One of the most notorious events in recent African history is given a human face in Neema Shah’s debut novel Kololo Hill.
The book begins in 1972 when Idi Amin is tightening his grip on power, eliminating anyone who dares to criticise his regime. Rumours abound of bodies dumped in rivers. A night time curfew is in force and soldiers patrol the streets of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Fear turns to panic when Amin issues a decree expelling all Ugandan Asians within ninety days. They can never return. They can take little with them — all their property and their money will henceforth belong to the government.
Newly weds Pran and Asha; Pran’s mother Jaya and younger brother Vijay have until now enjoyed a comfortable life in Kampala. Their dukan (a general store) is doing well. They live on Kololo Hill, the city’s most desirable suburb, and enjoy the friendship of many other successful Asian business people.
To Stay Is To Die
But Amin’s decree puts them in an impossible position. Uganda is their home but if they stay they will be rounded up and killed. Yet if they leave they will lose the family business — a source not just of income but of pride.
They also fear they will lose each other. It will be impossible for them to settle somewhere else as a family because they have different passports and rights of access to different countries. As the deadline gets closer, the tensions within the family escalate with differing and strongly held views about how what action to take. But they are left with no option other than flight when soldiers begin looting homes and businesses .
The second part of the novel then relates their experiences as refugees in Britain. The challenges of learning a new language, strange new customs, the damp, mouldy accommodation and the cold that penetrates their thin clothing.
How could she start all over again? Her life was like the lines on her hand: new paths, some that faded to nothing, others that were forged hard into her palm. Perhaps it was her destiny never to live one life through to the end, to keep beginning new ones, never belonging anywhere. ≠
Kololo Hill is a novel about displacement and betrayal. The families forced to flee Uganda feel doubly rejected. First by Uganda, the country they considered to be home, and then Britain, the country who had once needed them to create the Empire’s railways. “We helped them build this country up, made Britain wealthy too, but they’ve forgotten all that commonwealth business now.,” says Pran.
When the family does eventually reach Britain, they encounter a perplexing mix of prejudice and hospitality. Ordinary families open up their homes to the refugees but the jobs market is not so accommodating. Asha and Vijay are offered jobs far below their skill level; but even then face accusations they are taking work away from established residents.
Neema Shah’s narrative suggests that these “us and them” attitudes were also evident within Uganda. Some Asians had focused so much on creating wealth for themselves, they had paid scant attention to how other Asians and black Ugandans fared. Asha alone recognises the privileged position of a home amid the villas and mansions once occupied by the Europeans.
Your place on the hill was directly connected to your wealth, with the richest at the very top. Below them all, the poorest Asians lied in cramped old apartment blocks and crumbling houses, and at the foot of the hill were the cement blocks and corrugated-iron roofs where many of the black Ugandans lived.
I appreciated that Shah doesn’t let this issue dominate the narrative, using it instead more subtly as an example of the complex history of Uganda. The changing narrative perspectives from Asha to her husband and in laws echo this complexity, showing how their attitudes differ — most significantly over their responsibility for a loyal house servant who faces an uncertain future once the family has left.
Kololo Hill is a moving tale about survival, the challenges of being uprooted from your home and having to start again. It casts a light on an aspect of African history I had known little about until I read We Are All Birds Of Uganda last year. The two books would make excellent companion reads.
Kololo Hill by Neema Shah: Footnotes
Neema Shah was born and raised in London where she studied law and then built a career in marketing.
Kololo Hill, her debut novel. was inspired by the lives of her grandparents who left India to settle in East Africa in the 1940s. Before publication, the novel won The Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Live and was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and First Novel Prize. It was published by Picador in February 2021.
Kololo Hill was book number 6 from my #20booksofsummer list in 2022.