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Kololo Hill by Neema Shah: I'm alone, I'm alone

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

Compelled to forsake your homeland in just 90 days. Disconnected from so much that is precious and forced to leave without possessions. Plunged into a strange, unwelcoming country of weird food, weather and customs.

In 1972 Idi Amin purged Uganda of almost the entire minority Indian-lineage population. In this unspeakable act, he expelled the ‘Asian’ population, with just 90 days to prepare, in an atmosphere of mounting violence and dispossession.

Many of those with British passports arrived practically penniless in the cold and unwelcoming UK.

(Leicester Council placed an advertisement stating, ‘Asians’ from Uganda ‘should not come to Leicester’. It arguably had the opposite effect – natural justice, perhaps.)

After nearly 50 years, this agonising story has largely faded from public memory - until now.

Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill tells the compelling story of a Ugandan Asian family forced to flee to England after Idi Amin’s edict leaves them with no choice.

Written from different family members' perspectives, we share their distress and apprehension at leaving behind everything they know for an unfamiliar, unfriendly country.

Kololo Hill 1972

Part 1 of the story is set in Uganda in 1972. We first meet Asha on the banks of the Nile, halting at the site of her childhood memories. releasing her hair in a small act of defiance. The visit is cut short by her grisly discovery and her family’s deep anxiety about making curfew.

Neema Shah expertly conjures up the sights, sounds and smells of Uganda. We feel the powerful heat, delight in the glowing mosquitoes and long to taste the mouth-watering food.

She cleverly interweaves the mounting tension and increasing trepidation of each family member against the backdrop of increasing hostility and accelerating events.

The narrative is more subtle and nuanced than simply a tale of crisis and identity, with fascinating reflections on how this minority, with British complicity, became more educated and prosperous than the indigenous Ugandans and found itself the target of accusations of greed and elitism.

England 1972

Part 2 of the novel is about the family’s arrival and settlement in England. They step off the plane into icy winter weather, met by brusque officials and sympathetic helpers.

An observation of Asha’s reminded me of something my father recalled when he first arrived from Jamaica in the 1940s.

‘The bare branches were like ancient fossils, the sky above a wash of blotchy grey.’

My father thought all the trees in England were dead when he first arrived in England, as he’d never seen trees without the lush green leaves of his boyhood in Jamaica.

Neema Shah’s descriptions of the living conditions, penetrating cold and unappetising, unfamiliar food, enable us to feel the family’s discomfort and disorientation.

‘…the cold lingered on her skin like the sting after a slap.‘

‘…the pink shrivelled food drowning in fat was bacon.’

From then on, the family start adjusting to their new life in London, facing challenges of discrimination, cultural shock and the mundane needs of maintaining a new land.

Some elements of Kololo Hill - that of arriving and surviving in a strange culture - reminded me of The Sparrow and Children of God, in which the characters are coping with literally living in an alien world.

The book is very well-written, poignant, and moving, with well-balanced sentiment and excellent characterisation.

To many of us, it would be unthinkable to uproot our lives in such a short time and be compelled to move to an unfamiliar land. This novel offers a real glimpse of precisely how that experience would feel.

Happy reading!

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