"So what were you doing then?" I am asked at dinner parties these days as the nation looks back in awe at 1968. "I wasn't here, I was in Kampala," I reply, and the conversation falls off the edge of the table, impossible to retrieve, like a napkin that slips off the lap and disappears.
Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about our lives in the year they say old Britain died, was mercifully put down by the doped and dreamy young in beads and beards who sang of revolution and turned over some chairs on campuses. In his book, 1968:Marching on the Streets, Tariq Ali rightly rebukes those who believe the year only mattered in and to the West.
Uganda had been independent for more than five years; the first elected president, Milton Obote, was a wily politician who wanted to dispense with the cost and inconvenience of democracy. I was a teenager, high on hormones and caught up in the political rapids rushing us towards calamity. The old masters had retreated but colonial memory was alive, that twitch, as Salman Rushdie described it, of an amputated limb. Whatever happened in the motherland was of unnatural interest, envied and copied in small ways.
In the early Sixties, affluent Asians sent their children over to D-list English boarding schools which taught them only cheap conceit. These ERs (England Returns) showed off ready-made clothes with real labels; their older sisters wore nylons and hair coiffed to make them look like stickler stenographers (which most were). But in 1968, something different began to travel over on the crosswinds, edgy, unsafe ideas, initially cultural, then more threatening to the established order.
In January 1968, as we jived in the school hall, Nina, the older sister of a boy named Karim, shimmied in. She was a London artist, a choice as outrageous as career prostitution. She was wearing a silver paper dress with a dizzying black pattern, all the rage, she said, in Carnaby Street. Soon afterwards I made my first black and white, op-art dress, was picked to be head prefect and was ironing my hair to look like Jean Shrimpton's. "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay", "Born to be Wild", Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World", songs that we sang to celebrate our joyously breakout times.
Meanwhile, the Cold War was playing out across Africa – not all bad news for inhabitants. Vira, one of my best friends, got a scholarship to study in Moscow, all expenses paid; schools were opened up by Americans, and the Soviet Union and China built bridges. All sides bribed leaders. Ugandans were getting restive and their grumbles thickened the air.
A Pan-Africanist poet, Okot p'Bitek, wrote to a newspaper: "We blame the colonialists and imperialists and neo-colonialists; we blame communists from both Moscow and Peking and send their representatives packing. We blame Americans and the CIA. We blame white settlers and so-called Indian bloodsuckers and deport them. The most striking and frightening characteristic of all African countries is this; that without exception, all of them are dictatorships and practice such ruthless discriminations as to make South African apartheid look tame."
President Obote made uplifting speeches and his people clapped resoundingly, for they knew they had to: "A free voice is the hallmark of free citizens who must always be frank in discussing the affairs of their country. Opinions and views they hold must have one vital characteristic – fearlessness." But all the while he persecuted anyone who dared to believe his word.
No one was exempt. Editors, journalists, lawyers, bishops, educators even musicians had to be taught to behave, and were, by the secret services. In April Martin Luther King was assassinated. Vietnam, My Lai and the student revolts across the US made that superpower more unpopular in Africa. It was losing the propaganda battle to the Soviet Union. When Eartha Kitt denounced her own government, Ugandans cheered.
The murder of Robert Kennedy in June only added to the bitterness. The Kennedy name was a potent symbol of what was thought to be great about America. Then came the student revolts in France and other European countries. Obote was rattled: what if the young, educated elites in his country acted up too? So he rounded up student leaders and ordered us into barracks near State House, a political boot camp. For three months we were held there, instructed on governance, patriotism, leadership and loyalty. They transported us to various ministerial departments and the army, got us to question the system. All very democratic, or so we thought.
But then delegates started to disappear – the vocal ones who were too curious or critical. We never saw them again, and Obote's teeth – spaced apart like prison bars – were a nightly reminder of where they now were. This was our long vacation, when we should have been jiving and picnicking on the lakeside beaches and bruising our lips with illicit kisses. What a waste. Only five inmates were Asian. At the long imperial dining table, the cruel and capricious president baited the Asians: "How much money left for England this week eh? I like you people. I wish we could learn your dirty tricks. You must teach us."
Like all African elites, he had his own dirty tricks, his many overseas bank accounts too. Idi Amin was the Army Commander. I met him at the Army HQ, and asked him why there were no Asians recruits. He looked down at me, and a malevolent laugh burnt up from his belly like lava: "Because we do not eat chorocco (lentils) in the army. You are weak, we are brave people, we Africans. You are not African."
The Commander went on "map-reading exercises" to spread fear throughout Uganda. He shed blood indiscriminately and punished entire villages, ordered mass burials (some were buried alive), and presided over them with mock solemnity. Asians wondered if it had been worth it, the good life they had made for themselves. Uganda, its heartbeats and drum beats, now evoked in them only terror. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act passed in Britain that year imposed quotas on how many British Asian subjects could enter the UK. Enoch Powell was horribly popular. There were days when nothing would shift the dismal mood.
Hard Times were coming, but the young were having too much fun to care. Parents warned us daily of growing dangers. We didn't listen. Then a friend's brother, only 15, overdosed ( inadvertently) on drugs which he had been given by an ER. He was found in his room, festooned with posters of Mick Jagger and the Beatles. The servant of the house stole all the boy's clothes and hi-fi. It wasn't such a wonderful world after all.