A Tale of Two Timelines: Uncovering History in Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda

By Raiyah Butt

Source: Stuart Simpson/Penguin.


“If you don’t understand where you’ve come from, you’ll never really understand who you are or where you’re going.”

Sameer, the main character of Hafsa Zayyan’s award-winning We Are All Birds of Uganda, has this realisation during his first trip to the country. It’s a statement that underpins the “identity crisis” experience that many British South Asians - or any South Asian diaspora - often go through. Part of that is an ignorance (not always wilful) of the history of our lineages and having to make conscious choices in our adulthood to understand it. Sameer is the second generation son of Asian Ugandans, born and raised in Leicester. The story is told in alternating timelines, Sameer as a 26-year-old lawyer and the viewpoint of his grandfather in Uganda 60 years ago. His grandfather Hasan’s story is told via letters to his late wife, Amira. Eventually, the two alternating timelines converge into one story.


Admittedly, I am ignorant of the history of South Asians in Uganda. There is no such thing as “South Asian history” in the British school curriculum. I’m not even sure how you define such a wide term, but you would think that there’d be some sort of inclusion at least in the context of the British Empire. But when I was in school, the British Empire was not even given a mention. Only in my late teens did I become introduced to the subject, painfully unaware of it my whole adolescent life. It was in my early twenties during university when I started playing catch-up to learn about the colonisation of India, but my focus was relatively narrow. I’ve neglected the wider history of South Asians across different geographical spheres, Africa being one of them. We Are All Birds Of Uganda provided me with a glimpse into the life of South Asians in Uganda during the British colonial era and its effects on subsequent generations. Through Sameer, the book takes you on a journey of exploration, discovering a history that was just as unknown to me as it was to him.


Sameer’s story starts off focusing on the trials of young adulthood. A seed of discontent is planted within him after a string of events make him question his identity and sense of belonging - struggling to tell his parents about a promotion to work in Singapore, his white colleague commenting that Sameer’s success is due to diversity quotas, and his friend Jeremiah stating frankly that this is racism. Then the biggest event - his friend Rahul moving back to their hometown Leicester and suffering from a racially motivated attack - acts as a major turning point for Sameer, unsettling his once complacent state of mind. After an argument with his parents over where his duties should lie, he sets off to Kampala, Uganda, determined to learn more about his family history in the hopes that he can understand himself.


The Expulsion, 1972


Meanwhile, starting in 1945 and ending in 1982, Hasan’s letters describe life in Uganda. Hasan is the proud owner of Saeed & Sons stores but is struggling with the loss of his wife. Through the letters, I understood that under British colonial rule, Asian communities in Uganda were able to find success by forming a wealthy, mercantile class. It was not lost on me that many people were forced over from India as indentured labour in the 1800s. But once Britain lost its imperial grip on India in 1947, it encouraged Asians to remain and settle in Uganda to bolster economic prosperity. Hasan’s mentality - writing things like “the karias do not understand the value of hard work. Why do you think the British brought us to Uganda, instead of trying to mobilise the native workforce?” - is indicative of the separation between Asian and Black Ugandans. He does, however, note the exception of the family’s former servant turned close friend of Hasan, so close that Hasan promoted him to store manager. He writes, “I am not saying there are not exceptions - Abdullah is obviously one such exception”, and “Abdullah is a fine example of an African who thinks like an Asian.”


Zayyan makes racial tensions clear, Asian Ugandans positioned as a petite bourgeoisie class and Black Ugandans often the lower class servants or agricultural workers. When Uganda regained its independence in 1962, Asians were offered the opportunity to either retain Ugandan citizenship or hold British citizenship. All of Hasan’s family chose British, except him. He chose to remain with Ugandan citizenship, his love and dedication to the country the guiding factor. But when military officer Idi Amin gained power through a coup, he dramatically turned life for Asian Ugandans on its head. Amin labelled Asians as a “self-segregating community of bloodsuckers that had sabotaged the economy and encouraged corruption”. He declared what he called an “economic war”, policies that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. In August 1972, he declared that Asians had 90 days to leave the country, triggering a mass migration of almost 80,000 people. Those who had British citizenship sought refuge either in the UK or a Commonwealth country, some fled back to India and Pakistan, and some travelled to another African country.


For Hasan, an Asian who retained Ugandan citizenship instead of British, this made him stateless and unable to go with the rest of his family to Britain. He writes “to be stateless is to be expelled not only from Uganda, but from anywhere on Earth.” Hasan’s story demonstrates the fickle nature of citizenship and how its legality can suddenly shift, leaving him - like many others in real life - unexpectedly sitting outside of the goalposts, unable to claim anywhere to belong and neglected by political institutions. Currently, there are 10 million stateless people in the world.


A Generational Story


Upon arriving in Uganda, Sameer travels to his grandfather’s old house where he finds Ibrahim (son of Adbullah, who Hasan left his house to when he was forced to leave). Ibrahim welcomes Sameer warmly, but his granddaughter Maryam is initially hostile, questioning Sameer on whether he has come to take back his family’s old house. After spending time together and acting as his guide to Kampala, Sameer and Maryam bond and he falls in love with her.


Sameer also discovers the tumultuous past of Asian Ugandans through the lens of Maryam and his grandfather’s letters, given to him by Ibrahim. Ibrahim and his family hail Sameer’s grandfather as a pioneering figure who, unlike most other people at the time, was an example of an Asian man who worked closely with a Black man. Yet, when Sameer reads his grandfather’s letters he uncovers the prejudice he held towards Black Ugandans and how, despite calling him a brother, Hasan never truly saw Abdullah as an equal. This realisation is had against a backdrop of interactions that highlight current hostility between Asians and Africans in modern-day Kampala - Sameer being called a muhindi, Maryam telling him the proportion of wealthier people in Uganda are mostly Asians, witnessing super rich Asian businessman Mr Shah’s nonchalant attitude towards displacing African businesses. The legacy of empire and political turmoil underpins Sameer’s journey, with Zayyan emphasising how everyday lives are wrangled within cross-cultural tensions.


Zayyan also uses the opportunity to further demonstrate anti-Blackness within the South Asian community - something that is touched on in Hasan’s attitudes but becomes a focal point when Sameer’s parents disapprove of his intended marriage to Maryam. Personally, I found that the cliché romance subplot was a disservice to the overall story. I liked Maryam’s character but would’ve preferred if the book continued its dissection of history, identity and generational trauma through Sameer’s already fragile relationship with his father. The theme of anti-Blackness would’ve fit well into this whilst also giving more weight to how the events of Hasan’s past in Uganda affect Sameer and his family so many years on. In the last few letters, we hear Hasan’s struggle to adapt to life in Leicester after he ends up rejoining his family. This could’ve been expanded on much more and it was a missed opportunity not to further explore the harsh realities and experiences that Asian communities had once they were expelled from Uganda. That element was lost and was a shortfall for this book which had the potential to be a well-rounded story on a part of history which is not spoken about enough, simultaneously tying it to our present realities.


Despite this, I learned a lot from We Are All Birds of Uganda. Sameer’s initial identity crisis doesn’t stop, he goes from struggling with his place in England to struggling with his place in Uganda, feeling as if his presence is the continuation of all the negative aspects from his grandfather’s past. But he vows to be better than those who came before him, another slightly cliché narrative but is the culmination of all of Sameer’s character development. The ambiguous ending might leave the reader in a bit of a limbo, but also is a reflection of the fact that Sameer’s journey is still open-ended. Through the tale of two timelines, a grandfather and a grandson, We Are All Birds of Uganda shows that one story can live on through generations to come.

 

About the author


Raiyah Butt is an International Relations graduate and TLP’s Senior Editor. She enjoys writing on current affairs and pop culture. Follow her at @raiyah.blog on Instagram.


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