He stood out as an Asian member of the Buganda kingdom government.
But Owekitiibwa Rajin Tailor feels as Ugandan as any black-skinned Ugandan. He is a man of many titles – president of the Hindu Council of Africa, co-president of the World Council of Religions for Peace, and chairperson of the board of trustees of the Indian Association of Uganda.
Tailor recently told his life story to Simon Kasyate on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme.
Owekitiibwa tukwanirizza nnyo nnyini ku pulogulaamu eno.
Is that all the Luganda that you can speak?
Nsanyuse olwaleero kubanga ndi wano ku Capital FM era njagala okukubiriza abantu bonna okuwuliriza minisita wa Mengo, era tujja kwogera bye tusobola okukolera ensi yaffe, tulabe nga Buganda esanyuke, ensi yaffe esanyuke.
Well, we are convinced about your Luganda so Owekitiibwa, tell us about you and Uganda.
The good news is that I was born in Old Kampala in July 1951, opposite the Ramgharia Sikh society. That house that was occupied by the late Kyeswa was a private nursing home. I lived in Wobulenzi from 1951 till 1966 then I came to Kampala.
Who are your parents?
My father was Tailor he came into Uganda in 1938 at the age of 19. He ended up in Lira. He moved to Tooro, Masindi and finally ended up in Wobulenzi. My father came from India, to be specific Sura district, and he served as a tailor to the late first Prime Minister Milton Obote and then when he moved to Wobulenzi, he was stitching clothes for the first president Sir Edward Mutesa.
And then we had Bukalasa agricultural college, Kawanda research… so most of the Bazungu would come to my father for stitching their clothes. He was the best tailor in Wobulenzi at that time. They used to call him Ngoba in local language. This is where my name comes from: Rajni is my traditional name and Tailor is the profession of my dad. I was a tailor before but I did not enjoy it so, I went into business.
Share with us your childhood, an Indian living in a rural community and people calling you Mugowa [Goan]…
When we lived in Wobulenzi, I got two brothers and one sister. So, we are four siblings, me being the third. My elder sister used to live in Kampala my elder brother used to live in Canada my younger brother used to live in UK. In Wobulenzi, my father did not have [a lot of] money.
I started working with one of the local dukas and my first salary was Shs 600 and I had fifteen Ugandans working under me. I went to that because I wanted some money to go for further education.
Had you had any education before?
I studied up to Junior Secondary 2, which was commonly known as JS2. This was after P6, P7, P8 so, that one I did from Wobulenzi, Katikamu and Bombo.
When you were in school, you looked different from the locals, did they segregate you or treat you differently at any time?
The good old days where we were only 25 students in class are not like today. This was quality education. When we were in Wobulenzi, we used to walk to Bombo, which is ten miles. We would, with our friends, go visiting, eat kikajjo and kasooli and then walk back.
Talking about kikajjo and kasooli, what’s your favourite Ugandan dish?
Matooke and peanut saurce is my favourite. Sugarcane is the same, and then bijanjalo, chicken and fish. I eat the local food at least twice a week.
The moment you got into the duuka, it seems you got stuck in there. What happened?
I finished JS2 from Wobulenzi. Kampala at the time was very expensive. So, we decided that that is the end and I stuck in the shop.
Who owned that shop?
One of the directors of Ramzan motors in those old days and my salary at that time was Shs 600 and we used to do business of Shs 20,000 per day. We were selling one piece of a needle, one tin of paraffin or one tin of cooking oil. At that time there were no calculators and price tags, so everything was in your hands.
You would give them according to quantities: a tin of paraffin was for Shs 14, cooking oil for Shs 10… And no one made more money like me because I kept honesty as my policy. So at a young age I was a businessman. You had to be a bit of a crook to be a business man at the time.
Selects an Abba song for purely old times’ sake.
At 15, you were working in a duuka earning a huge salary of Shs 600, how long were you in there and what became your next step in life?
I learnt a lot to manage my own affairs at the age of 15, it was not an easy task to go and work, but the 15 Ugandans I was working with had an excellent relationship. I moved into Kampala in 19671968 because my brother had finished his school and he also wanted a business and I chose to live with him. In Kampala my first salary was Shs 1000.
This was a profit of Shs 400 and I was still working for someone. My brother and I were employed back to retail trading, the duuka. When I came to Kampala, I joined Kibuka-Musoke Company because it was a very big name and therefore not easy to get employment there.
By then it had different heads, for example, where Crane bank is now, we had a branch called Tesco Uganda Limited. I was working in Nakasero market, where they had a beer shop. Those days we were number one in Uganda we were servicing 4,000 crates of beer, 2,000 crates of soda every day. At that time we had two police men because we used to get a lot of money to take to the bank.
So what could one thousand do for you? Put it on the scale of the money of today.
One thousand shillings was not a bad one. When I was in Wobulenzi, I used to come to Kampala once a week, which was a Sunday. This was to come and watch a movie… then, ten shillings was enough. Three shillings was a taxi, so coming and going was six shillings, a movie was for three shillings, then one shilling I could buy fish and chips and one Pepsi-Cola for those days.
The girls at that time were not so expensive because we used to go to Suzanna nightclub. Suzanna was one of the best clubs in Nakulabye. When I came to Kampala, my best friend was Karim Hirji and we used to end up in Matuga. At that time there were no saloon cars so, we had a pickup and there were only three seats though we would sit there four people.
We used to go to the hideout in Matuga and drink some beer. I grew up together with Karim. After I came back in 1990, it was myself, late Jimmy Deen, Karim and Patrick Bitature.
When you had settled in Kampala and you were earning some money, did you think of going back to school?
Not really. When I had earned enough, I bought a Ford which was a pickup. Every weekend I used to load every empty tin and they were on market for welding then. So, I used to load twenty or thirty into the pickup and take to Wobulenzi to my father because they used to sell [them] there.
One thousand was not cheap at the time because a guest room cost three hundred a month in somebody’s house. I used to get breakfast and lunch and supper. This was a fellow Indian in Old Kampala opposite the Gaddafi mosque.
Kampala is now crowded paint us a picture of Kampala then.
Some of the streets like Ben Kiwanuka, then South Street, walking at night was not a problem. When the Asians left in 1972, Kampala’s population was 200,000 people, including the foreigners.
Today Kampala’s population is almost 4.5 million and at night it is three million. It has not changed. The infrastructures are not changed, the roads are the same, Kampala is now dirty you can’t walk at night especially ladies. If you want to walk, you should not have ornaments, watches, rings and jewellery on you, even if you lock your cars, they will still rob you.
Selects a song from the Beatles.
Fast forward, when a decree is released that all people like you were to get out of the country, how did you first of all receive the news?
I was in the cinema that day and when we came out everyone was asking if we had heard the news. So there was news at eight o’clock, that Amin had announced that all Asians or foreigners should leave.
At that time Amin had not announced that also Ugandans of Asian origin should leave. That was announced later, that people like me who were born in Uganda but of Asian parents should also leave.
Did your father, the original Tailor, flee the country?
My father, mother, and younger brother left Uganda within those three [months].
How did you people receive the news after being here for many years and that in ninety days you had to abandon everything?
When Amin first announced, people didn’t take him seriously for the first 15 days. And then he announced that he was going to build camps in Moroto and we all had to go there. That’s when they took him seriously because Moroto is a dry area and so people preferred leaving the country to dying in Moroto.
In 1962 at Uganda’s independence, under Obote’s government, there was a chance to surrender your old citizenship if you wanted to be a Ugandan citizen. My father had a British passport, so he surrendered it for Uganda’s citizenship. Now they removed forty thousand Asians, we became citizens, when Amin said even if you had become citizens, we came into panic.
We were not Ugandan, not British and neither Indians, so where would we go? We went to the British embassy at that time because my father had a British passport. The embassy rejected us, saying we had cancelled the citizenship of Britain. We were going to be refugees in Britain, so we were told to report to UN agencies.
There was a provision to cancel the Ugandan citizenship so we passed through the immigrations officer for this. Since my mother had her British passport, they allowed them to go. The children who were above 21 years could not be taken. I would have gone if I wanted to but I did not go. My brother was born here, brought up here. He went to the UN agencies, he had to go as a refugee. I stayed in Uganda.
The reason I did not go is I had a small house and I had people coming from upcountry who would stay in my house. Even the people I did not know would say there is a man called Tailor who is hospitable no matter what. If you were coming from upcountry, you would not have money for hotel.
So, I used to accommodate about fifty people for free. If you wanted to leave the country, I used to offer cars. If you used a car, you would leave the money. I had about 65 cars. Now, with all those assets I had, I gave people free tickets and passports… I helped many people within ninety days to leave.
My main reason for remaining behind was because I did not have a problem with the Amin government at all. The person who was driving taxis became head of security, who was in Bombo and I had lived in Bombo.
My brother used to work with Amin’s brother, so I was okay with that government. They also used to provide me with some security if I wanted but I would reject it since I was everyone’s friend. Amin’s security was the best, even if you had not locked your car, no one would tamper with it. That time, they used the sharia law, in case they catch you, they would just shoot you.
During that time I left and started working with Tilda rice. I decided before 1972, that I should go and make my own business. I had booked a place in Buganda Bus park we used to call it the thieves’ area.
You could buy anything and sell anything there. Even today, all stolen goods are sold there. Then I had got a shop there and I was selling buloddo, the sugarcane goods we make waragi from. Then it was the best business. But then [came the announcement] and we could only do little. I then left in 1973.
What exactly triggered you into leaving?
No, we were actually 20 friends with Kakooza he was my manager with Kibuka-Musoke. We then decided to go and meet our parents. In January 1973, we got tickets to London. We went to the airport without visas. So they detained us for 42 days in the UK.
At that time it was not a big issue to leave Uganda without a visa. We were interrogated and we told them that we had come to meet our parents. When they interviewed the parents, they said we were coming to stay with them. They said I would be arrested but under the UN, any Ugandan Asian who left the country would be welcomed in any country as a refugee and there are certain things you were to follow, for us we ended up in a detention centre for refugees who went. We were about 200 Ugandans who went.
After forty-two days, my passport was retained by them and we were rejected. We asked for our passports in regard to going back to Uganda because Amin’s decree was that if you were a Ugandan, they allowed you 110 pounds and 25 kilogrammes of personal effects. I wanted to come with my brother who was in Malta as a refugee.
In Amin’s time, lots of families were split, like my family my elder brother was in Canada, my sister was in Tanzania, so I lost my brother because he stayed in Canada. Now, when I went with a passport, I never knew that Bazungus are thieves. I went to photocopy my passport, father’s and my mother’s. By the time I went to register the passport, I found they had been stolen.
I couldn’t walk in Britain, or even be free. At that time they used to give the refugees five pounds per week for upkeep. At that time salary was something like twelve pounds, those were the good old days.
When the war was done, during , I used to contact Husain Rafiky and Karim. The problem was you can receive the post but you cannot write back. So these could not respond back and the telephones were not that good. So I came back in 1980. I came on my own. Karim and Karia stayed behind, they had their businesses running and they had no problem at all with the security. Life was not easy during Amin’s time but some of the people enjoyed it because they had no choice about it.
Selects Coward Of The County-Kenny Rogers. In hindsight, he should not have left Uganda, he cowardised and left, an apt song reminiscent of the times.
Rajni, you return to Uganda in 1980 – after living a fairly good life in Europe – how did you cope with coming back?
It was a nice experience. When I arrived at the airport, some of the people knew me as though I was a celebrity. They knew my nickname as Raju, some people knew Tailor. It was late and I had to get home early.
Where were you going to sleep that night?
In Industrial area there was Kanjokya street the place was deserted as we drew to Kampala.
Were you still a bachelor at this time?
No I got married in 1976 in the UK. What happened is I met my wife in 1975 in a cinema. Somebody told them that I was a good boy and I came from a good family. My parents had to meet up together and negotiate and then they said the boy is good and he is a good leader by then of our community. We married in 1976 when my father had passed away.
We had got engaged when he was around. He wanted to see me get married because he knew me as a naughty boy. She was ex-Indian and the parents were sceptical about me being in Uganda because I had expressed my concern for staying in Uganda. My first born was in 1979, the first time I arrived here, the first born was very young.
I insisted that we would make Uganda our home. When we came to Uganda, we met Karim, and we started together with Abby Lutaaya and we planned on reviving the sports community, Indian women, and also the Indian association, which was registered in 1922.
So we revived all these when we came back in 1982. The best restaurant was Sardinia on Dewinton, and every Saturday we used to eat from 1pm to 6pm.
Fast forward, you come back in Uganda and we see you a minister in Buganda, how did you meet the Kabaka?
The Sabasajja had relations with my father. In 1993 when he was put back on the throne, I was one of the people who arranged his coronation. That was the first rally we made in Lubiri and we collected more than seventy million.
So I stayed around for four more years and the Baganda considered me a Muganda so I was approached to be on the cabinet in 2005 by some Sabasajja’s elders. I told them I could not work well but recommended Sudhir, Karim they rejected them and wanted me only. So I approached Owekitiibwa Taban, who was born in Masaka, to be my vice.
I told the elders that ‘I only become a minister if Taban is my vice’. During my tenure as minister, we did research especially over the Buganda Land Board your land is now secure and the structures for that are firm. We have helped the needy, I was also chairman treasury board and we still do many aancements in the kingdom.
If you were approached for a Central government post, would you take it up?
I would not be legible because of my education qualification. I was LC for fifteen years.
If we rehabilitated your education, and gave you a post, would you consider going into active politics?
Yes, I had told President Museveni to consider Asians into the cabinet like long ago was the case. For example, Patel was the first speaker of the parliament.
How does your family feel about being in Uganda after many years now?
My family is Ugandan and it’s the country where interest for development should be put.
Do you have interest in agro-based industries?
Yes, I’m pushing many people to get into this.
What business are you involved in?
I started up my own business in 1980, I started in tiles, I am also in real estate. I am also the chairman for the petroleum dealers, my dream is that I go back to agro industry. I have land in Wobulenzi which I want to develop.
What or who would you want to carry with you if you were marooned to a desert island?
I would take with me my family because if I am alone, the world will not matter.
Selects a song by Elvis Presley: he loved his expertise at dancing and dressing.
Source : The Observer