________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 8 . . . . December 5, 2008

cover Child of Dandelions.

Shenaaz Nanji.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2008.
215 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 978-1-897187-50-0.

Subject Headings:
Amin, Idi, 1925-2003-Juvenile fiction.
East Indians-Uganda-Juvenile fiction. Ethnic relations-Juvenile fiction.
Family-Uganda-Juvenile fiction.
Forced migration-Uganda-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

***1/2 /4


Zena knelt on the floor to light the Primus stove. “Don’t worry. Dada Amin will restore law and order.” She looked adoringly at the wall poster of the President. “He’s my hero.

” Sabine nodded. She wondered what the President was really like. Papa called him njingo, an idiot, and laughed at his foolishness; Katana, their servant, feared him, saying he ate the heart of his enemies; the radio and television fondly called him Big Daddy. She looked at the poster of the grinning President. He looked like a friendly giant to her. (page 25)

“I have to treat you like a princess, like a memsahib. Your family is special. Always it was I who tended to the vegetable patch, picked coffee beans, saw to it that you didn’t run too far and get lost.

” Sabine folded her arms to steady herself. “You’ve joined them?”

“Them? Them are us. Your people have clogged up our land as the British bwanas did before. Your people, your family included, are doing magendo, illegal activities.”

“Uncle and Papa help people out of kindness.”

“We don’t want kindness.” Zena gave a short, dry laugh. “You took our land and made us look after it. Now we want it back.”

Sabine stared at Zena. But Bapa had bought the land and cleared it to grow coffee.

“We have to clear our land,” Zena continued. “The weeds must be uprooted. What can I do? You are the child of dandelions.” (page 93)

     Historical novels written for teens can allow writers to write an engaging story from the perspective of a young protagonist who lives in a specific historical era. In doing so, writers can increase their readers’ awareness of that era and prompt readers to think about the lessons that can be learnt from that history. This is not to suggest that historical novels for teens are simply written for educational purposes, but rather that this can often be an important consideration for authors who are writing about a less widely known historical event.

     Shenaaz Nanji’s novel, Child of Dandelions focuses on a part of Uganda’s history that may be unfamiliar to many teenagers. In 1972, the Ugandan government, headed at the time by Idi Amin, ordered all people of Indian origin to leave the country within ninety days, regardless of whether they were Ugandan citizens or not. During Idi Amin’s rule from 1971 to 1979, it was estimated that approximately 300,000 people were killed http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2003/aug/18/guardianobituaries.

     The “Author’s Note” that prefaces the story reveals Nanji’s intentions for writing this novel. Although it takes place in a specific historical and geographical context, Nanji would also like her readers to understand her novel in the context of a larger history in which poverty, prejudice, and intolerance have devastated people’s lives. Set against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda, Nanji’s story explores the discrimination and violence that occurred during this period from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Sabine, a young Indian girl whose family are Ugandan citizens. In doing so, Nanji brings this era of Uganda’s history to life for her readers and exemplifies the necessity of taking these lessons from history and ensuring that such a tragedy does not happen again.

     Indeed, Nanji’s story deals with the adverse effects of being discriminated against on the basis of racial, ethnic, and class differences. She examines how this officially sanctioned discrimination against Indians manifests itself at the communal, familial, and personal level in terms of how people relate to and interact with each other daily. How one thinks, who one knows, and how one looks all become the basis for discrimination and persecution from soldiers, community members, and even people who might once have been “friends.”

     For example, a soldier takes advantage of an old man who is standing in line to get an identity card and refuses to let him drink tea, even though he is thirsty. Besides overt acts of physical mistreatment and violence, the Ugandan government’s army gives their tacit approval of community actions against Indians through their inaction. When some people in Sabine’s community smash the windows of Indian shopkeepers’ stores, some soldiers who are nearby do nothing to stop the incident. Even her seemingly close friendship with Zena, an African girl, deteriorates in the new climate of nationalist and ethnic rhetoric that circulates on the nation’s airwaves. Zena calls her a “weed” and a “child of dandelions” (page 93) that must be expelled, words which create a rift between her and Sabine

     A parallel between Nazi Germany and the Ugandan government’s treatment of Indians is evoked from Sabine’s viewpoint because of the new official requirement that all Indians must carry identity cards at all times. As Sabine mentions to her grandfather Bapa, “It’s like when Hitler ruled Germany, and the Jews were forced to identify themselves by wearing the Star of David” (page 159). Nanji heightens the oppression and physical danger that Sabine and her family by dividing her novel into chapters, each of which are prefaced by the date in which the chapter takes place as well as the day within the 90-day countdown for Indians to leave Uganda. This narrative technique will make readers feel the increasing urgency that Sabine and her family face as they struggle with what they should do to cope, despite the fact that this countdown and sanctioned expulsion of Indians are out of their control.

     The circumstances that affect Sabine’s family are enhanced by the persistent, yet tragic, sense of hope that readers can see in Sabine throughout the whole book. Sabine remains optimistic that her uncle is still alive and that her family may still get through this crisis without having to leave Uganda. Sabine’s father shares this sentiment and insists that they will not be harmed because they are Ugandan citizens who contribute significantly to the country’s economy. However, as the end of the 90 day period approaches, all of them recognize the inevitable and realize that they must leave Uganda or face the prospect of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Nanji captures the gradual erosion of Sabine’s and her father’s misguided optimism effectively. They witness and hear about the mistreatment and arrest of both poor and rich Indians, including a prominent businessman whose name is well-known and associated with wealth in Uganda. Sabine’s erroneous impressions of Idi Amin as a “friendly giant” (page 25) and the real physical threats that face her family are dashed by a shocking revelation while she attempts to locate her missing uncle.

     Despite the impending inevitability of the 90 day period’s conclusion, Nanji’s story conveys a hopeful sense of resilience for Sabine and her family. Even though these circumstances are beyond her control, Sabine resolves that she will not let them prevent her from surviving and succeeding in her new life outside of the country. As Sabine thinks to herself, “Turtles carry their homes with them so that they are always at home. I will carry my home with me.”

     Perhaps a lesson of this period of Ugandan history, and that is exemplified through the personal experiences of Sabine in this book, is to expose the invalidity and inhumanity of discriminating against other people on the basis of any type of difference as well as to raise awareness about how growing up in poverty can shape peoples’ views of themselves and others who are better off. Sabine’s family is subject to discrimination and disdain because of, not only their difference as “Indians” rather than “Africans,” but also because of their wealth and economic power within Ugandan society. The wealth and class stature of Sabine’s family and other Indians, which is the envy of Ugandans, has become a catalyst for the Africans’ anger and physical violence towards the Indians because of their impoverished circumstances. Their resentment towards the Indians’ wealth is even reflected in Zena, Sabine’s best friend, who comes to adopt the same attitudes.

     In this context, it is significant that Sabine appears to realize that her family, along with the other rich Indian business people in Uganda, is perhaps to blame for these circumstances as well. Her struggle with her own beliefs and prejudices about her family’s place in Ugandan society develops as the novel progresses. Indeed, Sabine comes to think perhaps the Indians who took over the economy once the British left Uganda have perpetuated this same system of economic inequity that has provided the basis for such hatred against Indians to be articulated by Amin and accepted so readily by the African population of Uganda. The state’s media extolls Amin’s heroism and feeds the African population’s dreams for happier and more prosperous lives. As a result, Sabine’s friend Zena and others see Amin as a national hero who will free them of their poverty and economic servitude under the nation’s Indian population.

     Overall, this book provides insight into a part of Ugandan history from a young female protagonist’s viewpoint. Avoiding simplistic representations or explanations, this novel conveys the complexity of that period in Uganda history by suggesting that several factors have contributed to the tensions and problems that Sabine, her family, and the rest of her community face. However, this novel is not simply an “issues” book, even though it undoubtedly raises provocative questions about history, culture, and identity. It is also a gripping narrative that immerses readers in Sabine’s thoughts such that they can intimately experience her loss of naivety and jaded maturation from these events.

     At the end of the book, Nanji includes a “Historical Note” to inform her readers about the story’s historical backdrop. This will be useful for teachers who want to preface a discussion of the novel with some background information about Uganda since the novel’s ethnic, cultural, and political references would be more meaningful if teens have a basic understanding of Ugandan history. The novel would also be a good addition for a school, public, or academic library. Although the novel’s subject matter may be unfamiliar, its engaging narrative and development of Uganda’s historical milieu will interest readers and keep their attention. This novel would also be a strong addition for those libraries that would like to develop their collection of teen fiction, build their collection of historical fiction as a whole, or diversify their collection’s representation of authors from different cultural backgrounds. Nanji’s novel has been nominated for the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Awards in the Children’s Literature--Text category.

     To find out more about Shenaaz Nanji and other stories that she has written, visit her official website at http://www.snanji.com.

Highly Recommended.

Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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