Our Special Correspondent Neelima Mahajan-Bansal was born in April 1979 under the shadow of the Ugandan civil war. Her father had been working as a doctor in a government hospital in the capital, Kampala. But as fighting intensified, the family finally decided to follow the advice of the Indian High Commission and fled to Kenya on March 31, days before her birth. They left without any of their belongings, except for a few Kenyan shillings and some travellers’ cheques. Along the way, the family had to escape being attacked by soldiers looking for their next loot. A chemical engineer who worked at a local paper mill run by the Birlas, whom her dad knew, took the family in his home in Webuye, a small town in Kenya. After 12 days there, the family had to head to Nairobi in search of a proper hospital. Neelima was born at the local hospital in Nairobi.
In early May, the family decided to head back to Kampala. Almost all the homes of Asians who had fled Kampala had been looted. But Neelima’s family was lucky. Their neighbour, an African professor at a local university where her mother taught, had shifted all their belongings to his house.
Since then, the civil war became a regular fixture in their lives. From the relative safety of their university campus, gunshots could be heard in a distance. Food shortages were rampant. Especially sugar, salt and milk were rarely available. But the locals would do everything to help the good doctor and his family. Food quotas for expats came in handy too.
For most Asians based in Uganda, this is a familiar story of strife and pain. But three decades later, the situation in Uganda is vastly different. An African professor based there tells her that life is indeed a lot better. The government is working hard to attract foreign investment. Trade is booming. Many of the business families, like the Madhvanis and the Mehtas, who fled Kampala, are back — and are thriving. All the major global banks are there too. Cellphone networks are everywhere. From just one university, Uganda now has nearly 20. Oil has also just been discovered in Eastern Uganda — and drilling could start soon.
Clearly, Uganda and the rest of the African continent are finally on the move. So when our London correspondent Sanjay Suri suggested doing a major story on Indian business in Africa, I jumped at the idea. Sanjay was headed to South Africa and had lined up meetings with a host of Indian businesses and other trade experts. Neelima and a few other colleagues also pitched in from India to capture why Africa is the next big destination for India Inc. P.S- Do read Neelima’s account of those fateful days in Africa and the African professor’s first-person account of the current situation in Uganda.
(This story appears in the 28 August, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)