We Are All Birds of Uganda

by Hafsa Zayyan

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LoveReading Expert Review of We Are All Birds of Uganda

An exceptional, enthralling debut that crosses continents, cultures and generations as it explores identity, family ties, racism and migration.

Often eye-opening and heart-wrenching, always elegant and absorbing, Hafsa Zayyan’s We Are All Birds of Uganda is an outstanding debut that crosses continents, cultures and generations. Remarkable in its exploration of identity, family bonds, racism, colourism and the phenomenon of twice migration through characters who’ve moved from South Asia, to East Africa, to Europe, I read Sameer’s story in one sitting, utterly engrossed by his awakening from a state of unrest to finding new purpose as he redefines the nature of success.

At 26, Leicester-born Cambridge graduate Sameer is flying high as a lawyer in London, and on track to fast track it to partner when he’s offered a post in Singapore. Life seems sweet, except for fearing what his parents will think of the move, the “filling a quota” remark made by a colleague, and a bullying new boss who excludes him from a social event because “you lot don’t drink”. Then comes news that one of his best friends since childhood has been left in a coma after a vicious attack, and Sameer begins to question everything - who he is, what he’s doing with his life, where he wants to be.

Skipping back to 1945, we follow another Asian Ugandan voice via Hasan’s heartfelt letters to his deceased first wife. Through these we see colonialism through Hasan’s eyes. We read how the British “have crept up on us, unwittingly seeped through our skin and into our bones, and settled comfortably inside each of us like veins”, how they excluded Hasan from their Sports Club, and then comes the rise of anti-colonialism, a push for Ugandan independence, hostility towards and legislation against Asian Ugandans: “We are not natives and we are not Europeans.”

Back in Sameer’s narrative, wealthy Mr Shah, a family friend, speaks of the betrayal of “being turfed out of the country in which you were born, the only country you’ve ever known, like you’re no one, like you’re nothing.” With his move to Singapore looming, Sameer decides to visit Mr Shah in Uganda to find out more about his family history, with monumental effects. Emotionally rich and deeply resonant, it’s no wonder this gem co-won the inaugural Merky Books New Writers' Prize.

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Joanne Owen

We Are All Birds of Uganda Synopsis

'You can't stop birds from flying, can you, Sameer? They go where they will...'

1960s UGANDA. Hasan is struggling to run his family business following the sudden death of his wife. Just as he begins to see a way forward, a new regime seizes power, and a wave of rising prejudice threatens to sweep away everything he has built.

Present-day LONDON. Sameer, a young high-flying lawyer, senses an emptiness in what he thought was the life of his dreams. Called back to his family home by an unexpected tragedy, Sameer begins to find the missing pieces of himself not in his future plans, but in a past he never knew.

Moving between two continents and several generations over a troubled century, We Are All Birds of Uganda is a multi-layered, moving and immensely resonant novel of love, loss, and what it means to find home.

It is the first work of fiction by Hafsa Zayyan, co-winner of the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers' Prize, and one of the most exciting young novelists of today. 

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We Are All Birds of Uganda Reader Reviews

In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title.

A must read if you enjoyed The Beekeeper of Aleppo, and the devastation caused by social and cultural conflict and the effects it has on generations across continents.

I loved reading this book and discovering the injustice faced by Sameer, his friends and ancestors in the UK and Uganda. Uganda is a country I had no prior knowledge of but the author paints a picture of a place of beauty but also of societal and cultural upheaval. Relationships between family and friendships are so interwoven throughout the book that it sometimes seems they are all one, with the same injustices but continents and decades apart.

Katie Levers

A fantastic debut.

This a debut novel and what a debut it was! A novel set in two timelines. Modern day London sees Sameer, a young lawyer, looking forward to a new stage in his career.

1960's Uganda sees Hassam adjusting to life where every thing he has built up is crumbling around him.

This is a novel of family dynamics, racism and politics. Hassam sees himself losing his livelihood and being discriminated by other persons of colour, but he is not without his own prejudices. Sameer finds his career clashes with his family ambitions of taking over the business. He and Hassam find themselves in conflict with the world around.

A book I recommend.

alfred nobile

We Are All Birds of Uganda is an interesting and sensitive exploration of race and familial duty. At its heart however are two intense love stories.

We Are All Birds of Uganda is an interesting and sensitive exploration of race and familial duty. At its heart however are two intense love stories.

Sameer is the British son of Ugandan Asians, expelled from their home country by Idi Amin. He is on his way to becoming a successful lawyer in London, but is under pressure from his family to return to Leicester to join the family business.

Sameer's story is interspersed with letters his grandfather Hasan wrote to his first wife. These, each several years apart, give the background to the family's ejection from Uganda.

The conflict between the African and Asian Ugandans is mirrored by the racism Sameer experiences in Britain. His colleagues make assumptions about his life and his faith and he suffers numerous slights at their hands. More disturbingly though, a close friend is hospitalised by a brutal racially motivated attack.

The best books suck you in with interesting, relatable characters and absorbing storylines while surreptitiously teaching you something and this does just that. The novel won the inaugural Merky Prize in 2019, so my expectations were high and it doesn't disappoint.

Sarah Noakes

This book needs to be read slowly savoured so you don’t miss any of the beautiful, lyrical writing. It is a beautifully told story about life, relationships, family and love.

This book needs to be read slowly and savoured so you don’t miss any of the beautiful, lyrical writing. At the beginning the story feels a bit uncomfortable as if your seeing your history through a looking glass and it doesn’t quite fit with what you know but you soon realise this book isn’t about you, it is someone else’s history and story to tell and this book does it so well.

This book is why I love reading so much as it took me and placed me in another world, it brought to life a completely different life, full of different cultures and traditions and made me see life through different eyes to see that we are the same. It ultimately takes you on a journey of discovery.

It is a beautifully told story about life, relationships, family and love.

Lynne Packer

Fantastic, insightful debut about immigration, family ties, family pressures and British colonialism's historical repercussions in the modern society.

This truly is a fantastic, insightful debut that shows the historical repercussion of  British colonialism and the influence of family ties and pressures on modern, cosmopolitan society.

For me, the best books grips you from the start and won't allow you to do much else in your free time. This debut was very readable and very insightful, smart and thrilling. I have learned about South Asian Ugandans, something I had no previous knowledge of. Uganda, as a country, is not a place I know much about, I had heard about Idi Amin, knowing more about Tanzanian and Kenyan wildlife and safaris and recent military unrest. I had no idea that British colonialists literally brought over thousands of Indians to work in Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century and later on South Asians owned over 90% of all businesses in Uganda and had majority of wealth in the country. This was all a result of British imperialism and bad feelings were part of both communities, ending in expulsion of South Asians, taking away all their rights and culture by Idi Amin in 1970s.

The main character Sameer is a high flying, burnt-out lawyer, who is pressured by his father, who seems overpowering and demanding, but this is portrayed as part of a cultural and traditional upbringing. I loved getting to know Leicester's South Asian community and I thought the unconscious bias and racism shown in this book were pictured very well, but heartbreaking nevertheless.

I loved imagining Kampala, in the past and the streets shown nowadays-I am blessed to have my horizons widened and being emotionally involved in Sameer's story, I really felt for him and his struggle. His grandfather's story was told in form of letters to his first wife, where the early immigration to first Uganda, then UK was shown.

The end of the book leaves you quite cross-what happened?! I want to read on! But I guess, the ambiguous ending adds to the emotion of the story and the fear of immigrants, who can't totally ever feel at home. A great book, highly recommended. An eye-opener and emotional, vivid picture of immigrants, of Uganda, of Muslim community, Pakistani and British colonialism.

Agnieszka Higney

We are all birds of Uganda is a timely and well written debut about race and identity told between two generations of one family from 1945 to the present.

We Are All Birds of Uganda is a timely and well written debut about race and identity. Told between two generations of one family, Hasan, the grandfather and Sameer, the grandson, told between the present day, and letters over 36 years from Hasan to his first wife who was the love of his life.

The book starts in London with Sameer who has a high-flying career and is offered a post to start a job in Singapore. This leads to him starting to try and find out more about his identity and where he fits into British society in which he lives, and where he is from along with where he is going. 

The letters from Hasan shows how life was in 1945 for African Asians living in Uganda and what it was like when the British were in charge, followed by what it was like living under the rule of Idi Amin. Decisions made by Hasan show what is like to become stateless and having to make the decision to leave a country to start a new life.

However, the story turns full circle as Sameer takes a holiday to find his origins and goes to stay in Uganda where he finds out where his roots are. This is very well written debut and interlaced between the past and present, with the author providing factual historical information.

Katie Hoare

The novel was thought provoking and shows how other cultures both lived in the past and in the twenty-first century.

Set in two different eras, the 1960's in Uganda during times of uprisings and prejudice, and present day London.

The book is based around two central characters, Hasan who is struggling to run his family business after becoming a widow, and Sameer who is a young lawyer who begins to doubt his life choices.

I must say I enjoyed the present day chapters much more than the historical ones, there was too much talk about political history for me, it was like reading a non-fiction book in some of those chapters and went into too much unnecessary detail. The chapters about Sameer and his struggle with how he wants to spend his life I did find interesting, the discrimination that still happens in our modern world, the old fashioned values of some of the older members of his family, such as expecting Sameer to 'come home' and work alongside his father in the family business even though he had become a successful lawyer.

The love interest made the story more about a person rather than about the political storms that wrecked Uganda, which I preferred. I did find the ending a little abrupt as we don't find out what happens to Sameer. However the novel was thought provoking and shows how other cultures both lived in the past and in the twenty first century,

Glenda Worth

An important novel about race, culture, family, and belonging.

This is a book of contrasts and of similarities, looking at race, culture, family, and belonging. It contains two stories located on different continents and in different eras, but most striking are the things that are common to both. In present-day London Sameer is trying to make his way in the modern world and pulling against the constraints of his upbringing, while in 1960s Uganda his grandfather Hasan lives through political upheaval and its consequences. They much each find their place in the world – Sameer through choice, and Hasan through necessity.

I found the novel a very interesting portrayal of the historical situation in Uganda, of which I knew only a little previously, and of the experience of those expelled by the Amin regime. I also felt involved in the modern story, but was shocked by the extent of the racism demonstrated whether in the UK or in Africa, from all the communities involved.

I felt compelled to get to the end, and consider the book to be well written with some important points to make, but it isn’t a book I could say I “enjoyed” as I found much of it very dark – and whenever some light dawns, the darkness seems to approach again.

It definitely should be read by a wide audience, but the novel left me with a feeling of sadness and shame for everything that the family went through.

Sue Berwick

Poignant and thought provoking with strong messages of loyalty to ones family and ones country.

This was an amazing and thought-provoking book. Made more so, I am sure, as I knew extraordinarily little of the history of Uganda. We (of a certain age) have all heard of Idi Amin and the numerous refuges that arrived in England not many decades ago, but it was fascinating to read of the lives of the people from both England and Africa, both then and now. The contrasts between Sameer's upbringing and that of his parents and grandparents was quite moving and beautifully written. The prejudices of class, colour and religion were all written about sensitively but very poignantly and really made the reader think. The theme of the importance of the family ran throughout the book and to me, was the real and most important message.

I loved the way Hasan's and Sameer's stories were brought together. The ensuing love story between Sameer and Maryam was beautifully developed, though it made you realise that the prejudices are still there. Listening to the Foreign Correspondent on Radio 4 at the weekend, where the forthcoming Ugandan elections were being discussed, did ask the question, how much has really changed and is there any real political freedom?

Rosie Watch

A stunning debut following one man’s journey into understanding himself and his family’s history. It is rich in description and paints a beautiful picture of Uganda and its history.

This book was truly a beautiful read and an incredible debut. The language and the descriptions used were stunning, especially when describing Uganda, I truly was immersed in this book and the settings. It is a slower paced novel and really leaves a lot of thought-provoking comments throughout. It is such a reflective novel and I can honestly say I learnt a lot reading it. Hafsa does an amazing job of weaving in historical events into the novel and it was eye opening to learn about Ugandan culture and history.

Hasan’s letters are heart-breaking and realistic, and I loved the fact that he wasn’t quite a reliable narrator because it made it all the more honest. I felt I really connected with Sameer and I really enjoyed reading his development and seeing him grow as a character and his journey to understanding himself and his heritage.

This book follows the theme of identity and belonging and begs the question of where anyone truly belongs. I would recommend this novel to anyone as I feel it can be understood and appreciated by anyone from any culture. It is a truly stunning debut and I can’t wait to see more from Hafsa Zayyan.

Alice Robinson

The life and times of the Saeed family, past and present.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan is a wonderful novel, rich in historical and cultural detail and human emotion.

Divided into two parts, the novel tells the story of the Saeed family. The first chapter introduces the reader to Sameer, a young lawyer with great prospects. He works very hard and has been offered a job with his firm in Singapore; a career break that many long for. Sameer’s family live in Leicester, where his father runs the family business. Mr. Saeed senior has great hopes that Sameer will eventually return to the city of his birth to enter this business. One can imagine the reaction to the Singapore news, when Sameer eventually tells his family.

The second chapter of the novel is in the form of a letter, written in 1945, by Hasan Saeed to his first wife. Hasan is Sameer’s grandfather and his letters provide the reader with an insight into the lives of the Asians who lived in Uganda at that time. We read of success and friendship, but also of how persecution, and the policies of Idi Amin led to the expulsion of many Asians in the 1970s.

The novel continues with chapters charting Sameer’s struggles and decisions in the present day, interspersed with letters from Hasan to his first wife. I loved how the plot took on a further dimension when Sameer decided to visit Uganda.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this amazing debut novel.

Angela Thomas

A compelling and at times hard hitting novel following Sameer as he tries to build a life in London, Leicester and Uganda.

We are All Birds of Uganda is a perfect escapist read. Following Sameer a British Asian as he navigates the stresses of work and family expectations in London, Leicester and later Kampala, Uganda. The book is interspersed with the letters of his grandfather Hasan who lived in Uganda as an Asian Ugandan during the reign of Idi Amin and the letters serve as a foreboding reminder of the racism and injustice this population faced which grows stronger as the book continues. Sameer faces his fair share of racism and injustice as a British Asian in the UK and two thirds of the way through the book he holidays in Uganda to find out more about his roots. But will life in Uganda as an Asian be much different?

I particularly loved the parts of this book set in Uganda. It was so full of the sounds and sights of Kampala that I felt like I was there. The market scenes were my favourite.

All in all I would highly recommend this book to all fans of literary fiction.

Jo Corrado

It was a pleasure to read this sensitively written debut novel which concentrates on racial prejudices. Especially the way it raised my awareness of events in the history of Uganda, of which I knew about but not in any depth.

It was a pleasure to read this sensitively written debut novel which concentrates on racial prejudices. Especially the way it raised my awareness of events in the history of Uganda, of which I knew about but not in any depth.

The protagonists have all been affected by British Colonialism and the political history of Uganda, during Idi Amin's regime and the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians is told through letters written by Hasan. In present day London, Sameer is not happy despite supposedly living a dream lifestyle.

The following quote from the novel puts the entire story, for me anyway, into perspective. 'If you don't understand where you've come from, you'll never really understand who you are or where you're going.'

Highly recommended to anyone interested in a very readable explanation of what living in a world full of prejudice and generation differences is really like.


I loved this and I predict that it will win the Booker Prize and if it doesn’t it should!

This is a wonderful book and certainly one of the best I have read for a long time. Fresh, interesting and very well written, I came away feeling enriched and with a better understanding.
The novel has two loosely entwined stories spanning two continents and different centuries. Sameer is a young and successful lawyer based in London with the opportunity of setting up an office in Singapore. He is being pressured by his father to return to Leicester and join the Ugandan Asian family business. He seems happy and excited about his forthcoming new life but when his friend is the subject of a racist attack, he begins to view the world around him differently.
Meanwhile, the complementary narrative is set in 1960s Uganda with Hasan telling his story, through letters to his first and beloved late wife. Here, you get a palpable feel of what life was like there and the burdens endured. With the changing political scene, living there is hard and it is dangerous. Hasan find a quiet comfort in his friendship with African, Abdullah. But sadly, this too has its challenges as racism rises and people are challenged to review their culture and attitudes.
Sameer has never been very interested in his Ugandan Asian background so it is a surprise to everyone when he makes a snap decision to visit Uganda. And with it the story takes on a new twist.
So much is explored within these pages – racism, colonialism, family, loyalties and values.
The beauty and colour of Uganda washes over you as you are drawn in to it all.
'You can't stop birds from flying, can you, Sameer? They go where they will...' is being used by many reviewers and when you read the book for yourself you will see why.
I loved this and I predict that it will win the Booker Prize and if it doesn’t it should!

Dana Captainino

Deserved of its rave reviews, this book has heart, and speaks on many different levels to its readers, as it tackles issues both contemporary and historical, in the story of an East African Asian family from Uganda.

What can I say about this debut novel that hasn’t already been said? Deservedly it has been receiving rave reviews both for the standard of writing and the issues covered.
It is a sensitive book with heart, set partly in 1960s Uganda following Hassan's story, and partly present-day London and Leicester with Sameer a young lawyer.
As the story develops we realise that the past and present for this family are entwined.
Far away from the stream of psychological thrillers I usually read, I lost myself in the descriptions of another world and was hooked by the wonderful characterisations.
It is so exciting to read a book like this- I learned from it & I loved it, what greater recommendation can there be?

Carolyn Parry

This novel is deeply moving, covering a range of emotional topics. Despite some being distressing, the story also covers themes such as love, hope and the importance of family. I learnt a lot reading this book about a culture and country I admit I didn't know much about before and am happy I have read this novel.

Sameer lives in London as a high flying lawyer in his 20s and given the chance to go and work in Singapore for his law firm. He is aware that his family in Leicester will be far from pleased with this news. Sameer's dad still wants him to follow in his footsteps and run the family business. Before he heads off, Sameer decides to visit a family friend in Uganda, the country where his family came from before moving to the UK. Whilst he is there he discovers more about his family's past.

We are also taken back to Uganda in the 1960s through the eyes of Hasan, a successful businessman who is suddenly expelled from his home country because he is from Asian decent and was one of the minorities Idi Amin removed from Uganda.

We move between the lives of Hasan and Sameer and explore the themes of racism, love, loss, home and most importantly family.

The story was not only beautifully written, it taught me about Ugandan culture as well as the turbulent history the country went through during the reign of Idi Amin. I dont think you can read this story without thinking about what it would have been like to be thrown out of your home country. it's truly heart wrenching.

This novel is deeply moving and covers a range of emotional and distressing topics. However it also makes you appreciate your home, your family and provides a strong sense of hope. I finished this book with plenty to think about and it made me want to discuss this lovely story with others.

Books Bakes Becky

Hafsa Zayyan Press Reviews

A remarkably accomplished, polished debut. -- Malorie Blackman

Readers have been entranced by We Are All Birds of Uganda:

'I connected with this book immediately ... Racism, generational culture, love and family ties are all key components of this novel by a really accomplished debut author who I feel sure we are going to hear a lot more from.'

'I can't find the words to describe how much I adored every, single, beautiful word of this totally amazing story. If I could give this book more than 5 stars I would.'

'This is one of the best books I have read in a long time and the writing is exceptional. A truly remarkable debut novel that I will shout about from the rooftops.'

'What an amazing book. Sensitively written, it covers so many issues. Family, religion, racism, bullying, loyalty. Eloquent writing made me feel completely part of the story ... An absolute gem of a book.'

'Zayyan intricately weaves the often forgotten story of South Asian migrants in Uganda, through past and present. Meticulously crafted, beautifully and thoughtfully written, with complex characters, this was an absolute pleasure to read.'

'A beautifully written story with themes of race and emigration. This is an extremely accomplished and readable story.'

Other editions of this book

ISBN: 9781529118667
Publication date: 27/01/2022
Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9781529118643
Publication date: 21/01/2021
Format: Hardback

ISBN: 9781529119237
Publication date: 21/01/2021
Format: Audiobook

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About Hafsa Zayyan

Hafsa Zayyan is a writer and dispute resolution lawyer based in London. She won the inaugural #Merky Books New Writers' Prize in 2019. We Are All Birds of Uganda is her debut novel, inspired by the mixed background from which she hails. She studied Law at the University of Cambridge and holds a masters' degree from the University of Oxford.

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