A devastating decree is issued: all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days. They must take only what they can carry, give up their money and never return.
For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it 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.
Length: 304 pages
I picked up Kololo Hill after reading We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zyann. Both books are about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in the 1970s, but whereas We Are All Birds of Uganda tells the story through characters looking back, Neema Shah tells her story through characters who are living in the moment.
Kololo Hill is told from multiple perspectives, but all are part of Asha and Pran’s family, which the story centres around. Asha and Pran are a young married couple, and when they are forced to leave Uganda, they are forced to leave behind Pran’s family business as well.
This is the reason the ruler of Uganda gives for expelling Asians: the inequality between them and the black Ugandans. This is, of course, as result of colonialism. Neema Shah does a good job of presenting the complicated reality of the time. She doesn’t paint this as a black and white situation at all. She humanises what was, and to a degree still is, a difficult political situation.
Asha is by far my favourite character. She represents the generation of women who were beginning to find their independence in the 70s. She worked before getting married to Pran, and throughout the novel, we sense her desire to be more than a wife and mother. She has a mind of her own, and this is in contrast to Jaya, Pran’s mother, who openly admits early in the novel that she made herself pliable to her husbands needs and life. The two women represent different generations of women, and I enjoyed that juxtaposition.
Shah also draws comparisons between how the black Ugandans feel about Asians in their country, and how some white British people felt about the Asians entering Britain. Both groups perceive themselves to be losing something through the Asians’ presence. Inequality, regardless of the country, only breeds discontent and division between people.
My only small criticism of Kololo Hill is that some emotional moments in the text could have been explored more. If the reader were given a deeper look into a character’s thoughts and feelings, when certain momentous events happened, it would have deepened the connection we feel to the characters. But this is a small niggle in what otherwise is a beautiful, atmospheric book.
Shah’s writing reminds me a little of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I think she’s a writer with great potential to get better and better over time. I really enjoyed Kololo Hill, and I’ll be following her work.