RSVP Rice and Stew Very Plenty – Memories of Growing Up in Jinja



By Nazlin Rahemtulla

Map of Uganda. Credit: Wikipedia (The Free Encyclopedia).

As a youngster, I especially adored shopping on the Main Street of Jinja. Simply strolling along the sidewalks was magic. We mingled with Indian women in their beautifully draped sarees of vibrant fuchsias, blues, and magentas; African ladies in gay gomezis and basutis (colourful native apparel); buttoned-down British matrons in conservative English clothing; African men riding to and fro on their bicycles; and Sikh gentlemen in neatly wound turbans.

What we all had in common was shopping, and we bustled cheerfully along, stopping in clusters to gossip with our countless friends and relatives. Whenever we set out on a shopping expedition, we brought along a servant, usually Skinny, to carry our packages in woven baskets.

Rows of dukas nestled next to one another in old one-storey buildings of traditionally detailed Indian design. At curbside, single round columns of cobalt blue and double square pillars of turquoise and cream supported portico roofs that overhung the sidewalks in front of the shops. Next to the porches low, flowering bougainvillea bushes lined the curbs. The buildings were cream, and, while most of the roofs were flat, some sported jaunty red tiles.

A photo of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Jinja taken in 2008. Copyright: Nazlin Rahemtulla. Click to enlarge.

As a rule, Indians owned the buildings, and rented individual dukas to Hindus, Ismailis, Sikhs, and Bugandans. Cobblers, bicycle repairers, chemists, fabric retailers, clothing merchants, bakers, confectioners, toy vendors, produce hawkers, and book sellers all jostled cheerfully to attract customers. The wares and services they offered often overflowed from their shops onto the porches.

As we walked and shopped, we soaked up the constant chatter of Indian, Swahili, and British tongues, listened to the whirr of sewing machines operating on storefront verandahs, and inhaled the delicious aromas of spices and fresh-baked goods.

I remember vividly my trips, on Friday or Saturday mornings, to the sokoni with Ma and various of my brothers and sisters. The market was close to the centre of town, about two miles from our home. It sat on a square consisting of several acres. Decrepit wooden stalls pinched against one another higgledy-piggledy. Narrow, dirt lanes meandered around and through the grounds. Acacia and mango trees rimmed the perimeter, and often overhung the stalls, offering a welcome bit of shade.

The bazaar-like atmosphere was intoxicating, a pulsing cacophony of sights and sounds. The air was redolent with a muddle of delectable, pungent, and sometimes revolting odours.

A photo of the Main Street in Jinja taken in 2008. Copyright: Nazlin Rahemtulla.

Entering the market was always heart-wrenching. Maskinis (Swahili for beggars) clustered around the entrance in a sorry state, missing limbs and eyes. They had no wheelchairs so they scurried about on horizontal dollies. I became friendly with some of them, and made it my practice to collect change for them. On Friday mornings, they turned out in great numbers, seeking baksheesh (offerings of money) because they knew that our religion mandates generosity on Muslim prayer days.

Inside the square, the hustle and bustle of Indians, Africans, and Caucasians rivalled that of Main Street. I especially loved to watch the African women. They wove their way up and down the aisles in gaudy gomezis, gracefully balancing colourfully woven baskets of fruit on their heads, sometimes with a baby strapped to their back.

Vendors at the market flogged a bewildering jumble of produce and merchandise from goat intestines to nails.

Masses of reddish-yellow mangoes, ripe amber papayas, pineapples with brownish-yellow rinds and spiked leaves, luscious red tomatoes, and other fresh fruits and vegetables overflowed baskets or lay on brown paper on the ground. Huge clusters of bananas hung from pillar to post.

Masses of sisal, a fibre used to make products like twine, cloth and carpets spilled out of baskets. Waist-high white gunny sacks full of peanuts, flour, rice, and other grains lined the lanes in front of the stalls.

A photo of the Jinja Town Hall taken in 2011. Copyright: Nazlin Rahemtulla.

Fish from Lake Victoria and the River Nile were abundant. Slabs of yellowish-grey meat coated in flies hung from huge hooks, and vendors hacked pieces from them with machetes for sale to the locals. Ramshackle clothing racks swayed precariously as customers jostled against them. We bought some goods such as vegetables in bunches but hawkers employed large, pan-shaped scales to weigh others. We always had a great time wandering around the stalls to check on who was displaying the best produce, and stopping to socialize with our friends and neighbours.

Senene (Swahili for grasshoppers) are a Ugandan delicacy, rich in protein and quite salty. During monsoon season, we kids shook the trees and hedges, and senene galore rained down on us. We collected them, in buckets and baskets, for Mary to cook. The servants ate the serene with ugali or fried them with onions and pepper. Senene swarmed the street lamps in Jinja as well, and the local kids harvested them. As an adult, I’ve learned that they are actually bush crickets or katydids but remembering them simply as “senene” is more fun.

Date posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012

Copyright: Nazlin Rahemtulla. June 2012.


The cover page of Nazlin Rahemtulla’s autobiography “RSVP Rice and Stew Very Plenty. 2012.

About the writer: Nazlin Rahemtulla who presently lives in Burnaby, BC was born in Jinja, Uganda of Indian ancestry. Her long-awaited dream of telling her family’s story of migration to Uganda from India, and her own settlement in Canada, as a result of  Idi Amin’s disastrous rule in the East African, is achieved with the publication of her autobiographical work RSVP Rice and Stew Very Plenty, which she has co-authored with Margaret Fairweather. Her story is told from the perspective of her and her family’s deep attachment to the Ismaili Muslim faith, and its ever-present significance in their lives. This strong affinity with her faith also leads her to describe the infinite good works of the late 48th Ismaili Imam Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III, and his successor, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV.

To purchase the book please  click Friesen Press.


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7 thoughts on “RSVP Rice and Stew Very Plenty – Memories of Growing Up in Jinja

  1. I just finished reading Nazlin’s book and found it quite interesting. I left Kampala with my family when I was 4 yrs old in 1972 and remember nothing from my childhood there. Though I was raised in Kampala the description of Nazlins’s youth in Jinja with the descriptions of the lush greenery and foliage, the lakes, the smells and foods , the descriptions of the clothes and the markets were the parts of the book that touched me the most and I could imagine myself living there at the time, going to school and walking along similar streets and eating similar foods and going to Jamatkhana.

    I found the book to be a bit disjointed however. Descriptions of the history of Kampala, the political situations, the physical environment, the people and culture were wonderfully detailed and nostalgic. However, when the story turned to Nazlin and her family and her travels throughout the world and her work history I found those parts of the book went on too long especially when she moved to Vancouver. The latter part of the book read almost like a travelogue and felt severed from the beginning. I understand that this was a memoir so it’s understandable to talk about family and personal achievements and successes and setbacks but I feel that a tighter connection with the land and people and culture of Uganda and less details about personal matters and business dealings and various meetings with government and business officials would have made the book more endearing and personable and felt less like reading minutes from a business meeting.

    However, on the whole I enjoyed the book. Nazlin seems to be a entertaining, funny, smart, caring and let’s get to the point kind of person. Her book is a valuable contribution to the archive of information regarding life in Uganda before and during the expulsion and I am very grateful to her for having written it.

  2. I found the photos in Nazlin’s article of special interest as when I went on a UK Senior Club Tour of Uganda, Kenya and last 3 days of Dubai, with very little time of our coach driving through Jinja township, the roads were choker-blocked with traffic. This makes a visit to many of us born in East African countries, I talk of my birth-place of Kampala difficult to walk through its streets. Nazlin’s photos are almost free of congestion. I suggest, the Governments in Uganda and Kenya should improve public transport and introduce Congestion Charges as the ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone did! Of course, her article is very interesting indeed.

  3. Nazlin’s has described the very essence of living in Jinja triggering the memories of forgotten sights and smells. My nanabapa (maternal grandfather – the late Noormohammed Pradhan) and his brother (the late Alibhai Pradhan) both own shops in Jinja. I spent many happy holidays with both and can even now remember my nanabapa’s house in Nile Garden.

    Excellent – I am going to buy the book and read it.

    Thank you Nazlin.

    • Hello Shirin, thank you for your note, I am not sure if you have had the opportunity to read RSVP. Mr. Alibhai Pradhan and family were good friends of our family and actually lived next door to us on Nalufenya Road – Tazmina Pradhan (daughter of Tajdin and Mary) and I grew up together and I mention her in my book. I would be interested in any further feedback you may have, please write to me at
      Warmest Regards, Nazlin

  4. Hello Simerg people: Nazlin had contributed two sections from her book for my book on Uganda Asians. They are hilarious and heart-felt. Her parents started the Portello pop in their kitchen in Jinja from cranberry concentrate. The Aga Khan III permitted father to call his soda works Jubilee (in reference to the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee) for acceding to his guidance not to break up a partnership in the Eastern Province Bus Co for at least another year. When success in the soda line came his way the competitors tried to deprive him of the CO2 that had to be imported from Kenya. Mr Rahemtulla set up his own gas plant. The government shut off Kenya (and other) imports to protect the local industry. The competitors came a-begging. Shows can’t keep soda fizz down. Shows Nazlin’s book’s sure to make an impact, fortuitously appearing in the 40th year of our expulsioon and 50th of Uganda’s independence. Hope the RSVP is substantial.

  5. I believe the acronym ‘R.S.V.P.’ for “Rice And Stew Very Plenty” was first used in Chinua Achebe’s novel “No Longer At Ease” published in 1960.

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