We Are All Birds Of Uganda by Hafsa Zayan — questions of identity
News reports of mass killings and rampant human rights abuses in Uganda were the backdrop to my teenage years, the name of Idi Amin becoming synonymous with brutality, political repression and persecution. We Are All Birds of Uganda focuses on one aspect of Amin’s dictatorship that I knew little about however: the seizure of properties owned by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, followed by their expulsion.
Zayyan tells the stories of two men, one in contemporary London and the other in 1970s Kampala. Both experience racial attitudes that cause them to feel alienated and dislocated from those they love and the place they believed was home.
In London, Sameer is a 26-year-old corporate lawyer in a high pressured role. When he’s not pulling all night stints to complete a merger deal, he’s chilling out in his posh penthouse apartment or meeting up with old school friends from Leicester. He’s something of a golden boy at the firm, so well regarded that his employers chose him for the launch team of their new Singapore office.
His elation is however short-lived.
He has to find a way of breaking the news to his parents, knowing that his ambition of climbing the heights of the corporate ladder is out of kilter with his family’s vision for his future. He’s expected to return to Leicester, marry a suitable Muslim girl and join the family’s restaurant business, not swan off to the other side of the world.
As he deals with the family fall out of his planned sojourn overseas, Sameer also has to contend with a problem back at the office. The partner who’d been his main supporter resigns, and his replacement seems hell bent on finding fault with Sameer’s work. Having earlier felt “is nothing about his skin colour that has set him back”, Sameer now becomes begins to sense racist undercurrents to his new supervisor’s comments.
Mixed in with Sameer’s present-day narrative is the story of his grandfather Hasan, told through letters written to his first (now dead) wife. Through them we learn how he became a successful businessman and shop owner, a key member of the influential Indian community in Uganda. Until that is, independence gave way to an extreme form of nationalism and hatred towards Europeans and Asians.
His future, and that of his children, becomes increasingly precarious as the regime led by Amin make it clear people from the Indian sub continent are no longer welcome in Uganda. Everything that Hasan thought he knew and understood is thrown into confusion, including his own citizenship. He’d relinquished his British passport upon independence but, his birth in Uganda now counts for nothing. So where, he wonders, does he belong?
If you do not have Ugandan citizenship, and you do not have British citizenship, then you are a stateless person, as I found myself to be. To become stateless is to be expelled not ,only from Uganda but from anywhere on Earth. I imagined myself as Armstrong, floating in outer space, untethered.
The two storylines of We Are All Birds of Uganda come together when Sameer, to escape the tense atmosphere at home and work, takes up an invite from a family friend to visit Uganda. It’s an opportunity for him to discover his grandfather’s history, to visit the family’s old home and to meet Abdullah – a black Ugandan who was his grandfather’s assistant.
If you don’t understand where you’ve come from, you’ll never really understand who you are or where you’re going.
The Ugandan portion of the novel is partly a journey of self discovery with Sameer confronting some uncomfortable questions about his attitudes to the country and who has the right to consider themselves part of a particular nation state. The novel also combines romance and travelogue: through Sameer’s exploration of the markets and streets of Kamapala we get to experience a city that is cosmopolitan and modern yet still shows vestiges of anti colonial sentiment.
The first part of We Are All Birds of Uganda is a somewhat familiar tale of conflict between desire for independence and the burden of responsibility to one’s family. It’s when we get deeper into the Ugandan experience — via Hasan’s letters and then Sameer’s visit — that the book takes off. Those letters are at times a bit of an info dump but they also contain the emotional heart of the novel. Here is a man who is grieving for his dead wife and for his country, feeling displaced and dejected and yearning for nothing but to be reunited with them both.
Would the novel have worked as well if it had been a single time frame narrative? I don’t think so. It’s the symmetry between Hasan’s experience and that of his grandson that makes all the difference to this novel. Both narratives contain love stories, both concern men who become unwitting victims of racist attitudes. Together they give us a multi-faceted perspective on the issue of racial intolerance and questions about identity and belonging.
I loved the fact the author chose an inconclusive ending for the novel. It somehow felt appropriate in a novel that raises complex questions to leave us with one that is not resolved. Sameer sees that his future comes to lie in Uganda. But the question is whether the country feels the same or do feelings of animosity towards ‘outsiders’ run too deep? An impressive and powerful way to end a thought-provoking, immersive novel.
We Are All Birds Of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan: Footnotes
We Are All Birds of Uganda was published by the Merky imprint, launched by Penguin in a collaboration with grime artist Stormzy. Zayyan was one of the winners of the #Merky Books new writers’ prize in 2019; a prize that supports authors under the age of 30 so that they might tell “the stories that aren’t being heard”.
Elements of the plot owe a lot to the author’s own story. Hafsa Zayyan like her protagonist Sameer, is the child of parents who immigrated to Britain and is also a corporate lawyer. We Are All Birds of Uganda is her debut novel.
25 thoughts on “We Are All Birds Of Uganda by Hafsa Zayan — questions of identity”
This sounds like a fascinating read and I’m going to put it on my list – I’m a big fan of what Stormzy’s doing with the Merky imprint, too. Thank you for sharing such a detailed review as I wasn’t sure I would like it but I think I will now.
I’ve had a look at some of the other books from the imprint and they do seem to be one to watch
We had Ugandan Asians running our local off-licence in Bristol in the 1980s, a lovely family who suddenly upped sticks in the millennium—no idea why. Like many such families they had had to flee Idi Amin’s racist regime, so I hope they are still flourishing wherever they ended up; as Britain was responsible for transplanting their forebears to East Africa it definitely needed to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their descendants.
The sudden disappearance would be concerning wouldn’t it. It may have been that they had family who had to leave Uganda and they decided to move closer to be with them.
Or it may be that the Asians who took over had the capital to expand the shop because that’s what happened; or that the growing children had a chance to change schools, I didn’t get the impression imthe move was forced on them. They were certainly a lot nicer Ugandan Asians than our current Home Secretary…
Good to know it wasn’t imposed on them
This was an impressive and in many ways illuminating book. I hope there’s much more to come from Zayan
Me too Margaret
I enjoyed the book, mostly because of its East African setting. I’m very familiar with the whole Idi Amin story. The two strand narrative worked well.
You are so much closer than I am geographically so I am not surprised your knowledge is greater. How was the era reported in the South African press?
Good question. To which I do not know the answer. I think it happened during the apartheid years, so I would need to do a bit of research. Will revert later.
I’m curious whether they were sympathetic or critical
Your review reminds me a little of Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room with its dual timelines and treatment of racism although the situation in Zayyan’s novel is considerably more complex. Adding this one to my list.
That’s interesting because I have China Room to read (soon) but I hadn’t realised it would be a good parallel with Birds of Uganda
For me, reading this book was like a very though history lesson – I was not aware at all of the history of Uganda. Actually I was drawn to this book because of contained Uganda in its name and I wanted to discover more about it. Super captivating and educative!
I was vaguely aware that large numbers of people left Uganda because they were essentially expelled but I thought that was anti-British – I had no idea it affected people from other countries too
Living so far away it is impossible to tell how much the stories about Idi Amin (or Mugabe) were true and how much were the usual propaganda against independence movements. I remember years ago there were Idi Amin “jokes” circulating which were just an excuse for racism. Of course the ‘Indians’ used by the British to shore up their colonies in Africa (and Fiji) were in a terrible position not of their own making, but I’m not sure I blame the Africans for wanting to take their countries back.
This sounds really interesting. I remember the crisis in Uganda, and how relieved we were from afar when Britain took in the displaced people.
My ex-BIL spoke to Idi Admin once. It was late at night and he was a bit pickled after a dinner party, and for some reason he thought it would be fun. This was back in the days when you could ring Telephone Enquiries to get a number, so I suppose that’s how he did it. Anyway, he got through to the palace and said he was from the Australian government and wanted to talk to Idi Amin. And they put him through! They talked for about ten minutes!! To give my BIL his due, he was well up to speed on current affairs and did a passable job of discussing the issues in a suitably diplomatic way.
I was about 17 at the time, and I just sat there, horrified. I had nightmares afterwards, worried that there’d be a knock on the door from the Ugandan embassy and my BIL would be extradited and never seen again.
What a tremendous anecdote – I bet he dined out on that for years! It’s a little like this radio programme that used to be on the BBC called Dead Ringers where someone from the show would ring a famous person and pretend to be another famous person. Amazing the number of times they got through the switchboard
I wonder if that’s where he got the idea from? We used to get a lot of BBC radio shows back in those days…
It might well have been, it seems such an extraordinary thing to do
I have this one on my “maybe” list (“maybe” simply because the TBR is very, very long). The Indian diaspora is really fascinating, especially when it involves “exotic to me” locations (for me, this includes corporate London!) V.S. Naipaul dealt with some very interesting post-colonial issues in A Bend in the River, but without the dual framework employed here, which, as you say, lends a great deal of depth to the story.
This is a much easier read than Naipaul 🙂
This is a very interesting book discussion. I do know the story of Uganda and it is a tragic one. There are many similar stories of tragedy with African independence. I’m not as knowledgeable about other parts of the world, but I suspect this happens elsewhere.
It was a form of ethnic cleansing and you’re right, it has happened in other parts of the world like Bosnia