Talking with . . .

Mo Tejani
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

AS IS OFTEN THE CASE, an RPCV writes a book and goes looking for a way to let the world know. Most Peace Corps writers use the Internet, type in key words like: Peace Corps and writers and up pops our website. Something like that happened when Mo Tejani (Thailand 1979–80) published his memoir of an amazing life that stretches from Africa to the United Sates, Latin America, and Asia. The Peace Corps experience is a thin slice of a life-journey that has taken him to love and adventures on five continents. While important to him, his Peace Corps experience pales when it is compared to everything else that has happened to this man who came out of Africa to take on the world.
     His book, A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee, was listed and reviewed in the last issue of Peace Corps Writers. Mo is one member of a hardy band of RPCVs writers who live and work [mostly as travel writers] around the world, publishing on-line and in many travel magazines only available overseas. Since hearing from Mo I have been emailing him about his life and the writing of his memoir. Here are some of the things he has to say.

    Where did you go to college, Mo?
    I attended the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England in 1972 and 1973, then transferred to Albion College in Michigan, from 1973 to ’74. I got my BA there and then went to the University of Michigan for my Masters in English Language and Literature. Ten years later, I got a Masters in International Affairs from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio in 1985.

    Tell us a bit about your Peace Corps service.

    I was in Thailand from 1979 to 1980 as a University TEFL Volunteer, my first year at Phuket Teacher’s College and then at Chiang Rai Teacher’s College in Thailand. I taught courses on English language and English literature to would be Thai teachers of English.
         During the summer breaks, I worked at Khao I Dang and Ban Vinai Vietnamese/Hmong refugee camps in Thailand to help with the thousands of South Vietnamese (Boat People) and Hmong (who worked for CIA in the bombing of Laos), who were escaping their respective countries into Thailand in fear of their lives.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place?
    I joined the Peace Corps to gain English teaching experience in Asia, learn a new language and explore Asia after my two year tour of duty.

    When you finished your tour what did you do?
    Being fluent in Lao/Thai and Spanish, I spent a year and a half working as a resettlement social worker for the International Rescue Committee in Washington D.C., resettling Lao and Cuban refugees in the metropolitan DC area. 
         Then in ’82, I returned to Asia and worked as an American cultural orientation supervisor for the Experiment for International Living, which is now known as World Learning. I was training Indonesian teachers, and teaching Vietnamese and Khmer refugees about resettlement life in America. From ’83 through ’84 I did the same work for the same agency in Panat Nikhom Refugee camp, Thailand for Vietnamese/Khmer/Lao refugees bound for resettlement in America.

    Go back to your early family history and tell us a little of the Uganda story of your life? I realize that there is a lot more in you memoir.
    My family — parents (who were originally from India) and nine children — all lived in Kampala, the capital city in Uganda from 1953 through 1972. We all had Ugandan passports. My father was a teacher at first and then an accountant. My mother was a housewife. There are three doctors in the family, my older brother and his wife, and my sister. The second oldest brother is also a writer who was working with Kenyan writer James Ngugi. Four other sisters worked at different professional jobs in the city. One other brother was studying at Makerere University and I, being the youngest, had just finished high school, A-levels, when Amin gave all 80,000 Asians 90 days to leave the country.

    What was Kampala like at that moment in history?
    In January 1971, Amin took over through a military coup, and by August of 1972 he had implemented the Asian expulsion. The time was wrought with terror. A brother-in-law of mine was kidnapped, another sister was badly assaulted, my doctor sister escaped rape because she was a doctor who had given medical treatment to one of the soldiers who invaded and pillaged her home.
         My family lost eight homes, all our possessions and belongings, six cars, and a medical clinic. We left Kampala, as decreed by Amin, with 50 British pounds in our pockets. At least we got out with our lives intact unlike some 300,000 black Ugandans who were murdered during the Amin’s reign of genocide.

    Have you been back to Uganda?

    Yes, I went back to East Africa in 1997 for three months. It was a quarter century after leaving and the emotional roller coaster of that trip is spelt out in detail in my memoir. Most of my family lives now in the United States and Canada, but many have made the trip back to Uganda in the last decade with their children to show them our family roots in Africa.

    I read recently where Dixon Kamukama, a history professor at Makerere University in Kampala, said something to the effect that what Amin was attempting to do was to move the economy into the hands of the indigenous people, that his methods were crude, but that it had to be done. What do you think?

    That the English speaking Ugandan Asians, invited by the British, were the backbone of the economy, used by the colonial British as the middlemen in their economic exploitation of the country’s agricultural resources — coffee, tea, cotton, sisal and sugar cane — is a fact. That most Asians never really integrated in Ugandan society and remained cultural isolationists, just like the British, is also a fact. That the current President, Musoweni, in the 1990’s made special trips to England, the United States and Canada to meet with the Ugandan Asian community to ask them to please come back and help recover Uganda’s ailing economy along with promises of compensation for properties and businesses lost, is also a fact. Historians, and writers, with their own biases and preferences, will certainly put out their own versions of this historic event (just like I do in my book by unearthing British government documents — declassified after thirty years — of what actually went on in the corridors of power at 10 Downing Street, the White House and the Parliament in Kampala.) The interested reader will make his or her own conclusions.

    Where do you live now?
    I live in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

    What do you do for a living?

    I write books, articles for travel magazines and feature stories on events in Asia for various publications worldwide. I no longer work with NGOs, but devote all my time to writing.

    A great many RPCVs write about their Peace Corps experience. You have written about your whole life. Did you think in terms of writing several books, or did you just want to get it all out?
    In my case, since my Peace Corps experience was over a quarter century ago, and, since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to roam all five continents of the world through my work with NGOs, focusing on just my Peace Corps experience would have been limiting and somewhat outdated. This first volume of my travel memoirs spans thirty-four years of travel over three decades in anecdotal format. This format allows me the literary freedom to jump back and forth in geographical and chronological time so as to weave both the central theme of the book (what is “home” for global nomads?), and the topics chosen for each chapter- as the “glue” to the myriad of anecdotes and characters floating in and out of my life.
         The second volume will focus on three parts of the detailed lives of my large extended family (65 members at last count). The first part will focus on our life in Africa for over two decades, the second on life in refugee exile in the United States, Canada and England, and the third on what the future holds for the second generation of children of my siblings in this now easily accessible planet of ours.

    Talk a little about the process of writing The Chameleon’s Tale. Did you do many drafts over many years? Was it an easy book to write? How did you do the research? Did you change names or telescope events?
    Over the years, I have compiled journals, photo albums, taped interviews with family members, collected music and artifacts from different countries that invoke special events of my life. In writing the book, a process that took me some eighteen months from start to finished edited copy for print, I used them all to recall specific events, details of characters and scene setting background wherever any anecdote warranted each or several of these aspects.
         The book went through three different drafts during my writing process before it went to the editor. Numerous editing sessions with the editor on what to keep in, what to take out, how to rearrange the anecdotes and chapters, all took place in Bangkok in what turned out to be a challenging but exciting endeavor.
         Once the prologue and the overall outline of the book was fine tuned, and the “search for home” theme was established, the book flowed out of me in spontaneous flurry of anecdotes, week after week, till the epilogue was done.
         In the editing process, some events were telescoped and names changed where real characters requested as much so as to preserve both, coherence and privacy.

    How did you go about getting the book published?

    Through a friend I met Paiboon Publishing owner, Benjawan Terlecky, and I presented a proposal and book outline to her. I then sent her the first chapter of the book to review before a book contract was signed with time frames for completion. I was very fortunate to have a publisher who gave me total freedom in the choice of my editor, artistic freedom in the content and design of both the book cover and the inset black and white photographs included at the beginning of each chapter.

    What sort of reaction have you had to the book?

    Distribution of some 20 pre-printing promotional copies of the book generated eight positive reviews — captions from which appear on the first page of the book. Since publication, over the last six months, another 10 excellent reviews in various travel magazines in Thailand and USA, have appeared including two in the major daily newspapers in Thailand, The Bangkok Post and the Sunday edition of The Nation. From readers who purchased the book on Amazon.com, five have written reviews — all giving the book a five star rating. Lonely Planet author, Joe Cummings (Thailand 1977–78) has graciously provided a juicy blurb of his impressions of the book. A book reading tour in four major cities of Thailand, sponsored by the publisher, has generated decent book sales and good initial exposure to the Asia reading public. A supplementary book website www.mo-tejani.com — complete with photographs, excerpts and detailed book reviews and dialogues with the author — is now up and running.

    How has your family reacted to your telling the family story?

    Given that I expose many personal details of their lives in Uganda, the “kudos” have been forthcoming and gratifying.

    What has surprised you the most with the publication of the book?

    Fellow travelers who have read the book — some long lost friends from my past, but the majority, total strangers who identified with this theme — have contacted me to celebrate their own travel journeys in search of their own nesting grounds. Through calls during book radio talk shows, emails at the book website, these nomads, have confided in me, revealing the trails and tribulations they have gone through in their own enticing journeys around the globe in search of a place to call home.

    Finally, what did you think of the recently released movie “Last King of Scotland” about Uganda and Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning lead role as Idi Amin?
    Forest Whitaker’s schizophrenic depiction of Amin as both a charming, down to earth, humorous soldier and yet a brutal tyrant with a demagogic flare for genocide certainly merits the award. I do, however, feel cheated that the movie plot, rather than focusing on this socio-political setting as a background to this tragic era of Ugandan history, opts to emphasize the plight of a young gullible Scottish doctor and his incredulous antics with Amin — thereby seriously minimizing the impact of historical lessons learnt from the movie for the world audience.