By Selma Carvalho
Tina Athaide was born in Uganda, and left as a young child with her family for London. They escaped the grim Idi Ami expulsions but were faced with its repercussions as refugees by way of family and friends sheltered in their London house. The family then re-emigrated to Canada. Her book Orange for the Sunsets (HarperCollins, 2019), introduces the story of the Asian expulsion to Middle Graders across the north American continent. Here in conversation with Selma Carvalho, Athaide talks about her family, and her memories of growing up in Uganda, London and Canada.
Selma Carvalho: Tina, thank you so much for taking time to do this interview. Your book, Orange for the Sunsets was of particular interest to me. Between 2011-2014, I headed the Oral Histories of British-Goans project funded by the heritage sector and now archived at the British Library, Kings Cross, which recorded the histories of East African Goans who left Africa in the wake of its decolonisation. The central theme of your novel is the Asian expulsion from Uganda. Can you start by telling us a little about your own childhood in Uganda, specifically vivid memories you may recall?
Tina Athaide: Hello Selma, and thank you for this opportunity to share a little background that inspired my book, Orange For The Sunsets.
You noted that the central theme of Orange For The Sunsets is the Asian expulsion from Uganda. In recent years, Goans and other Indian connections to Africa have become a “hot topic.” I think it is critical to preserve these stories in some form for future generations. The collection of British Goan oral histories you compiled is a valuable resource. Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario recently set up the Uganda Collection. (You can read more about it here.) Apart from the British-Goans project, there is very little historical information specific to Goan Indians.
It was important I capture this period of history that showed the community, the Goan people had nurtured through the years with connections from Goa carried over generations in Uganda — a community with layers of support and friendship that would stand the test of time as families found themselves displaced on different continents.
My parents were living in Entebbe when I was born in 1966. My mother worked as the head nurse at the Grade A hospital and Daddy worked as a civil servant. Our house backed onto the Entebbe Goan Institute. Mum has told stories about holding me up to the kitchen window to call out to Daddy to come home for supper.
We left Uganda when I was four year old, so my memories are more like isolated moments that flash images like an old slide projector: me running to Mum when she got home from the hospital, walking with Daddy in the Botanical Gardens, playing with my dog, Chico, in the garden.
Because of my limited personal experiences, I did extensive research. I interviewed friends and family to get a sense of the day-to-day life in Entebbe, so that I could create an authentic world for Asha, the main character, that represented some of the experiences of our Goan community. I made it a priority to interview Ugandan and Kenyan Africans so their experiences would also be fairly represented.
SC: There are beautiful pictures at the back of the book, which allow us a glimpse of your private life. One of the pictures is that of the Entebbe Institute c. 1951 – the farewell party for ‘PCSC Nazareth’, also featured in my first book Into the Diaspora Wilderness (Goa 1556, 2010), courtesy of the writer Peter Nazareth. The institute played a pivotal role within the Goan community. Tell us when your family first arrived in East Africa, the jobs your grandparents and/or parents held, their social lives, and their eventual displacement from East Africa.
TA: I was thrilled when my publisher agreed to include some family photographs in the back matter of the book. The challenge was narrowing down which photographs to include that would show a glimpse of life in Uganda. Peter Nazareth is a distant cousin related on my Mum’s side of the family with ties to Moira, Goa.
Our ties to Uganda date back to 1927. My grandfather, Anthonio Athaide, was the first family member to move to Entebbe. He worked as an accountant for the Public Works Department and played cricket for the Uganda team. He married Elvina Fernandes in 1931 in Goa. She stayed back at the Athaide family home for another four years before joining Anthonio, in Entebbe, in 1935. They had three children — my father, Charles, Maria Erlina, and Braz Anthonio. They lived in Uganda until 1958, when Anthonio retired from his civil service position. Shortly after, they moved to Mombasa with their youngest son who was eleven at the time.
My maternal grandfather, Moushino DaSilva was born in Moira, Goa in 1897. His older brother, Cyril was already working in Uganda and he sponsored my grandfather, who moved to Entebbe around 1928. He worked as a civil servant, which meant government quarters were provided. He married Olivia Gomes, at the age of 37, while on long leave. They were married at the shrine of St. Francis Xavier, in Old Goa, around 1934 or 1935. They had eight children, including my mother—Margaret. Their oldest daughter, Liesse, attended the Goan Elementary School in Entebbe for a year or two. Then in 1947, Liesse and Margaret, who was six and a half, were enrolled at St. Joseph’s Convent in Belgaum. The rest of the children, with the exception of Tony, schooled in Kampala and Entebbe.
Moushino and Olivia were living in Kampala in a rented flat in 1972, when Idi Amin expelled Asian Indians from Uganda. They had Indian passports and returned to Goa. Their children had already moved to the UK or India.
They were the most directly effected by the expulsion. They lost all of their possessions and fled with just a few pieces of clothing. They attempted to ship some belongings to Goa, but later learned that what they had packed was held up at the docks in Mombasa and eventually looted or damaged. My mum and aunt sent their parents some basic items from England to help them get started again in Goa.
My father, Charles Athaide was born in Entebbe in 1935. He was sent to India for his schooling, but returned to Entebbe when he finished and began work as a civil servant. He was very involved in the Goan Institute both in Kampala and Entebbe, and then later when we moved to Edmonton, Canada. My mum Margaret received a scholarship to study nursing in London and returned to Entebbe in 1964. They married in August 1965.
The Goan Institute was more than just a place for dances, sporting events, and other social gatherings. It was like an ancient Banyan tree with roots running deep through generations, connecting families and friends through the years. Daddy helped organize events, participate on committees, and joined sporting events. Later when our family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, he and my uncle, Eugene Saldanha, recognized that the families that had immigrated to a country so different from what they knew, needed something familiar and they helped found the Edmonton Goan Association. The majority of these families had been displaced from Uganda.
SC: Tucked into our lives are stories we retrieve to write fiction. But this book is not of your own experience. What was the genesis of this book, and how did you gather material?
TA: While I don’t have first hand personal experience, I do have close connections to the expulsion of Asian Indians from Uganda. It was from those experiences that a seed was planted, and from there the idea grew over several years. Some of my earliest memories are those of family and friends arriving on our doorstep in London after leaving Uganda. They’d stay with us for a few weeks, some a few months, before moving on.
In Orange For The Sunsets, I mentioned my father’s cousin, Phina Rodriquez, in the back matter. I especially remember her and her three children arriving, staying with us for several weeks. Her husband, Edmond, didn’t have an entry visa for the UK, so he couldn’t accompany her and instead went to Canada. Eventually, Aunty Phina and my cousins joined him.
Later, in my early teens, we attended a Ugandan reunion in Vancouver. I was moved by how the community’s joys, hopes, and resilience empowered them to rebuild their lives in different countries across the world, and I was aware that this story was at risk of getting lost. It needed to be told.
After graduating from the University of Alberta and moving to the US to teach, I was surprised that nobody had heard about this period in history. An even greater concern was the lack of diversity in children’s’ books in the school and public libraries. This Middle Grade (MG) book was still a few years away, but I started by writing early readers for the educational market which featured diverse characters, specifically Asian Indian. These books are published by Lee and Low and are used in schools.
I finally turned my attention to the seed that had been waiting patiently. I started by writing a picture book, but an editor at Lee and Low saw the richness of the story and asked me to outline the story as a MG book.
I started by gathering archived global news reports from a six-month period that covered the months prior to the expulsion order and a few months following. Then I spoke to family and friends, gathering first hand oral stories. Originally the book was written from Asha’s point of view, but an editor who read an early draft and passed on the project, planted the seed of expanding the story to give Yesofu a voice. To make sure that Yesofu’s experiences were authentic, I interviewed African Ugandans and Kenyans so he had his own voice, separate from Asha.
It means a lot to finally have this story out in the world and to have all aged readers join Asha and Yesofu on their journey.
SC: The story opens with the shared experiences of young Asha and Yesofu. She is of Indian origin and he is of the Baganda tribe. These two intertwined lives will encounter a series of twists and betrayals which make them question their place in the world. Eventually, racial identities triumph over shared experience as an unifying factor. After leaving Uganda, you spent some time in London and then emigrated to Canada. What has been your experience of diversity in England and Canada?
TA: When you compare Canada and England today to when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the similarities are far and few. Today, children live in a more diverse world, and there is a greater level of acceptance than what I experienced.
My memories of London are through the lens of my parents, as well as my own experiences as a child. I know that we had a very difficult time finding a rental to live. Dad had spoken to the owner on the phone and everything was arranged, but when he showed up in person, he was told that they wouldn’t let the flat to an Indian family. We did find a flat to let and then eventually bought a house in Tooting. Our neighbour was another Goan family and we had other known families in the area, so I never felt different or that I didn’t fit in. I had British friends at my primary school and the question of my own racial identity wasn’t an issue.
When we moved to Canada, we settled in Edmonton. In the early 1980s, the majority of Goans and other Indians had emigrated and settled in Vancouver and Toronto. Edmonton had a very small population of people of colour. We bought a house in the suburbs and that is when everything changed.
We were the only family of colour in the city. I remember other kids yelling, “Go home Paki!” and being taunted for no other reason than being brown. My middle school had a cheer-leading team, and my father was told that I couldn’t join because I would make the team look uneven, being the only brown person on the team. This is the first time I really understood that being a girl of colour made me different and that difference effected how I was accepted. My escape was books, but quite honestly there were no characters in books that mirrored my own experiences — Anne of Green Gables and I had nothing in common. As a teen there is nothing more important than “fitting in” and wanting to be accepted by your peers, so I did question my racial identity. Would I have to change and pretend not to be so Indian to fit in?
Even today when western countries have greater diversity, I still get asked the dreaded question: Where are you from? That question alone is exclusionary because it implies that you are not from here or that you are different. It makes you question your racial identity.
SC: There is one thing that puzzled me about the book. The central family all have Hindu Indian names, and the sparse clues provided to the ethnicity include hearing stories of Krishnan and wearing a sari. Yet their surname is Gomez (with a z), which would typically signify a Goan family. The Goan community of that era were staunchly rooted in their Catholicism and were largely disengaged from their Indian roots. Was this a conscious choice and was there a reason behind it?
TA: Selma, I am so impressed that you picked up on this variance. Something that has always struck me as unusual, and quite honestly bothered me, is how the different Asian Indian communities discriminate against one another based on religious views and social activities, and how those stereotypes are perpetuated even today. I remember at University being openly ignored by other Asian Indian students. When I wrote this book, I wanted to remain true to the Goan culture while still acknowledging other Indian communities, which is why I gave them Hindu Indian names with a Goan surname. I wrote about them going to mass, but also weaved in stories of Krishnan. It was important that this story wasn’t only about the Goan experience, but that it also acknowledged other Indian communities.
SC: What is your next writing project?
TA: I am excited to share that I have a picture book coming out with Page Street Books with a tentative schedule of Fall 2021. This story takes place in India and draws from my own memories of visiting my Grandfather and our walks to the park, market, and seaside.
As a fellow writer, I am sure you understand when I say that I have ideas simmering like a delicious curry. I am considering another MG book told from the point of view of a secondary character from Orange From The Sunsets. This story would focus on what happened after their displacement from Uganda.