SOAS History Blog Podcast, Ep 5: Family Histories of Migration
CW: extensive discussion of expulsion; discussion of legacies of trauma; brief mentions of miscarriage and abuse
More about this episode
Saffa is an interdisciplinary researcher and recent SOAS graduate in History and African Studies.
Tara is a History graduate and also recently completed an MA in Songwriting at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance.
Samples of music in this podcast have been for research and academic discussion, or are free use tracks.
Introduction (Ellan): This is the SOAS History Blog podcast. In this episode, we bring you highlights from our recent SOAS History Blog event, ‘Family Histories of Migration’, held in February 2022 on the SOAS campus. Our guest speakers were SOAS History students and graduates Tara Bhat, Azeem Rajulawalla, and Saffa Khalil – who joined us via Zoom from Amsterdam. The session was jointly chaired by Dr. Roy Fischel of the SOAS History Department, and myself, Ellan Lincoln-Hyde as senior Blog editor. We begin with a brief introduction of the speakers and their prize winning works by Dr. Fischel.
Intro: El Bambi by Sharhabil Ahmed and his band
Roy: Tonight’s evening – it’s a very exciting evening. We are basically here to celebrate some wonderful work that was done by our undergraduate students. All three presenters are going to talk about output from a research project – second and final year – that they have done with us with the History Department, in which they explore their own family histories, or stories related to their own family histories, in a variety of media and in different ways of engagement. Let me introduce the three speakers. The first will be Saffa Khalil. In her dissertation, ‘Can we hear the past? An Analysis of Sudanese History’ – in the nineteenth and well into the early twenty-first century. Saffa investigates the history of Sudan through music, considering its influence in shaping the past and present. Our second speaker, Tara Bhat, presents a really impressive result of her second year research project. The project discusses the contribution of women’s work to the history of South Asian migration in Kenya. Our third speaker, who was the Walter Rodney Prize winner for 2019, is Azeem Rajulawalla. Azeem’s final year project on the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 under the Idi Amin regime consists of a 45 minute documentary as well as a paper. The story is told through the reminiscences of members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, whose voiceovers make up the soundtrack to a film consisting of montage of still photographs and some stack newsreel footage. So, without further ado, I think that it’s time for our speakers. So, Saffa…
Saffa: Of course. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. Really appreciate it. So, as Roy has mentioned, my dissertation focused on how music can shape Sudanese history and how we can use music to our advantage to understand Sudanese history. So I really started this project off by, I guess, just trying to understand what Sudanese music means to me. I’ve always grown up with Sudanese music around. My parents used to play it, I used to hate it. But I think when the revolution of 2018 happened, that’s when I started to realize the importance of Sudanese songs and the political messages that they carry, and also the interpersonal relationships that these songs have with various different people. So while I was thinking about potentially doing a dissertation, because I didn’t necessarily have to do one, I think it kind of dawned upon me and I got more and more intrigued about what Sudanese music meant to me. And how it can help me relate to my history, but also can help other people have a better understanding or view of Sudanese history. So after that, I decided to kind of embark on researching and looking into Sudanese music more extensively. And that is when I found that Sudanese music really truly – other than just sounding amazing and great – it is really just such a gem in terms of like, being able to articulate certain messages and give people a platform that generally wouldn’t have had a platform. Even throughout the history of Sudanese music, we can tell that it’s really been brought about, like, the most marching life in society. Sudanese music, or Sudanese popular music, really starts off with the introduction of military brass bands in colonial Sudan. So it’s English arriving within Sudan, Sudanese music or Sudanese popular music, I should say, starts being formatted more into something that we could call a genre, rather than just being folk music from all over the different ethnic groups that reside within Sudan. So once that starts happening, what we can see is that ex-slaves within Sudan would join the military and would become trained to do classical music, or what would later become Sudanese popular music. So from the moment Sudanese music kind of becomes an actual thing in terms of like, recognizable as a genre as popular music, we can see that some of the most marginalized, such as ex-enslaved people, start to really dominate the scene. And later on, as you can see with women’s worlds as well, we see that again, the most marginalized women that often sing a genre which is called aghani banat, which translates to ‘women’s songs’. And then we can see how even their songs will later influence what we understand as popular music in Sudan. So I got really excited and interested by that aspect of Sudanese music and how, even though Sudanese music kind of tells us the story of Sudan in terms of like, its history, it also tells us a lot of its wrongdoing and a lot of ways in which I kind of wanted to negate people’s impact or people’s contribution to the music scene. So while I was doing my research, I noticed that there isn’t actually a lot written on Sudanese music in English. A lot of the resources that are available are written in Arabic, but they’re not necessarily accessible to the majority of people, including myself. Although I Sudanese, I do not actually read and write Arabic as well as I probably would have wanted. So I really started to rely on discussing and talking to my family members about what Sudanese music meant, how it located itself, and the stories behind some of these amazing great, songs.
Song 1: The Anthem of Independence by Mohammed Wardi
Saffa: So even in a song such as this, which is sung by Mohammed Bardi – who is a really great artist and he really conveys so much emotion within his song that is clearly about the Independence Day. Sudan became the fourth nation in Africa to gain its independence, and you could sense the sense of pride he has while he’s singing, he’s kind of gathering people to rejoice and like, the freedom that Sudan has finally got to – So I think even within like, a short 25 seconds of hearing that song, we can know so much about like, the interpersonal moments that Sudanese people must have felt while listening or whilst, kind of, receiving independence, if you will. And throughout the song, he also makes reference to some historical moments that have happened in Sudan that are very, really big in terms of shaping its history. So he references the Battle of Omdurman and the Siege of Khartoum as well. So the next song relates more to my personal and my family’s history. While I was talking to my parents about, what was the political square like? or what was the cultural relevance like back when you were growing up? – conversations that I don’t think I would have had if I didn’t have had if the opportunity to write this piece – my dad referenced this song and said that the ‘70s, when he was growing up, were like the song.
Song 2: El Bambi by Sharhabil Ahmed and his band
Saffa: So essentially in the song, he’s just singing about a person who’s dressed in pink for – the non-Arabic-speakers there – is dressed in pink, and he’s just having the most amazing time, and he’s just dancing and having a great time, and he’s just kind of uplifting him. But to hear my parents’ stories and be able to put a sound to it allowed me to really understand how personal these moments are and how important they are in terms of writing history. So when I was writing my dissertation, it was really because of these moments that have shaped me into understanding my heritage, but also how they could connect back to the larger picture of what political movements and social-cultural history are in Sudan that I kind of started this journey. That will hopefully continue while fighting my MA. That was my presentation!
Interlude 1: Slice of Sun by Ketsa
Tara: Shall I, put the microphone on, or is that a bit extra?
Ellan: Nah, do it!
Tara: So my project was, ‘In what ways has the labour of working class Indian women who migrated on mass Kenya in the 1950s been historically erased and undervalued?’ I’m kind of like, going to take a vein out of Saffa’s book and talk about where the kind of inspiration behind the topic came from. Growing up – my mom has six sisters and two brothers – and so there was always a lot of conversation around family history. And I had like, a lot of aunties who weren’t necessarily academically trained or formally educated, but were very interested in oral history and passing down these traditions and interested in like, documenting and preserving these histories. And so I had like, a lot of conversation growing up about what it was like, life was like, in Kenya before they migrated to Britain in 1969. So they spent ‘50s and much of ‘60s tin Kenya, which is where my grandmother travelled when she was around 18 and pregnant with her first child. And through, well, she travelled there because my grandfather was helping with building British Army barracks there, so set up a family there. And this wasn’t uncommon for a lot of North Indian people at the time because of empire created this kind of like, global network of migration and travel. And, so yeah, Indians were intended to work as labourers in British East Africa, so they were modernizing and building infrastructure in this new territory. And at first, most Indian migrants were men, as I spoke about building army barracks, building buildings, constructing, you know, kind of things that the British Empire would need to thrive in Kenya. But then soon after, many of their wives followed because it was just the social norm for people to get married quite young and then be with their partner forever – essentially a divorce wasn’t really a thing. And so many of these women migrated over to Kenya or Uganda in different parts of East Africa to join their husbands. And so the thesis of this like, piece was that the Indian women who migrated were actually the backbone of the South Asian diaspora living in Kenya at the time. However, they are rarely recognized or credited in the historical archive for their labour. So I kind of started looking at this idea of the gap in the archive. And what I found is that there wasn’t actually a lot of secondary work on this kind of topic and especially relating – well, I found some stuff on South Asian diaspora in Kenya, I found some stuff on South Asian diaspora in East Africa in general – but I found that a lot of these narratives were kind of a negotiation of masculinity. So oftentimes when talking about colonialism, you have these, this idea of two masculinities kind of facing off of both the colonizer and the colonized. But there’s never much discourse around women in empire and especially lay women, meaning women who aren’t involved with government, women of like a working class status. So these kind of narratives of these working class women had been buried by the mainstream masculine narrative of colonialism on the African continent. So these women were integral to the survival of their diaspora community, but they’re not recognized by the archive because the emotional labour that they contributed and the kind of like, domestic labour that they contributed is not necessarily something that would be recorded in colonial archives because these archives are mainly comprised of government documents, these kind of like, masculine spaces. And so I decided to do a lot of my work on oral histories and interviews. I had to basically map out a kind of methodology that I would follow when doing these interviews. So I had to do my primary research – so essentially kind of looking at what I already knew on the topic and what other people had said on the topic, which was limited. And then when I was conducting these interviews, like Roy mentioned before, it was during the first lockdown. And of course, like, a lot of the people I wanted to interview are older people who are shielding and things like that, and yeah, nobody could visit anybody so that was really difficult. So I had to do a lot of it over Zoom, which was challenging because my grandma is like 96 years old, so she didn’t really quite grasp the concept of the video call, so that was like, a struggle. And then it was hard to do these things that I wanted to do – I wanted to kind of like, let this conversation flow and ask these open ended questions and do all these things that you have to do when you’re collecting these oral histories, and wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do when you have internet problems, and then also my grandma’s hard of hearing, so you can imagine it was kind of like a funny situation. But we got there in the end and I found out a lot about her that I kind of consolidated knowledge I already had, but then also learnt a lot of new things. So there was kind of this idea that like, these Indian women were undertaking domestically, but that was like a conception that I had before researching. But then I also kind of learnt through speaking to my grandmother and doing these kind of interviews with her over time, was that there was also a lot of paid labour being undertaken by these women too. So kind of looking at the idea of the private and the public sphere and understanding that these women were also part of the economic system that was being created by the British in Kenya at the time and they were feeding into capitalism. But then I was kind of like, in this space where I was like, okay, but where is the documentation of this, or where is there any kind of evidence that this kind of stuff took place? And I think that was something I found really hard when researching the project – just going on to a tangent – but when researching the project I found it really hard to back up and justify and be able to like… You know, all these things that these Western academia kind of like, holds is like this thing that you have to, ‘when you’re going to make the statement, you need to justify it with this many sources’. And I was finding that super difficult because anything that my grandma told me was hard to then verify, which is a problem with oral histories. Something else that she like, went through was losing a child as well and multiple miscarriages. And so that was something that not necessarily, again, is documented in the archive already because this is something that maybe is shameful, perceived as very personal and private. And so that was something difficult to overcome as well was getting people to talk about things that are very traumatic, very personal, especially when looking at things like psychological trauma that they underwent, emotional labour – it’s hard to then get these women to talk, speak up about abuse and things like that. So I kind of found that existing discourse didn’t really mention these women, working class women, and it kind of like silenced the subaltern – as we say, like in ‘history world’ – by neglecting the multiplicity of oppressions experienced by these women. So you’ve got race, gender, class, migration, just to mention a few – and then there’s also questions of disability and things like that that I didn’t want to like, dive into because it’s like a second year project and I was like, already overwhelmed. So much of the recent existing discourse on colonial Kenya kind of views history through this white gaze, through the gaze of the colonizer. And even if you have anticolonial discourses, they’re very masculine centric. So I basically wanted to combine the secondary knowledge and these kind of like, facts – you know, there’s no such thing as a fact that can be debated – but I wanted to combine all these facts from other scholars as well as combining that with the primary, kind of, information that I was getting from the oral histories. And then obstacles – I kind of touched on this with like, getting people to talk about their trauma and open up about these things. Again, that’s like an ethical concern as well, which was another obstacle. But it’s always kind of tricky to uncover these narratives and again, back them up because the archive is extremely elitist, it’s very prejudiced. So there’s no empirical or tangible evidence of emotional labour. And then also, memories can kind of be something tricky to deal with as well, because people are going to remember things differently. I came across that a lot when my aunties were kind of like, bickering and debating how one event went. And then my grandmother, because of all her prejudices and the way her memories have kind of been shaped, is like, ‘oh, well, this didn’t happen’. And so having to like, uncover that truth and also being a part and in the middle of that family and having to stand there as like, an observer is like, incredibly yeah… But yeah, thank you for listening.
Ellan: Thanks you so much Tara. I think the statement you said, that often hits people between the eyes, ‘history is not a fact and facts aren’t real’ – really confuses people!
Interlude 2: wake up, try again by Barradeen
Azeem: So my project was the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972. I don’t know if it had been offered before, I think, I chose to make a documentary about initially it was supposed to be 25 minutes, and then it got ballooned to 40, 45 minutes, something like that. And, kind of, the impetus for it was my dad’s side of the family who are originally from Uganda. They would invariably end up talking about it in family gatherings, and despite hearing lots of very different stories over the years, I really couldn’t tell anyone – I couldn’t explain what happened. So there’s a massive blind spot for me and I just wanted to kind of figure out what actually happened, what was their experienced. So I was having a chat with a family friend about it, whose dad also came from Uganda and was expelled in 1972, and he said – very enthusiastically – he said to me, ‘oh, you should definitely do it, and if you do, get my dad involved, because he’s got loads of stories to tell’. So immediately I thought, okay, that’s one person that’s on board. And it kind of just went on from there. And I told my dad about it, and he was very interested and got me in contact with a lot of friends and family friends and, including family members – actually, I ended up interviewing three of my uncles on it.
Documentary extract: The Expulsion of Asians from Uganda (Documentary) by Azeem Rajulawalla
[One of Azeem’s uncles speaking]: We were engaged for six months before the announcement and thinking of getting married as soon as possible. But then because of this announcement, we thought we better get married and go together instead of – we don’t know who will be there. So it happened within a few days – that’s how things happened. It was good that you don’t need all these [laughs] yeah, celebrations and then you want to choose this and you want to have good clothes and this, and that – nothing! It was just very simple, everything is done. So I was happy! [Laughs]
Azeem: Yes, so that’s my uncle – my dad’s sister’s husband, talking about their marriage. That was kind of, like, the period where I really felt that I was kind of doing something important because a lot of these people hadn’t spoken about it really at all for all those years, even the kids didn’t really know the stories. It felt like we were kind of building some momentum. But yeah, I guess the methodology, I guess, was oral testimony. I did consider that briefly filming them with a camera, but very quickly I realized that just taking a microphone to people’s houses was, I guess, less imposing. And I think the results show that people were initially worried even just with the microphone when I set it up, but very quickly, they kind of forgot it was there, and what they did say was quite personal and at times they got quite emotional. And in a way, I think sometimes something as imposing as a camera can be a hindrance, even though you get the visual element, I decided to replace that with the limited archive that’s available for free online, as well as some family photographs, and photographs that the contributors would send me. And I just thought that their voices could be the soundtrack. And I briefly considered, maybe I could do a voiceover or something like that, but it really…everything about what they were giving me in audio meant that I didn’t really need to worry about that. I could just rely on their voices to tell the story. And given that… that hadn’t…I didn’t really know of any other projects that had, kind of, centred their experiences in that way before, it just seemed like a kind of a no-brainer once I thought about it for a few minutes really. I hope that the work kind of speaks for itself, but I’m happy to take some questions…
Interlude 3: Emotional Ties by Ketsa
Ellan: Thank you very much to all of our presenters today, I mean, this is fantastic research to be doing. So I’m really, really glad that SOAS has presented this opportunity because this is such rich, and interesting, and vital, and important, and politically relevant research. My first question is to the three panellists: What has been the impact on your relating to history as an individual by using your own family history? So, how is your view of the discipline of history evolved?
Saffa: I think I’d say that it’s changed, in the way that I view the history of something more important to myself, if that makes sense. I think in the beginning, I often looked at history to give me the larger picture of events, or things that have happened. But I think doing this project made me realize how even some of the minuscule moments that I think are irrelevant are actually so important to providing a fuller story that ultimately relates back to history.
Tara: So, I think when you tell people you did history undergrad, it’s like really funny conversation. I once had someone go to me like, ‘oh, is that like a lot of numbers and stuff?’ And I guess people think it’s all dates and facts and like, ‘this thing happened on this day’. And then I think I kind of had that impression coming out of A Level, and doing history at degree level – they’re like such different disciplines. And then kind of doing this project was then another step up, because I think you don’t really see yourself represented in the history you learn very often. And then you kind of learn, ‘okay, well, let’s insert ourselves like, into the archive’. And that’s the thing you can do. And so I think it changed my relationship with history by teaching me that I could create and produce history as much as I can read and learn and absorb it, yeah.
Azeem: I guess I kind of would just echo what Tara and Saffa have already said really. That, I think, when you tell people you’re studying history, I think they see it as a very passive thing of reading books and maybe writing essays or that kind of thing. The idea that you can essentially create history by talking to people and contributing to the archive is something that I hadn’t really considered, certainly when I started my degree. And…it can also be personal as well. Again, you typically think of studying wars that you weren’t involved in. You think about places that you haven’t been to. I think I see history a bit differently now, more from the bottom up as opposed to top down.
Roy: So you have all presented so wonderfully how your personal experience and your family relations opened up new archives that were not there. But, how do you think you can project this through your project outwardly to people who are not personally involved in these moments? The question is, how we can use this to retell the large picture?
Saffa: Yeah, I really like that question. It is a really big question, and it’s a really hard question. I think, personally for me, when you’re looking at music and you are talking about, how can we make music relate to people that aren’t Sudanese, or people that might not have a personal story with Sudanese history or even a political understanding of Sudan. I think that is why music is such a good resource, and even film, and even just the recordings that Tara probably has about – from her family – where they can hear them speak. I think being able to bring about something that isn’t necessarily just literary allows people to react or connect with it, more emotive, I think, and allows people to also engage with it on a different level rather than just reading it as a fact or just looking into the archives. I think all of the different aspects that we have added into our projects allow the archives to kind of become alive. And I think once the archive – obviously the archives never dead – but once the archive visually becomes alive or auditarily becomes alive, I think people are able to engage with it more.
Tara: Also kind of what I was thinking was that discussions about colonialism and empire, in all of our cases, these discussions are becoming so much more mainstream now than even before the pandemic, like doing this degree and talking to people about what I was learning. And now these discussions have become so much more mainstream. And you kind of see a documentary on BBC iPlayer like every other week or something about colonialism, which is really cool. These kind of like narratives of colonialism because they’re becoming more mainstream and popular, I think that we need to like, now be able to insert these like, personal narratives into these like, popular discussions and be like, ‘well, actually, colonialism isn’t this historical event that happened like a majillion years ago, and it’s not relevant’, but also the people that lived through these events are still alive today.
Azeem: I think…telling stories from using oral testimonies and that kind of thing, it can surprise you – because, I think, if you read a summary, like a bullet point list of what people have – in my case – what my family and family friends have gone through, you’d think, ‘oh, this is terrible, this is so awful what’s happened to them, it must be so traumatic’. And on one level, yes, it is, and people shouldn’t have to go through that. But at the same time, if you ask any of the people that, at least I’ve interviewed, they’re quite happy with their lives now, and they don’t really think about it too much, and…they’d probably say that their lives now, or their lives since they’ve come to this country, or left Uganda are probably better than when they were in Uganda. Which is probably something that you would never expect if you read on a piece of paper that, you know, so-and-so has been expelled from a country.
Roy: Do you think, is it an advantage or disadvantage to be personally contacted, or linked, to these sources, to these people? I mean, it’s very difficult to talk about sources when it’s your grandmother, right? How do you think we can mitigate this kind of inherent tension between what you have to say and the fact that you are in the story?
Azeem: I think sometimes the fact that you are part of the story, that you are in the family, can actually help because they might say things to you that they wouldn’t have thought to say to a stranger. And you know, there’s a certain level of comfort as soon as you enter the room, you know, that there is a trust there and the trust that you won’t betray their truth…it’s kind of impossible to say, really…I got lucky a lot of times, because I interviewed siblings, I got them to kind of repeat the same stories. I literally do intercut between them a few times, and it works seamlessly. And I guess I got lucky in that sense. I don’t really have much of one person saying this, which is in total contradiction to what another person was saying. So it’s kind of hard for me to say.
Tara: I kind of had a very like, dissimilar experience – quite different because my family has always been kind of fragmented and split up by kind of like, family disputes, as I’m sure a lot of people’s families are. And then there’s also like, the topics of like, mental health and things like that, that are kind of these obstacles in getting these – or kind of like getting information out of people that seems to be like, ‘yeah, that’s how it happened’. And it’s hard. I think…I think those were obstacles that I – I didn’t even overcome. Like, of course, like, doing a project, I don’t think it’s like possible to, as a historian, present something that’s without its problems and being problematic in some ways. But then I kind of question like, is there room for these projects to like, expand beyond just these papers or documentaries and other amazing, you know, personal works? But is there room for these like, to become projects which multiple historians can work on together? I would love to see that. Like, I would love to see something that I’ve written kind of like spark that and then to have those discussions then with other historians around your work. And so I’d love to like, I think, the way to kind of move around that would be to, yeah, just open this up, like make it a kind of like, wider and reaching project and kind of have other people jump on and…and tell their family histories and be able to like, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of that.
Saffa: I really like what Tara I just mentioned, about making it into a project that multiple people can connect to and work with and to, I guess, answer it in my own way, I would say that there are a lot of advantages. As you also mentioned, you are able to kind of connect with people perhaps on a deeper level – have them open up to you easier than they might have done to a stranger. But then also some of the issues that, kind of, I faced was having to kind of like, reckon and deal with some of the traumatic information my parents were telling me about, kind of their life stories, and finding a way for myself to still be able to put that into written records whilst not like, affecting my own mental health or like, the reasons why I was doing it. For me, though, I was relating people’s story to secondary resources that were available on political events in Sudan. So I very much came in it from a perspective of using that area of contention, as in what people – how people might have had different experiences, but how they still all relate to being able to bring about social change or navigating social change in Sudan. So I think for myself it really works to my advantage. But I do think if you open it up to multiple historians or multiple people, and if you make it more accessible, then having other people that are interested in history or other historians kind of fact check you, as Tara mentioned, would be a really great way to kind of, tackle perhaps some of these issues.
Ellan: I wish that everybody would openly invite fact checking – excellent. Thank you so much to everybody. I think that this will make really, really great recording materials for the podcast – this is exactly the sort of thing that we really need to keep fostering across academia, but I could go on for this this forever – so, thank you very much!
Outro: Moussa by Lessazo
Outro (Ellan): For more content from the SOAS History Blog, find us at blog.soas.ac.uk/soashistoryblog, and follow us on Twitter @soashistory, and on Instagram @soashistoryblog.