Monday, February 22, 2010

The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget - Murder and Memory in Uganda

Following is my review of the subject book written by Andrew Rice; published by Henry Holt & Co. New York, 2009.

This complex story uses the death of a prominent Ugandan chief at the hands of Idi Amin’s henchmen in 1972 as a mechanism to explore current Ugandan history along with the larger issue of justice. What is justice and who can obtain it or not and how? Further, why has Uganda seemingly chosen to avoid careful reckoning for atrocities that occurred over the past forty years? The answers are deeply embedded in Ugandan society, in the violence that successively swept across the nation and in the politics of power, then and now.

Journalist Andrew Rice spent several years in Uganda tracking down such issues and interviewing dozens of people at length, including victims, perpetrators, politicians, judges, lawyers, peasants and observers. The result is this extraordinary book that truly delves into the soul of Uganda and reveals passions of tribalism, religion, and politics. Rice holds up a mirror in which Ugandans can see themselves clearly (and certainly uncomfortably), but it is one that allows outsiders too to contemplate issues of guilt, complicity and accountability. It is a wrenching read.

The book investigates the death of Eliphaz Laki, a Munyanokle from Mbarara region who became a chief, i.e. mid-level government official, in the post-independence era. As was/is true of virtually all Ugandans, Laki’s success arose from his own virtues, but was also tied to family, friendship and tribal affiliations. Like many of his brethren Laki became involved in politics. An Anglican he was a supporter of Obote’s UPC, however, as a government official he retained his post following Amin’s 1971 coup d’etat. Things got complicated because Laki became surreptitiously involved with a young firebrand named Yoweri Museveni (today’s president). After Museveni’s aborted attack against the Simba Barracks at Mbarara in 1972, Laki was apparently ratted out. His name went on a list. He was seized from his office taken secretly to a remote ranch and shot. His body disappeared. His fate – a mysterious but certain death – was unfortunately common during the purges and atrocities of Amin’s suzerainty.

Thirty years later, Laki’s son, Duncan, intensified his quest to find his father’s body and to bring his killers to justice. Through a stroke of luck, Duncan was able to identify the actual killers, but that was not enough, he also sought wider truth; from them, but also from their superiors. The trail led to Major Yusuf Gowon, then deputy commander of the Simba Barracks, who later as a general became Amin’s Chief of Staff. But Amin’s northerners knew little about the western region where the complexities – ethnic, religious, party, personal - of Banyankole machinations defied outside comprehension. Who betrayed Laki to Amin’s regime and why?

Author Rice did a very successful job of rummaging through the history and the memories of Uganda’s last forty years. He ably recounted the reality including the climate of terror and suspicion as well as other events that marked Amin’s misrule, but he also understood the paradigm of impunity and spoils for the victors. As an outsider Rice was not automatically prejudiced to one perspective over another and he did present alternative views. Although there ultimately was a murder trial and truth was revealed, the law took its stubborn course against the backdrop of contemporary politics. Results were inconclusive both about the murder itself and also on the wider issue of justice. What is it and who is entitled to it? What does Uganda do next?

The title “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does not Forget” is a Kinyankole proverb whose meaning is obvious, but which assumes a greater significance when viewed against the layered strata of truth, untruth, reconciliation, hatred and justice in today’s Uganda.

On a personal note, I found this book as interesting as any I have read lately. Certainly those who know something about Uganda will find it fascinating as well. However, even readers without such background will get caught up in the superbly written, well paced story and will emerge with a better understanding of Uganda and of broader issues of morality and justice in today’s confusing world.