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.