Neema Shah’s debut novel follows the lives of an Indian family living in Kampala in 1972, just after Idi Amin orders non-Ugandan Asians to leave the country within 90 days, accusing them of ‘milking the cow but not feeding it’.
By Kalungi Kabuye, Journalist @ New Vision
Title: Kololo Hill
Author: Neema Shah
Publishers: Picador Pan Macmillan, 2021
Reviewed by Kalungi Kabuye
What do Ugandans know about the lives of Indians in Uganda before they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972? Very little, if at all. A few that do will probably reference Mira Nair’s 1991 film Mississippi Masala, which tells the story of an Indian family’s travails in the USA after leaving Uganda.
First, a disclaimer. Kololo Hill was written by a British Asian (who visited Uganda only once) obviously for a largely British audience. That it bears the title of Uganda’s most exclusive hill may be taken by some Ugandan as somehow presumptuous. We know that very few Asians, if any, actually lived in Kololo.
Colonial Kampala was a racially divided city, with areas clearly designated: Kololo and Nakasero for the Europeans, Old Kampala and Kamwokya for the Asians, and Naguru and Ntinda for the Africans that used to work for the Europeans and Asians. This little error in the setting might put off a few Ugandans, who might dismiss it as a yet another book by a foreigner about a country that Ugandans have lived in for millennia.
The author, Neema Shah, is the granddaughter of Indians that were part of the about 70,000 expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Her grandmother used to tell her stories about Kampala and the homes they left behind, so Shah set out to tell their story. A story about having to leave your home and starting life afresh in a land you have never seen.
Neema Shah’s debut novel follows the lives of an Indian family living in Kampala in 1972, just after Idi Amin orders non-Ugandan Asians to leave the country within 90 days, accusing them of ‘milking the cow but not feeding it’. There is Jaya, the matriarch of the family, who left India as a young girl to marry a man she barely knew, in a country she’d probably never heard about.
The man she travelled to marry, Motichand, had fled a life of discrimination and hate, being very low in the pecking order of India’s caste system.
Although Indians first came to East Africa as indentured labourers to work on the Uganda Railway in the late 19th century, many just immigrated, fleeing poverty and discrimination in their homeland. It was a policy of the colonial administration that trading was reserved for Asians, and barred to Africans; thus essentially giving the Asians a monopoly on trade.
Motichand, like many Indians, opened up a shop, and then sent for his wife from India. It was typical of the times that this penniless immigrant could get himself a male servant, December, to wait upon his wife; and that they would refer to this adult male as ‘houseboy’. The couple have two sons, Pran the elder and Vijay. Pran marries Asha, who moves in with the family.
The first part of the book deals with the tension that Idi Amin’s announcement brings, and the realisation that they will eventually have to leave their relatively comfortable life in Uganda and travel into the unknown. While the rest are more or less resigned to that fact, Pran isn’t, and wants to ‘fight’ for his home. That he has been sending money illegally to the UK does not seem a contradiction to him.
Shah gives us an insight into the lives of the Asians, who lived a relatively privileged life courtesy of the British. This was the most interesting bit of the book for me, although it probably painted too cosy a life of two generations living under one roof without much trouble.
Shah uses Indian words to describe peculiarly Indian foods and habits, continuing the trend of non-English authors not finding English equivalents for non-English terms.
The story builds well to the climax when they all have to eventually leave Uganda for the UK, only it is not the climax. There is Part Two, which deals with the family arriving in Britain, being put in camps, and having to deal without the privileges they were used to in Uganda. Again, the others try to build another life in the UK, but Pran still dreams of returning ‘home’.
Kololo Hill is a well-written book, the historical inconsistencies notwithstanding. But for a character-driven narrative (each chapter is told from one of the characters’ perspectives) the characters do not develop much; they remain almost two-dimensional. You feel that each one would have their own part, to tell their story.
Only strong and opinionated Asha is fleshed out somehow and, to a lesser extent, Jaya. In fact, more details of Jaya’s story, of her journey across the waters of the Indian Ocean that were supposed to wipe away her caste, would have made it a very interesting read indeed.
Shah’s book has been lauded for its description of what it means to be uprooted from one’s home, and have to start again in a strange land. But what kind of home was it? When Uganda became independent in 1962, Asians were given the choice to become either citizens of Uganda, or Britain.
Most of them chose to become British, and they were probably comfortable with the buffer that the British Empire had created for them, why shake the cart? No one could have imagined that some crazy man like Amin would come along and tell them to leave.
If they had a choice, in 1972, to either remain Ugandan and stay in their much-loved homes or retain their British passports and leave – would they have chosen to stay? Academic, I know.
Shah conveniently ignores the fact that thousands of Ugandans were also forced into exile by Amin, without as much as a passport in their hands. And that hundreds of thousands never made it out alive. So, being Ugandan, and having experienced the bitter bread of exile myself, it is difficult to feel sorry for the Motichands.
It is also strange that in a tale situated in Uganda very few Ugandans, apart from the menacing presence of Amin, feature. December is little more than a fleeting excuse to try and show the magnanimity of the Motichand family. We don’t know his story, or what eventually becomes of him.
It is ironic that while the Indian family is worried about losing their home, December is worried about losing his life. But he is just a houseboy, so we never learn what happened to him.
While Kololo Hill is a good read, and gives some insights into the otherwise closed lives of the Ugandan Indian community, Ugandans might find it a wee shallow. The underlying question, why people who fled discrimination in their homeland would themselves end up discriminating against others in their adopted one, is never even approached. That, I think, is the biggest disappointment in the book.
The article appeared first on newvision.co.ug.
Kololo Hill is available at African Writers Trust at UGX 60,000. Call/WhatsApp Mark on +256753033086 and +256775685909 for inquiries and deliveries.