In the past week I read for the first time and watched for the second time Giles Foden’s novel (and Hollywood’s depiction thereof) of the fictitious Scottish personal physician to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The book is set in south-western Uganda and Kampala – the two parts of this country where I’ve spent the majority of my time. In a neat twist I happen to read his description of a matatu while sitting in a matatu (not by choice) and a visit to a certain lake near Kabale while I was sitting with a view of that exact lake (Lake Bunyonyi). However it’s very clear the author has never really sat in a matatu:
At one point on a ride from Kampala to Mbarara (5 hours today, probably longer in 1971) Dr. Garrigan’s matatu is stopped by a police checkpoint and “one of the soldiers had climbed in… I was intrigued to see, as he walked down the aisle…” Ok, that’s enough. Anyone who’s ever been in a full matatu would have to laugh at the idea of someone walking down the aisle. What a matatu has for aisle is really just a narrow four foot crawl space that allows passengers to cram into the rear bench and it’s quickly swallowed up by the foldout seats. There is no aisle in a full matatu, sorry Foden.
That aside, the book is a great read, and the movie wasn’t bad either, but both left me with some serious reservations. Let me preface: I’ve never really taken a literature class.
I tend to really enjoy historical fiction. A large part of the appeal is that the reader gets fed a historical account of major events and the undercurrents of that time and place through the story of a family or set of fictitious characters. Reading the typical (in my mind) historical fiction I know that anything that happens to this family is not historically accurate but very much a feasible or likely reality for families of that era. And then anything that happens to the president of that country, or any true character from that country’s history, those are facts. Now Foden doesn’t package his story as a piece of historical fiction but neither does he clearly state what’s what. It is written as a first hand account of the Dr. Nicholas Garrigan and the real author brings us completely into the world of the fictitious author as he sits in Scotland penning his account of what he saw in Uganda. I frequently had the urge to get out of my hammock (which I hate doing) and go online to fact-check to discern history from fiction. The truth is that Dr. Garrigan is a product of the author’s imagination but at the same time he writes dialogues between Idi Amin, a very real historical figure, and the Scottish doctor which are accurate in the sense that Amin did say some of these things, but not all of them, and he obviously expressed them to someone else.
What bothered me most by the book’s end is essentially that anyone who reads this book is likely to walk away believing they now know more about Uganda and her history than they did prior. But few of these readers (myself included) will really take the time to figure out exactly what they’ve learned and they’ll likely swallow fiction with truth. It is a good account of Kampala and western Uganda and it is a good quick read, but I am very glad that I didn’t read it until now. I would recommend anyone coming to Uganda to read this before you come, and then maybe read The Last King of Scotland after having experienced this place first hand.