By Our Reporter
This February marks 50 years since a malevolent and ruthless Ugandan army officer staged a political coup in East Africa and pronounced himself President Idi Amin Dada of Uganda. He would come to be known as ‘The Butcher of Uganda’.
During his time in office, Idi Amin tortured, mutilated, and murdered thousands of Ugandans – estimated by Amnesty International to be around half a million people. So many of his victims were thrown into the Nile that the Owen Falls Dam regularly became blocked with body parts. He kept the decapitated heads of his opponents in his freezer, although he denied claims of cannibalism. Human flesh was too salty, he joked.
The Indian Diaspora throughout the globe will remember Idi Amin well. In August 1972 he announced that, following a prophetic dream, he was expelling thousands of Ugandan Asians from the country, accusing them of sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption. They had 90 days’ notice and were ordered to surrender all their businesses, homes, and possessions, each one of them only being allowed to take the equivalent of £50 out of the country.
Although there was condemnation for Amin’s actions, the world only stood by to watch as within Uganda a wild scramble for passports and visas began. Some countries were willing to receive the refugees, others made excuses. Meanwhile, there were rumours in the background. Idi Amin was building concentration camps and silencing dissent. He was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, and the Ugandan Asians could see where things were heading if they didn’t leave soon.
It was the hardship of the Ugandan Asians that originally inspired author Claire Duende to write her recently published novel ‘The Fortunicity of Birdie Dalal’. The book follows the experiences of a young Ugandan Asian woman who loses everything and comes to England to forge a new life with her family.
“I was writing a novel about loss, and starting again, and I distinctly recalled images of Ugandan Asians disembarking at Heathrow Airport in 1972. The lost look on their faces as they arrived in our cold country was heart-breaking. They were rock bottom, yet over the years they have integrated fully and gone on to prosper.
“While researching my novel, I read Mahmood Mamdani’s book ‘From Citizen to Refugee’ recounting his experience of being housed in a resettlement camp in Kensington, London. I was surprised that there had been shelters in the centre of London and I remembered the area well from that time when I was only fifteen. I tried to imagine how it would appear to equally naïve eyes.”
Duende’s book follows the journey of Birdie and her family, from their expulsion from Uganda to their new, diminished life in London. This is emphasised further when her husband re-establishes links with his old Cambridge University friends, the new gulf between them seeming immense.
Says Duende, “I think many people often look at refugees and see them as embodiments of the tumultuous events they are going through at the time, but they are also individuals in their own right, with their own stories. So it is with Birdie, who has her own demons and insecurities to contend with while navigating this traumatic event. But whereas this could be a gloomy tale of loss and despair, it is ultimately an uplifting story that illustrates the power of kindness and horizons of hope.