“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If days are where we live our lives then stories are where we remember them. Whether fact or fiction, the telling of tales is one of the most compelling ways to chart journeys and worlds discovered by people Other than ourselves.
As children, we relish fairy tales that introduce us to the concept of morality and allow us to invest hope and expectation in imaginary people and their adventures. We devour fictions and fantasies that take us away from the familiar and present a life less ordinary than our own.
Once upon a time, I was idealistic about the capacity of people and communities to thrive, believing in the sanctity of a common utopian goal, a fundamental humanity and what I assumed had to be the undercurrent of all human endeavour – the universal desire for personal, social and political progress.
The stories I later heard and helped to tell as a journalist working with men, women and children who had survived psychological and physical torture tore through that optimism.
My picture of the world became a map where virtually every inhabited space was peppered with deep grooves and chasms of human pain and suffering.
But at the same time, the remarkable willingness and insistence of those people to relay experiences that might otherwise remain unknown – or even worse, be ignored – emboldened my belief in the importance of human testimony and the power of stories to change attitudes and behaviour.
I had grown up catching the occasional glimpse into my family’s own experience of life under a brutal regime which had destroyed the idyllic life they enjoyed in what was once “the pearl of Africa”. That paradise was torn apart one unforgettable day in 1972, when as 20-something newlyweds, only just starting to build their own future together in Uganda, they were forced to leave their homes, their families and all that rooted them to the world. While their memories of a happy childhood remain, the more immediate past that robbed them of everything other than the clothes on their backs and a trunk of mementoes, left them with memories of anguish that still intrude on their picture-perfect recollections and move them to tears.
And all because President Idi Amin Dada, a murderous dictator often compared to Hitler but who attracted comparatively little international condemnation until it was too late, had a dream that Uganda must be cleansed of some 70,000 Asians who became the scapegoat for the troubles that had long plagued the country.
Stories, dreams and memories; often fleeting, but the impact of the rude awakening lasts a lifetime.
Ahsan and Razia Mughal, like some 30,000 other Ugandan-Asians with British citizenship – dating back to the colonial era that graced the country with its imposed rules only to pull out with much less care, even endorsing the infamous Amin as a worthy ruler – have a new life, built on emotional and geographical journeys that testify to their strength, courage and an inspiring determination to not only survive, but thrive.
Their journey and the paths that thousands of others like them were compelled to take, started long before 1972. It was forever changed in a split-second in which they instantly lost the security afforded by a heritage toiled for by their ancestors. They witnessed unimaginable abuse and torment, and experienced the absolute worst and best of human nature, at the hands not only of politicians and those in power, but the communities and individuals who were closest to them.
My contribution to this story is an attempt to tell their stories, and the stories of many people whose lives form the core of an era that occupies mere pages and sparsely stocked shelves of the primarily political discourse about the time. It is purposefully not an academic nor a political critique but a record of testimonies that other than in the refuges of the minds of the people who lived and still recall them, could all but be forgotten.
It is an effort to record the stories of a significant minority of Other people in British community who are set apart not by the stark divisions that were driven between them through colonial and racial divisions in Africa, but by a strength and identity that has been formed over more than forty years of striving to find and build new roots in what for them, was an Other land, known before only through fiction, fantasy and film – until they were forced to confront the reality and forge a new beginning in it.
It is, at heart, an attempt to explore what it means to belong, and to understand identity, conflict, love, loss and human endeavour.
Like the many people’s stories that I encountered as a writer advocating for the protection of some of our most fundamental human rights, this is a story that despite – and perhaps because of – the struggles that define it, afford a glimmer of hope that by knowing more, we might behave with greater compassion towards the Others whom we live amongst.