2 June 2018

Ugandan Industrialist Pens Memoir

The story of Indians in Uganda can be summed up as one of fortitude, great misfortune and eventual triumph.

A century ago, Indians arrived in Uganda penniless, young and ambitious, and proceeded to build their fortunes.

However, in the turbulent times of Idi Amin, they lost all their property in a flash. Over three months in 1972, they were ordered to abandon all they had and leave the country by the dictator.

For Mahendra Mehta and other industrialists, the eviction enabled them to grow a global business empire with a presence on almost every continent.

Now in his mid-80s, Mahendra captures his life events in a memoir titled The Call of the Peacock. The book follows his father's biography, Dreams Half Expressed.

The Call of the Peacock is a recounting of the troubled yet triumphant journey of Ugandan Indians.

Mahendra's father, Nanji Khalidas Mehta, arrived in the country barely into his teens and without any money. He established himself as a trader, farmer and industrialist, setting up Uganda's first sugar factory in 1924.

He also traded in cotton, and set up tea and coffee estates before returning to India where he continued growing his businesses.

It soon would fall on Mahendra, the youngest in the family, to run Lugazi.

"In 1953, my eldest brother, Khimjibhai, who was in charge of our Uganda operations, left the family business to settle in Switzerland, transferring a substantial amount of funds to his new abode. This was a serious blow to my father. He was hurt and upset and decided that I should proceed to Uganda to help run the plantation.

His decision angered me, as I had set my heart on going to Oxford to earn a degree. However, considering the circumstances, I did not wish to cause my father any more grief, so I left London for Lugazi. The carefree days of my youth were over," writes Mahendra.

By 1961, Mahendra was so entrenched in Ugandan society that he was selected to join Parliament just before Independence. The years 1962 to 1972 were glorious as the company grew.

Then things changed suddenly, especially for Mahendra who had been assured of his safety by president Amin himself. He was kicked out of the country in less than 48 hours.

Fellow industrialist Manubhai Madhvani met the same fate. He tells his story in his memoir Tide of Fortune: A Family Tale.

After the fall of Amin, Madhvani returned and rebuilt the family business from their base at Kakira some 50 kilometres from Lugazi.

Mahendra was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His memoir is therefore not a sob story.

Being the last born in a family of five, he did not even fall naturally in the pecking order to become the patriarch.

The Call of the Peacock is as much a memoir of Mahendra as it is of the family. He writes about his wife Sunaya, son Jay and daughter Radha.

Mahendra also writes about his first encounter with President Yoweri Museveni: "Museveni was the only president with whom I was not previously acquainted. I asked for an appointment, but was told he was very busy and it would have to wait till the next week. I decided to return to Nairobi. My plane was delayed, and as I was waiting at the airport, I learned that President Museveni was also there, in the VIP area, awaiting the arrival of his wife from Sweden.

"Her plane too had been delayed. I decided to take the opportunity of sending him a note asking whether I could come over to pay my respects, and he agreed ... . He laughed and invited me to sit down. After that, we became good friends."

President Museveni presided over the launch of the memoir in Kampala on May 14.

Mahendra is careful to avoid controversy. There is no mention, for example, of the 2007 incident in which Ugandans protested against a government plan to give his company a portion of the Mabira Central Forest reserve to plant more sugar cane. The riots resulted in the killing of at least three people.

At the book launch, Mahendra announced that he was starting a foundation with an endowment of a million dollars. The money would support the education of people with disabilities. Proceeds from the book will go to charity.

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