We Are All Birds of Uganda

Ever since the introduction of the East African passport, many Ugandans have taken to acquiring them. It also comes at a time when more Ugandans are continuously seeking employment opportunities abroad.

Whereas it is easy for some to secure their passports, to some —especially first time passport applicants— going beyond the interview stage has proved to be more tasking than they ever imagined. A number of people have been tasked to bring their old age mothers to confirm their Ugandan-ness. Worse tales have been told where some have been asked to bring photos of their deceased relatives just to prove a point that they belong here.

For the officials at the immigration office, the question of who is Ugandan is beyond holding the national identity card. It is beyond being able to speak the language(s) one identifies with. Most of the victims of this process are the children born out of intermarriages.

Outside that interview room, to be Ugandan is usually based on how black or brown one is and who is asking. This topic is so personal and sensitive to different people.

This year (2022) marks 50 years since the former Ugandan president Idd Amin expelled Asians from the country. His reasons were:

·         Asians were taking up all trading opportunities for Ugandans

·         Asians had refused to socialise with the natives. They kept only to their circles and so was their money. They didn’t want to intermarry with the natives.

According to Prof Lwanga Lunyigo during the celebration to mark 50 years since the expulsion of Asians held at Makerere University recently remarked, “Asians kept their dani (wealth) in Britain and their tani (bodies) in Africa (Uganda).”

Yet during the expulsion, 12,000 Asians were already without citizenship in Uganda. They were neither Ugandan nor British nor Indian. Whereas Indians migrated from India, not many held on to that citizenship, they took on British citizenship. They had been invited by the British to do business in Uganda. Later, towards independence, the Asians were asked to take on Ugandan citizenship which many were reluctant to take on.

At the time of the expulsion, some of these Asians like Saeed in this novel were neither British nor Ugandans.

The question of identity remains a hard one to navigate. In this novel; We Are All Birds of Uganda, Hasfa paints the picture of a one Saeed and his son and grandson’s life dilemma.

In this novel, Saeed follows his uncle to Uganda to make a living after escaping harsh conditions in India. Upon settlement in Uganda, he establishes Saeed & Sons, a business which grows to blossom. Abudallah, a Ugandan man is introduced to Saeed by his uncle and becomes a part and parcel of the family. When Asians are expelled, and Saeed being among them, he leaves his business to Abudallah who faithfully takes care of the business later handing it over to his son Ibrahim who also takes good care of it. Not only do they take care of the business, they take over his house as well on Nakasero Hill.

Later, Sameer, Saeed’s grandson comes over for a visit to Kampala and visits the Nakasero home. He meets Ibrahim who is excited to meet him and shows him to his grandfather’s business as well.

A young Sameer falls in love not only with Kampala but also with Maryam, Ibrahim’s granddaughter. He resolves to relocate to Uganda to marry her against the advice of his family but also to quit his boring law career in London and the promise of Singapore to set up a juice factory in Kampala.

Unfortunately, the business does not quickly pick up like he anticipated but nonetheless settles to marry Maryam, a 36 year old doctor and granddaughter of their house servant.

The novel is rich in painting the picture of the relationship between Ugandans and Asians and gives a sneak peek into the way Asians live(d) their life. This is a rare occurrence and it comes with a pinch of salt.

Whereas the author succeeds at creating a neatly stringed piece of history on Asian life in Uganda, they deliberately leave it to the reader to find answers to questions of migration and citizenship. The story comes at a time when conversations on intermarriage and the Asian exclusion lifestyle are being challenged by time.

Some things seem to be very far from reach regardless of how close they seem to always be. Growing up in a community, you tend to take people as they are. As they come. There is rarely an occasion that necessitates one to dig deeper or find out more than the information one chooses to share.

Apart from a few people that have had the chance to be neighbours or work colleagues or otherwise, the Asian community remains so far detached from the day to day life in a Ugandan setting.

Depending on who tells you your history, it will certainly be a case that glorifies the hunter. Like they say, whoever controls the media controls the narrative. The same applies to history. Whoever tells history controls the calendar and impact of events. In a world where history shapes who we become, it comes with a lot of weight upon us.

To most Ugandans, the story of Asians in Uganda begins with Allidina Visram, the first Asian to set up a shop in Uganda. The next eventful talk about Asians is the proverbial Asian expulsion which made Idi Amin a famous and feared man across the globe.

What history does not tell us is the struggle of (Asian) men in pursuit of redefining their life and that of their dependents in a new world of opportunity. It does not talk of a group of people lost in search of identity of self but also approval.

The question “where is home?” Easily gets lost in meaning and translation as it begs to tell a different story all together. The story of Saeed, who comes to Uganda following his uncle does not tell you that Saeed signs a lifetime commitment with Uganda and fully dedicates to staying here for all his life.

Is home a place or a person?

This is an interesting paradox that runs through this book as you follow the lives of the Saeeds in the three generations. To Sameer’s grandfather, it is a place. To his father, home is the opportunity to rebuild. And yet to him, home is Maryam. To see lifetime decisions made on these different premises is an ice breaker to knowing and questioning the quest of man’s identity. What does man truly live for?

This brings out the uncomfortable conversations that often parents are not ready or even willing to have with their children. When parents sacrifice to send their children to high end schools so they can attain a very high end education, it becomes self-defeating when the same children are denied the opportunity to pursue their lifetime dreams. It is self-defeating for a girl to endure the course of education well knowing that at the end of it all, she will be married off to be a stay-home wife. Of course without her consent. On one side we see education as a liberator and an equalizer while on the other hand, it gently takes a seat under the umbrella of culture.

At a particular point in time, we have to accept our predicaments. Life will always throw something at you. A man like Saeed marries his first wife Amira, a woman she has never seen before yet longs for her for eternity. He grieves her death every other passing day of his life. His grandson has to relocate to Uganda to settle down with a woman his father won’t approve of.

Choices in life tend to be very personal. They surpass the beautiful ideologies of time and space, culture and education. Choice is a thin surgical blade that tears through the thickest muscle of race. It rips it apart until it finds what it is looking for.

However, whereas choice can always cut through any muscle, it may never return to stitch it back. Some cuts are just so deep. Acceptance is one such. Exploitation is another. The things we do to other people always come back to bite us and we wonder whether we were that brutal when we were biting.

In a changing world, these are hard conversations to have. Hafsa Zayyan takes a bold step to bring these concerns before the public forum. She opens a window for the reader to us what happens inside the ever closed Asian community. She (unknowingly) answers questions that have forever remained unanswered. Culture and religion stand at the public square for judgement. The generations that believed everything without asking questions are slowly dying out. The Sameers of this world are ready to take unpopular decisions and ask the hard questions.

The question around the Indian expulsion remains a very delicate one especially with the other Ugandans. It is one which goes back to the days of the colonialists, a detail Saeed talks of clearly.

Whereas this novel focuses on the Asian community, it encompasses all Ugandans. Human beings have always moved. They have always migrated. That cannot be contested. It is the circumstance of this migration, identity or citizenship that should be.

It is a threat awaiting everyone out there. Only time will tell. In the eyes of Saeed through his letters to Amira, his deceased wife, we can trace ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we become just another citizen without an address. It always looks to be so far away until it is your turn.

AUTHOR:   Hafsa Zayyan

TITLE:   We Are All Birds of Uganda

GENRE: Fiction

ISBN:           978-1-529-11865-0

PAGES:         370

Cover image by Open Country Magazine

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