In June 2018, I moved away from home in Lagos, Nigeria. I remember now the marvel in my father’s eyes when I told him I was moving to Uganda, how this marvel became real in the coming months, how we rode to the airport together on a warm summer morning and how this once silly statement took on a realism of which we both partook.
In this realism, we talked about the prices of apartments in the capital city, Kampala, about flight itineraries and reliable banking options. A man so devoted to detail. That is my father. And so we talked about the dollar exchange rates, visa requirements and the safety of the city – never mind that I had been there less than a year before.
“Doc, you have to be careful with these things.” “Have you confirmed from the embassy in Abuja what you’d need,” he wondered. About my decision, my mother said I was crazy. In the original plan, 2018 was the year I joined her in her modest Washington D.C apartment so we could do life together. It was supposed to be the year of venerations and “coming true’s.” The year I grabbed my own slice of the American dream. But this that I had decided was new, it was ‘stupid’.
In my early days as a reader, I was constantly beguiled by stories of the people who left. There was Chike who, wielding only determination and a few shillings, crossed river Niger to Asaba; Oliver Twist who always wanted more; and Akin, the visually impaired drummer boy, who ambled through crowded motor parks singing.
Whether this was a physical or mental move, I learned early that those who change the world are those who keep moving; that there is an undeniable correlation between good fortune and flight.
Adulthood would teach me about Winston Smith and Offred. That movement can be mental, that it is that moment in which we decide to shun complacency, to wear the gloves of enthusiasm regardless of whether they fit, to perform the perhaps now extinct act of thinking and to choose the gruelling over the convenient.
I knew that in the grand picture my parents had of my life, a move to Uganda had not been one of them. I knew that it was not something they had even remotely prepared for. So rather than be angered by their apathy in the early days, I was mostly sympathetic.
In the living room of our Lagos apartment with glass doors overlooking the middle-class street, I listened to my father tell me why I might be making a mistake. Africans did not move to Africa and I knew that, for where was the greener pasture?
And yet here I was; a three-month visa that I had to extend upon arrival in the country in hand, offered placement in one of Uganda’s private universities for a dream course and again unsure if I had made the right decision.
The first time I came to Uganda was in 2017. An eager 19-year-old, a dream in his eyes and a tongue laced with hope. I had come to attend the Writivism Literary Festival which fused Writing and Activism into a mix of panels, workshops and readings.
My friend, Munachim Amah had been shortlisted that year for the short story prize (he eventually won) and so for the first time although wanting to attend the festival since I was 17, I had a concrete reason to.
What stood out for me about Uganda even then, in those 10 days of visiting was the dissimilarity between Kampala for instance and the bunged Lagos city I had left behind. In part because I had overestimated how alike Africans/African countries were, not necessarily in complex things but in small things like food and how one got around a city.
The first time I am told to get into a taxi for starters, one night after a late dinner somewhere in Freedom City. I expected what I know now to be a Special, you can imagine my surprise when I am pushed into a crowded Matatu by a Ugandan friend and after I vehemently protest, I am told that this is what taxis mean to Ugandans.
I argue this for so long, not least because I felt I had been duped into transporting by public means at such an ungodly hour, this was my first lesson. I will learn in the coming days about Afrigo music, clink glasses frothing with Nile Special at rooftop bars in the city centre, Rolexes spiced with pepper – and love them – take a road trip to the western Uganda city of Mbarara.
I learnt that when you say, “You go” to a Ugandan Boda rider, you don’t actually mean he or she should go away, you mean he or she should start moving; that when you say, “Boss,” it is not because the addressed is in a higher position than you, but it’s just what it is, a label. I learn that taxis stop every two metres to pick or drop off a passenger, which makes me laugh, because in Lagos, we have to chase buses, it is both an act and a prayer and I’d be damned if they stopped at your doorstep.
Of a truth, what Uganda makes me feel, what it has made me feel since the very first time I arrived in 2017 is a country alive and teeming with possibility. I often tell people who care to ask me what Kampala is like as compared to Lagos. That Lagos on its own has 20 million people and Uganda has a total population of nearly 43 million.
So while Kampala often feels small to me, this city in which everyone knows everyone, it’s magic is equally in it’s being convivial, this perception of a shared existence, of a communal bond. I say as well to people who care to ask that Kampala, unlike Lagos, doesn’t favour infidelity. One must be faithful to one’s partner, because you could pick up your in-law one day for a romp.
Which is why Jinja could be Uganda’s “infidelity” capital. Perhaps across that bridge, one can be a different person, single, a diplomat, a cousin to the President, anything. But then how would I know?
What I do know however is that Ugandans love to party, I know that they stand for each other, I know that they are open to sharing personal spaces, maybe not with the enthusiasm you’d get from a Nigerian as we can be overly dramatic. But Ugandans continue to open up, their homes, their hearts, their country.
Coming from a country that is hypocritical about sex and sexuality (yet somehow we’re around 200 million), I am initially in awe of how Ugandans are comfortable in their sexual drive, how they embrace their sexuality, how they flaunt it. There is no shame in a woman for instance, admitting her love for sex, no eyelids batted and if this isn’t the sexual revolution clamoured for by feminism, then I don’t know what is.
I also know of the pedestal men are placed on in this city. It is as though a woman’s existence isn’t valid in itself until she is escorted by a man. To lock hands, in bars, in supermarkets, men are made into demi-gods with an insatiable sexual drive, made to be providers, to be saviours and patriarchy is King.
But Uganda is beautiful. I hate in this moment to bow to the limited vocabulary that is the English language. To describe the pearl of Africa as “beautiful”, this word that has been used to enslave, from the Berlin conference, to “white saviours” wheeling luggage at Entebbe airport and with an Instagram picture of them holding a Ugandan child to follow hours later captioned, “I love the ‘beautiful’ children of Africa!” But Uganda is beautiful and I must, however much I hate what the word has come to represent when used with reference to Africa, admit it.
Yet, for its dust, for its slick Boda Boda riders, for its hills and for its taxis that stop every second, Uganda is beautiful. I will always be in awe of how a city and a country can be so brown yet so glorious.
As I write this, I have just returned from Bwindi, and I am, if I wasn’t before, utterly convinced that God lives in these hills.That Uganda He created in two days, with precision and detail and for peace of mind. I am in love with how these hills know me. I am in love with how familiar they feel, like OG’s, like I have always known them and like we only just reconnected.
So in retrospect, maybe I would say, “Bulungi,” (Good), maybe that is a more accurate representation of what I feel about Uganda, imperfect, dusty, but Bulungi, just in the right amount, just somehow still perfect.