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We Are All Birds of Uganda

Hafsa Zayyam,

#Merky Books, 2021.

Reviewed by Bashabi Fraser


In We Are All Birds of Uganda, Hafsa Zayyam tells an epic story spanning generations and continents, covering colonial and postcolonial times. In this double-helix narrative, a third-person account of Sameer’s success story in contemporary London is interspersed with his grandfather Hasan’s confessional letters to his beloved dead wife. This story-within-a-story technique could have appeared laboured, but Zayyam succeeds in bringing fractured journeys of displacement full circle in Sameer’s final journey back to the heart – not of darkness, but of the light of knowledge, uncovering what Sameer’s family made and lost as victims of history. Like the author, Sameer studied at Oxford and Cambridge, became a lawyer in the City, and is offered a job in Singapore. Unlike Sameer, Zayyam took up the offer; and while the author’s family is from Nigeria, Sameer’s life story is tied to Ugandan political history.

The novel opens with a trio of aspiring, young male friends from immigrant families who have grown up in Leicester and converged in London to realise their dreams. They socialise over weekends and we catch them on the cusp of change. Sameer has accepted a job in Singapore, while Rahool, an IT consultant, has decided to go back to Leicester to help with the family business. And this is what drives the novel forward – change – historic upheavals, uprooting of lives. Racist violence, which nearly paralyses Rahool, also disperses Ugandan Asians under Idi Amin. In the novel, change involves a journey into the past and the giving up of a job, a country and a family for a newfound love.

In a male world of entrepreneurship and competition, the fathers of Rahool and Sameer build up new lives and reputable businesses. Hasan, Sameer’s grandfather, had done the same in Uganda, in what he believed, back then, was his country. But this novel is also about family and community ties. The compelling images of women add a softness to the story. Sameer’s mother travels to his wedding in Kampala while his father retains a disapproving silence; his sister Zara, the ideal Asian daughter, puts her parents’ wishes first, but is, nevertheless, a warm, supportive sibling. Maryam, a conscientious doctor who has her feet firmly planted in her native Uganda, becomes the emotional reason for Sameer’s decision to come back ‘home’. Maryam and her extended family live in what was once Hasan’s family house.

The metropolis acts almost as a protagonist, which the characters try to claim by charting the streets of Leicester, London, and Kampala – where Maryam determines to let Sameer experience different aspects of the city.

You can’t stop birds from flying, can you, Sameer? They go where they will…’ The many-hued birds symbolise a multiculturalism that marks most societies where moving worlds of people collide and coalesce. Zayyam evokes the smells, the taste of street food, the fruit and vegetable markets of Kampala, its people and language, which all bring the city to life. Does the uncertain ending of this novel, which uncovers the fissures of a racial history, indicate that everything is about to be reignited by the cinders of ethnic divisions, or is a resolution possible through the bonds between individuals who defy decades of social prejudice and divisive historical events?