The Last King of Scotland
By Giles Foden
Faber & Faber (Film Tie-in ed.), 2007.
Won the Whitbread Prize
Instead of my usual approach to a review where I give a plot summary, focus on some interesting cultural aspects etc. for this one I have decided to create a list of 20 fascinating facts I learned while reading The Last King of Scotland:
#1 “If you give pigeon peas to a donkey, he will fart”.
This is a Swahili proverb which Idi Amin (going by the self-bestowed and somewhat excessive title of His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea ad Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular) announces at an official State dinner. Despite the fact that I had always been under the impression that a proverb was meant to convey, albeit often metaphorically, some sort of moral message and this one, unless you happen to be standing behind or in the near vicinity of an African donkey, doesn’t really seem to accomplish that, I have discovered, in fact, that a proverb is defined as “a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses a truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity” (wikipedia). I guess this proverb, therefore, achieves its purpose. It is just one of many proverbs and sayings the equal parts charming and crazy Amin declares. Other favourites of mine include:
“He who tastes honey makes a hive – yes he who dips his finger into honey does not want to dip it once only”
“Water flows down into a valley, it does not climb a hill. And if water is spilt, it cannot be gathered up”
“Mtumi wa kunga haambiwi maana…the carrier of a secret message is not told its meaning”
“If you have an itch in your behind, it will follow you round wherever you go”
“Mteuzi haishi tamaa – A connoisseur never comes to the end of desire”
#2 Cartographically, Africa is shaped like a gun.
Nicholas Garrigan, the narrator of the novel and who comes to be the fictitious personal physician to Amin, reflects on this when upon arriving in Uganda in 1971 to take up a rural post in Mbarra, he is greeted with the news that the Ugandan Armed Forces have just deposed former President Obote and handed over control to Amin. Expressing some concern about these events, Nicholas is told by a local “coups in Africa are normal, they jst come around like the rainy season and dry season”. While pondering whether there must be some peaceful places in Africa, Nicholas concedes that when looking at the continent on a map it appears to be shaped like a gun in a holster. Here is a map of Africa, see what you think:
#3 The banana is a fascinating fruit.
In Africa, bananas are used for roofing, cattle feed, clothing, dye, vinegar, packing material (“guns, bodies”!). The banana tree has an eighteen month calendar of cultivation and when it comes to flowering it does so in three rows with the top row becoming bananas, the bottom row pollen, the middle row dropping off.
#4 Many of the names of towns in Uganda have special meanings in Luganda – the native language.
Gulu, for example, wa so named because the river there makes the sound “gulu-gulu” as it passes; Kabarole means “watch and see” and was named because the King built a palace on the hill there. Muhavra means “what shows the way” because a beacon was put there. Namagasali came about because when the Ugandan Railway arrived, people would go to greet the train and say “Namusa gali” which means “I am greeting the train”. And, perhaps prohetically, the name of the town in which Amin was born, Koboko. It is so-called because there is a hill there called a kobuko and legend had it that it was blown by a mystery power from Sudan and when it landed it killed all the people where it landed. “Kobuko means in Kakwa the thing which smothers of covers you, stopping your breath”. I say this is prophetic and Foden certainly suggests this given that under Amin’s dictatorship between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed.
#5 Idi Amin challenged Mohammad Ali to a boxing match
According to the book, he also spoke to NASA about being the first black man on the moon and bought himself an astronaut suit; was 6ft, 6″ tall and weighed around 20 stone; liked to write letters to other leaders such as the Queen, Golda Meir and President Nixon (inviting him to come to Uganda for a rest after all the Watergate problems!) and does look quite a lot like Forest Whitaker who won an Academy Award for playing him in the film version of the book.
…means “this one is very fragile” in the mountain dialect of Uganda known as Kinyankole-Luchiga and is used to refer to butterflies – the Ugandan butterflies are some of the biggest in the world.
#7 Operation Mafuta Mingi
This was the name Amin gave to his enforced expulsion of Asians from Uganda. Mafuta Mingi translates to “too much cooking oil” which as Foden puts it “was a valuable commodity that in this case symbolised Asian dominance in East African commerce”. 50,000 Asians were were either forced to leave or voluntarily left under this operation.
#8 Uganda is a place where “dudu” is edible!
I had to laugh when I read that the guests at a dinner were served “dudu”. I know it is incredibly juvenile but where I am from “doo doo” is another phrase for faeces. In Uganda, “dudu” is a “variety platter” served as hors d’oeuvres and includes bee larvae, large green bush crickets, cicadas and flying ants fried in oil and salt. I’m making no comment on this as in my country (Australia), people eat witchetty grubs.
#9 Amin was born in Sudan
According to Foden, he was born in Sudan probably in 1928 but possibly even earlier in 1925. His father was a Kakwa, his mother from the Lugbara tribe. She was “by many accounts” thought to be a witch. By 1946 Amin had enlisted in the 4th King’s African Rifles. During his time in the KAR, one of the officers, a Scot, put the men into Scottish khaki kilts. This, among other factors, had an influence on Amin (hence the name of the book – there are reports that he once offered himself to be the King of Scotland). By 1959, having learned English, Amin was a junior officer and Obote had become the leader of Uganda which gained independence in 1962. Amin continued to be promoted and gained power as Obote found himself losing it. By 1971, Amin had overthrown Obote and claimed power.
#10 Use vaseline and tweezers for putse fly
Putse fly lay their eggs in clothes when they are on the clothes line. When a person then puts their clothes back on, the eggs burrow into the skin. You can draw the larvae out with Vaseline which suffocates them and then pick them out with tweezers when they emerge from the skin to breathe.
There is plenty more to learn from reading The Last King of Scotland. As for a quick plot summary, the book is the fictional memoir of a young, also fictitious, Scottish doctor called Nicholas Garrigan who moves to Uganda to work in rural medicine and through a series of events becomes President Idi Amin’s personal physician. The period of Amin’s rule over the country (1972-79) is then seen through the eyes of Garrigan who is initially seduced and charmed but later horrified by Amin and his increasingly violent and bizarre world. Also an intriguing account of Ugandan life, set against the backdrop of other world political events, the book remains constantly interesting, if not a bit long – there were a few chapters which I though could have been edited more heavily. The movie of the novel is also very good but there are considerable changes made so read the book first.
Make sure you stop by for my next post when I will be interviewing Nikki Gemmell about her book Shiver set in Antarctica. Until then…
The Literary Nomad xx
General reading value: 4/5
Armchair travel value: 5/5
washenzi – saages
More on Uganda…
Language: English, Swahili
Currency: Ugandan shilling
Delay your stay…
Fiction: The Ghosts of Eden (Andrew JH Sharp), Waiting: A Novel of Uganda at War (Goretti Kyomushendo), My Driver (Maggie Gee), The Abyssinian Chronicles (Moses Isegawa), Cassandra (Violet Burungi), Masaba (Peter Drinkwater)
Non-fiction: The Oral Tradition of the Baganda of Uganda (Immaculate N Kizza), The Proce of Stones: Building a School for My Village (Twesigyi Jackson Kaguri), The Teeth May Smile But The Heat Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda (Andrew Rice), The Impenetrable Forest -My Gorilla Years in Uganda (Thor Hanson).