The expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 and its multigenerational impact receives a new perspective in the novel We Are All We are All Birds of Uganda, by Hafsa Zayyan. Published in 2021, the story alternates between modern day Britain and Uganda in the 1960s.
Sameer, 26, is a London lawyer and a descendant of Ugandan-Indian immigrants. His grandfather, Hasan Saeed, arrived in the UK with his family in 1972 following the forced eviction of Asians by Ugandan despot president, Idi Amin. Many of them eventually settled in Leicester, north-west of London, which is where Sameer was born.
His father runs a chain of Indian restaurants but Sameer is carving out a law career for himself at a prestigious firm. He has been offered a lucrative work opportunity in Singapore, but hesitates to tell his parents because they expect him to eventually join the family business.
Prior to the Singapore posting, Sameer decides to travel to Kampala to visit their former family home and store. It is in Uganda that he finds letters by his late grandfather Hasan written to his beloved first wife, Amira, after her death. Through this correspondence, we follow the history of the Saeed family in Uganda since 1945. Hasan’s grandfather came from India in 1904 as a poor man, and established a shop in Kampala and over time, the family business grew into a network of shops and a cotton ginnery.
The historical narrative is the most captivating part of the book. The experiences of one family give us insight into the South Asian migration to colonial Uganda. This small community achieves disproportionate commercial success even as the majority Africans are denied economic opportunities. The era culminated in the ruthless expulsion of Asians in 1972.
Race relations come to the fore. Through Hasan’s letters we understand the Asian attitude towards Africans, viewed as a race suitable for employment but not for business partnership or marriage. In England, grandfather Hasan would rather live in the run-down Asian quarters than mix elsewhere with Caribbean people and other immigrants.
The book also reviews national identity. Born in Uganda, Hasan fully identified as a Ugandan and gave up his British citizenship when Asians were forced to choose.
In the UK in the 1970s, we see the varying consequences of forced immigration. Shabnam, comes into her own in England.
We see the generational disconnect of immigrants and their children. Unlike the first-generation diaspora that remained insular, Sameer wants to chart his own life in a multi-cultural Britain.
There are times when the narrative feels awkward, rushed or stretched out, possibly because this is a debut book written under tight deadlines.
In 2019 Zayyan won the inaugural Merky Books New Writers’ prize in which she had submitted a shorter version of the book. After winning the prize, Merky Books requested the full manuscript for publication within six months.
She is a practising lawyer living in London. Born and raised in Britain, she is the daughter of Pakistani and Nigerian parents, and her husband is a second-generation Ugandan Asian immigrant to the UK. It was his family's story that inspired the novel.