My father begins his story by showing me a discoloured and grainy monochrome newspaper cutting. He runs his finger slowly over the faded print and begins to speak.
The memoir that he has chosen to divulge begins in Eastern Africa, in a small town on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the banks of the river Nile and home to the tribe of the countries dictator.
The year is 1971. Mere months have passed since Idi Amin Dada seized power in a military coup from the former ruler, but the previously buried animosity of the native Africans towards the Asian population is gradually surfacing. The largely resented ethnic minority make up just 1% of the population, but hold a fifth of the nations wealth. Since his self-appointment as president of Uganda there has been a progressive escalation of anti-asian legislation; Indians are forced to attend special ‘camps’ where they are counted and their possessions appraised, and in a series of broadcasted conferences the dictator details a number of supposed economic crimes committed against the Ugandan people by the immigrants.
On an uncomfortably hot August afternoon, my twelve year old father mops sweat from his forehead as he walks back from school, along the dirt road that runs from his village to the next. Two bawdily dressed African women sing by the roadside as they beat a mixture of maize flour and boiling water with long poles to make ‘ugali’. His tread subconsciously slows to match their rhythmic voices and pounding. From the shadows of a cracked mud hut he can hear laughter and the slightly slurred Swahili of men intoxicated on ‘waragi’ – a popular local moonshine. In the distance brown dust forms clouds to signify the arrival of a motor vehicle.
As it draws closer he becomes aware that the vehicle is not alone. A gaggle of children, African and Indian, are chasing the open-topped jeep, excitement colouring their voices as their bare feet slap on the ground. He stops to wonder what the cause of this disturbance is and as he turns around, realises that a curious crowd has gathered around him.
The vehicle grows, and with it the occupants. He is unsurprised to see soldiers in the front seat – such sights have been gaining frequency in the past few months, but the mountainous man sitting in the back, his olive uniform adorned with a dazzling array of medals that glimmer under the harsh sun is the real cause of the spectacle. Grinning, his white teeth form an arresting contrast to his caliginous skin. He flings his arms into the air allowing handfuls of creased bank notes to flutter to the ground in the wake of the vehicle, readily snatched up by the chattering children.
My father is mesmerised by this man’s smile. To this day, he can describe the incident in minute detail. It is the confident, almost arrogant smile of a man who knows that he has untold power, a man whose command can, and will, send tens of thousands into exile and condemn hundreds of thousands to death at the hands of his army. The memory of the day that my father came face to face with one of the most brutal dictators that Africa has seen is unlikely to fade from recollection.
To be Continued