Skip to content

Book Review: We are all birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

In July 2017, after two eight-hour flights, I stepped into the arrivals hall of Entebbe airport to a sea off chaos. 

It’d be a further two hours – thanks to a long immigration queue and every bag going through a scanner before being able to leave the airport – that I’d step outside and see the red earth and lush greenery of Uganda. 

We are all birds of Uganda took me back to that moment, the moment I fell in love with Uganda.

I have to admit, when I arrived in Uganda, I had very little knowledge of the country’s history, in all honesty it wasn’t somewhere that had been on my radar at all. That all changed in a two and a half week visit that gave me a different view of the world and left me desperate to go back and learn more about the history and heritage of this incredible place.

For the time being, I’ll have to stick to revisiting through books hence why I picked up “We’re all birds of Uganda” by Hafsa Zayyan.

It’s told in two parts….

1960s UGANDA. Hasan struggles to keep his family business afloat following the sudden death of his wife. As he begins to put his shattered life back together piece by piece, a new regime seizes power, and a wave of rising prejudice threatens to sweep away everything he has built.

Present-day LONDON. Sameer, a young high-flying lawyer, senses an emptiness in what he thought was the life of his dreams. Called back to his family home by an unexpected tragedy, Sameer begins to find the missing pieces of himself not in his future plans, but in a heritage he never knew.

Despite spanning different decades Hassan and Sameer’s stories are both about identity, belonging, heritage and racism.

Sameer appears to have it all; he’s a successful lawyer contemplating a move to Singapore though he knows it’ll devastate his Muslim parents – they dream of him returning to Leicester to run the family business, something he has no desire to do.

He doesn’t think the colour of his skin has held him back, when a colleague tells Sameer his promotion and job offer in Singapore is down to “quotas” and his new boss begins to racially bully him, Sameer begins to question his life and where he belongs. When his friend is Rahool is critically injured in a racially motivated attack, Sameer starts to really examine his roots, his culture and question where his life is going. Up until this point, he’s never been curious about his family’s origins in Uganda, explored his history or heritage.

These are all questions his grandfather Hasan has asked himself decades earlier in 1960s Uganda. He’s seeing his business slowly destroyed by boycotts and regime change – it all comes to head when Idi Amin seizes power in 1971, a week after the toppling of Milton Obote.

Before I came to this book, I had sketchy knowledge of what happened in Uganda in the 70s. I knew about the genocide. I knew Amin was responsible for the deaths of 300,000 Ugandans.

On my trip to Uganda, I met, spent time with and interviewed Canon Erasmus Bitarabeho – he was on Amin’s hit list, he managed to escape Uganda and spent years in Canada before being able to return home, his story is not unique, he tells it with very a little drama – it was just something that happened and he was lucky to escpae.

What I didn’t know much about was the treatment of South Asians in Uganda. This book helped to fill in the gaps.

Hassan’s story is told in a series of letters to his deceased first wife, they give us a sense of history without turning into a history lesson. He talks about Obote’s policies of “Africanisation”, and Amin’s expulsion of South Asians from Uganda….

A brief plotted history….

The presence of South Asians in Uganda was the result of the British administration in the 1800s – they were brought over to act as a “buffer” between Europeans and Africans and to build railways.

In August 1971, after Amin had overthrown Obote he announced a review of the citizenship status awarded to Uganda’s Asian community. While paying tribute to Indians’ contribution to the economy, he accused a minority of the Asian population of disloyalty, non-integration and commercial malpractice, claims Indian leaders disputed. He said his government would recognise citizenship rights already granted, but all outstanding applications for citizenship would be cancelled.

A year later, Amin declared that Britain would need to take on responsibility for British subjects of Asian origin. They were given 90 days to leave. The policy was expanded to include citizens of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

It was unclear what it meant for the 23,000 Asians who had been granted Ugandan citizenship or those who held no other citizenship. They weren’t originally included in the expulsion, on 19 August, they were added to the list, before being re-exempted three days later following international protest. Many chose to leave fearing for their safety.

It is Hassan that is navigating this, he sees himself as Ugandan, it is his home and always has been, he applies for Ugandan citizenship when the country is given independence – a decision that backfires for him when he’s left stateless and separated from his family. 

Once in Britain, he has to come to terms with the fact his business has gone, he’s lost everything he’s built, he’s lost his home and his sense of identity. He and his family suffer racist abuse and inequality as they try build new lives here.

That’s what I found fascinating about this book. It tackles racism in British, Indian and African culture at how stereotypes and prejudice leave a lasting impact on societies. 

Sameer’s visit to Kampala in the second half of this book is where it really came to life for me. Zayyan paints a Kampala I recognise and love. I was transported back to the crazy, busy streets, the mopeds, the noise, the smells, the shops, the Baha’I temple, I could see every one of the seven hills the city is built and the views I got looking out over the sprawling mass when I first arrived.

Murchison Falls
Lake Victoria

What Zayyan also shows is a city still dealing with racial tensions. It shows a place where communities are segregated, the wounds of the past and feelings of discontent are still felt, there’s tension between communities.

That builds towards the end of the book – I had feeling something bad was going to happen, I can only describe it as a knot in my stomach as Sameer increasingly became aware of racial tensions and how he’s viewed. He’s forced to accept the past, how his family treated Africans and how his actions in the present have consequences.

The final lines of the book are dark, Zayyan leaves us on a whopper of a cliff hanger (it left me shouting) but in hindsight, now I’ve calmed down, I can see it was incredibly powerful way to end a book that has a lot to say.

I loved this book for taking me back to Uganda and for teaching me more a bit about the place, it also spurred me into the picking next book on my tbr pile…..

See I can end on a cliff hanger too 🙂

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

10 thoughts on “Book Review: We are all birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan Leave a comment

  1. Excellent review. I just finished reading the book and found your review online.
    The book was an eye opener for me as it opened the door into the world of Asian Africans.
    The ending left me confused but it made me realise that Sameer cannot run away from problems of identity which exist everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: