My Life With Idi Amin

By Anthony Swofford

Peace sprouts in small patches. The machete rain has stopped. Through my basement cell windows I see trees that wail with the voices of their rope-tied and bullet-butchered dead — Bataringaya, Kagwa, Bwogi, Kalema, Oboth-Ofumbi, Ahim-Bisibwe. And what do they want from me? I have no answers, only my wailing, the wailing of a mother and, some say, whore. My rickety iron bars frame the people freed from the State Information Bureau, a half block away. I see them walking, stunned by the sun, ankles and wrists scared from rope, their hearts, I do not see their hearts but I know they burn. I can smell the flames. My heart too once burned. But I am sick of love.

My friend Elizabeth and her youngest daughter visit me in my cell each morning. They bring matoke and tea. I am on trial as an accomplice to Idi’s genocide. Giving birth to the children of a despot is my crime. Elizabeth’s daughter reads me her Bible, but I do not believe. Belief has only done harm, and I will give it no more of me. I watched belief swell and swarm a nation, like disease does the liver or lungs, and I too believed, I sang the songs. I smiled and cheered while the sickness spread.

Idi is safe in Saudi Arabia. Yesterday, Elizabeth brought me an Arab newspaper with a picture of him holding Godfrey, six months old. My twin daughters, Olivia and Oleander, now three, and Thomas, now four, are with him as well, along with nine of their half brothers and sisters. It is a picture of a family.

Officially, the malaya were not regarded well by the gentlemen of the country. I knew this to be false. I knew how to make a man leave his wife or wives, to come to me for love. Also, I made a despot scream love and ecstasy. Big Daddy, I’d purr to him at night, rubbing his belly and licking his neck and ears, after he’d spent the day reading slurs in the foreign press: psychopath, megalomaniac, xenophobe, madman, killer, tyrant, infant. The Kampala Daily called him His Excellency the President of the Republic of Uganda. I called him Passion Priest, Master of my Flesh.

I had never had one lover to tell me I was special, buy me clothes and jewelry in London, pay for my apartment in Kampala. When I met Idi I’d been dating for money for five years, from the age of nineteen. Just months after his coup he toured the sesame plant where I worked with Elizabeth. We were bent over a trough, removing stones from seeds, when Idi noticed me. He later said that in the soft pink afternoon, the golden sesame dust caking my sweat-covered nose and cheeks, he fell in love. The next day a message came for me at work to meet His Excellency at an apartment in Kampala. He asked me that night to move into the apartment, leave my job, and become his lover. Or perhaps he told me to do those things. Either way, I was happy, being loved by the most powerful man in Africa. He said that if all the kings, queens, presidents, and foreign ministers of all the wicked West came for him — to kill him, to slaughter him as they desired — that he wanted to die in my arms: my breasts his pillows, my breath his death march, my lips drinking the wine from his dead heart.

Idi always arrived very late. But he did not crawl around the beer houses and western discos like the normal infidel: he never smelled of liquor or perfume or the insides of another woman. He was running our country, The Pearl of Africa. Of course I knew he had other women, but he moved from me to them, never from them to me. On these late nights we never slept after making love. Idi would shower while I fixed a small snack of fried matoke. Afterwards, we might jump in his Jaguar and speed around the city, taking corners at 100 KMH, tires screeching and smoking like demons up from the bowels of the earth. Some nights, we would drive to Lake Victoria and paddle a small wooden rowboat to Nkunze Island, stopping halfway out, the water slapping the sides of the boat and Idi inside of me in rhythm. The beach at Nkunze smelled like all the longing in the world wrapped up in flesh, sand, and fish. Egrets and monkeys watched us from the bush and trees, the monkeys screaming and the egrets flapping wild white wings when my cries awoke them.

One early dawn at Nkunze I asked Idi if I could become his fifth wife. He became violent and struck me in the face. His hands were as large as baby hippo heads. I fell to the beach, my body slapping the wet sand, and I licked blood from my teeth. He told me that as the daughter of poor coffee workers, raised on a shamba in Mbarara, I would never be anything but a president’s whore.

“Malaya,” he said, and spit in my face. “Now I will pass you off to my bodyguards.”

He jumped in the boat, and when I tried to get in he pushed me into the water and rowed toward Kampala. I sat and wept. At first the water reached only to my breasts, but as lake traffic increased with the movement of fishermen toward their nets and wholesalers navigating port to port, the waves began to lap against my chin and then crest my forehead, so that I moved to dry sand.

When the thick morning mist had long burnt off and the afternoon sun shone hard in my face, an old fisherman pulled up to the beach, two or three hundred meters down from me. He gave me a ride back to Kampala. I was wearing my evening robe. Smirking at my beaten face, the old man told me he’d heard that Idi Amin would sometimes bring his malaya out to Nkunze at night, and that some he murdered, and others he left for dead.

I arrived home just before nightfall. Pink flowers were arranged all over my apartment: roses, tulips, and carnations. I lay in bed weeping, the flowers piled around me. One of Idi’s ministers knocked on my door. He said that His Excellency wanted to ensure I would be home later in the evening.

Idi entered at 3 a.m. Two of his bodyguards followed behind, one with his arms full of fashionable clothes, the other carrying American jazz records. I had planned not to accept an apology, no matter what form it came in. But Idi cried, and I could not say no to that large man weeping.

Part Two

In mid-summer of 1975 Idi took me for a week of holiday. We stayed at Jinja, where Lake Victoria births the Nile. We ate large meals and slept well at a resort that Idi’s government had taken over from a family of Sikhs who relocated to Britain. In the mornings we went power boating, the water like glass, the boat a fine diamond edge cutting exquisite designs that disappeared beneath the surface. After boating we joined Idi’s ministers and bodyguards around the pool. Idi swam laps while I floated in a lounge and his men made plans for the country. We were all very happy and relaxed.

One early evening a bodyguard and two ministers joined Idi and me as we went for a stroll around the nearby walking park. We came upon a Mothers Union meeting. The mothers, dressed in goma dresses, were dancing and singing. Their children climbed in trees or kicked a soccer ball about. The children screamed and laughed and cowered when they recognized Idi. Mothers called children to their breasts, clutching them close and whispering. I do not know what the mothers said to their children. At the time I thought it surely to be praise for Idi. We passed a picnic attended by two or three families. The men were grilling beef and the women sat on blankets. The meat smelled fresh-killed, and I could hear the sizzle of its juices falling into flame. These were my people. My picture had recently been in the rebel paper under the caption, “First Malaya of His Excellency.” These picnickers knew my face. The women closed their eyes. The men glanced my way quickly and then looked down, muttering to their bare feet.

Nearby, a group of teenagers played soccer and Idi and one of his ministers joined the boys. hey were elated to have His Excellency in their game. The defense evaporated when Idi had the ball. His team quickly pulled to a four-goal lead. The opponents cheered for each of Idi’s kicks. After a half-hour or so the game broke up. Idi directed one of his ministers to ensure that the young men, if they wanted, be given jobs at the local military police. The boys looked pleased with this coup, with the simple fortune a soccer match could bring.

Idi enjoyed the walk. He joked and skipped about, laughing and telling distasteful jokes. This was our first venture into town. Near the center of the park a group of men gathered around several games of draughts. The men cheerfully greeted Idi, and all of the players offered their seats. Idi quickly dominated the game and the talk. “Remember friends,” he said, “I am your conqueror of Britain. Their dirty crown is the greatest evil ever entered onto our soil.” He told them to pray, stay sober, refuse the advances of prostitutes, and to honor their children and wives. “Strong families,” he said, “make a strong Uganda.” The men cheered their leader.

When the cheers lulled an amputee on homemade crutches struggled his way through the crowd until his stumpy left leg nearly rested in Idi’s lap. He breathed wildly and pointed at me. “No prostitutes,” he yelled. “Malaya, whore, whore. What about your whores, your Excellency? You kick out the Asians and close their stores so now we wait in line for sugar and flour! I cannot hunt. I cannot farm. So you starve me. I hear you are a killer with that pistol of yours. Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me!” The bodyguard reached for the man but Idi held him back and retreated from the game. Idi didn’t respond to the man. As we walked out of the crowd the cripple yelled, “Whore, whore! Go to your stolen hotel and eat your rich meals. Tonight I will starve. Tonight I will die!”

That night Idi met with his ministers until very late. I stayed in our room. He sent my dinner, and I ate on the balcony. The warm, musky air stuck to my skin and slowed the sounds of animals and insects. I listened to the crush and tumble of the nearby Owen Falls Dam. I heard every cubic meter of water going over the gates.

Part Three

Early the next morning we returned to Kampala. Elizabeth came over that afternoon. Growing up, our parents had labored together on the same small shamba and we both had fond memories of our parents’ fingers stained coffee berry pink. I prepared matoke and tea. Elizabeth had a husband and three daughters but she still dated for money. She envied my comfortable living condition, the ease of one man. I envied her home life, husband, and daughters. Elizabeth always reminded me that I was a malaya. That weekend while I vacationed at Jinja she had been badly abused by a customer. Her husband tracked the man down at a beer house, where he beat him severely. The man served in the police force. He gathered friends and went back to Elizabeth’s house where the men raped and beat Elizabeth while forcing her husband and daughters to watch. They dragged her husband away and told her that he would be taken to the State Research Bureau. Elizabeth asked me to speak to Idi about freeing her husband. I had never asked him for a favor, I had only taken what he’d given.

Idi arrived later than usual that evening. Two of his ministers waited in the front room of my apartment, drinking gin and playing draughts, while we escaped to the bedroom. After lovemaking Idi pulled his uniform on quickly, the mess of ribbons and medals fluttering and clicking like injured birds. I protested his dressing, and pleaded with him to remain for one more act of love, tugging on his pants cuff, throwing his boondockers underneath the bed.

“What is wrong with you, woman,” he said. “Why are you acting insane? I have work to do. Fetch my shoes before I slap you.”

I began to weep, and in large sobs I told him about Elizabeth’s husband. I’d spoken of her before, and he knew that our lives were entangled from birth. He said he’d heard that some of his younger military men had recently been abusing power, and he needed to send the message that such abuses would no longer be tolerated. He assured me he would free Elizabeth’s husband and punish the men who’d raped and abused her.

Elizabeth arrived at my apartment a few days later, bloody and hysterical. A Research Bureau official had gone to her home that afternoon and told her that she should come with him in order to retrieve her husband. The man led her into the belly of the Bureau. She said it seemed three or four stories below ground. They reunited her with her husband outside of his cell, a cell stuffed with thirty or more naked and bloody men. Her husband had been badly beaten: his chest and face were swollen with bruises, and his eyes opened only the width of a sesame seed. The guards called another prisoner out from the cell and pulled Elizabeth away. One guard held Elizabeth while another handed her husband a hammer. Her husband looked at her with his dying eyes. A guard threw the other prisoner face-down to the ground and instructed her husband to beat him with the hammer. Elizabeth began to scream and the guard holding her laughed and told her that they enjoyed hearing women scream. Her husband struck a blow to the man’s head. The man flopped to his back, screaming and violently clutching his head. The guards instructed her husband to continue so that he beat the man again in the head, and again until the man stopped moving.

Elizabeth said the dead man’s eyes watched her as blood poured from them like the Nile rushes from Owens Fall. The guards extracted another man and ordered her husband to kill this man in the same manner. After he did, they pulled a third man out who fell to his knees in front of her husband and begged for his life. A guard asked her husband if he wanted to spare this man’s life, and when he answered yes the guard took the hammer from her husband and handed it to the other man, pushing her husband to the ground. And the other man beat her husband in the temple and the face. Her husband bled dead, his brain fluid, small fine chips of bone and teeth, and blood mixing with years of anonymous remains. A guard dragged Elizabeth in front of the man who killed her husband. The guard put his pistol in her hand and told her to kill the man and if she wouldn’t he would kill her and take her daughters into prostitution. She pointed between the man’s eyes and pulled the trigger. She fell on top of her husband, weeping and beating on his body. The guards watched for some time, laughing and spitting on her, before they raped her and threw her out of the building.

I tried to comfort Elizabeth but there was nothing to say. Nothing. I made tea but we didn’t drink it. I bathed her and iced her bruises and let her sleep in my bed. She left late in the evening. When Idi arrived I asked him about Elizabeth’s husband. He said that the guards that afternoon had retaliated against their fellow guards being turned in. He said that it was unfortunate but that he couldn’t control the entire military. He didn’t visit for a few days.

Early the next week Radio Uganda announced that all citizens without hands or legs, the blind, lame, and otherwise infirm, should report to their local police precinct the next day. They would be supplied with permanent food and shelter at Jinja. I assumed Idi’s absence was due to him making preparations for this major movement of people. Idi visited me that same evening. We danced close all night. He told me the plans for the crippled: They would be loaded into lorries at the local military police precincts and transported to Jinja. The Red Cross set up housing and headquarters in the resort we’d stayed at, and Libya had donated financial assistance. I was sure that the man I danced with and loved was not the man of the foreign press, not the despot, not the monster. He’d tried to free Elizabeth’s husband, but awful men interfered. After the work at Jinja I knew the country would once again thank him for setting the example of love and goodness. All night we set the example for lovers.

The next morning, Idi insisted that I accompany him to Jinja. He would personally supervise the settling in of the crippled, and he wanted me to witness his work. He still had use of the penthouse we’d vacationed in. He planned for us to stay a few days, to boat and swim and otherwise relax. Before we left Kampala he wrote a speech that he would give that evening to the new residents at Jinja. The resort would be renamed His Excellency the President of the Republic of Uganda Al-Haji General Idi Amin Dada V.C., D.S.O., M.C. Free Center for the Crippled and Infirm.

We drove to Jinja with the windows down, the crisp morning air whipping inside the vehicle, the sun rising fiercely, dew burning off the foliage. I felt a thrill, almost fear, at what the day would bring. Idi spoke very little while driving, and his concentration scared me.

I thought about our relationship and what the future might hold. Idi had thirty children at the time. He always came on my belly or in my mouth. I cried inside when I saw that waste on my stomach or tasted it on my tongue, thinking of my soon-withered womb and how I’d finally found love but it would not produce a child. Was I not good enough for life to come from?

“Idi,” I said. “You must give me a child soon. I must have a child. If you do not try with me I will go to someone else. I watch my calendar. Now is the time.”

He said nothing. The road wound dangerously, edging off to Lake Victoria. The sun opened up the lake, the shine and ripple hurting my eyes. We raced in and out of the shadows from trees, passing a lorry full of cripples who noticed Idi as we sped by. They screamed Amin Oyee! Uganda Oyee! Amin Oyee! while pumping their fists or half limbs or canes. A Fish Eagle banked toward us from off a Candelabra tree and dropped down to the lake for a meal.

“Madina,” Idi said. “I have to work this afternoon. And then we will talk about children.” He took my chin in his massive hand and kissed my forehead while we passed another lorry full of chanting, broken men and women.

Part Four

The resort at Jinja was in upheaval. Red Cross banners were poorly strung to the sides of the building. Soldiers with weapons walked aimlessly around the parking lot or gathered in confident groups of four or five. Fifteen or twenty lorry loads of cripples had already arrived. People were confused as to whether or not they should debark, so some men and women hobbled on canes or walked and danced about with limbless shirt sleeves flapping freely, while others sat anxiously in the lorries. A few games of draughts had begun and bettors and players gathered around.

Idi rushed off toward the building and told me to meet him at the penthouse in an hour. I walked to the pool where I thought I’d rest. The poolside and the pool were crowded with new arrivals. A man I’d known from the shamba where my parents worked approached me, his right leg gone below the knee, his face — a soup of pink, white, and black flesh — badly burnt. He hugged me and yelled Amin Oyee! He explained that he’d been injured while killing for mercenaries in West Africa and that he was not proud of the things he’d done but this assistance from the government would help him put his life together. He hugged me again and yelled Amin Oyee!, inspiring a rush of similar calls. He asked what I was doing there, obviously unaware of my relationship with his president. I told him that I’d been assigned to help with the settling in of the Free Center. A group of older women overheard me and hobbled over to demand I tell them their room numbers, meal times, and visiting hours. I made up answers that satisfied them, and they returned to their gossip. A man with stub legs was thrown into the pool. He surfaced, laughing wildly, treading water with his arms. Droplets of water — pulsing liquid stars — gleamed in his afro. The entire poolside crowd broke into song and dance, and I joined. I wanted to sing, “Your hero is my lover. Your hero screams my name in bed.”

I made my way inside the resort. Two soldiers bandied a group of cripples toward the exit, the Red Cross desk was empty, and other soldiers played draughts or smoked while leaning against walls. Idi and his ministers looked over maps in the penthouse. He told me the cripples were being loaded back onto the lorries and taken to Owen Falls Dam to a Red Cross field hospital for check-ups and medication. The ministers left the room. From the balcony I watched soldiers direct the poolside cripples onto the lorries.

Idi pressed his naked body against me. He undressed me and pulled me down on top of him. I had never been on top of him. He told me I would have his thirty-first child. He said he wanted a boy.

At Owen Falls Dam lorries were in line to drive toward the bank of the Nile and the Red Cross hospital. The unsettling dust tasted like metal and oil and blood. A Lilac-breasted roller sat atop a thistle, rainbow feathers of pink, green, turquoise, and blue. An empty lorry ascended and a full one crept down the grade in low gear. The people in the waiting vehicles were smiling and talking, and again, at the sight of Idi, they broke into celebratory shouts. We passed a lorry and drove the few miles to the Nile.

There were no Red Cross tents, and at the bank a lorry dumped crippled men and women into the crocodile-rich Nile like a load of dirt. Soldiers fired pistols and rifles at the people who had hands with which to hold on to the railing. I urinated in the seat and clutched Idi’s arm, screaming.

He smiled and said, “Madina, this is how you teach a lesson.”

He walked toward the slaughter. He crossed his massive arms at his chest and laughed with one of his ministers. I pleaded and cried that he stop the soldiers. I made no sense. I did not speak a language known on this earth. I wept and howled and beat on his chest but he paid me no mind. As the next lorry arrived, I lay in the middle of the road. The driver honked the horn and a soldier at the river fired his weapon into the air. I stayed in the road, trembling, my face covered with dirt and tears. I would not move.

Idi dragged me out of the road by my arms and left me weeping in a pile. The lorries continued to arrive. I watched the carnage at the bank. I noticed two of the soldiers as teenagers from the soccer match at the park. A man with one leg jumped from a lorry and tried to hop away. Idi bet his minister that he could hit the man with one pistol shot, and he did. The stub-legged man that had tread water in the pool pulled himself over the top of the vehicle and fell to the ground. He ran on his stumps and hands toward the woods, his eyes large and mostly white, two moons stuck in some endless night. He was near me when Idi shot him in the back. I crawled to him and pulled him toward my chest. I kissed the thick bridge of his nose as he took short thick breaths and coughed blood and mucus onto my breasts. A soldier kicked me in the ribs and yanked the dead man from me, dragging him by his afro to the bank of the Nile and throwing him in.

Idi handed me his pistol as the next lorry load ambled down the road. He said to me, “You will not be a witness.” I knew what this meant. I thought to shoot him and then myself, but I knew my belly finally held life. I walked to the bank of the Nile and looked down. The river clouded flesh-red below me. At the opposite bank egrets lifted to flight while the lorry backed up and dumped its load.

My shooting was imprecise, and I needed assistance reloading. Many of my bullets ricocheted off the bed of the lorry, so that Idi and the soldiers stood behind me and ducked as I fired. They laughed deep belly laughs. Even some of the cripples may have laughed before I shot them or the men or women next to them. Perhaps they thought it was all a joke, a woman with a pistol, holding it like a dead flower. I shot for my life and the life inside of me. I did not laugh.

As each lorry released its load, I thought I recognized many of the faces. I saw my parents, my younger sister, my favorite uncle, the owner of the sesame seed farm I’d worked at. I saw Elizabeth and her husband. I saw myself, and Idi, and our child.

At Jinja a large meal had been prepared for Idi’s soldiers. I watched from the penthouse balcony as Idi feasted with his men and ministers at poolside. Prostitutes had been brought in from town so that each man had a woman on his lap or within arm’s reach. Late at night Idi came up to the room. I faked sleep and he raped me. I did not feel it, really. I did not feel that giant man in me and perhaps I have felt nothing, other than childbirth, since that day at the Nile.

Part Five

I committed more crimes for more children. One evening at a state dinner party, Idi blindfolded an unfaithful minister. The foreigners were drunk, and happy, and between drinks and asides with prostitutes, they tried to convince Idi that peace should descend on his fine country. Idi announced that the minister would receive a gift for many years of service. I danced against the man, and rubbed myself over his body. The foreigners cheered, and the blindfolded man smiled nervously. Idi ordered me to take the man out of his pants, and I did, and as Idi had instructed me, I cut off the man’s penis and scrotum with a sharp steak knife. The man flopped to the floor and screamed, and the crowd became quiet. I dropped the organ and the knife on the ground. I went to the kitchen to wash myself. When I returned, the party had reached its prior pace, and the minister bled to death in a corner of the room while the foreigners forgot about peace and concentrated on the women in their laps.

When the twins were born, Idi told me I’d received a bonus. The girls stayed with me for a short period of time before he took them to live with one of his wives in one of his palaces. I had not seen Thomas since he was three months old, and I expected not to see the twins again.

Most recently, I killed one of Idi’s wives. During a trip to London, she’d been unfaithful with her body and with sensitive state information. Idi placed me in her home as a maid, and one morning as she awoke, I simply slashed her belly with a machete. The woman was very beautiful, and it seems she had been an important rebel operator, betraying Idi for many years. He displayed her flayed corpse in the public square a few blocks from my apartment. The corpse decayed rapidly in the summer heat, and guards were posted on twenty-four hour watch to keep the rebels from properly disposing of the body and the hungry street dogs from ruining the demonstration. When the guards finally left, the dogs had their way with what remained of the poor woman.

Godfrey came into the world near the end of Idi’s reign. His birth was difficult, he wrapped himself around his cord, and the doctors opened up my belly in order to pull out my beautiful son. They did a fine job of sewing me up, and the scar is barely visible, though I can feel it, and I spend much of my time running my thumb across the partially raised flesh.

After Elizabeth’s morning visits, I spend the rest of the day thinking. I long for the shamba I grew up on, for my father’s strong hands caressing my shoulders at the end of a hard day’s work, his soft pretty laugh. I want to return to the day Idi noticed me at the sesame farm. What if he had wanted Elizabeth instead? Or if he’d seen me for what I truly am? But I know these are foolish thoughts, as you cannot look forward to the past.

Elizabeth will be here soon. She has taken all of the valuables from my apartment, the jazz records, the jewelry and clothes from London boutiques. Her ugly little daughter arrives each day in clothes I used to wear, reading my Bible. Perhaps I will tell them to stop visiting. I have visitors enough.

Out my cell window I stare at the butchering trees, their bark marred and chopped by bullets, the flesh of the trees blood-stained. When I close my eyes, I see my children tied to the trunks — naked, wrists bound behind them, dark bloody hoods covering their heads. I am their mother.