Lost in Uganda

Copyright The New York Times
Lost in Uganda
Published: July 29, 2009
As a matter of convention, we constantly say and write things about Africa that would be unimaginable with any other continent. An often thoughtless broad-brush treatment belies the fact of diversity on a continent of 53 countries (even this is not a settled number) and close to a billion inhabitants, a place of light and dark, rich and poor, increasingly well-governed and still appallingly ill-­governed people.
Murder and Memory in Uganda
By Andrew Rice
Illustrated. 363 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $26
Mission From Africa (April 12, 2009)
Once in a while, though, the experience of much of the continent is crystallized in the story of a single country, and when that story is told with a combination of attentiveness to historical background and genuine care for the lives of real people, the small world of serious Africa books for nonspecialists becomes enriched. With “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda,” Andrew Rice has written just such a book.
“Africa the place is forever obscured by the shadow of Africa the notion,” Rice observes with characteristic insightfulness, as he sets about exploding much of the mythology surrounding Uganda’s notorious former tyrant, Idi Amin. “If one historical figure could be said to embody the continent as it is stereotypically imagined — dark, dangerous, atavistic and charged with sexual magnetism — it would be Idi Amin Dada.”
Though offstage through most of Rice’s book, Amin, who ruled his country from 1971 to 1979, manages nonetheless to be a central character. At its core, “The Teeth May Smile” is a keenly reported private detective story and police procedural about a son’s search for justice many years after his father’s betrayal and disappearance at the hands of Amin’s military henchmen.
At the same time, Rice’s book is an ably presented drama about the workings of a Ugandan courthouse. It is also an efficient primer on Uganda’s tumultuous history and a political précis of a succession of regimes, culminating with that of the current president, the increasingly authoritarian Yoweri Museveni.
And on the broadest level, it is a vivid prism for examining some of the largest themes in Africa’s history. Uganda’s guerrilla war of the 1980s, waged successfully by Museveni, with its heavy use of child soldiers, would prove to be prologue for horrific conflicts clear across the continent, notably the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Amin’s expulsion of the country’s ethnic Indian population in 1972 would pave the way for economic nationalism elsewhere, from Zaire to Nigeria. And the country’s ethnic politics, rooted in prejudices inherited from Europe, in some ways prefigured the murderous Hutu-­Tutsi cleavage next door in Rwanda.
Rice, who has written for The New York Times Magazine and other publications, perceptively describes the background of British colonialism, with its unmistakable patterns of divide and rule, including the literal invention of tribes. This involved propelling certain groups into education and pushing others, through coercive devices like the imposition of the “hut tax,” into military service. Such decisions had lasting, often bloody consequences.
Finally, “The Teeth May Smile” is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of memory, on forgiveness and reconciliation. In 2002, Rice read about the arrest of Amin’s second-in-command and two other men on the charge of murdering the local political leader Eliphaz Laki three decades before. “The country appeared rehabilitated, but the past always lurked just a few steps down the garden path,” he writes. “I was intrigued by the ways Ugandans accommodated that past: what they chose to remember, what went unspoken.”
As he recounts the efforts of Duncan Laki, an American-educated lawyer, to investigate his father’s murder, Rice achieves a near memoir-like intimacy. Peace may come, Laki learns as he watches the accused killers leave the courthouse as free men, but justice and reconciliation are more elusive.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.” He is currently completing a novel about Africa.
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