It comes as no surprise that reflection on what has formed me as a writer is inexorably tied to a sentence I have been saying my whole life. I am a Ugandan.
Like me, this sentence has undergone many transformations beginning as a childish assertion, joyous, similar to the happy confidence with which a four year old declares “I am four”. You had just learned that this was true about you, it was great, and it was unlikely that anyone else had experienced it quite so wonderfully. We were living in idyllic Mombasa on the Kenyan coast in a residential estate with over twenty houses and twice as many kids. I didn’t talk or look different, we’d lived there since I was two, but I was different. Perhaps when relatives visited us they talked in a language unrecognizable from any found in Kenya, perhaps it was my mother’s turning of peanut butter into groundnut sauce, perhaps it was nothing specific, the question always came, “where are you from?”
The turbulent mid-seventies of a fledgling Uganda had forced my parents into a holding pattern in neighbouring Kenya. They left the year after I was born making me the only one of my siblings that was actually born in Uganda. In the course of a year they found work and the makings of what would become home for them for the next thirty plus years.
Mombasa was then and remains to this day a cultural melting pot. Growing up, I held my own in Indian movie debates, can still recite the morning Islamic dua, danced the Mijikenda traditional dances competitively, and joined fruit raiding parties for kungu and kunazi.
I am indeed Kenyan by upbringing… perhaps even by culture but not completely. Even in this idyllic setting, Kenya in the 1980s could be hostile. I especially remember a time when there was a severe food shortage. Emergency yellow maize meal was being rationed and I was often asked when I would return to my country. “You people are the ones finishing our ugali… even the yellow one”. My parents’ jobs were often in jeopardy and it always seemed like our family needed to make plans for the worst.
I am a Ugandan became quiet, apologetic.
In the mid-nineties, I was in my teens and eager to explore. I convinced my parents (they have a different version of events) to send me to Uganda for the rest of my high school. So imagine my surprise then irritation when I was again asked “where are you from?” I apparently had an accent, an accent? I am Ugandan became defiant, irritated, like swatting a fly from your face. But I was a natural storyteller and soon I had friends who didn’t care where I thought I was from. They wanted to hear mythical tales about jinns and deadly seductive strangers from Mombasa.
Then, three years of University in Nairobi, Kenya; a one year volunteer stint in Maputo, Mozambique and I made the decision to move to Uganda. I was very scared. Despite being Ugandan and being raised Ugandan, Kenya was a country I understood and loved. Uganda was a country I visited, with languages none of which I spoke, and a way of life I didn’t understand. But, I am Ugandan.
But as they say, east or west, like a cliché I was a fish in water. The mould was cast many years ago and this is where I fitted. I was fortunate because my first job was as a tour manager for a safari company which gave me the opportunity to travel the country and discover how stunning and diverse Uganda is. The land of many waters, its physical beauty, varied plant and animal life, fertile soil, a warm irrepressible people, stable government, opportunities for investment and growth – literally a land of milk and honey. It was like my surroundings were dropping roots into the core of who I had always been. I was home.
But to see the good, you must also see the not so good. I think of Uganda as a fifty year old woman of great beauty, depth, untapped talent and a broken heart. There have been many lovers who have promised much and taken more, brothers who promised rescue only to be blinded by her voluptuousness and their lust, but she picks herself up, dusts herself off and dares to hope once more.
Uganda is a country of contrasts. At once inventive and traditional, cosmopolitan and tribal, a huge percentage of people able to speak English though not an English a native speaker will easily understand (see: Ugandan English). The balance is not jarring to one accustomed but it makes for an ambiguous atmosphere. Nothing is sure except what is sure which many not remain a surety. A country where you have the complete freedom to say anything you want except the things you are not allowed to say and one must cultivate the wisdom to know which is which. It is not unheard of to find a blow by blow account of the amorous activities of a highly placed government official in the daily papers, next to whatever new billion shilling corruption scandal also by a highly placed government official, next to the success story of a community initiative by yet another highly placed government official. Each of these stories eliciting the same response, mmhm. Well maybe a little more for the sex story.
But this is also the country where a play can be banned for ‘inappropriate’ content, whole villages can ‘reject’ a marriage bill that allows a wife to say no to sex under certain circumstances or for a woman to have any rights for herself and her children after ‘co-habiting’ with a man. And where, for certain misguided people, it is conceivable that the killing or maiming of a child is some spirit’s due for the selfish betterment of oneself.
Yet, for all this, Uganda’s soul is knit with mine. I see all she is and all she could be. With over fifty percent of her population being under twenty five years, she is brimming with hope, ingenuity, passion, and a vibrant force willing to throw themselves into making her the Pearl that she is. Like Yakobo and Tonnie in Sunflowers behind a Dirty Fence, Uganda needs to discover that: “There are people who will help you, people who don’t care, and people who will make things worse.”
In the face of all her struggles, it is the youth who give Uganda her edge, the youth who will make her a force to reckon with economically, socially, and politically in a few short years. For my part, I undertake to tell their story, discover with them what it means to say,
I Am A Ugandan.