We are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan was an absolutely beautiful and captivating novel that made me feel so lucky to have been given the chance to read it early. This is the debut novel by Hafsa and would you believe it if I told you she wrote it within 6 months!. Hafsa Zayyan has blown me away with how superb her writing was making it so hard to put down this book. It really opens your mind to the history of Uganda specifically South Asians who lived in the country. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea there was a vast South Asian community in Uganda. It was therefore very refreshing learning about the history of South Asians in Uganda. Some of the main themes in the novel focus primarily on finding ones identity, religion, cultural factors, racial tension, and family.
The novel is split between past and future as we slowly discover the connections between two characters and one family. It is told through the POV of Sameer and Hassan. Firstly, we see from the POV of Sameer whose story is told in present day London. Sameer is a hot shot lawyer who is very much career focused during this time in his life. He has worked hard to get where he is and things are looking up as he is offered a promotion in Singapore.
On the other hand, you have Hasan a successful businessesman and shop owner. His timeline takes place between the 1960s to the 1980s. Hasan POV is told through letters he wrote for his first wife and one true love. Through these letters Hasan keeps his deceased wife updated on the goings on of his life and how he struggles everyday to be without her. We also learn of Idi Amin who decided to take away the national identity of Asians born in Uganda. As a This forced Hasan and his family to flea the country as they were now seen as outcasts.
As a character, I really felt for Sameer and could understand where he was coming from. Even though he has this amazing job he feels very much detached from his life and yearns for something more. He tries so hard to integrate into the lifestyle in London but still feels like an outcast at times which was very relatable. Sameer deals with subtle racism and micro aggresion in his workplace many times from his boss and coworkers. This made me so angry because many of the micro aggressions were relatable and I’ve had to deal with similar moments. Sameer is also torn between moving back to his hometown of Leicester to work in his family business, or to take up the promotion he has been offered in Singapore. Soon Sameer decides to make drastic changes to his life which made me happy as he was soon discovering his roots and where he truly wants to be in life. By delving into his past, Sameer is able to map out where he wants to be in the future.
I would say my most favourite part of the whole story is when Sameer goes to Uganda and reconnects with his distant family members he knew nothing about. This I feel was a turning point in the story, sort of like a lightbulb moment for Sameer where he finally realises what direction he really wishes to take his life. He also manages to meet Maryam the daughter of a distant family member. I really love how Sameer was able to form a bond and connection with her.
“He looks up and she is smiling. She is radiant. He exhales, her words causing the demons in his head to scatter and flee.”
I felt Hasan’s POV was a great learning experience. I learned soooo much about the history of Uganda, the South Asian community within it, and the political tension that forced many South Asians living in the country to leave. Hafsa carefully and intricately describes the various issues and how and why the tension was at boiling point within the country.
Hassan was such a complex character as ethnically he is South Asian having been born in Uganda. He’s also what you would call a twice migrant as first you have South Asians moving from South Asia to East Africa and then having to move again after being expelled by Idi Amin. Hassan and many other South Asians are obviously distraught as Uganda is their home and it’s all they’ve ever known to be “home”. To make matters even more complicated, India didn’t even want to take in South Asian Ugandans. This begs the question as to what will become home of this community once expelled. It was really heartbreaking to see this unfold.
In terms of the writing, I felt that We are All Birds of Uganda contained some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in a while. There are many thought provoking moments that really opened my eyes to things such as my religion and cultural factors. I also loved how Hafsa was able to inject Islamic notions into the story. Many of these had deeper meanings and added to the overall story. I connected so well with the story that it made me feel scene as a South Asian man.
“I have had a lot of time to think here, you see. Time to reflect. ‘Allah increases rizq for whom He wills, and straitens it from whom He wills, and they rejoice in the life of the world, whereas the life of this world as compared with the hereafter is but a brief passing enjoyment.”
Overall, this for me was an absolute masterpiece of a novel. The writing was beautiful and Hafsa is able to raise many social issues in such a short space of time. The ending was also very open ended! I couldn’t believe that it ended the way it did which makes me think the story might continue on in the future?? Who knows. But anyway, I think everyone should definitely read this as it’s just the perfect novel in my opinion.