It is 23 January 2021 in the morning, I have to be at the airport in 2 hours. My luggage already weighs 25 kilograms, two more than the 23 that is allowed, but I am still standing there with five books in my arms that I really want to take with me. I love reading, I always have, and especially on holidays. Not that this is an average holiday, as I am going to do an internship and will be staying in Uganda for five months. Five months, that should mean at least 10 books! Yes, I also brought my parents’ e-reader but I’m not sure what books I will be able to access, and it is never quite the same…
Last month I actually made a deal with myself that I would stop buying novels and only go for non-fictions. Novels, you usually only read them once and then they just stand there, looking pretty in your bookcase and making you look smart. I love fiction though, especially historical fiction, the works that are based on true events. The ones that make the distinction between fiction and non-fiction so delightfully blurred. I feel like they can often teach you so much more than a dry non-fiction book. When it is an exciting and intriguing story, it just sticks to your brain so much better.
So I was elated when my new boss at the Brussels bookstore gave me a little going away present: We are all birds of Uganda [external link] is a novel about two Ugandans of Asian descent, one living in current-day London and one living in 1960s Uganda. Author Hafsa Zayyan, with her mixed African-Asian roots, was one of the winners of the #Merky Books New Writers’ prize 2019, dedicated to discovering stories that aren’t being heard. “You can’t stop birds from flying, can you, Sameer? They go where they will,” I read on the back cover, and I quickly cram it into the last open space of my luggage.
Sameer is a twenty-something lawyer of Asian-Ugandan decent trying to work his way up in one of the big-shot London firms. While at first he doesn’t pay much attention to his African heritage, that changes when an uncle who lives in Kampala visits them and tells Sameer all about the perks of doing business in Uganda. Sameer is supposed to move to Singapore to become a partner and help open up a new company there, but he has a hard time dealing with his colleagues who treat him differently because he is a Muslim. At some point one of his befriended colleagues implies Sameer only got the position because of positive discrimination (“reverse discrimination” in America), not on real merit. Sameer thought he was living the life of his dreams, but he feels a large emptiness that he cannot fill no matter how many hours he works. When one of his best friends becomes the victim of a racist attack, it is all becoming too much and Sameer is compelled to go visit his uncle in Kampala.
Another storyline unfolding itself in the book is bringing us back to 1960s Uganda. Hasan, Sameer’s grandfather, is dealing with work and family life after losing his first wife to a sudden death. Luckily, he has the support of Abdullah, although we soon come to learn that their relationship is ambiguous. Hasan is a second-generation Ugandan, his parents left India in the late 19th century on a search for new opportunities. Abdullah is a native Ugandan and started working for Hasan’s family when he was 15 years old. When Hasan’s mother passed away, Abdullah, who was only a couple of years older than Hasan, became the caretaker of the family.
I started reading the book on the airplane to Entebbe and it automatically made me more aware of the Indian presentence in Uganda. I noticed that most of them are shop or restaurant owners, and that corresponded with the story. Hasan is a proud owner of a shop ‘Saeed & Son’s’, and Sameer is being constantly pushed to quit his job as a lawyer and join the family business, the restaurant chain ‘Kampala Nights’.
After some research I found that Indians first came to Uganda as indentured servants to construct the country’s railway, facing horrible conditions, but later their status was boosted by the colonial authorities. The Indians engaged mostly in trade and manufacturing and they became the middlemen between the British and the native Ugandans, politically and economically. This led to many racial tensions, black Ugandans accusing Indians of exploiting them, culminating in the infamous 1972 expulsion of the Asians under Idi Amin.
In the book these racial tensions are perfectly depicted in the relationship between Hasan and Abdullah. Hassan, while talking about the accomplishment of all his Asian acquaintances in Uganda, writes the following to his late wife: “The Africans do not understand the value of hard work. It is not a part of their culture in the way it is part of ours. Why do you think the British brought us to Uganda, instead of trying to mobilise the native workforce? I am not saying there are no exceptions – Abdullah is obviously such an exception. But doesn’t the exception prove the rule?” Although he considers Abdullah his best friend and an uncle to his children, he refuses to make him a shareholder in the business, claiming that it is and should remain a ‘family’ business. Even when Obote inserts a clause that only citizens of African blood can own companies, and even though it is his only option to save it, Hassan does not give in.
Later, when Hassan finds himself in England, forced to leave his beloved Uganda because of Amin’s brutal rule, he is dealing with new kinds of discrimination. One day his son is attacked walking home from school by two older boys, shouting a racial slur at him. Hassan comes to a moment of reflection: “Sometimes I think upon how we treated the Africans back home with a tinge of guilt. Is this how they felt? Certainly – surely – we were not openly racist like they are towards us here.”
Hassan is never able to adapt to life in Britain; he applies for different jobs, but gets a rejection letter every time. The discrimination that he and his family are dealing with and the loss of status (living with all of them together in a small flat) is nerve-racking for him. Eventually, he is able to move back to Uganda, even to his old house, that has all this time been taken care of by Abdullah’s family, although Abdullah himself is not there anymore. In that house, writing his last letter to his beloved wife, Hassan takes his last breath.
We are all birds of Uganda is praised for its exploration of racial tensions and generational divides, but there’s a more subtle theme present throughout the whole book that really touched me. It is about being in Africa, living in Africa and working in Africa as a non-black person and the questions that come along with it.
Towards the end of the book, Sameer goes to Kampala to visit his uncle and he falls in love with the country, and with a Ugandan, namely the granddaughter of Abdullah, Maryam. Although the marriage is heartily received by her side of the family, Sameer’s parents are outraged, saying that it is inappropriate and that “she will never understand our culture, she will never understand our family”. It actually brings back a memory from the beginning of the book, where Hassan is talking about the outrage that his daughter wants to marry out of their caste. That tradition appears to be a persistent one.
Sameer goes against the wishes of his family, marries Maryam and starts up a juice business in Kampala. With some help from his uncle, the business takes off quickly and he starts contracting with big hotels. But it’s not all wild success. One day an older man comes to his front door and confronts Sameer, saying that he has lost his job because all the hotels are working with Sameer now. Sameer feels awful. He has despised his grandfather for the way he treated Abdullah and his family, but maybe he’s doing the same thing himself without realising it? For many days he struggles with that guilt, not knowing how to make things better and wondering if he should even stay in Uganda.
Just when you think a happy ending is approaching, Zayyan brings us back to reality. Sameer might really try to do things better than his grandfather did, he treats the Africans equally, and he even married one. Yet, despite his goodwill, there is a power imbalance that persists. I feel that similar tensions exist at the core of my being in Africa. And I think the same counts – or should count – for every non-African person living in Africa or wanting to build something here. It is a constant back and forth between wanting to help local people, but not fall into the trap of white saviourism or white supremacy; wanting to earn a living in Africa, but not wanting to take a living away from Africans; wanting to live in Africa, but not wanting to deal with some of the hardship most Africans confront daily.
Sameer gets into a big fight when he tells Maryam that he wants to move back to England. Maryam says she doesn’t understand, “You think you are causing a problem here, so you want to deal with it by running away?” Such a simple sentence, but for me it resonated. That is exactly what it is — it might be hard, and we need to keep questioning ourselves all the time, but running away is not the answer. The task is to embrace the difficulty, explore and expose it. And hope that by discussing it we will find better solutions, little by little.
Small choices can make a big difference, like choosing the right book to bring with you on a trip…