Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
10:06 AM 3rd February 2021

Kololo Hill By Neema Shah: A Review

In Neema Shah’s evocative debut novel, Kololo Hill, we are transported back to the Uganda of 1972, immediately before Idi Amin decreed that all Asians must leave: “The Asians came to Uganda to build the railway; the railway is finished – they must leave now. I will give them ninety days to pack up and go. Asians have milked the cow but did not feed it.”

In this single sentence we understand the context that is the primary thread in the fabric of the narrative: Empire, its cause and effect. Because the Asians did indeed come to Uganda to build a railway when Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire. In the 1890s, about 32,000 labourers from British India were recruited to come to East Africa for this purpose and whilst most did return home, a small but significant proportion remained in the country and established roots, often gaining success in cotton production and retail. Uganda gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and Idi Amin had seized power in 1971 in a military coup, pre-empting his arrest for misappropriation of military funds.

The plot orbits around a close-knit family, told through the triple narrative of Asha, recently married into the family, her brother-in-law, Vijay and her mother-in-law, Jaya. Jaya and her husband had come to Uganda years earlier, and the second generation are Ugandan born and bred. Vijay, with his brother Pran, husband to Asha, have taken over the family business of running the dukan, a general goods store; they have a settled routine, and a flourishing network of friends. Of course, as within most multicultural countries, there are some unspoken tensions, the sense of “them and us.”

We learn early in the novel that Kololo Hill towers above the city of Kampala, where they live. So named after the Acholi tribal chief cried out “Kololo, Kololo” when he was captured by the British (“I’m alone”), it was the home to wealthy Europeans before they upped sticks when independence was obtained. Now the hill boasts the large homes of the wealthy Asian who have moved in to take their place. And beneath, as per the social hierarchy, are the smaller houses, descending to the cramped apartment blocks of the poorest Asians and then, finally, the cement blocks in which the black Ugandans live.

The subject of Empire is not discussed directly in the novel, but its presence resonates throughout. There was an influx of migrants to the UK in the 1960s and 70s as a direct consequence of the Empire and its collapse; ultimately it becomes the destination for our family.

In a recent interview with The Times Magazine on his new book Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera talked of his formative years in Wolverhampton having “a colour bar which ran through both imperial society and post-war Britain like letters through seaside rock,” with attitudes towards race, colour and therefore status imported from the colonies to the UK. And indeed, when members of Asha’s family reach Britain, they are greeted with hospitality, but this is tainted with a clash of culture and custom and prejudice in the job market. Some, inevitably, utter the ubiquitous “go back to where you came from” – this remains relevant; such prejudice and racism have never completely gone away, so how much really has changed?

In their last weeks in Uganda the family must face tough decisions. There is growing tension; government soldiers cannot be trusted, homes and dukans are looted and seized – after all, the Asians are prohibited from taking anything beyond what little they can carry. Any money they have is likely to be seized by the soldiers, jewellery used as a bribe to prevent them from harm.

The family are very close, but with the external pressure mounting, the minor cracks in their kinship are stretched, threatening to expand into a wide gulf. Each of the three main protagonists has a different perspective: their own concerns and fears. More of the family’s backstory is woven into the narrative by dint of personal recollection; Jaya recalls travelling alone to Uganda on a large steamer ship, a year after her husband had sailed to their new home. She asks whether at an advanced age she can do it all again – relocating, learning a new language, mastering a new currency, adopting the customs? Asha defied convention to meet and marry her husband Pran, but now she is concerned for his future and her suspicions are aroused. Vijay appears sometimes lackadaisical, but his loyalty is also tested. In the final weeks he comes to understand more about the country that has been his home, he understands that despite his wide network of friends and acquaintances, European, African and Asian, “an invisible line divided them.”

Neema Shah. Image credit Alexander James.
Neema Shah. Image credit Alexander James.
The narrative is emotive and evocative. You smell the food, the flowers, you feel the heat of the Ugandan sunshine and you imagine a vivid landscape – far from the desert so many would imagine Africa to be. The angst, connection, love, and the despair that the family experience together and alone is conveyed through delicate reflection and observation – the novel’s pace is not one to rush. We witness the dismantling of a vibrant community as the Asian diaspora begin to flee to all corners of the world, depending entirely on which passports they hold.

The book does explore how events beyond our control can manipulate our closest bonds and the doubts that accompany us in difficult times. Few of us will have experienced a forced expulsion from our home countries or felt the fear that the 80,000 Ugandan Asians experienced as they were driven out of their country, unsure of the welcome they’d receive as and when they’d reach safety. The writing certainly brings to life the atmosphere of Uganda at this time, but similarly, it also reveals to those of my age an England of which we’ve no memory. We might recognise the bitter wind, the mould on the walls of the council houses and the damp that penetrates to the core, but despite the recurrence of some attitudes, life really was quite different in the ‘70s.

It demonstrates that, irrespective of race, nationality and identity, people experience the same emotions, similar personal conflicts, similar struggles.

For me, this is the story of those whose stories have largely gone ignored. We know how attitudes to Empire and history change in light of the prevailing zeitgeist, our opinions depend on those of the teachers who inform us. In seeking to understand her own family history, Neema Shah has created a compelling story of those with first-hand experience. It is not, however, a book written to make a statement or to provoke: its focus is on the importance of family bonds, and how this can support and undermine our resilience. And it is about the tricky balance of personal desire and independence against the needs and requirements of our nearest and dearest.

Each of the protagonists allows the reader into their inner circle, we feel we understand what drives them and we form a trust. Of course, broader questions remain, but we feel that each of them will have the strength to overcome their challenges. The author creates characters who feel very real, and her writing also provides, in a very understated way, a different perspective on immigration. It is not written so that we feel sorry for Asha, Jaya and the extended family – it helps us understand why and how choices are made, and by extension, it reminds us, gently, that beyond our passports, our nationality, people still share the same emotions, we feel pleasure and pain, comfort and despair much the same as everyone else.

But we should not read the book as a defining statement of protest; I don’t believe its motive is to judge. The author carefully employs the extensive research she has undertaken to form the novel – her parents were born in Tanzania and Kenya and from her wider family she has taken first-hand accounts of East Africa from an Indian perspective. She has also made research trips to Africa, in addition to wide consultation of archives and books by subject matter experts.

On finishing the novel this reader felt like she had a better impression of life in East Africa: the habits and customs of the communities that made it their home, the wildlife, flora and fauna that flourish in spite of the climate. The impression I’ve always had of 1970s Britain is rather grim – the strikes, the three-day weeks – and a moribund landscape is carefully recreated in the mind of the reader. It is delicately written, we are aware of the wider context and therefore the more problematic questions it poses, but instead we focus on the importance of our friendships and our families.

This is a personal, not political, account yet its triumph is to capture, like a photograph, the briefest insight into our so very recent history – helping us all to better understand all the elements that have combined to make our modern society the way it is now.

Kololo Hill is published on February 18 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan

Available to pre-order now: