Growing up in the 70s, I vaguely remember hearing Ugandan President Idi Amin's name in reference to genocide, but I was young and it wasn't a topic covered in school or written about by middle grade authors at the time.
Author Tina Athaide is Indian and grew up hearing the stories of the 80,000 Indians expelled from Uganda by Amin in the opening years of his dictatorship.
She tells the story from the POVs of two very different children, Yesofu, who is African (although we never learn from which tribe), and Asha, who's father is a professor in Entebbe, located on Lake Victoria.
Yesofu and Asha are 14. They go to school together and are best friends, but they go home to very different lives. Yesofu's mom works for Asha's family as the "housegirl" and his oldest brother drives Asha's father around. Yesofu's father works in the fields, they live in a house with a dirt floor and no running water.
Asha is socially clueless, spoiled and I didn't quite buy that the two kids don't notice the differences between them -- the gross inequities -- before Amin's administration puts a 90-day deadline on Indians leaving the country. The differences would have been stark and intruded on their friendship many years before this.
Asha invites Yesofu to her father's club where her birthday is held. He's saved for a year to buy her a friendship bracelet with 10 beads, including one orange one, for the sunsets. He can't enter the club, because it's for Indians-only. She's a spoiled jerk and doesn't understand why he doesn't "come" to her party. She breaks his gift, scattering the beads everywhere. It's a metaphor for what's to come, the forces that tear the two friends apart.
And unlike Asha's easy solution to mend her friendship with Yesofu, to go the next day, find the beads in the grass and recreate the bracelet, there's no easy mend for what's to come.
Pull up a box of tissues for this read. It's an emotionally packed read, appropriate for older middle grade students as some of the atrocities are depicted quite graphically, but it's a quick read and perfect for more mature students tackling the European refugee crisis and ethnic violence and genocide in Africa.
Although the author is white, and she doesn't identify the country where this is set, she writes in a note at the back of the book that she was moved to write about what she saw when living in Ethiopia and the mass exodus of refugees across the Mediterranean.
The book begins with young Shif in a boat. A storm rages, and he and everyone on the packed-to-capacity boat are washed overboard. He clings to a yellow bag as a float, but the waters of the Mediterranean are freezing and about to swallow him for good.
The reader is then yanked back to Shif's life at home, with his best friend Bini, in school. The two have raced through their curriculum, despite both losing fathers, and are about to graduate and do their two years of military service.
Then Bini's mother pulls him out of school. Shif is stunned. He can't imagine going into the military without Bini.
Then his mother admits his father didn't die in a hospital six years ago; he vanished. Was taken into the hallway at the local university, at a meeting for teachers to air their grievances against the government, and he never came back.
His mother's been saving money to send him away from the country, smuggle him to a contact in England, ever since. But the military sweeps the neighborhood before they can leave, and the two boys are captured and trucked out to the desert.
From here the book is quite graphic, but not without purpose, and it demonstrates the very real danger and impossible situations thousands of children and adults face when fleeing their countries.
I won't spoil the ending, just know it will hit you in the gut.