Orange for the Sunsets
Set in 1972, Orange for the Sunsets is a welcome novel on the expulsion of Indians from Uganda under the regime of President Idi Amin, a topic that has been the subject of only one other adolescent novel about Africa in recent years (Shenaaz Nanji’s Child of Dandelions, 2008). The novel is based on the author’s memories of living in Entebbe until her family left for the United Kingdom, the first-hand experiences of friends and family, and extensive research.
The novel employs the alternating perspectives of two twelve-year-old best friends, Yesofu and Asha, both of whom were born in Entebbe but are exact opposites in other respects. Apart from the most obvious difference that one is an Indian girl and the other an African boy, there is a big divide in their lifestyles: one is rich, the other poor; one lives in a big house, the other is the son of the family’s housegirl, Fara, and lives in a small thatched house. The novel is organized into major sections such as 90 Days, 75 Days, 50 Days, 30 Days, and so on until only one day remains for Indians to leave Uganda; and each section is further divided into chapters. Each chapter is written in the third person, but it focalizes the voice of the character whose name serves as the title. The chapters advance the story by giving the reader a glance into the actions, experiences, thoughts, and feelings of the two friends and their separate worlds. The author further complicates the plot by introducing mirror characters in the two worlds—for instance, Asha’s classmates Neelu and Leela remind her that she is breaking the social norms of their community by mixing with her servant’s son; similarly, Salim and Akello taunt Yesofu for being a traitor to his community by having an Indian friend. Yesofu is influenced by his friends’ rhetoric and President Amin‘s promise of better jobs, educational opportunities, and infrastructure for Africans if Indians are kicked out.
The accounts of the two protagonists also juxtapose the differences in their level of maturity. The story begins at a crucial turning point in their relationship. Asha is an innocent, unaware, and self-absorbed girl who is wrapped up in her own world. In contrast, Yesofu is more mature; his moment of revelation comes when his mother warns him not to accept the invitation to Asha’s birthday party because of their intrinsic differences. Such mixed-race friendships are a common trope in colonial novels where the child of the colonizer is best friends with the child of the servant who works for them. At first both families accept the friendship, but when the children reach adolescence, the differences in their hierarchical society become important. As Orange for the Sunsets progresses, the character flaws of the two friends are revealed: they mean well, but their reasoning seems limited because they are not aware of all the facts and are not mature enough to think rationally of the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, both Yesofu and Asha learn the value of being frank and honest with each other and the wisdom of Fara’s words that “[s]ometimes . . . you have to let go of things precious to you”(152) because the situation demands it and not to do so would be unsafe. The fate of the friendship bracelet that Yesofu presents to Asha is symbolic of the ups and downs of their relationship, especially the orange bead that symbolizes not just sunset, but the end of an era, of their friendship, of Asha’s life in Uganda.
In addition to friendship, other major themes that run throughout the novel—such as the meaning of home and citizenship—are vital to understanding the social conditions after Ugandan Independence. While both Yesofu and Asha have an emotional bond with Entebbe, their home, Asha’s parents take a broader view: they believe that a home is supposed to provide safety and security for its members, hence accepting the inevitability of escaping the violence in Uganda. Similarly, far from being accepted as citizens, Indians are regarded as de facto colonizers by Africans because they are the privileged class socially and economically, while Africans lack opportunities and are the labor class. The duality of the situation becomes apparent when students are taught colonial history and the creation of a stratified society where Indians serve as middlemen. Both Indians and Africans are the flotsam of the British empire and both suffer because of it. Because Indians have economic power but not political power, the new regime and the protesters emphasize the distinction between Africans (of African origin) and Ugandans (as citizens). These opposing views raise important critical thinking questions about citizenship: Are citizens of a country only of one race? What about the history and contributions of Indians in Uganda? Can one have love and loyalty for Uganda even if one is not African?
The overarching theme of Orange for the Sunsets, however, is the importance of ethical values, humane treatment of others, and moral conduct. Both sets of parents teach their children not to discriminate and judge others based on skin color; that they must be honest, loyal, kind, and helpful to others not as employers/employees but as equal human beings. They protect each other even when members of their own community are being unfair or violent toward the other, hence raising serious moral and ethical issues. For instance, is it okay for both protagonists to break promises to their parents by continuing to meet each other, hence placing their families in jeopardy? Are Yesofu’s parents right in not reporting Asha’s father, Mr. Gomez, to the authorities, because they have to protect their own family from being killed as conspirators? Should Asha’s father be arrested for issuing illegal passports to Indians who want to leave, who are being forced to leave anyway? Also, is it acceptable to tell a lie in order to avoid being arrested or tortured if one is not breaking the law?
In the end, both Yesofu and Asha want a middle ground and recognize the flaws of each community. Just as Yesofu is shocked at the negative aspects of the fanatical nationalism displayed by Amin’s regime and the unfairness of taking what Indians have worked so hard to build; Asha also realizes the subtle nuances of discrimination against Africans, recognizes their resentment and hurt pride, and their desire to be self-sufficient. While Asha and Yesofu realize that they personally are not to blame, they acknowledge that the situation is complex. Just as the two friends come to understand the other’s point of view, cannot Africans and Indians also form a strong multicultural country where all are equal Ugandan citizens? Yesofu represents the new, modern Ugandan with the moral integrity to face his own obstacles and to work hard for what he wants to achieve.
Although this novel can be used as an excellent teaching device and can lead to in-depth discussions on numerous issues, as seen above, its main drawback is that Tina Athaide tackles a vast and complex topic but the writing lacks depth and appears to be superficial. Likewise, Athaide crafts a complex plot, but many questions are left unanswered. Only an astute and knowledgeable reader can infer additional details and nuances of the story from what is actually presented. For instance, in the opening section, the author does not go into depth regarding the evolution of Yesofu’s and Asha’s thoughts and feelings. Another topic that could have been explored more deeply is the language issue since the novel is also about a growing sense of national identity, instead of just having Yesofu and Asha count in Swahili when they bid goodbye to each other. Similarly, the issue of Uganda’s future is mentioned only briefly. Yesofu realizes that Uganda must change and that the country needs a more mature leader, because once the Indians leave President Amin may find another race or cultural group to bully and beat. Perhaps, the author could have also cited more positive details—such as, there were educated, middle-class Africans in Kampala, particularly at Makerere University, a number of whom protested Idi Amin’s policies. One wonders if the novel is conflicted, because by employing simplistic diction, short sentences, and sparse narration the author disregards the intelligent and sophisticated thinking that twelve year olds can display.
Orange for the Sunsets is a well-researched historical novel, yet there is evidence of careless writing because of the inconsistencies or lack of attention to details. The parade on India Street is during the day (29, 35), but later the text says it was at night (91); similarly, the Ugandan flag is described as having three colored stripes to represent the country (27), but later says the flag has “six bands of black, yellow, and red repeated twice” (33). The text refers to Asha’s mother’s dupatta (102), and later states that she was wearing a sari (103); the two are different pieces of clothing. Incorrect cultural information is provided when describing the preparation of the Indian flat bread, chapati, which is not fried in a pan; rather, the process given is how a paratha is prepared (60). If Indians in Uganda used the term interchangeably, the author should somehow clarify that. In addition, kulfi is a hard Indian-style ice cream and not soft, as the author describes it on page 12. Above all, in spite of everything that Asha has learned and come to understand, while saying goodbye to her home she insensitively refers to Fara as her ayah (294), a servant, rather than as a caring and loving mother figure.
Reviewed by Meena Khorana, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Adolescent Literature (retired)
Past Editor-in-Chief, Sankofa: A Journal of African Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Published in Africa Access Review (November 4, 2019)
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