What you need to know:
- The expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and wondering what would happen to her own family if they were expelled from England prompted Neema Shah to pen Kololo Hill.
British Asian author Neema Shah dramatises the plight of the expelled Ugandan Indians in her debut novel, Kololo Hill.
Seventeen months after seizing power in a military coup on January 25, 1971, former president Idi Amin issued a devastating decree that was to affect the social-economic wellbeing of the Ugandan Asians and the economy at large.
While touring Tororo District in eastern Uganda on August 4, 1972, Amin claimed that he had received a message from God, directing him to rid Uganda of foreigners who were “milking” the economy at the expense of native Ugandans.
Uganda’s 70,000 Asians, mostly Indians, who were controlling major sectors of the economy, were given 90 days to leave the country.
They were all ordered to take only what they could carry, give up their money and never return.
Amin ordered that Indians leave with only Shs1,000 each. He then threatened to round up any Indians who did leave and not would put them in the old army barracks. He never said what would happen next.
The majority of the expelled Asians ended up in England, while Canada and India accepted 6,000 each, and another 1,000 settled in the United States. Others ended up in Kenya, Zambia and Malawi, among other destinations.
Kololo Hill tells the story of one Indian family’s escape.
The book tells a story of loss, broken dreams, separation and displacement, but also ultimately of hope.
From the green hilltops of Kampala, to the terraced houses of London in the UK, Neema explores what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.
The story revolves around Motichand, his wife Jaya, their two sons Pran and Vijay, and their daughter-in-law Asha.
Vijay was born with an upper-arm disability. He had to get used to being teased about his arm when he was growing up and forged an independent life.
They lived on Kololo Hill, a leafy and upscale neighbourhood in Kampala, where they thought they were immune.
The 343-page book published by Picador in 2021 is divided into two parts, with Motichand’s family in Uganda in Part One, and in England in Part Two in 1972.
For Asha and Pran, only married a matter of months prior to their exit, their expulsion means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades.
But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing.
Will they all make it to safety in Britain, and will they be given refuge status if they do?
And all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them, threatening to tear the family apart.
Motichand and Jaya had only been married a few weeks when he set off on his journey from Gujarat in India to Africa, bewitched by the tales of riches that others had made in East Africa, running dukans (shops in Hindi), factories and plantations. When Motichand arrived in Uganda, he worked in a shop and saved enough to send for Jaya.
Jaya arrived in Mombasa by a steamer from Gujarat. Motichand then picked her up and they travelled by train to Uganda. She later learnt that her husband could not be trusted with money – it seemed to flutter in and out of his hands like a bird.
Their story starts when Asha, Jaya and Motichand briefly make a stopover at the source of the mighty River Nile in Jinja District on their way back to Kampala as they rush to beat the curfew. Asha persuades her father and mother-in-law to stop briefly for her to steal a few moments in the place she has visited so many times as a child with her parents.
Motichand and Jaya stay in the car. When Asha walks to the vast water body, she sees hacked human bodies bobbing in the billowing Lake Victoria. Shocked, Asha hurries back to the car and asks Motichand to drive away. She has confirmed the rumours of Amin’s atrocities.
The broken limbs flash through Asha’s mind as she climbs into the car. Amin does not care that those people’s bodies are bobbing in the water, out on show for all to see. He is killing anyone who speaks out against him or threatens his power. He might not stop until the whole river runs red, she thinks.
Motichand, a model businessman, is giving out credit to friends and strangers alike from the family dukan. Motichand never wants to disappoint, always wanting to show how generous he is. Little is written down or recorded and money comes and goes as often as the customers at his general store. The debt keeps growing.
Motichand argues that all Indians are to be expelled and yet it is only the wealthy families that are hiding cash in foreign banks.
Struggling families like his do not have that kind of money.
Pran is involved in racket of Ugandan Asians who are smuggling Ugandan shillings to England left behind by wealthy members of their community.
Amin’s soldiers hate Indians and Milton Obote’s close tribemates, the Acholi. Motichand’s househelp Adenya, aka December, is an Acholi.
With Amin’s soldiers roaming the streets, December does what other houseboys and girls now do; stay in their masters’ homes.
Jaya allocates the storeroom to December, who is worried for his own family and tribemates.
Amin says it is up to the British government to take responsibility for Asians who left Uganda, while the British government tries to persuade India to take them. Everyone passes the buck, no one wants them.
A few Indians have already left, leaving behind their properties not wanting to take any chances, worried about the growing violence and curfews, while others try to convince themselves it will all pass. Asha’s parents and two younger brothers, Raju and Sailesh, had earlier left for India.
Asha, Vijay and Jaya hold British passports they had secured before Ugandan Independence, while Motichand has kept his Indian passport. Pran holds a Ugandan passport.
Motichand wants all his family to leave for Gujarat, but Vijay has no answer. To leave your friends, your city, everything you’d ever known? His father makes it sound so easy, to just get up and leave. To go to a place he does not know at all, never even visited. So he speaks Gujarati, can hold a conversation in Hindi, eats daar bhaat and shaak rotli. You cannot know a country from afar, from films and news reports and what other people tell you. That is not home.
Motichand and Pran decide to go to India where Motichand would work out a way for them all to be together. Motichand has failed to save enough money to return to India and live comfortably. He has not been to India in 35 years. He is worried of his new life in India.
Jaya has to admit that however bad Motichand has been with money, her life in Kampala is far easier than it could ever have been in Gujarat. Uganda offers more opportunities to improve their lives – that is why he has left in the first place. The chance to see her brothers and their families after 35 years apart; too late to see her father, whose death she has mourned from afar years ago. After that, here she is, moving even further away from India, doing it all over again, leaving Uganda for England.
Two young Ugandan men storm into Motichand’s dukan and one of them demands for a single shaving kit.
As Motichand attempts to pick up the kit on the wooden shelf behind the counter, he collapses and dies.
Jaya scatters Motichand’s ashes in their yard by the magnolia tree.
Later, she watches them wash away in the heavy afternoon rain, no trace left behind.
Pran is convinced that his father would be alive if it was not for the expulsion of Indians.
He wants to avenge his father’s death.
Pran has plans of getting December to the border. One evening, soldiers storm into Motichand’s house. The soldiers, who are so drunk, hit Vijay and he collapses after he asked them when they were leaveing.
After the soldiers have left, Pran gives December money and he disappeares into the thin night.
Jaya, Vijay and Asha get their visas to England from the British High Commission in Kampala.
Jaya, Vijay and Asha leave for Entebbe airport in Cyrus Mody’s car, with his wife Aruna.
At the first roadblock, they bribe the soldiers with cash and gold bangles, who let them through.
Asha survives being raped by a solider at the third roadblock when another soldier shoots in the air.
When they arrive in London, they are all driven to the resettlement camp in an army barracks that has been repurposed for the new arrivals. They are to sleep in dormitories as they adjust to a new life. Some British do not want the Indians in England and tell them so in their face.
Pran is left behind to finish the last paper work before he is to leave for India to stay with Jaya’s brother.
Vijay’s disability denies him jobs that he applies for, but he finally gets one as a pump attendant at a filling station owned by Frank.
Frank is paying Vijay less because of the latter’s disability.
They receive a letter from Pran indicating he is in a transit camp in Austria. He says after he was expelled, he decided to go to Austria instead of India, believing that there were more chances for them to be reunited if he went to Europe.
Asha writes several letters to their area MP and government officials demanding to be reunited with her husband.
Her efforts pays off when Pran is eventually permitted to enter England.
Asha has a secretarial job at a law firm. After settling in England, Pran finds a job at a factory to contribute to the family wellbeing.
Jaya teams up with Kamlaben, cooking at Indian events.
But Pran feels he is still a Ugandan and is determined to return to Kampala. He says he was born a Ugandan Asian and he is going to die a Ugandan Asian. He is not ready to die in England, a country that does not want him.
The story ends with Pran abandoning his plans of returning to Uganda.
About the author
Neema’s parents and grandparents left India to make their homes in East Africa and later in London, where Neema was born, raised and currently lives.
As a young British Asian, Neema was filled with a sense of statelessness manifested by her multiple family roots, her fellow schoolmates taunting her to return to her home. The expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and wondering what would happen to her own family if they were expelled from England, prompted her to pen Kololo Hill.
Kololo Hill was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the DGA First Novel Prize.
It was a 2021 Pick for Foyles, Daily Mail, The Irish Times, Cosmopolitan and Eastern Eye.
She is currently working on her second novel.
Neema won the Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Live 2017 with an early extract of Kololo Hill.
She also writes short stories and flash fiction.