It is 1972 and Uganda’s ruthless leader, Idi Amin, has decreed that all Ugandan Asians have to leave the country in 90 days. Kololo Hill explores this real-life crisis through the experience of a fictional family, from the perspectives of the three key characters, Asha, Vijay and Jaya.
The story opens with Asha, the daughter-in-law, looking out towards a gruesome view of the Nile river, while her mind wanders, thinking of her extremely secretive husband.
Some of those involved cope with the news of the expulsion better than others. For Asha’s husband, Pran, the news is nonsense. The complexity of this story is set in motion when Pran has to leave behind the business that he works tirelessly at.
Jaya is the matriarch who holds the family together while trying to uphold the pride and dignity of where she came from, India. The author shatters the stereotype of Asian women as submissive and quiet by giving her character resilience and strength.
Jaya arrived in Uganda as a young bride in her teens with no family around her. She had to establish a family away from her own family, twice — once in Uganda, and once again in Britain after the family moves there.
Jaya deals with the loss of two of the most important men in her life a few days before their departure to England. Her husband, Motichand, dies from a fall after being threatened by two soldiers. Meanwhile, their male helper, December, also known as Adenya, who has been with the family for many years, has disappeared without saying goodbye and left the family hanging.
These incidents do not stop Jaya from moving forward and thinking about the fate of her children. She wishes for everyone to come with her to England and build a new life, although Pran is hesitant about going with them.
Like Jaya, Asha has a strong sense of adaptability and willingness to embrace new opportunities, in contrast to Pran. Her increasing doubts about Pran since the beginning of the marriage — owing to his secretive behaviour — cause their relationship to disintegrate over time.
Back in Uganda, she was an obedient wife. But, the traumatic events she experiences make her stronger. She grows into an independent woman who makes her own decisions despite being challenged by her husband to return to Uganda with him. Asha is determined to build her life in England by finding a job that makes her happy.
Vijay, the youngest in the family, also resolves to start anew in England, leaving their sorrows behind. Upon arriving in the country as a refugee, he settles for an underpaid job at a petrol station, seizing any opportunity he can get.
Kololo Hill looks at the perspectives of the different nationalities, mainly the Ugandans, Indians and British. There is racism even among the Ugandans, but there is also kindness and a sense of humanity, as portrayed by the British who take the Ugandans into their homes to give them shelter.
Identity, a sense of belonging and the meaning of home are the central themes of Kololo Hill. While the journey the characters take is a dreadful one, ultimately there is a sense of hope as they believe there is light at the end of the tunnel.
This article first appeared on May 10, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.