Diminished Expat Nationalisms

I settle down at a table in Shadows Restaurant overlooking Mukwano Plaza in Old Kampala. Mukwano Industries seems to own this city, the buildings that compose it, the chairs it sits on, the sugar it stirs into its tea, and oh, the tea too. It comes as no surprise that its CEO, Tony Gadhoke, is of Indian descent.

Looking over the menu, its as if my mom is in the kitchen. Chapati, biryani, palau, chicken korma, goat curry, this is my dinner table an ocean apart. The influence is undeniable, made all the more so by the man who comes to take my order. Well, to be specific, he is Pakistani, but here? No one cares.

Or at least that’s how Syed Shah, who, as luck would have it, was once a trader in Juba, sees it. “Here, there’s no India, no Pakistan,” he tells me, drawing up another seat. And that’s exactly what he told the Indian embassy official that had the audacity to ask for his papers in Juba on December 15, 2013.

They had been holed up in the plaza of the Panorama Hotel for two days by then. The bodies were piling up outside and there was no more money to pay off the militias roving the streets outside. It had already taken $20,000 paid to some soldiers to get the group across town to the hotel. The 6 Indians and Syed had been shaken down three time already. Syed had been manning the door day and night, all the while seeing what strings he could pull with his friends at the UN and National Security Office.

Now this Indian officer had the sheer temerity to ask for Syed’s papers. He shouted the officer down. There’s a war outside. There’s no India, no Pakistan here.

A few hours and $600 later, Syed flew to Uganda aboard a plane commissioned by the Indian embassy. He returned to Juba in less than a month. “Contracts are contracts. Someone’s got to fill the order.”

Those days of violence that Syed was lucky to escape descended the world’s newest nation of South Sudan into 2 years of civil war. Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir were turned loose on the capital city of Juba after a political split with his Vice-President over electoral reform and an alleged (unfounded) coup gave Kiir pretense to launch the attack he had been planning for months to solidify his tenuous hold on the South Sudanese government. Over the next 3 days, 20,000 were killed in heated ethnic tensions between Kiir’s Dinka loyalists and Riek’s Nuer ethnicity. Riek escaped Juba with his life and traveled north to set up base camp from where the war was waged for the following 19 months. Despite a peace deal signed in August 2015, violence continues to envelop the country and Riek’s return to Juba last month to form a unity government has done little to assuage the fears of citizens and observers alike.

But to Shah, as he has said before, politics are not his concern. He began life in northern Pakistan, right near the Afghan border before being sent away to Karachi for schooling. The son of a chef, it was only natural that he would find his way into the restaurant business.

Starting off selling paan, a chewable stuffed tobacco leaf, at a local restaurant he worked his way up until he managed the whole place. From there, he and a group of friends created a restaurant management consulting group that would help businessmen open new establishments. When prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a bombing in TKTK, he knew he couldn’t stay in Pakistan much longer. The subsequent leftist military regime sapped Shah of his will to remain in the uncertain future of Pakistan. He took up a friends offer to come to Kampala, Uganda in 2006. He ran the same racket in the former ‘Pearl of Africa’ before taking up another opportunity to run a restaurant in Juba, South Sudan in mid-2013.

But as he would find out, the evil he knew was not always worse than the evil he did not.

His friend had abandoned him at the last minute and Shah found himself alone in the capital city, no contacts, no prospects. But Shah, always the hustler, found himself a job with India’s Reliance Industries, a subsidiary of Tata Group, to help establish the security and networking systems of South Sudan’s banks. This were looking up, even better when he landed a job with Fontana Auto Parts supplying spare parts to the UN.

Then the war hit and Shah found himself shouting down an Indian official to get a ride out of the country.

Shah has since settled down, the bloodshed and risks of the road becoming too much for him to bear. Now he owns this restaurant in Old Kampala with his wife where he whips up south Asian dishes and regales anyone who will listen with stories of playing soccer for the army, riding horseback to the Afgahn border, and surviving the December 2013 ethnic cleansing of Juba.

Rajiv Golla is a T’17 Alum.

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