Since the publication of Never Laugh at Shadows, a number of people have asked me, “Why that story? What made you think of Uganda of all places, to set a book?”
Well, it’s a long story…
It starts way back in the seventies when I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle in Hereford. Idi Amin was making a name for himself on the world stage as a violent thug who was not only murdering thousands of his own countrymen, but also running a once strong economy into the ground. He was mad at best, a sociopathic megalomaniac more likely.
One morning, my Uncle told a joke: Idi Amin was watching his troops parade past. As the Colonel who was leading them came abreast of their Leader, he gave the command, “Eyes Right.” to which Idi Amin responded, “No, I’s right, you’s wrong.”
As a child, I didn’t really get the joke, but the adults all laughed (political correctness not having become part of the vernacular at that time). The joke stayed with me, however, and as I got older, I read a bit about Uganda and Idi Amin, and wondered what it would have been like to grow up in a place like that, especially if you didn’t agree with the regime.
Fast forward to the Eighties, and living in London, I met a small number of Ugandan students who were studying there, and over time, got to ask my questions. What was it like? How did you cope? What’s it like now? I knew that a couple of those students were applying for Political Refugee status, and that after a lengthy process, it was denied. We didn’t keep in contact.
Fast forward again to 2010. There was a news piece about Yoweri Museveni on the TV, and I started thinking about Uganda and those students. I googled their names. An address for one of them was listed, in Kampala. So at least she’d survived. After all these years, it seemed too strange to suddenly make contact again. Instead, I started researching Uganda and its politics. It was fascinating and heart-breaking reading. A country so geographically beautiful and vibrant had been ripped apart by tribal conflict, killings, war. Museveni had installed himself as President, and seemed to be doing a far better job that Amin or Obote – at least the war had stopped (although the Lord’s Resistance Army still abducts children from villages in Northern Uganda to fight the fight for Kony’s delusional religious war).
So I started asking myself those questions again: what would it have been like to have lives through the violent dictatorships of the seventies and eighties? I wondered how a child would have perceived it…Winsome Natakunda was born.
As I delved into my research over the next few months, Winsome’s character ‘cooked’ in my mind, becoming almost as real to me as my own children! I’d be in the supermarket wondering what to get for dinner, and ask myself if Winsome would like Lasagne? Would she ever have tried it? What would she have eaten at home? Would she ever have had the chance to eat out? Every question begged more research, and made her a fuller character.
Although Never Laugh at Shadows is set in Uganda and London, it is, essentially, Winsome’s story. The horrors she and her family – indeed the whole country – went through, are part of what made her who she is, but they are not at the forefront of the story. She is. What it was like for her, how she survived, what happened when she was cut off from her family, how she found the courage to invest in a new relationship when she had been through so much loss. It is a story of strength, courage, love and resilience, and I wish Winsome and all her compatriots well.