By Vishnu Makhijani, Neema Shahs parents and grandparents left India to make their homes in East Africa and later in London, where she was born and lives.
Growing up, she read many novels about the British immigrant experience but they focused on those whod arrived on Britains shores, leaving a single country behind, one where they belonged completely.
It was different for people like her grandparents, the so-called ‘twice migrants’ who had roots in one country, built a life in another and moved to a third. She always wondered where their stories were on the bookshelves.
There was also a wider story of the 80,000 Uganda Asians who were expelled by brutal ruler Idi Amin in 1972 with only 90 days to leave. This story always fascinated Shah and the outcome is her extraordinarily moving debut debut novel, “Kololo Hill” (Picador India), that explores, from the green hilltops of Kampala to the terraced houses of London what it means to leave your home behind, what it takes to start again, and the lengths some will go to protect their loved ones.
As a child, she’d often wondered what it would be like to leave behind everything you know and love, to start again.
“When children at school told me to “go back to my own country”, I spent a lot of time wondering where my ‘own country’ was. I’d think hard about what my family would do, where they’d go? Was it India, where my grandparents were born? Or East Africa, where my parents were born? I had no experience of any country except the UK, how would I have managed? And decades later, I finally had the opportunity to explore those questions through my writing,” Shah told in an interview.
The research for the novel, that was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the DGA First Novel Prize. turned out to be a journey in self-discovery.
“Researching the Ugandan Asian expulsion is quite different to researching a well known period of history such as World War II, for example. While there are resources out there, there is far less to go on as you can imagine. Alongside a couple of historical books on the period, I managed to find BBC documentaries and other audio-visual materials on YouTube, as well as many hours of first-hand accounts by people caught up in the expulsion by the School of Oriental and African Studies,” Shah explained.
The interviews, conducted both in Gujarati and English, gave her a feel for what it must actually have been like for the refugees. As “Kololo Hill” was the first ever novel she’d written, she was reluctant at first to spend a lot of money on a research trip so she’d actually written two full drafts before she went to Uganda.
“In fact, it was a strange experience visiting the country, because there were things about Uganda I felt I knew well even though it was my first trip – it was as though I’d visited Uganda before in a past life. This was, of course, the research coming to life before me.
“Although I’ve spent many holidays in Kenya and India over the years which helped me imagine them in my novel, I’d never been to Uganda until I wrote the book and it helped immensely to speak to Ugandan people. I came away from my trip with a full understanding of why the country is called ‘The Pearl of Africa’. It’s a stunning place and I could see what a wrench it must have been to leave it for the cold climes of the UK,” Shah elaborated.
For Asha and Pran, married just months before, Idi Amin’s devastating decree means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save. For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing. Will they all make it to safety in Britain and will they be given refuge if they do?
And all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them, threatening to tear the family apart.
Were any members of Shah’s family/extended family affected by the expulsions?
“My parents were born in Kenya and Tanzania. I’ve spent a lot of time particularly in Kenya and there are similarities of lifestyle between these countries and Uganda. I also have extended family who were caught up in the expulsion.
“Interestingly, I only discovered some of these stories after I started writing the novel. It’s an interesting aspect of the expulsion that many people wanted to forget, to move on and put it behind them, meaning that younger generations were often in the dark about the things that happened.
“It’s been heartening hearing from younger generations of readers descended from East African Asians who’ve told me that by reading ‘Kololo Hill’, it’s opened up dialogues in their own families about the experiences of expulsion and migration,” Shah said.
How many Ugandan Asians actually left and how many stayed – and how many returned?
While the vast majority of Ugandan Asians left before the November 1972 deadline, there was a small group, perhaps a few hundred, who remained.
“They were mainly civil servants who Idi Amin and his government felt should stay behind to help run the country, plus some who simply decided they weren’t willing to leave. They slipped under the radar, sometimes living together in relative safety in mandirs, gurdwaras and mosques and making money on the black market to make ends meet.
“A handful of refugees who’d left during the expulsion started to come back to Uganda as early as 1974 or 1975, when Idi Amin was still in power and Uganda was an increasingly challenging place to live. This highlights the pull of home for people who couldn’t bear to be apart from their beloved Pearl of Africa,” Shah said.
What next? Has she begun planning her next book?
“I’m hard at work on book two which is primarily set in World War II England and India. I’m keen to continue telling the many stories of British Asians; they’ve been overlooked for far too long,” Shah concluded.