Reconciliation and Rage in West Africa
“In Uganda, all history is political, and so are the secrets.”—Andrew Rice, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget
It is no easy task for outsiders to comprehend the depraved evil that fell upon the West African nation of Uganda after General Idi Amin came to power. His 1971 coup overthrew the civilian government that had taken over from the British colonial authorities in 1962, and quickly put an end to the country’s brief swell of optimistic independence. In the eight dark years that followed before Amin was driven out of power (he spent the rest of his life in comfortable exile in Saudi Arabia), hundreds of thousands died and an entire generation was stamped with terror.
This task is made no easier by the Western media’s proclivity towards covering African affairs either not at all or in highly sensationalized terms (it’s hard sometimes to tell which is better). So it was with news about Amin, who was initially treated by the West as a correctly fawning strong man who would put an end to the leftward tilt of the country’s intelligentsia, who still harbored strange (to the British, at least) reservations about their colonial past.
When it became clear that Amin was not only a classic dictator, terrifying the population into obedience with informants and frequent assassinations, but a bona fide psychopath, Western media outlets played up the more macabre aspects of his rule. British newspapers were rife with stories of Amin’s depravities, which included his supposed habit of not just killing but eating his enemies. Very possibly, many of these stories were just fables concocted out of chaos and fear, and swallowed by a resentful public all too ready to believe any horror story out of one of their former colonies, particularly one that proved (to them) that the Africans couldn’t handle their own affairs.
In his studious and straightforward new book on the aftermath of Amin’s reign of terror, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, journalist Andrew Rice makes a point of saying that the more Sweeney Todd-like tales about Amin were most likely not true. But his purpose in saying that is not to discount the scars that this madman left on his country, it is instead the journalist’s drive to uncover the truth at any cost, even if that does mean dispelling some long-accepted notions. Rice writes that “Africa the place is forever obscured by the shadow of Africa the notion.” It is this mythical, frequently racist, “notion” of Africa that he helps to dispel by relating one horrifying but undeniably true story about what Amin’s rule did to one Ugandan family.
At its heart, Rice’s book is a mystery, with the journalist tracking the story of Duncan Laki, a Ugandan man trying to discover what happened to his father Eliphaz. An official with strong ties to the government that had run Uganda since independence, Eliphaz disappeared in 1972 when Duncan was only nine. Although his body was never located, and Duncan had harbored dreams of Eliphaz cropping up alive some day, most people assumed that Eliphaz had been murdered, like so many thousands of others, by the thugs of a paranoid and barbarous Amin.
By the time Rice catches up to Eliphaz’s son, it’s 2001 and Duncan is living comfortably with his family in New Jersey, though still frequently returning to Uganda. Duncan is determined to dig up the truth, hiring private investigators and even paying the costs of the police assigned to the case. What Rice initially finds is that that the men who assisted in Eliphaz’s kidnapping all those years before were hiding in plain sight, just like the stacks of bleached skulls and poorly-buried corpses of Amin’s victims that kept stubbornly showing up years after the General was gone. The evidence was everywhere but still ephemeral, will-o’-the-wisps like the post-disappearance sightings of Eliphaz’s prized Volkswagon (Duncan has kept the spare key to the car all these years as a totem of his father), which provide some of the first clues to what happened back in 1972.
As in so many fictional murder cases, it becomes clear that bringing Eliphaz’s killers to trial was not really a matter of evidence and motive, but of prosecutorial backbone and a will to see justice done, no matter how many ghosts it uncovers. In Duncan’s old town, feelings are definitely mixed about his pursuit of justice, given how many informers remain who had, so many years before, sold their neighbors out to Amin’s people. The violence from that time was so widespread—government officials, religious leaders, entire families butchered for little to no reason—that nearly anybody of note who was still alive after Amin was run out of the country in 1979 was suspected as a collaborator. To keep the peace, Uganda had, in theory, mostly pursued a Rwanda-like reconciliation policy towards criminals from that era. In practical matters, this appears to mean that a lot of quite guilty people simply went free.
Rice spent many years living in Uganda, and his ease with the society is particularly telling in his prose. The historical accounts he includes here are well-informed and unencumbered by the travelogue gloss that afflicts the work of many writers new to the continent. He avoids the tabloid exaggerations that most Westerners writing about Amin lean toward (the provable facts are horrible enough) and also seems quite at home describing each of the major characters here, treating them with neither naïve standoffishness or judgmental snark (two frequent hallmarks of the Western writer set loose in Africa). His writing is cool and hard with the occasional jabbing note of outrage.
After taking detours from the Eliphaz case to paint in vivid portraits of Uganda’s colorful, frequently painful history—particularly the fractious tribal affiliations which the British used to divide and conquer all these different peoples who never considered themselves one country before the Europeans came—Rice notes somewhat despondently that “no one in Uganda took responsibility for Amin’s crimes”. When he suggests that in the end, instead of choosing reconciliation or rage the country’s response seems to be instead sheer apathy, it’s as though one can see those piles of bleached skulls being slowly covered up by the soil, waiting patiently for a justice that might never come.