In 1971, nine years after Uganda declared independence, General Idi Amin staged a coup in the African country, seized power, and executed his predecessor’s supporters. In August of 1972, he declared Ugandans of South Asian descent had to leave by Nov. 9. The country’s Asian minority – originally from the Indian subcontinent – had moved to this part of Africa while it was under British rule and over time led a more privileged life than native Ugandans, who worked as servants and farm hands and at other lower-paying jobs. As president, Amin’s plan was to return the African country to Africans – which led to the collapse of Uganda’s economy.
Tina Athaide’s debut novel opens just prior to Amin’s expulsion announcement. Twelve-year-old Asha is Indian and lives in a big house in a nice part of town; her best friend, Yesofu, is African and his mother cooks and cleans for Asha’s family. Although they inhabit different worlds – something Yesofu understands and Asha remains oblivious to – being friends has never been a big deal.
When Asha sees Yesofu cheering and waving the Ugandan flag on the day of Amin’s declaration – as fellow countrymen shout “Indians go home!” – she is confused. Their relationship is further tested as violent clashes escalate and tens of thousands of Ugandan Asians try to flee within the 90-day deadline. Yesofu imagines the possibility of higher education rather than having to pursue a life toiling in the fields. Asha sees the only country she’s ever known crumbling and her best friend turning against her.
Athaide does a wonderful job bringing the mounting tension, stark racial divide, political scare tactics, and brutal history of Amin’s dictatorship to light; similarities to the world today make this an even more harrowing read. The Entebbe-born British-Indian writer – who left Uganda for England with her family just after Amin came to power in 1971 and then immigrated to Canada in 1976 – drew on research, interviews, and memories to construct the story, written from the alternating perspectives of Asha and Yesofu. The social and ideological divides between the two central 12-year-olds are further developed by way of the novel’s well-drawn secondary characters, who comprise family and friends of the preteens. That said, the heavy repetition of whether Asha and Yesofu’s differences should and do matter slows the pace of the initial chapters and the swift intensity of the expulsion.
Notwithstanding this reservation, Orange for the Sunsets remains an illuminating and accessible read that questions truth, power, allegiance, and, above all, friendship in the face of populism and nativism.