Professor Krishna Somers has had a lifelong and very personal interest in diasporas and migration issues.
Cardiologist Professor Krishna Somers, now based in Perth, has twice had to flee oppressive political regimes: first from South Africa during the apartheid years, and then from Uganda under Idi Amin.
Prof Somers was born in South Africa, as a fourth-generation descendant of Indian sugar plantation labourers. He was raised in Durban during the decades of legislated racial discrimination, attending schools segregated for Indians.
He won a scholarship to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the only university in the country at the time without racist admission policies. As an Indian South African he was prohibited from leaving his province except with a Certificate of Identity that had to be renewed every 6 months while he studied medicine.
However, upon graduation, he was unable to progress with his medical career. “I found myself in the invidious position where I could never work or take further training because the teaching hospitals, which were government institutions, would not hire non-white doctors. It was just impossible”, says Prof Somers.
He did have a passport, which, as a non-white South African, specified the countries he could visit. He travelled to the UK where he completed training in internal medicine and cardiology at Hammersmith Hospital and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School.
He wanted to return to Africa, but not South Africa, and in 1957 began work as a lecturer at Makerere University Medical School in Kampala, Uganda. He received one of the first two Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships awarded to doctors in African countries, which enabled him to become involved in sophisticated cardiology research at the University of California, San Francisco.
He took this experience back to Makerere University Medical School where he established a productive program of research, publications and teaching. As the only medical school in East Africa, it attracted students from right across the region.
Around this time, Prof Somers became physician to the president of Uganda, and to the royal families of the country. “It was nice, it was prestigious”, he says.
Prof Somers enjoyed working in Uganda for more than a decade, but things began to change after Idi Amin came to power following a military coup in 1971. Prof Somers says the violence immediately following the coup was extremely frightening, and he was confined to the university campus.
However, once the initial violence ceased, the university began to function again as normal for a year or so.
“Then of course, the outrageous killings began”, says Prof Somers. “Amin was a hopeless administrator — he was a dictator, a tyrant and a bully.”
“Anyone who had supported the previous government or opposed Amin was abducted and never seen again. That applied also to the vice-chancellor of the university, Frank Kalimuzo: he was taken, and never seen again.”
He left Uganda in 1972 after Amin suddenly ordered the expulsion of anyone of Indian origin. He returned to London using his “unmentionable” South African passport and then says he “lounged around” trying to determine his next professional move.
For 8 months he worked as a medical education consultant for the World Health Organization in Papua New Guinea, but sought a long-term role.
He finally made his way to Australia in the mid 70s after explaining his predicament to an Australian physician at a conference in Singapore, who was able to put him in touch with a professor at the Royal Perth Hospital.
He began working at the Royal Perth Hospital in 1974 and has lived in Western Australia ever since. He is now an Australian citizen.
He has returned to South Africa and Uganda many times. He particularly enjoys catching up with former students, many of whom now hold senior medical positions in various East African countries.
He continues to work in private practice and provides occasional relief cover at the Royal Perth Hospital, as well as pursuing his interest in writing.
“Retirement does cross my mind, but what I do at the moment I enjoy immensely, and I like to think I do it reasonably well, so I continue.”
His personal experience of struggling to find a country influenced his decision to provide seed funding for a foundation focused on researching diasporas — the Krishna Somers Foundation at Murdoch University. “I’ve always been interested in diasporas and social justice ... I hope that it can help contribute towards a greater understanding of society and why people move from one country to another”, he says.
Prof Somers says he believes immigration is inevitable. “People move for various reasons. For instance, Australia has been involved in a senseless and useless war in Iraq, and likewise in Afghanistan. So we’re bound to create refugees from these countries.”
“But I wouldn’t be blatantly critical of Australia’s attitudes towards immigration. Australia is very generous.”