A Day in the Life of Idi Amin Dada
By Binyavanga Wainaina
1983. It was that time of the day when the streets of Nakuru seemed to stand still. A Monday at 11 am even the hot dry breeze was lazy. It would glide languorously collecting odd bits of paper, have them tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground.
Every so often there would be a gathering of force and a tiny tornado would whip the paper into the air, swirl dust around, dogs would lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between their forelegs as the wind collapsed, exhausted. Children were in school, long lines of spittle reaching their desks, as they tried to keep awake.
Even Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyan the president, who usually woke up at 4 am, was now taking his nap – trying to summon his favorite dream: that the entire nation of Gikuyus were standing in line at his gate to await execution, cash and title-deeds in hand, to hand over at the gate.
Idi Amin Dada hunched over Mrs. Gupta Shah like an insistent question mark, jabbing. She was chewing hard at a bit of blue-gold and red sari, trying to keep from screaming out loud; they had put on a movie on the video and set it loud to muffle the sounds: some Bombay song: Chal Chal Chal Merihethi….on the screen Idi could see a pouty maiden at the edge of a cliff, and a man with a giant quiff of hair, and sideburns sang in a shrill voice.
She leapt off the cliff, and he followed her in a few seconds…they lay draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their fingers touched and they died, then the nasal Hindi music escalated in intensity, went beyond drama, beyond melodrama, and achieved genuine Bombay Belodrama.
Idi Amin Dada jabbed deeper into Mrs. Gupta, his plantain sized fingers digging deeply into the folds of her stomach, which usually undulated serenely between two wisps of sari as she hummed her way through the day.
“You want my banana?”
“I vant your banana Idhiii? Give me your banana Idhi…”
“I give you my banana till you are fed up.”
This was Idi's room; was also Idi's afternoon workplace. Had been for twenty years, since the early 1970s. This morning; every weekday morning, Idi would drop Mr. Shah at the grain-mill his family owned. At 9 he would drop the petulant Maharajah at school: The Shrival Manahaval Shah Academy For Successful Gentlemen Who Will Go To Oxford and Cambridge. We start to train them at 5 years old! Book Now For Half-Price Discount on Swimming.
The Maharaja’s mother would beg him to get into the car,
“Oh my baby Pooti-poo; my Mickey-Mouse; my Diwali Sveetmeat, don’t cry babeee…”
Mr. Shah remained silent; sometimes he tried to imagine this rosebud managing the Grain Mill and failed.
As soon as the car was at the gate, the Maharajah would wriggle to the front passenger seat of the Mercedes.
“Idi – buy me goody-goody toffee gum or I tell Mammi-ji that you pinch me here.”
Idi's antics reinforced Westerners' image of Africa and Africans
This routine had ceased being a to-fro conversation. Idi would extract a wad of goody-goody’s and the boy would stuff the toffee into his mouth and launch into muffled brags about Sapna’s father’s car’ of Rakesh’s trip to Disneyland.
Idi was once in the army, and was used to handling such humiliations with a deadpan face and a slight flaring of his nostrils. He always dropped off the prince without argument before rushing back to fuck the Prince's Mother in the ironing room.
Piles of freshly ironed clothes sat on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed, clothes Idi had ironed last night. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this room since Prince Number 1 left for Oxford: the top row full of Louis L’Amour Cowboy thrillers; the bottom row had a copy of Heart of Darkness, scribbled all over with A Level notes and next to it sat VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
Mrs. Shah gave a low gnashing answer that blew soft cardamom flavored wind into Idi’s ear. He grunted in assent. Idi had a lot of questions. Every 11 am he asked them.
He loved ironing. Every afternoon he would put on some Bollywood film, and turn the Shah family's washing into crisp battalions of soldiers. He loved shrugging shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching them stand at attention.
They were his to command. A Natural Leader, his sergeant had called him. The room was once a stable, but was now a Servant’s Quarter. At 6pm exactly, he would go to the shower, and smoke a joint and dream of shining brass buttons; dream of the embrace of a Luganda woman - sucking at his nerve endings like a fish; turning and twisting him around; smelling not of ginger and tumeric; but of musk and steamed bananas and Nilo beer.
The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British Administration screeched to a halt those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab hold of them were left stranded. In those days being dutiful mattered; NOT taking initiative - when they had decommissioned the special forces, afraid that they would remain to leak what had really happened in the forests and the African townships in the 50s; some soldiers had auctioned themselves to the new leaders - as bodyguards; as hired fists: these guys climbed up dizzyingly.
Amin had waited for his loyalty to be rewarded; had hung about Nakuru - 10 miles from the Barracks waiting for the call. In 1970, he was about to give up; was about to hitchhike to Uganda and sell illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he had found a frail Indian man being pulverized by a 10 year old parking boy, outside the wholesale market, with market women cheering the boy.
He had rescued the man. Mr. Shah. And he got a job. It wasn't bad: Mrs. Shah was exactly the same as Sergeant Jones: insistent, fanatic about time, a goddess of routine. Infatuated with her power over this black exhibition of muscle.
Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of a life that seemed aimless. His mother had sold liquor and her body to army officers. He loved his mother to distraction. At thirteen, he had beaten a thirty year old Acholi private who had come to their home to insult his mother.
At fifteen he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones had seen him walking in Arua, he had offered him a place in the army at once. Idi was terrified of whites; and he could sense that Jones feared and was fascinated with him. Jones would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills.
He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe seat off Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles – always gruffly, always lingering. During a bout, his adrenalin pumping sweat flying, Idi was like a machine: looking for every angle to kill; never angry. Clinical. He loved it, loved holding into himself, loved the control of violence. One day he caught Jone’s eye, saw the fear in it – fear; and Idi felt like God, standing there showing his power; the feeling was almost sexual.
Idi rose up the ranks in the Army because he was the dream soldier. He had no father – had no problem being a boy to his superiors. He took his punishment with a wry mischievous grin, followed by a YESSIR AFFANDE!
He loved to catch Mau Mau terrorists – it was all a marvelous game. Most of all he loved the gruff pride that Jones would flash when Idi had done something exceptional. He shrunk like a child at Jones’ criticism. One day he drunk chang’aa and came to barracks with a prostitute (he loved older women), the sentry who challenged him was floored. Jones found him in the gym, thrusting away.
He slapped Idi twice, and sent the woman away. Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after winning the Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back, and Idi grinned widely and said,
“ Now I am the bull afande.”
Mr. Shah liked to spend the morning working on his novel: Conquerors of the British Empire. He was already 1000 words into the novel, and was still finding it impossible to squeeze characters into the dense polemic. His theory was simple: that India, already with a foot in the door in Kenya, should take over the continent, and use this leverage to take over Britain.
It is the only way to make a National Profit from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more we can dictate the cost of raw materials, the final profit will be manned by our guns. We must be Lords of the Commonwealth, and let the English carry us on their backs! Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there?
His first born son, Vishal, was disdainful about the book.
“Rubbish Dad. Pseudo-religious xenophobic polemic Dad. VS says the Indian Industrial revolution is petty and private. If Nakuru Shah’s and Patels are fighting over 10 shillings, who will unite us? We are greedy Dad…VS says we are ‘a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society that has not learned “rebellion”. Maybe Daddi-ji you need to read some real literature before writing this. The Russians…”
Vishal was brought up by Mrs. Gupta to be the Bollywood hero she had expected to marry all those hazy, plump years ago; to be NOT his father; Not her father. Vishal treated his parents as if they were trinkets: colorful mantelpiece trinkets who chimed once in a while, but who were so divorced from any viable reality they could only be treated with contempt.
It gave his father a twisted sense of pride to hear his son: what a man I am to produce a son, so un-Dukawallah! A son for Oxford! But he was hurt when the boy left. Now what would accompany his quiet mornings at the office?
When he was nine, Vishal had composed a song which he liked to sing at birthday parties to scandalize everybody (except the Marxist Habajan Singh, who liked his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a Kookaburra.
Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree
Merry Merry King of da Street is he
Run Dukawallah run
Dukawallah hide your cash and flee
(c) Binyavanga Wainaina
Editor's note: Part 2 of this piece will appear on Sunday