There are better bets for one’s first book than Uganda. A faraway place, beset by exoticism and stereotype, the country doesn’t often make the bestseller list. And journalist Andrew Rice didn’t set out to write an easy book: The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget is an ambitious work of narrative journalism, the story of one man’s quest for the truth about the murder of his father, who was killed during the brutal reign of dictator Idi Amin.
But Rice’s debut may well do for Uganda what Philip Gourevitch did for Rwanda, or Adam Hochschild for colonial Congo: bring an unfamiliar place and its terrifying history to the forefront of the American imagination.
Duncan Laki was 9 years old when his father, a local leader named Eliphaz, disappeared one afternoon and, like thousands of other Ugandans, simply never came home. The son spent much of his life consumed by the need to know what happened. Eventually, by following a series of clues about his father’s prized Volkswagen Beetle, Duncan meets the guilty: two foot soldiers, under order from Amin’s No. 2 general, Yusuf Gowon.
After recanted confessions, they go on trial for Eliphaz’s murder – the first trial for crimes committed under Amin’s regime. The suspense of Rice’s story stems from whether, in a country that seems to prefer amnesia, these men will be held accountable for their crimes. In the context of Amin’s horrific regime, is following that order – or giving it – even a crime? Or is an entire society guilty of crimes in which its members, by simply trying to survive, were complicit?
A cast of pitch-perfect characters makes these questions even more compelling. There’s Idi Amin, of course, whose global reputation for sinister buffoonery concealed his power to suffuse every corner of society with paranoia. Eliphaz Laki is an ideal foil: Active in politics during the euphoric moment of Ugandan independence, Eliphaz landed an appointment as chief, a duty he fulfilled with a near-sacred sense
of responsibility. Early activism put Eliphaz in contact with the young, rebellious Yoweri Museveni, then a Marxist trying to foment revolution, now Uganda’s longest-serving president. Eliphaz once helped Museveni sneak over the border to Tanzania; that fact, run through the conspiracy-crazed rumor mill of the Idi Amin bureaucracy, helped mark Eliphaz for death. This was hardly a surprise, even to Eliphaz himself. What tormented his son Duncan were the unknown details: How did his father die and where was his body left? Who led the killers to the family’s home? What became of the Beetle?
Duncan wants answers, but the circumstances are more complicated than they seem. They go back to the country’s fraught colonial history. In his telling, Rice distills a bibliography worthy of a doctorate into captivating storytelling.
Background on the British system is the story of “how Eliphaz Laki ended up going to school,” while the earlier Turkish presence in northern Uganda “would determine the course of Yusuf Gowon’s life.” In lesser hands, one man would be the victim, the other a perpetrator, each cast in the rigid roles of the moment that brought them together. In Rice’s story, they are neither. They are, instead, ordinary men caught in the crosswinds of history.
It is in managing this tension – between individual and collective culpability, in a society to which the writer is an outsider – that Rice is at his most masterful. Through the controlled and blessedly infrequent use of the first person, Rice leverages his own incredulity to reveal something about Uganda.
“The idea that an entire nation might decide to let its murderers go free,” he writes in the first pages of the book, “that it might suffer so much and commemorate it so little upended everything I thought I knew about the human response to loss.” Lesser writers would be distracted by their own confusion, but Rice rises to the challenge. Rice knows we need him to guide us – sparingly – through a moral matrix complicated by a culture and history of which we know little.
The circumstances of Eliphaz’s life could have been fodder for any number of genre stories. Rice could have taken up the true crime mantle and written a Ugandan “In Cold Blood” or penned yet another quasi-memoir masquerading as a book about Africa. Instead, he offers up first-rate reportage, sustained over the two years he spent living in Uganda.
In the idiosyncrasies of Ugandan history and in the material he gathers from his sources, Rice finds – without forcing it – a universally appealing story about living through, and after, violence. “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget” is a stunning book.
Jina Moore has reported for the Monitor from East Africa.