I flew into Uganda for the first time in May 2002, emerging from the plane into a sultry evening and a cloud of swarming lake flies. I had never visited Africa before, and though I had somehow managed to write a fellowship proposal confident enough to convince the trustees of the Institute of Current World Affairs that I was capable of surviving in the developing world, I was far from sure I was up to it. Because my book is about memory, it’s only fair I confess that my recollections of my initial impressions are fragmentary. I still have a few notes that I jotted down my first morning, as a hotel minibus carried me the 20 or so miles from the airport town of Entebbe to Kampala, the capital.
The road is two lanes and bumpy, though it effectively becomes three lanes when our driver passes other cars, as he does frequently, often along blind curves. … I see men and women threshing fields with scythes … a boy riding a bike with a huge sack balanced on its back … men idling around the side of the road, tinkering with bikes … a few humpbacked cows … rusty corrugated metal roofs … The driver flips on his radio. A talk show comes on. They’re discussing Idi Amin. “What do you think, should we open the gates so that Amin can come back in, then?” the announcer asks. “Sure,” responds the caller.
It’s fitting that my first experience of today’s Uganda—a bustling, chaotic, relentlessly present-tense place—corresponded with my introduction to the country’s surprisingly ambiguous attitude toward Idi Amin, and by extension, its past. The topic of the radio show was a debate that was much in the news in those days: whether or not to allow the return of the former dictator, who was then living in fattened exile in Saudi Arabia. One might imagine that many Ugandans would be eager to have Amin back so he could be put on trial—after all, estimates of the number of people killed during his regime started at 100,000 and ran upward. But instead, the argument was over whether Amin, in the name of reconciliation, was to be allowed to spend his twilight years on his family farm in the far northwestern province of West Nile. Many Ugandans thought the government needed to forgive him, or denied that he’d ever done anything terrible at all.
Meanwhile, I soon discovered that when I tried to bring up the subject of Amin’s era with new acquaintances, the conversation quickly sputtered into uncomfortable silence. The young people I made friends with didn’t know many details about the era—it wasn’t covered much in schools—and their parents didn’t talk about those times, either with their kids or with me. Those who had suffered—especially the families of the countless disappeared—preferred to keep their memories to themselves. This was, to some extent, an understandable reaction to traumatic events, but it was also a product of a deliberate government policy. After he took power in 1986, Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s current president, had brought peace to his once war-torn nation, in part by offering amnesty to Amin’s men, who had the capability to wage a long insurgency against the new government as rebels. Efforts to seek justice were set aside in the name of reconciliation. So Amin’s victims kept their injuries—and their stories—to themselves. As one well-tailored ruling party politician, well into a bottle of whisky, whispered to me one evening: “Everyone in Uganda—you scratch the surface, and there is a minefield.”
Then, one day in July 2002, I noticed a small article on an inside page of the government-run newspaper, the New Vision. “The former chief of staff of the defunct Uganda Army under Idi Amin, Maj. Gen. Yusuf Gowon,” it began, “was yesterday committed to the High Court to answer charges of murder.” The article went on to describe how Gowon and two other retired soldiers, a sergeant and a private, had been arrested in connection with the disappearance of a chief named Eliphaz Laki some 30 years before.
I was intrigued. A couple of days later, I went down to the courthouse where the hearing had taken place. I convinced the prosecutor to let me take a look at the case’s file. The first piece of paper I pulled out of it was a handwritten affidavit from the victim’s son, a lawyer by name of Duncan Muhumuza Laki. It described how he’d come across a name on an old document down at the motor vehicle registry—someone who’d taken possession of his father’s Volkswagen Beetle, which had also disappeared. “I was so shocked by this discovery,” he’d written. On other pages, I read eyewitness accounts of Laki’s kidnapping, the confessions of two soldiers who said they’d done it on Gowon’s orders, and finally the general’s adamant denial, written in capital letters: “I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THE MURDER OF ELIPHAZ LAKI.” I managed to track down Duncan Laki—who, by fortuitous chance, happened to be back visiting Uganda from his new family home in New Jersey—and got in touch with Gowon’s defense lawyer, who told me he would arrange for me to meet the general.
The story unwound from there. Over the next few years, I spent many days traveling around the backroads of hilly western Uganda, driving through some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, as I tried to track down old friends and colleagues of Eliphaz Laki’s. I got the chance to talk to unrepentant former generals from Idi Amin’s army, as we sat next to the ruins of mansions that they’d built during their time in power. I was able to interview President Museveni at his cattle ranch, and to spend a great deal of time with Yusuf Gowon in prison, coming to understand his motivations for serving such a wicked ruler. I witnessed Uganda’s reaction to the death of the still-exiled Amin in August 2003, and got to see the Laki murder trial culminate with a fittingly ambiguous judgment. Over time, a story that started out as a narrative about the past’s mysteries became something else entirely: a book about the flawed and conflicted, but ultimately inspiring, nation that emerged from Uganda’s decades of turmoil.
I wrote the entirety of The Teeth May Smile But The Heart Does Not Forget in a tiny studio apartment overlooking Prospect Park, on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. That might seem like an odd locale for writing a book about Africa, but it wasn’t really. The neighborhood had a familiar sort of cacophony, the kind that comes from a cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of cultures: a Swiss jazz musician lived upstairs, a West Indian drug dealer lived next door, some Dominicans owned the ground-floor grocery. There was a friendly Ghanaian bar at the end of the block, along with a string of other African establishments—places that reminded me Uganda was not so far away. Coming home to the United States also gave me the opportunity to continue my acquaintance—I think I can say friendship—with Duncan Laki, who now lives a very suburban life in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and works as an official with the Ugandan Mission to the United Nations. Every once and a while as I worked on the book, I would receive an email from some Ugandan who had heard about it, and who wanted to know more about how Duncan carried out his search, because they too had a loved one who had disappeared many years before. Duncan’s example has inspired many Ugandans, by demonstrating that the truth is, in fact, retrievable. I think that whatever this book may accomplish, it pales in comparison to that.
Andrew Rice’s first book, The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda, will be published in May by Metropolitan Books. He is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. Between 2002 and 2004, he lived in Uganda as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, an American nonprofit foundation.