Jaimini Jethwa’s Fringe show takes us from Dundee to dead dictators

Rehanna MacDonald takes the lead role in Jaimini Jethwa's play, The Last Queen of Scotland, at the Underbelly
Rehanna MacDonald takes the lead role in Jaimini Jethwa's play, The Last Queen of Scotland, at the Underbelly
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When the official took Jaimini Jethwa’s passport on her arrival at Kampala, he looked at it for a long time. As he handed it back to her, he said only two words: “Welcome home.”

The words have stayed with her. Although Jethwa left Uganda as a one-year-old and has lived most of her life in Dundee, she was also, in a way, coming home.

Jethwa was in Uganda having secured research and development funding from Creative Scotland to find out more about her family’s story.

They were among 80,000 Ugandan Asians whom dictator Idi Amin expelled from the country in 1972, an event which continues to have repercussions on her family’s life. The story she tells in her first play, The Last Queen of Scotland, being staged on the Fringe by Stellar Quines as part of the Made in Scotland showcase, opens up a chapter of hidden history, as well as being a feisty challenge by a Scottish woman to the dead African dictator who still overshadows her life.

When Amin set his 90-day deadline for Asians to leave Uganda or face the consequences, the Jethwas travelled to the UK, leaving their home and Jaimini’s father’s business behind. Living in a refugee camp in Kent with three young children and a fourth on the way, they accepted a house in the first city which offered one: Dundee. But the story of how they came to be there was never talked about.

“Traditionally, Indian culture isn’t really interested in history in that sense,” she says. “I think they feel it’s much more important to move forward, their priority is to take care of their children. My dad has also got quite an African philosophy and approach to things. He doesn’t want to speak about Idi Amin. He says: ‘Why did you write about him?’”

But Jethwa, who works as a film producer for Abertay University, did want to write about him. On the 40th anniversary of the expulsion, at a writers’ workshop in Andalucia, she wrote a poem which took the form of a conversation between herself and Amin, who died in 2003. This led on to the idea for a piece of theatre because, she says, “I wanted to give the audience a visceral connection with the story”.

She could see that the events of 1972 still cast a long shadow over her family. “There are certain family members who haven’t recovered from it,” she says. “I think for my parents, living through it and coming to this country, the poverty and the difficulties affected them as parents, so as children we never really had a childhood. There are real things associated with that trauma. I felt like I had never had any answers to some of the difficulties I had growing up.”

In her journeys, to the site of the refugee camp in Kent, to Leicester, where many of the expelled people settled, and to Kampala, the ghost of Idi Amin travelled with her.

“He was like a dark presence. When I used to be looking for ways of dealing with disappointment in life and the things I couldn’t understand, I used to think, ‘It’s Idi Amin’s fault’. That was humour, but it also gave me a bit of relief.”

She was particularly angered by the way the dictator claimed a connection to Scotland, with which he was obsessed, a story explored in Giles Foden’s book The Last King of Scotland, which was made into a successful film starring Forest Whittaker and James McAvoy. Jethwa read books and watched documentaries about Amin, always, in the back of her mind, challenging his claim to Scotland, her other home.

“I felt like one of the important things about the play was to try to take a stab at that legacy,” she says. “You Google him and his connections with Scotland come up. He didn’t have any real connection to Scotland, but he was great with soundbites, he knew how to play the media and that one stuck so well. It was really important for me to break that link. Now, I’m happy because, when you Google, The Last Queen of Scotland comes up.”

The play was developed with support from the National Theatre of Scotland and Jemima Levyck, then artistic director at Dundee Rep, who took it with her when she took over as artistic director of Stellar Quines last year. She says: “At Dundee Rep, we were always trying to find a Dundonian who wanted to write a play. When Jaimini turned up, I was thrilled. She looked so different to any Dundonian I had ever met, and yet was more Dundonian than anyone I’d ever met. Here was a Scottish woman, telling a story I had never heard in theatre before. It’s a really big idea to tell a story about somebody with a relationship with Idi Amin. It felt like a very original story, a very original voice.”

Over time, the play has evolved: though it contains many elements of Jethwa’s personal story, including her upbringing on a Dundee housing estate, the central character, played by Rehanna MacDonald, is fictionalised. Composer Patricia Panther, who worked on Glasgow Girls, has created a soundtrack which will be performed live. “I think you have to accept that once you become part of a process things change,” says Jethwa. “The story that’s been living in my head for so long is now evolving. The main focus of it for me is not that it’s my story, it’s about whether it impacts people.”

It’s a story about identity, Levyck says, and how it’s sometimes not straightforward, like being a Ugandan Asian who speaks with a broad Dundonian accent.

“Scotland is a changing nation, it’s becoming more integrated, it’s a very open nation, a very outward-looking international country, this felt to me like a really international story but with its roots really firmly stuck in something really local.”

In a Fringe which is full of refugee stories, it feels entirely original. Jethwa says: “It’s not about saying, ‘We’re these poor refugees’, I think that story’s been told and people are desensitised to it. National identity is such a current issue in Scotland now, and I hope this story can impregnate that debate with a little bit of pride about being different.

“For me there is a big responsibility attached to the story which is about honouring my parents’ history and heritage, and also the thousands of other people who have experienced this.

“I hope that they would be proud that this story comes out, that their struggles have a voice, not in a way that says we should feel sorry for them, but in a way that gives them the strength to stand up again.”