We Are All Birds of Uganda: Hafsa Zayyan

Published by Penguin/Random House

This is the story of a Ugandan family of Indian origin, told from the perspectives of two men: Hasan in 1960s Kampala, who writes letters to dead wife, and Sameer, a young ambitious man in London in the mid-2000s.

Hasan’s family is originally from Gujarat, but he sees himself as Ugandan—he was born there and has never known another country. After his beloved wife Amira dies, he marries Shabnam, a widow, out of obligation. But he keeps writing long letters to Amira, letters that will never be sent, telling her about his life.

In London, Hasan’s grandson Sameer works in a law firm, where he is doing well. His firm is expanding and opening an office in Singapore, and Sameer has been offered a job there. He wants to take it but is trying to find the courage to tell his family in Leicester, especially as his father would like him to move back home and join the family business.

Both Hassan and Sameer have to face big challenges in their lives. In 1972, Ugandan President Idi Amin orders the expulsion of Asians in the country, with their businesses going to Black Ugandans. Hasan eventually—and reluctantly—moves to the UK, leaving his business to his employee and best friend Abdullah. He never really settles in the UK and dreams of returning to Uganda.

Sameer is pulled back to Leicester when his childhood friend, who left London to join his family’s business, is badly beaten up. The incident shakes Sameer and makes him question what he really wants. Does he actually want to go to Singapore? He takes up an invitation from a family friend, Mr. Shah, to visit him in Kampala.

Until Sameer goes to Uganda, he isn’t curious about his family’s past. It is not something his parents speak about. But going to Kampala changes him: he meets Abdullah’s family and falls in love with Abdullah’s great-granddaughter, Maryam. This is also where he discovers his grandfather: Hasan’s letters ended up with Maryam’s father, who has kept them for Hasan’s family. Sameer starts to see his family in a different way and tries to come to terms with his past.

This book is about family, relationships and racism—both anti-Black and anti-Asian. Sameer is horrified by some of his grandfather’s prejudices—Hasan could be friends with Black Africans, but could never see them as equals. Hasan’s best friend is Abdullah, a Black Ugandan he has grown up with. He makes Abdullah manager of his firm, Saeed & Sons, but does not make him a partner. The way Hasan sees it, Saeed & Sons is a family firm and that’s how it should stay. And Hasan, in turn, has to leave his home because he is Asian.

Racism also is a part of Sameer’s world. His new boss, Chris, picks on him and excludes him from parties he throws for the other colleagues. Sameer refuses to believe that it is racist, but there is no other explanation. And there is the fact that Sameer’s friend was beaten up a group of white supremacists.

Hafsa Zayyan captures the divide between Blacks and Asians, and between the traditional values of immigrant parents and those of their children who have grown up in the West. Because of the questions it raises, this is not always a comfortable book to read.

Zayyan felt that the story about the expulsion of Asian Ugandans from the country was an important story to tell, one that not many people seem to know about.[1] This is a beautifully written book, which is not only a slice of history, but is also about home and belonging, about the meaning of family and the ties that bind us.


[1] See, for example, this interview on Bad Form by Amy Mae Baxter.

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