The Long Journey From Home – India, Africa, Redbridge?

By Kate Smith | 29 April 2005
photo shows family on beach

Khrishnana Dyal and family on the shores of Lake Victoria, Entebbe, 1965

Kate Smith travels to Redbridge in north east London, via Africa and India - all just to see an exhibition!

Inhabitants of Redbridge may feel that that there's a certain bathos in the title of this new exhibition at Redbridge Museum. The north east London borough is not an obvious must-see on any world tourist trail. However, India - Africa - Redbridge, at Redbridge Museum until July 9 2005, describes exactly the journey that many borough residents experienced over the course of decades.

These are East African Indians. Moving from India to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania at the turn of the 20th century, thousands of them helped to build the railways of the British Empire. As well as railway workers, many came as service workers, and gradually a whole Indian culture, consisting of half a million people, settled in Africa.

shows an asian family on the tarmac at Stansead Airport. It's a rainy, windy day and their coats and clothes are blowing in the gale.

A family arriving at Stanstead Airport.

In later years, as the British withdrew from Africa, the Indians were also made to feel less welcome. In Kenya many left the country following Ugandan independence in 1963.

In Uganda, Idi Amin expelled thousands of Indians in August 1972, often taking their possessions and handing them over to his favourites.

Consequently many Indians came to England in the '60s and early '70s, some with only a couple of suitcases, to begin life again in a third country. The exhibition is upfront about the complex interracial situation which began with the British choosing Asians to manage black workers on West African railways, and then, 70 years later, the reaction against Asians in Africa as the Empire retreated.

shows an asian family, the men in shirtsleeves, in a family group photo.

Parmeet Singh, with mum and dad and two brothers in Kenya 1951.

The exhibition interweaves this overarching political history with the personal experiences of East African Indians now living in Redbridge. As well as oral history, many have contributed objects from their time in Africa which came across in the hurried migration.

They range from an enormously heavy-looking corn grinder, to carved decorative animals, to books, pictures and typewriters. Redbridge Museum has arranged many of these objects into miniature rooms to give a instant feel for the lives they left behind.

Curator Gerard Greene says he came across this aspect of Redbridge history by accident when talking to community groups about another project, and gradually realised that a large proportion of the Indian population in the area do not trace their roots directly from India.

He describes the process of putting together the exhibition as being "like journalism" - following the story as one person after another agreed to talk about their life.

East African Indians have spread widely across Britain - especially in other parts of London and in Leicester. After the main exhibition closes, Redbridge Museum will retain an archive of material which they hope will be a lasting reference point for historians and the community.

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