York anthropology professor marks Ugandan Asian expulsion with panel session, podcasts

Book covers: We Are All Birds of Uganda, Where The Air Is Sweet, Orange for the Sunsets

This September marked the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan Asian expulsion and Canada’s resettlement of nearly 7,500 refugees – exiled by dictator Idi Amin – between 1972-74; it also marked the anniversary of the commencement of Amin’s mass murder of over 500,000 Ugandan Africans.

In honour of those who endured these tragedies, the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival and Carleton University introduce the public panel “No New Land? With Tina Athaide, Tasneem Jamal, and Hafsa Zayyan,” to be hosted by York University Professor Zulfikar Hirji on Nov. 14.

Zulfikar Hirji
Zulfikar Hirji

Hirji, who experienced the expulsion and resettlement when he was a child, will be joined by three authors who have written fictional stories of loss, longing and belonging, each set in the historical context of the expulsion.

Click here to livestream the event.

In collaboration with the three authors, Hirji has also produced a series of podcasts with the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, which debuted on Nov. 8.

The panel and podcasts each comprise the inaugural event of the larger conference, “Beyond Resettlement: Exploring the History of the Ugandan Asian Community in Exile,” hosted by Carleton and co-organized by Hirji. The conference engages communities, scholars and government policymakers to consider not only the expulsion and immediate arrival of immigrants but the longer-term impacts of resettlement.

“Beyond Resettlement” will include a series of community forums and workshops in which affected community members will have the opportunity to tell their stories and add to the Uganda Collection, an archive on the expulsion and its aftermath.

Podcast episode 1: We Are All Birds of Uganda with Hafsa Zayyan

Award-winning writer, trial lawyer and hobbyist painter Hafsa Zayyan – who is of Nigerian and Pakistani descent – is the author of We Are All Birds of Uganda (2021).

In this episode, Zayyan describes overcoming writer’s block by immersing herself in research on the expulsion of Ugandan Asians. In researching and travelling to Uganda, Zayyan was amazed by the ways in which – even coming from a half South-Asian and half West-African family – her education failed to inform her on the experiences of Ugandan Asians.

Episode 2: Where The Air Is Sweet With Tasneem Jamal

Tasneem Jamal – a non-fiction book editor, contributor to The Globe and Mail and communications officer – is the author of Where The Air Is Sweet (2018).

Jamal’s book is heavily inspired by her personal experiences as a child, having fled from Uganda to Kenya, England, Canada and even back to Uganda at one point. She recounts vivid memories, like that of having crossed paths with Idi Amin at a hotel swimming pool in Uganda’s capital Kampala, and compares the abrupt banishment of Ugandan Asians to the wreck of the Titanic.

“Survivors talked about being on the Titanic that night, as it was sinking, being told that they need to get off the ship and onto these rickety little lifeboats,” Jamal said. “Intellectually they knew it was sinking but they couldn’t, viscerally, believe it.”

Episode 3: Orange for the Sunsets With Tina Athaide

In the third and final episode of the series, writer and teacher Tina Athaide, author of Orange for the Sunsets (2019), offers a new perspective on how to remember and honour the Ugandan Asian expulsion.

With the initial goal of making a picture book for young children, Athaide discusses working with her editor, who eventually told her “there’s so much material here, put it into a middle-grade book, a novel.”

Now, having toured to classrooms around the world with her book, Athaide recognizes the unique opportunity that storytelling for a young audience presents – as students return home from school with a new curiosity for their family’s culture, or that of a classmate.