Not for nothing was Idi Amin known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda’. His brutal, despotic rule of the African state in the 1970s led to the death, torture and imprisonment of up to half a million. One family forced to flee were the Samanis – mum, dad, and seven children. They’d end up in Leek. Never having forgotten the welcome they received, they’ve called it home for the past 40 years, as brothers Prakash and Umesh tell John Woodhouse of The Sentinel
I WENT back to Uganda eight years ago when I was 50,” reflects Prakash Samani. “I wanted to show my kids their roots. I went to my old primary school – it’s been destroyed. I went to the house I lived in. I felt sorry, really sorry. It was very emotional, because that’s where the happy days were with my parents and everybody. “It’s funny,” he adds, “because you have your children and nephews and nieces saying ‘which was your bedroom?’. And these were two-room houses virtually – a totally different culture.” Imagine coming from that ‘totally different culture’, to Leek. From the mid-African heat to the Staffordshire winter. A place where you might work on a sugar plantation to one of crumbling Victorian mills. The Pearl of Africa to the Queen of the Moorlands.
Prakash was 18 when he, brother Umesh, 10, and their five sisters, the youngest aged two, were forced to leave their country behind. Having seized power in a military coup in 1971, a year later Amin ordered all Asians – many of whom had come to Uganda in days of Empire to help build the railways – to leave. The ramifications if they refused didn’t bear thinking about. “He kept showing the concentration camps,” recalls Prakash, “like what happened with the Jews.” “The clock was set ticking. “We were given 90 days,” says Prakash. “Initially we thought he didn’t mean it. So the first month nobody did anything.”
“I suppose,” adds Umesh, “none of us wanted to believe what was going on.” “And then,” continues Prakash, “they put a multi-billionaire in prison, an Asian guy, and people thought ‘if they can do that to him what chance have we got?’.” The deadline (a chilling term in this case) expired on November 8. “We arrived here,” says Prakash, “on November 5.” They had nought more than the clothes on their back. ‘Here’, initially, was the somewhat unglamorous surroundings of a former army camp near Eccleshall. “When we arrived at Stansted airport we were greeted, put on a coach, and put on the motorway. We were like ‘what ’s happening?’. “It was going dark at three in the afternoon – we were not used to any of it. After three or four hours, we came off the motorway and were taken to Eccleshall, told ‘that’s the accommodation’.”
Considering nobody knew who we were, we were welcomed with open arms. I can remember the first Christmas purely because of the amount of presents we received. We used to get 2-300 cards
“The thing I remember about the camp,” adds Umesh, “is queuing up for the clothes and the food. ‘Try that jacket, try that shir t’.” “They literally looked after us,” says Prakash. While mum Prasanbala had travelled with them, dad Pyarelal didn’t have the necessary documents and was sent to a United Nations centre in Austria as a stateless person. It would be several months before the wheels of bureaucracy allowed him to be reunited with his family. As the eldest child, Prakash knew it was down to him to become the breadwinner. “I’d never worked before,” he says. “I was a fulltime student. I said ‘right, I’ll take a job’. They sent me from Eccleshall for an interview at a pottery at Baddeley Green. “It was a big journey when you don’t know anything about the country,” he laughs. “I changed three buses and got there about three o’clock after setting off at ten in the mor ning. “And when I got there the job had gone.” Thankfully, they offered him a different role, the fact that the factory was on Leek Road prompting those back at the camp to mistakenly think it was in the town. They told Prakash the Moorlands authority was offering accommodation – councils nationally had been asked to help with an influx of 60,000 Ugandan refugees. “They said ‘do you want to go there?’, and I said ‘fine, OK by me’. “I didn’t even know where Leek was. So one Saturday morning a minibus picked us up from Eccleshall and here we came.”
That Saturday morning, December 9, 1972, is forever etched in their memories. The people of Leek had arranged a welcome second to none. “It was really cold,” recalls Prakash. “The thing I can remember, coming into Leek, is the Monument. “And then we went on to 120 Windsor Drive. And there were councillors waiting there, the WRVS, neighbours, the Round Table, Rotary Club, MP David Knox. “As soon as we got in the house, everybody was trying to settle us in. “There was a fire lit. Everyone was really welcoming – which was just what we needed.” “Considering nobody knew who we were or anything,” adds Umesh, “we were welcomed with open arms. “I can remember the first Christmas there purely because of the amount of presents we received. We used to get 2-300 cards.”
A story had appeared in the Leek Post asking townspeople if they had any spare clothing or cooking utensils, anything to make life comfortable. “Every time we walked into town,” says Umesh, “people would stop and ask if we needed anything. All these people we didn’t even know – people we’d never met or known had gone to all this trouble. It was just phenomenal.” While the council had made several houses available, the Samanis were the only Ugandan family in Leek. “I remember asking if there were any other Ugandan families here,” says Prakash, initially the only one of the family to speak any English, “purely for my mother. They said ‘no’. Any Indian family? ‘No’.” Indeed, it would be two years before they met another Ugandan family, in Stoke-on- Trent, where the local authority had too offered refuge to those fleeing Amin – Prakash estimates there are 40 Ugandan families in the city. Sadly, Prasanbala passed away in 1975. Dad too died early in 1988. “It was very difficult for them,” says Umesh, “because of the language barrier and culture, the weather.” “To us we had no choice,” adds Prakash. “To them they had history behind them.
We literally came with the clothes we were wearing – we were allowed to bring £50 per family but we didn’t bother with that. We didn’t know there was a benefit system – as far as we were concerned, if you wanted something, you worked for it
When Idi Amin said ‘you ’ve got 90 days to leave the country’, my dad said ‘I’m not taking it – he can do what he wants. I’ve been here 40 years – he can kill me – I’m not doing anything ’. “He was very strong-willed. I had to drag him, literally. I had to make sure his documents were ready and everything. Because his attitude was ‘I’m not doing anything – he can do what he wants’.” When Pyarelal died, the family spread its wings.
Four of the Samani sisters now live, successfully, in London, another, Vibha, who lives in Endon, has a successful beauty business in Newcastle. “We ’re still all very close,” says Umesh. “We ’re not in each other’s pockets, but we’re always there for each other.” “Because,” adds Prakash, “when it comes to the crunch the only people you’ve got is your family.”
Umesh, who has his own car sales business in Cobridge, stayed in the Moorlands, now living in Biddulph, while dad-of-two Prakash, who would go on to become managing director of the Leek Post remains in the very street that became home in 1972 – when he got married he bought the house over the road. Prakash assigns the siblings’ success in England to one thing – “if you don’t work, you don’t get”. “We were kicked out of the country,” he says.
“We literally came with the clothes we were wearing – we were allowed to bring £50 per family but we didn’t bother with that. We didn’t know there was a benefit system – as far as we were concerned, if you wanted something, you worked for it.” “My friends in the last years of school had nice clothes, nice shoes,” adds Umesh. “I’d got whatever I’d got and the only way to make a few quid was going round doing people’s gardens. “You can sit there and talk about how things have been tough and whatever, but the thing is you’ve just got to get on with it – to achieve things. “A lot of people, he adds, “say ‘you ’ve been very lucky’. Have we been lucky? You have to work for your luck. Luck doesn’t play a part in it.” Certainly, fleeing for your lives makes you rather more philosophical about the chances you ’ve been given. “The money I was getting when I started out,” says Prakash, “there were friends getting ten times that amount elsewhere.
“My attitude was when you come here with nothing, money is not so important for you. I didn’t come here for the money. I came here with nothing. I’ve got a quid in my pocket so I’m better off. “My children,” he adds, “I try to explain to them that they don’t realise how lucky they are – because they are born here – this is their country – they don’t know any different.” One of Prakash’s sons went to Oxford University after Leek High, the other, also a graduate, is in debt management. Despite the National Front, predictably, expressing outrage that Ugandan families were being offered homes in Britain, prejudice and discrimination was never an issue for the Samanis. “We never heard of discrimination,” says Prakash, aged 58. “In Leek we were the Samanis. I remember some friends visiting and they stopped in the middle of town and got out and said ‘we ’re looking for a family in Windsor Drive, and they said ‘Oh, which one? The newspaper salesman or the car salesman? I’ll take you there’.”
“There were a few comments made at school,” adds Umesh, aged 50, “because kids aren’t used to seeing somebody different. But it’s how you handle it. At the end of the day, this is who I am, this is my colour, and you’ve got to accept me for who I am. Simple as that.” “There was a nurse in our camp,” says Prakash, “and when I told her we’d been offered a house in Leek, she said we might be better to stay at the camp.
“She was Irish and said she’d been in Leek three years before people said ‘hello’. She said ‘Leek is a very funny place – if you’re accepted fine, if not then you have a real problem’. We never found it like that – we were totally accepted.” “It was announced in school assembly that the family had arrived,” adds Umesh, “we were very welcome.” Four decades on and the Samanis remain grateful for the start Leek gave them. To mark the 40th anniversary of their arrival, they placed an advert to such effect in the town’s paper. “We were fortunate enough to have people in Leek help us at that time and the only way to repay them was to put something back into the community,” says Prakash, charity trustee, school governor, involved with Leek Show, and magistrate of 16 years, “because they reached out to us and accepted us as part of the community.”
“I’ve still got this thing about Leek,” adds Umesh. “I love it – because that’s where I’ve grown up most of my life. Most of my friends are from Leek. It’s been good to us. “We never had a thought of moving anywhere,” he adds. Amin ruled Uganda for eight years. Ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, he fled into exile. By then the Samanis were established and settled in Leek. Their future was here – the ‘what ifs’ don’t haunt them. “There’s no way of knowing what would have happened if we’d stayed,” reflects Umesh. Prakash is retired “from paid work!” now. His journey from refugee to esteemed citizen was no better exemplified than by his appointment as a Deputy Lieutenant for the county, an ancient post which involves opening events and welcoming dignitaries. One event, in particular sticks in his mind – when he represented Staffordshire’s Lord Lieutenant at the reopening of the Monument in Leek in 2012. “That was quite a moment,” he says, “remembering that it was the first thing I saw when we arrived in Leek all those years ago. “And there I was, 40 years on.”