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Thursday, March 3, 2011


They met in Central Kampala, near Kintu Mbiti’s birthplace.  
Sehr Tariq was born in Lahore, but moved to work in Kampala when she was offered a job with a textiles business owned by Akram Tariq, one of her cousins, who was born in Uganda. Her job involved a smattering of secretarial, typing and receptionist duties, along with some accountancy work - all of which she found a frightful bore.
Kintu had been employed by Akram to drive the textiles to and from factories and retailers, before relaying the accounts back to the office. This is how they became personally acquainted.
It was a cosy little three bit operation that thrived for a number of years, until they both started to sense the bad vibes reverberating evermore profoundly, making their stomachs churn faster as time went on. They had considered leaving, wither they knew not, even before the country became overshadowed by an apprehensive atmosphere, which had been cast by a grotesque, larger than life figure - larger at least than most of human life forms to be found frequenting Uganda’s impoverished backstreets, urban slums of Namuwongo and rural dwellings.
On the forth of August 1972, the "dukawallas" (a colloquial epithet for entrepreneurial Asians) were starting to be kicked out by Idi Amin, or God, if you take an Idiot’s word for it (as they privately joked), who had created this tsunami of Indophobia - a term Sehr had always loathed, claiming that she wasn’t even Indian. Kintu decided that he would try to get out as well, being unwilling to part with her. As an unmarried pair, without British passports, they had to make do with West Germany.
Although they didn’t speak any German, both of them found low paid jobs working on the curve of the “blue banana” in the Ruhrgebiet region, living mainly in Dortmund, before vainly hoping for better times in Düsseldorf. They worked in various factories and warehouses that littered the green valley, going where and when they could find work, which was always hard, heavy, smelly, and noisy – on top of all this the hours were long. He was fed up with receiving dirty looks from dirty workers. Meanwhile, she was starting to wish that her parents hadn’t named her Sehr, on account of all the jokes this bred, none of which could she understand until it was finally explained to her by a kindly female shopkeeper that her name meant “very” in German - but at least that was the one word she would never forget.

Looking for other, better, easier jobs proved unsuccessful, but they were starting to burnout. They talked endlessly of moving on, going elsewhere, travelling on to other countries, and no longer restricting themselves to cities nearby, like Düsseldorf - not anymore. Their dreams of leaving did not come from the temptation prompted by anywhere else on earth, but merely the increasingly unwelcome responses they were receiving from the far right corners of their newfound homeland.
Occasionally they found death threats, in poorly written German-English, which had been thrown through the window - or a dog turd, meticulously placed through their letterbox.
“You haven’t been ordering that dog shit again have you Kintu, how many times have I told you now?”
“Sorry love, but now, at long last, I’ve finally completed my faeces species collection.”
They made light of it. They knew this was better than being scared, or trying to do something about it, that would only make things worse, even if they did know who it was. They felt as though it could have been anyone or everyone they had never met there. However, there’s only so much time one can tolerably go on living and working without being driven to act upon the overwhelming desire to escape from worry. Worrying about what will happen next, what will they come home to, will the window fitter rip them off yet again, if he turns up - and if not, will they have to sleep in their freezing cold house with a window missing for the night again? At least all this would make her case more sympathetic when asking Akram for help.
Sehr had been reluctant to ask her cousin for any more favours, but when the desperate prospect of unceasing perspiration and persecution finally dawned upon her, facing up to her squarely and unstintingly as she stared blankly at her reflection in the mirror, she knew that she had to ring him.  

Then was their winter and its discontents
Akram said that he would look into the possibilities, and spoke with immigration, who said they had to make a claim. This was eventually accepted, which enabled them to live and work there, for a time, until a renewal must be made.
Akram asked them to visit him first, where he lived in London, and then he would suggest what they should do next.
Now the coast was clear. After quitting their jobs, and saying goodbye to their one friend, the local German woman at the corner shop, they both left, heading for a relatively receptive, if reluctant, England, to start a new life.
She was pleased about the new opportunity to start again and perhaps make more money, which they would soon need were they to survive much longer.
Akram told them that London was too expensive, even then, but he had some friends who owned a property in a western Town, and were looking for occupants - it was cheap enough for them.
They settled in a boomtown called Swindon. There wasn’t much to do there except pay the rent, but at least you could find a job there to do that, which was not something you could say about many parts of Britain when they arrived during the freezing fag end of 1978, the winter of discontent. For them, however, the economic factor failed to hit them quite as hard as the climatic, freezing cold, northern sea wind chill factor. This was something they’d never experienced before, and never wanted to again. They even considered moving somewhere warmer - anywhere, in other words, they thought at the time. Soberly, they remembered where they came from and why they left. The couple appreciated being two of the luckier ones, realising that many people don’t get the opportunity they had been given. So instead they learnt quickly to grin and bear it, by adopting the British can’t complain attitude - and more importantly, they bought a powerful heater and a thick warm blanket.

They found jobs quickly enough. He worked with all the insecurity that comes with agency temp work. On top of the meagre pay packet that came with this newly procured employment, he was rewarded with the opportunity to involuntarily learn and memorise, more so than any other part of the Town, in more mind numbing detail than either desire or necessity dictated, the entire cold, grey, detached, prosaic urban landscape and topology of, the aptly named, Commercial Road district.
Despite already being the mini metropolis of Northern Wiltshire, there wasn’t much use in Swindon, at that particular time, for the variety of languages he spoke, which included his native tongue, Luganda, and his dominion over the trading talk of Swahili.
She found it difficult at first to find any work, even though she was relatively more educated than Kintu. She also brought three languages with her, Urdu and Arabic, which she found to be of more use than her lover’s. Her multilingualism eventually helped her find a job in a community centre, which served a predominantly Asian subcontinent immigrant population. Thankfully, it was close to where they lived: a small, but cosy, red-bricked terraced house.
In landmark terms, it was between the bus station and the county ground. Cartographically speaking, however, their house was situated in an area North of Fleming Way, which dribbled below a broad neighbourhood. This was closed in at a right angles by Corporation Street, the notorious rouge Manchester Road, and (any driving football fans nightmare) County Road, which led to any drivers worst nightmare - not to mention that of cyclists, pedestrians, pets and unsuspecting stray animals as well, of course I’m referring to - the world’s most famous, and only,  magic roundabout.

When Sehr started teaching some local women English, she found that - even though they had lived there for years, if not decades - some of them barely spoke a word. This was a challenge, but with a little help from the rest of the class, she eventually made some slow progress. She also knew enough Arabic to teach other Muslim women from a variety of different countries. Even though the class was open, in theory, to men, they never turned up, preferring to be taught by other men at colleges, or privately. Sometimes there was a problem when the women were from India or Bangladesh, not only because of the geopolitical tectonics - which the couple never had much influence on anyway - but also for more cultural and personal reasons. The students thought less of Sehr for having moved to Uganda in the first place, a sentiment shared by some Pakistani women as well, but when they found out she was actually living with a Ugandan, they were somewhat shocked. However, at least this made the lessons a little more exciting than phrasal verbs. There’s nothing like a bit of gossip to get even the most silent sari adorned southern Asian woman’s tongue wagging like a post-coital panting pouch. Moreover, she encouraged it, she told them:
“As long as it’s in English and directed to my face, I don’t care what you say about me.”
Slyly, she knew such an invitation to indulge would quieten the rumours more than asking, or demanding, them to stop talking about it.
However, Sehr did refrain from making it public when she became pregnant out of wedlock. When the bulge could no longer be hidden underneath endless lengths of attire and cloth, she decided it was time for maternity leave. She worried about what would happen to the child when it was born. They had a playgroup at the centre, some of the time, but she was reluctant to let the class find out about her babe in arms. She spoke with Kintu when she got home, and decided that they should get married - as quickly and as secretly as possible.
They hoped this marriage might make things easier for them financially, as they had never been rich, and they may well need help with money in the future. He had certainly never been well off, and the reason she went to Africa was to work - this is never the healthiest sign of economic fortune. The problem they found hardest to deal with was the social stigma, which followed from just being who they were. The couple found they now had many more to deal with. The ones they had brought with them, plus their newest additions. These were placed upon their shoulders after their arrival, by the minds of others.
It may lessen their stigmas, by ridding of at least one of them, but stigma is such that it becomes like the Lernaean Hydra. As soon as you chop the most pernicious and visible head off at any one moment, another one starts to attack you just as quickly, until the one you chopped of swiftly grows back to attack you again. That’s if you’re lucky. Else, they all strike in unison, devouring you alive while struggling helplessly underneath the bulky weight of its body. 
Sadly, despite their Herculean efforts, they could not quite match the efforts and divine heroics of Heracles’ and his nephew Lolaos.

On account of some minor, if frightening and insulting, abuse received in various Parks they had visited in the Town - as well as, oddly enough, most other parts of the provincial Town beginning with the letter P - they preferred not to stray, in solitude, too far outside of their comparably cosmopolitan region encircling the community centre. Only so many times could she be subjected to the P-word once a day. She mused:
“At least it makes a change from the D-word.”
They laughed.
When they had first arrived, they found the sense of humour too dark for their taste, but they had soon come to find use for it. Sometimes it’s more efficacious to fight fire with fire than with something wet, like water.
Not to imply that Swindon is the most racist place on earth, far from it. They could have been worse off, in a big city or countless other grim Towns up North, especially when the riots really kicked off in 1981, the spring and summer of our discontent. But they had to deal with the people around them, as we all, unfortunately, must do.