl called Geeta, we were often called names by the other kids.
Some days I would refuse to go but my parents always assured me that things would get better, which eventually it did but it took a long time before I really felt settled and started to make friends”
After completing GCSE’s at Rushcliffe she went straight into work with her first job at NAAFI, the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute where she spent two tedious years as data inputter before going full circle and going back to Rushcliffe School to work as a lab technician.
“Not going into further education seemed like a good idea at the time, I just wanted to start earning but looking back, not completing A-Levels or going to university was one of my biggest regrets which is why after marriage I decided to start a part time course to become a Dispensing Optician”
Whether I would I have made a different choice if I was back in Uganda I couldn’t answer, I was only fourteen when I left and at that time I dreamt of becoming an air stewardess, but then again most children my age did, either that or a pilot!”Now the mother of two grown up children, I asked her whether she would consider ever moving back given the chance
“ I haven’t been back since arriving here all those years ago, one of the reasons being that there is nobody I know there anymore, everyone fled when we did, and all the things that I knew from my time there are gone, the shops, my friends, the ice-cream parlour.I have been in England far too long to be able to settle back there, it’s where all my family is, my life is here now, in many ways England has much more to offer, good education and healthcare for my children”“Uganda as I remember it was a very beautiful place, with a laidback lifestyle and a tropical climate, that’s what I miss the most, after 40 years I have still not got used to the British weather and I don’t think I ever will”