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50 years on, the exodus of South Asians from Uganda finds retelling in three debut novels

This year marks 50 years since Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelled South Asians from his country. We put the spotlight on three recent novels by women writers that dwell on this event in world history.

November 18, 2022 / 03:22 PM IST
Books on Indian exodus from Uganda. (Photo courtesy eShe)

Books on Indian exodus from Uganda. (Photo courtesy eShe)

Fifty years ago, Uganda’s despotic president Idi Amin gave the country’s South Asian residents 90 days to leave the country.

An integral part of Ugandan administration and economy, these South Asians had been brought in by Uganda’s British rulers from the early 1900s onwards. When the military dictator came to power in August 1972, he accused 80,000 or so Asian immigrants of “sabotaging Uganda’s economy”, and set a deadline of three months for them to exit.

Thus began a nationwide persecution of Asians of Indian descent and the takeover of their private businesses by local Ugandans.

Forced to leave behind their homes and possessions, about 27,200 of these Asians fled to the United Kingdom since many of them held British passports or had relatives there. The stories of these refugees remained largely untold as they scrambled to put their lives together and assimilated into their adopted country.

This year marks 50 years of the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda. The journey taken by South Asian immigrants from East Africa to England has also been highlighted in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s ascendance to the prime ministerial job in the UK this month. Though Sunak’s parents were born in present-day Kenya and Tanzania, and not Uganda, their migration to UK in the 1960s has ignited interest in the region’s history and its Indian inhabitants.

A host of writers have taken up this chapter in Uganda’s past and incorporated it in new fiction that brings alive the trauma of the time. Here are three women writers whose debut novels narrate the difficult journeys of South Asians who fled from Uganda to UK in the wake of Idi Amin’s fateful decree.

WE ARE ALL BIRDS OF UGANDA

A dispute-resolution lawyer based in London, Hafsa Zayyan came up with the idea for her debut novel We Are All Birds of Uganda in response to a writing competition announced by Merky Books on the theme of ‘stories not being told’. While brainstorming a possible theme for her novel with her South Asian-Ugandan husband, she realised that his family history of the 1972 expulsion and starting over as refugees definitely fit into the category. She won!

Zayyan, who studied Law at the University of Cambridge and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Oxford, lived in several different parts of the world — including Saudi Arabia, US and UK — while growing up. Her mother is Pakistani and her father is of Nigerian origin.

Hafsa Zayyan (Photo: Bhavin Bhatt/courtesy eShe); 'We are All Birds of Uganda' (2021, Merky Books, 370 pages, Rs 499) Hafsa Zayyan (Photo: Bhavin Bhatt/courtesy eShe); 'We are All Birds of Uganda' (2021, Merky Books, 370 pages, Rs 499)

The result of her mixed, international upbringing is deeply evident in her culturally sensitive novel, which is a family saga told through the voice of Sameer, a young lawyer from Leicester, UK, and his grandfather Hasan who had to flee Uganda decades earlier.

Critically acclaimed and hailed by several media publications, the book was abridged for BBC Radio.

KOLOLO HILL

Neema Shah; Kololo Hill: A Novel (2021, Picador India, 352 pages, Rs 650) Neema Shah; Kololo Hill: A Novel (2021, Picador India, 352 pages, Rs 650)

Neema Shah’s debut novel Kololo Hill is the story of a Gujarati family who had to suddenly leave behind their business and home after Idi Amin’s 1972 decree. In a sense, it is a personal story since Shah’s parents and grandparents left India to make their homes in East Africa in the 1940s, and then moved to London, where Shah was born and currently lives.

Like UK’s new prime minister Rishi Sunak, Shah’s parents were also born in Kenya and Tanzania. She drew upon her own childhood memories of visiting Kenya while chronicling everyday East African life in her novel.

Shah, who is a marketing executive, won several accolades for Kololo Hill, which was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the DGA First Novel Prize. The book covers the journey taken by a family from Kampala to London, their trials and rehabilitation. Read her interview here.

THE FORTUNICITY OF BIRDIE DALAL

Claire Duende; 'The Fortunicity of Birdie Dalal' (2020, Tryphena Press, 288 pages, Rs 1,040). Claire Duende; 'The Fortunicity of Birdie Dalal' (2020, Tryphena Press, 288 pages, Rs 1,040).

Released on the 50th anniversary of the South Asian exodus from Uganda, Claire Duende’s debut novel The Fortunicity of Birdie Dalal is the story of a young Indian mother Birdie who has to leave behind her comfortable and affluent lifestyle in Uganda after Idi Amin passes his decree. Birdie’s husband holds a British passport, which is why the family decides to move to London.

A play on the words fortune and synchronicity, the book’s title refers to the chance encounters and quirks of destiny that direct the course of human lives. Based in Cornwall, England, where she lives with her husband and four dogs in a countryside home, Duende began working on her first book after her two children grew up and flew the nest.

Describing herself as “a middle-class British woman”, Duende was 15 when the Ugandan expulsion took place. She was haunted by the looks on the faces of the Asian refugees she encountered in the UK.

Motivated to make more people aware of this moment in history that changed the lives of thousands of Indians, Ugandans and Britishers, she has made the audio version of her novel free until the end of December 2022.

First published in eShe

eShe is an independent women’s magazine and blog based in New Delhi that amplifies women's voices and stories about our shared humanity.
Aekta Kapoor is the founder of eShe magazine (@esheworld) and the peacebuilding initiative South Asia Union.