Here I am. Back in the country that opened so many doors for me twelve years ago. The Pearl of Africa. How Uganda has changed since then! But how the rest of the world has changed too. Including myself… I came here as a young and curious student, together with one of my best friends. I studied International Development and he studied History. We were passionate about learning more about what development actually meant in an African context, the role of the western world in this and the culture and history of Uganda. I come back as a single mum with my 2-year old daughter… The fact that I am back feels like an achievement but in many ways, I feel like I failed miserably. I didn’t succeed in what I initially came to do in Uganda and last year my relationship fell apart.
When I was here for the first time, I (obviously) felt like an outsider. But I worked at a project with people of my age, we learned from each other and we managed to overcome many differences among us. We were hopeful. Technically I am less of an outsider now; I have people here I call my friends, I know the language a bit and, sadly, I am like many Ugandan mothers: alone with a kid. I am less of an outsider but – it hurts to admit this – I am also less hopeful. I feel overwhelmed by a powerless feeling, questions about where I belong and insecurity about whether I made the right decision to come back. The good thing is that I know those feelings well and maybe I am also more realistic. I tend to go up and down between feeling at home in Uganda – and feeling that a white person can never be at home in Africa. I feel like I have become a stereotype; one of the many Dutch women here who failed to have a relationship with a Ugandan man. I try to remind myself that our relationship did not fail because of culture differences. I focus on the fact that no matter what happens, our return to Uganda is good because my daughter gets to spend time with her father again.
During my first months in Uganda in 2011, I wrote a lot. Although we had started using smartphones in the Netherlands, my friend and I had decided to leave those home. So, we only communicated with our people back home when we went to an internet café and wrote blogs. Writing kind of became my thing and a year later, when the same friend and I went to India (with two other good friends), people even asked me to write again so they could follow our adventures. I kept writing for some time, until I started reading back my blogs. I felt naked and ashamed. I didn’t want the entire world to know about some of the things I had written and done and decided I would stop putting my private life online.
My second time in Uganda was in January 2016. Brave as I tried to be, I returned alone, without my friend. It was as if Uganda had called me. I had to go back. I had finished the first part of my studies and was all set with university. I felt like all I had ever done was learn from books and papers. I needed to experience and I wanted more creativity around me. If I had the luxury to have a passport and make enough money to travel – because I was always busy with inequality and aware that many people in the world never got the opportunity to travel like I did – I’d better do something good with it instead of saving for big cars, houses or other things that people around me were busy with but that didn’t interest me.
I was critical of the way in which a lot of us are raised in the western world; very protected, much by our own close family only and often with little self-awareness. At the same time, a lot of kids in the west have to be independent at a very early age (which may be one of the reasons why so many young people are lonely and depressed – but that is another story). Independent as I was too, I entered the plane with my newly bought Sony camera. It was a small camera I had bought just a day before my flight because choosing what camera to spend my saved 500 euros on, was a hard choice. But there I went; I would return to Africa and make myself more vulnerable, take nothing for granted, fight assumptions, listen and learn. I needed to let people challenge me, judge me, feel what that would do to me, and rethink my place in the world. Something inside of me said that if I really wanted to work on international development, I should put myself out there and learn through trial and error instead of joining the safe space of an organisation.
My mission was to make a documentary of a family I had met in 2011. I would just go and record - then see where that lead me. The story I wanted to capture was one of true development work in my eyes. I dreamt big; I had never really touched a camera before. But I had done an internship at the Netherlands Film Festival in the months prior to that second trip to Uganda and I had heard many stories of successful film makers who never got a formal education either.
And then what happened? I fell in love with one of the children from the family I filmed. The father of my now 2-year old daughter. And I fell in love hard. Maybe I had brought this upon myself by wishing for it but sure thing, I was challenged and judged and pushed to rethink my place in the world too. Too much, if you ask me now. I entered a life I had not foreseen and, sadly, the things that happened were too many to handle for me and broke our relationship in the end.
For seven years, my now ex-boyfriend and I went up and down between Uganda and the Netherlands, trying to establish ourselves in both countries. Juggling the two countries was a mission in itself. I never had the peace of mind to really work on my film. Having a relationship with a Ugandan made me get to know Uganda from a perspective I could’ve never gotten to know, had I just come to the country as a film maker without any family relations. I told myself I had to use that to my advantage. Even more reasons to tell this story! It’s my duty to make this known to the world! But I got so caught up in the story that I lost my ability to actually tell it. I became a part of it instead. It was as if I had stepped into the Matrix – there was no way back anymore. The more I got into it, the more I struggled with bringing the story across to people in the Netherlands. At times, it was as if I learned a new language but partly forgot my own.
The last seven months, my daughter and I were in the Netherlands together while her dad stayed in Uganda. Being alone with her, helped me to feel more rooted and connected to the Netherlands again. I’ve become a bit of Uganda but I cannot forget the country I was born and raised in. I’m not (yet) that documentary maker I dreamt of being but Uganda helped me to grow from someone with creative ideas into an established video maker and from a young girl into a mother. These days, I get by on video jobs for different clients in both the Netherlands and Uganda. Although I grew up in the Netherlands, funnily enough it never really felt like home – I just wasn’t rooted in the same way people around me seemed to be rooted. The Netherlands is a country that, at times, I very much dislike and even feel ashamed of. Where people think they know it all, own it all, control it all and complain about everything while they have everything... But this time around, I learned to appreciate the Netherlands again. The country is changing too. The good thing is that it is safe, it is a country where people have a lot of trust, dare to rely on each other and know how to cooperate. It’s a country where I can (most of the time) walk around without being stared at in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s a country with too little sunshine if you ask me – but there is a lot of beauty in having four different seasons too. And it’s a country where people (generally) know how to take care of themselves – which makes relationships (not just love relationships) very different and people less dependent on each other. As I am someone who tends to want to take care of everyone, I guess it’s healthy for me to keep learning from both countries. I love it that in Uganda people are generally more caring and busier with serving their communities but these days, I also see the value of not having to rely on each other so much.
One of the most important things someone said to me in those seven months in the Netherlands is that when I return to Uganda, I should not be so scared to use my resources. I tend to think of resources in the sense of money and people (and then become a little critical of using resources because these resources are often abused too) but this time it made me think of talents. It is only now that I realise that one of my resources is that I can write. I may feel confused about where I belong. Powerless about inequality. Heartbroken about poverty. Bitter about how people are handling things and not understanding each other. Infuriated when I feel the eyes of people piercing through my white skin with questions and assumptions I can never answer nor combat. But I make videos to connect people and when I don’t, I can write and try to connect people in that way. Perhaps I even have to write. Because next to video making, writing also helps myself make sense of this world. When I write, I often filter out my own illogical and overly emotional ideas.
More people, more mobile phones, more tarmac roads and more traffic. Bigger shopping malls and growing numbers of immigrants from other (African) countries. More recognition worldwide for Uganda’s progressive refugee policies. More intermarriages between people from different tribes and cultures. More droughts, more floods, less green and fewer clean water sources. More people with tap water at home but more people who have to fill up their jerry cans at the closest water source in the morning too. More awareness of Uganda’s wealth in the form of resources, raw materials, fertile soil and the good climate – and more focus on money making only as a means to be ‘rich’. More people that are busy with their pension instead of relying on their kids to be taking care of them in the future. More people who speak up against foreign influences in Africa that do more harm than good. More people who speak up against human rights violations in Uganda. Eddy Kenzo recently was the first Ugandan artist to be nominated for a Grammy with his song Gimme Love. Yoweri Moseveni is still Uganda’s president, as he has been for 36 years. Uganda’s middle class seems to be expanding though some argue the middle class is so unstable it cannot really be called a middle class. The majority of people who climbed to the middle-income ladder are a pain in the ass for Uganda’s president because they don’t vote for him. These are just some of the things I observe…
Meanwhile, Uganda is also moving ahead with its much-discussed $10 billion Lake Albert oil project. They started digging for oil under one of its most beautiful and biodiverse national parks and plan on building a pipeline towards Tanzania's Indian Ocean port of Tanga. A disaster, if you ask me – but there are many different sides to this story and I am hesitant of judging it. Won’t I then be the neo-colonial westerner defining what’s right while it’s the west who caused most the worldwide climate disruption? Shouldn’t the west accept that now it’s time for Africa, understand that the main challenge for a country like Uganda is to create employment and acknowledge that this pipe line creates massive job opportunities? Opposition leader Bobi Wine spoke out against the construction of the pipeline saying that “until we have a leader that is accountable to the people, until the leadership is transparent and answerable to the people, until the leadership that we have is indeed a servant leadership, our oil can wait.” A good point, if you ask me. Political too. Oh, how my heart aches when I think of the habitat loss for those beautiful elephants, lions, hippos, monkeys, leopards and many more animals. But I feel like there isn’t much more I can do then observe and accept. Well… And write, make people talk and maybe think critically about certain situations.
In Luganda, people say ‘kulikayo’ when you return home after you’ve been away. It warmed up my heart when people said ‘welcome home’ as they saw me back in Uganda. The way in which people value a home is something that inspires me about Uganda. The coming time, I hope to write more and about what makes home ‘home’ and how to protect this home. Not just my personal home but also our shared home in the sense of our countries, cultures and nature. I may delete all my writings again at some point – but well, twelve years have passed and let me just give blogging another shot.