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Child of Dandelions
Nanji, Shenaaz ; Child of Dandelions. Asheville NC: Front Street Books, 2008. $17.95, ISBN 978 1932425 932 .

Note: "In Uganda in 1972, fifteen-year-old Sabine and her family, wealthy citizens of Indian descent& [navigate] the tense ninety days allowed by President Idi Amin for all Indians to leave the country, while soldiers and others terrorize them and people disappear."

Review: Skin color and its (dis)contents

Shenaaz Nanji's novel Child of Dandelions is a welcome addition to the young-adult literature that would illuminate important social issues in contemporary African societies. Written in the vein of "faction" (a mix of fact and fiction), the story narrates three months in the life of Sabine, the 15-year-old central character whose identity has been constructed by her East African birth, Indian ancestry, and deep attachment to the people and places in her African milieu. The place is Uganda, the time is 1972 (one year after General Idi Amin Dada took power in a military coup), and the urgent matter at hand is the decreed expulsion from the tiny East African country of the small but conspicuous south Indian minority (some 1% of the population, or 70,000 in a country of over 7 million).

Following divine guidance, revealed to him in a dream by none other than God himself, General Amin decreed in August 1972 that the economically-privileged Indians (popularly referred to as "Asians"), whom he accused of "milking the cow but not feeding it," leave the country within 90 days. The abrupt and draconian edict initially applied only to Indians who held British legal status, but then expanded to include those with Indian and Pakistani citizenship, and eventually covered all Indians in Uganda, including those who were citizens of the country by virtue of birth or naturalization. Amin cast this sweeping racialist action in terms of the "Africanization" of the economy, and in fact the move was very popular at first. With its promise of "weeding" the Indians out of Uganda (hence the title of the novel, with the additional connotation of a people continually dispersed), the expulsion decree tapped into the pent-up frustration of black Ugandans at the economically privileged and socially insular Indians in their midst. Against this stark backdrop, Nanji, the Kenyan-born and Canada-based writer of at least six children's books [1], provides a very engaging, and even thrilling, account of events as they unfold in Sabine's personal life. The tale involves, necessarily, the economic, social, and demographic legacies of British rule in Uganda (the country was a protectorate, not a colony, unlike neighboring Kenya), the nature of race relations in independent Uganda, and the erosion of the rule of law under Amin as disappearances and extra-judicial killings became common-place. To Nanji's enormous credit, she does not flinch in tackling these and other important issues that her characters encounter in the course of those ninety days. In due course, she shows how, by the early 1970s, the Indian minority was economically powerful but politically impotent and socially isolated, and resented by the majority black Ugandans. She also shows the increasing menace that Amin's soldiers became to the populace (regardless of race) as the country devolved first into tyranny and then into anarchy. Sabine's beloved uncle Zulfiqar disappears, is tortured, and then murdered. Soldiers, drunk with new-found power, make no secret of their desire for the riches that the Indians will leave behind as they flee. [2] And leave the Indians did, en masse, under threat of being relocated to concentration camps after the deadline expired. [3]

And yet the novel, despite its harrowing subject and brisk pace, manages to convey several vivid portraits of people and places: one can feel, for example, the vibrant colors, smells, sounds, and flavors of both Little India and the slums (different worlds, as it were, in the same capital city, Kampala), appreciate the different rhythms of life on the farm and in the city, and even be stunned by imagining corpses hanging from the ceiling in a dark warehouse while soldiers casually play card games at the entrance to the building. The novel is very accessible, with apt Indian, Swahili, and Ugandan sayings and expressions sprinkled throughout the story, and the story is paced by short chapters describing events from Day 1 of the 90-Day "Countdown" (as it became known). Nanji skillfully weaves the daily events in Sabine's life with larger events unfolding at the national level; indeed, the most gripping moments are when the two collide, as in when soldiers raid Sabine's home, terrorizing her family and household help.

The novel also gives us several intriguing characters. Best-friends Sabine and Zena are largely straight-forward composites. Tagged as two beans of one coffee flower, they represent the possibility that the younger generation of Ugandans, black and brown, could live together in harmony. Alas, they become a sad metaphor for the failed experiment in building a stable and lasting plural society in Uganda. A contrast is provided by Bapa, Sabine's kindly Indian grandfather, who is a farmer. Even though the Indians themselves were communally segregated (rarely, for example, intermarrying), we learn that he is married to a black Ugandan woman, and plans to remain in the country even after the Countdown expires. A couple of other characters remain mysterious: Katana, a domestic servant, is one-eyed, and one wonders what that represents, that is, for instance, what exactly is he turning a blind eye to? [4] The most intriguing character in the novel, to my mind, was Sabine's nine year-old brother Minaz, who has Down Syndrome and lives in his own detached inner world. Beyond his occasional deployment in defusing tense moments, he embodies and harbors a viewpoint that one imagines is not only literally but also figuratively separate from the events swirling in the world of the adults. At several points, then, I wondered what intriguing counter-narrative Minaz could bring to the tale.

Tragically, black Ugandans (again, with reference only to racial categorization) had the singular misfortune of having the paranoid and demented Amin at the helm: not only was Amin's decree ill-timed and misguided, he had no plans in place to deal with the enormous vacuum of know-how once the economically-powerful Indians were forced to leave the country abruptly. Not surprisingly, and in very short order, Uganda's economy collapsed totally, and the already-poor country slid further into poverty and despair. Chaos and terror reigned. And therein lies a final irony regarding the race drama in Uganda: Having both promoted their economic rise in Uganda and served to easily identify them as a privileged and insular group, the brown skin of the Indians also protected them from the latter excesses of Amin's regime, as it was after the Indian Expulsion that things got really nasty in Uganda. [5]

By the time Sabine flees Uganda, it is clear to her that her brown skin was the single most important factor in her abrupt and cruel displacement from the only country she has known as home. However, the advantages accorded her in Uganda will also figure prominently in her exile, albeit in new and largely positive ways. And so, for all that Sabine has been through, one imagines that the clever, pretty, smart, and progressive young woman will eventually embrace and prevail over the new challenges that await her in Canada, where her family would resettle. One feels the most sorrow, in fact, for her ex-best friend Zena, who, after a falling out with Sabine, briefly reconciles with her and announces, just before Sabine flies out of Entebbe Airport on Day 89, "I am going to marry Dada Amin" (page 208). That bomb-shell, delivered seven pages from the end of the novel, makes one cringe to think about the horrors that await the awe-struck and teenaged Zena as fate flings her farther into the horror show that was Amin's Uganda.

Childhood, for better or worse, doesn't last forever, but the experiences visited upon the young adult can reverberate long and deep into adulthood. Young adult readers will find Child of Dandelions very engaging, as it narrates the multi-faceted world of an Indian Ugandan teenager during a tumultuous episode in that East African country's social history.


[1] Indian Tales, 2007; An Alien in my House!, 2003; Treasures for Lunch, 2000; The Old Fisherman of Lamu, 1995; Teeny Weeny Penny, 1993; and Grandma's Heart, 1993. [2] This expediency, in fact, has often been suggested as the "real" reason for the expulsion of Indians from Uganda. [3] Amin had deployed the language of the Jewish Holocaust deliberately, thus attracting western media attention to "the Jews of Africa," and inadvertently perhaps, staving off even more hardship for the bewildered Indians. [4] Actually, the author's family had a one-eyed servant, so this turns out to be a factual descriptor rather than a symbolic one. [5] By and large, the Ugandan Indians' experience with resettlement overseas--mostly in Western Europe and North America--has been successful. Educated, urbane, and skilled, the Indians spawned strong roots in their newly-adopted societies, so much so that President Museveni's repeated appeals for the Indians to return to Uganda have not resulted in significant return-migration.

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Rating: HR/R Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Akbar Virmani, Northwestern University

Subject: Fiction / Uganda / East Africa