What fleeing Uganda in 1972 might have looked like

Kololo Hill follows the lives of one fictional Ugandan Asian family as the expulsion deadline approaches.  PHOTO | COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • In early August 1972, the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of his country’s Asian minority, giving them 90 days to leave the country.

Motichand and Jayaben live with their two sons, Pran and Vijay, and Pran’s wife, Asha, on Kololo Hill in Kampala.

There have been difficulties in their path to getting here, such as leaving close family back in India, learning Kiswahili, and making do with different foods and ingredients. 

There have also been many wonderful things too however, including finding solace amongst fellow Indians, making friends with Ugandans, and owning a shop. Life is a happy routine. 

But, there is something brewing in the air. President Idi Amin is threatening to ask the Asians to leave.

They at first think it is just a wild remark made in a spat of anger, but as the days go by, they realise that the anger is not waning.

Kololo Hill is a novel, a work of fiction that tries to give us an idea about what it was like for Indian families to be uprooted from a place they called home. 

Asha, Jaya and Vijay are the main characters through which we see events unfolding. Neema Shah the author, uses these three to give us an idea of what each feels, thinks and believes about what is taking place. 

As the weeks go by, we begin to feel the uneasiness and then worry and then deep-seated fear the family has for what the immediate future holds. Life as they have known it has suddenly changed. There are now curfews, and roadblocks mounted on many roads.

Getting out of the house must be done for only urgent and important errands. In the characters we see the calm, collected and sober, as well as the assertive, aggressive and impulsive and we see how this helps – or doesn’t – when they have to deal with drunk soldiers, or planning their escape.   

While the book is written in English, a number of items are written in Gujarati (especially types of food) as well as Luganda and Swahili, and no translation is given. We see words such as chai, sigiri, and pangas. The technique is beautiful as it helps remind us that the events are happening in Uganda and also to understand the Indian cuisine and tradition.

Shah also deals with delicately, but openly, the way the family feels about being asked to leave Uganda. Many feel abused, insulted and mistreated after all they have done for the country. But Asha reflects and wonders if the Indians might not have been part of the problem, recalling how upset and disappointed she was when she was told that members of her family smuggle money made in the country to the UK. She lets her thoughts be known during a discussion one night with the family.

“Well, perhaps the Ugandans feel we’ve already been rolling the money out of this country for years. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we’re in this mess now,” she says. Her father-in-law retaliates by saying Ugandans always complain about someone holding them back because the British tend to favour other nationalities, such as what they did with the Indians, and Asha replies: “But it did hold the Ugandans back… Not everyone treats them well.” 

We see how the family struggles to make the right decisions on what to do next. We see death, fear, splitting of families and drastic changes in their lives. The story’s aim is clearly to get the reader to try and understand what individuals like this could have felt at such a difficult time.

My disappointments with the book are few. Pran is a main character but unlike the other three, we are not told things from his perspective. He is demonised and while he makes many mistakes, it would only have been fair to know why he felt he had to do what he did. The book also feels a little rushed towards the end. Events move a little too fast. Some things could have been given more space, such as Vijay’s travels to India. But these are few.

The simplicity of the words used; the characters; the detailed description of what Kampala was like in the 70s; the portrayal of what Indian families went through during the Asian expulsion; all make Kololo Hill a captivating read and will cause you to reflect on those events afresh. For those interested in learning more about the book, the African Writers Trust shall hold a two-day seminar at the British High Council in which the novel shall be given to every participant. There was a panel discussion held on it, as well as the book, Uganda: An Indian colony, authored by Prof Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo. The seminar took place on October 19th and 20th focused on the writing, editing and publishing and cost each participant Shs100,000 for attendance.  

Book title- Kololo Hill
The work of fiction tries to give us an idea about what it was like for Indian families to be uprooted from a place they called home
Author: Neema Shah
Pages: 342
Price: Shs50,000
Where: Most Ugandan bookshops 


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