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  • nikkiywema

Life choices

End April, our Ugandan visas expired. Symbolically, I thought it was a good time to look back on the last few months and ask myself where we sit now. My phone line was cut off for a while when the provider was processing our new visas and instead of getting annoyed, I figured I better thought of it as giving me extra time to get over some things.

Break-ups remain the most painful thing in the world. You grieve the loss of someone, while that someone is still alive and it's very easy to feel like things could be different. I broke up with someone I have a child with and the feelings of guilt that come with that seem unbearable at times. It was the worst time to break up, a time that we should remember as one of the happiest times of our lives, when we had just become parents. Besides, I broke up with someone with whom I share two countries. With whom I could talk, laugh and cry about both the Netherlands and Uganda. It's been 1,5 years now and I think I did most of the healing but returning to Uganda has definitely made me face some painful wounds again. These days, it hits deep inside when people say that healing isn't a linear process. Indeed healing happens at its own pace.

I feel like I have to keep facing it all in order to process things and move on. I tell myself that I am strong enough to find my own ways in both countries and meet more and more other people to share my experiences with. The other day, a colleague of mine was talking about her life, her ex and her child with him. According to her we should talk a lot more about 'the courage that is needed to leave a relationship'. I felt a bittersweet pain when she said that. Not only because I had never given it much thought how courageous it is to leave a relationship (to me it mostly feels like failure). But also because I knew that she knew what she was talking about, leaving her marriage while she has a daughter too. Someone else added to the conversation that 'if we have the strength to love someone, we also have the strength to let them go'. I had felt like I'd lost love but my colleagues filled up a hole in my soul at that moment.

It's funny how in just a few months, the Netherlands feels so far away again that I cannot fully picture how things are there right now. I feel it in the conversations I have with people back home. How chats don't seem to go as smooth and it feels like people misinterpret the things I say. The mismatching assumptions and expectations... I wonder if the Netherlands feels that far away because life in Uganda has been demanding so much from me that I've simply not had time to think about the Netherlands much, whether it's something in me that makes me not attach to places much (or luxury items that most houses in the Netherlands have such as washing machines, bath tubs, ovens and microwaves) or whether it's something that just happens to human beings in general when they move to another country. Though it's probably a mix of all and more.

Of course I still know how things work but I cannot put my finger on it anymore. If the Netherlands were a book, I would know a lot of pages by heart so I could still understand the story but I now need glasses, which I don't have, to read about the details. I see the country more and more through the lens of Ugandans, which blurs my own vision of it. Although I try to fight this process, it seems inevitable. For example, a lot of boda drivers think of former professional soccer players when they get to know that I am Dutch. Which isn't what symbolizes the Netherlands for me but hearing about Van Persie, Van der Sar and Van Nistelrooij a lot, does do something with my brain and memory. So when another boda man asks me about those soccer players, and then another one and another one, it's as if I forget about the other things I can tell about the country I was born and raised in. As if for me too, the Netherlands is explained by Van Persie, Van der Sar and Van Nisterooij now.

For a large part, I already saw the Netherlands through the lens of Ugandans. In the Netherlands too, I lived together with a Ugandan for years and had a lot of people from Uganda around me. It's forever made the Netherlands different for me. I'm used to the feeling of living in multiple worlds while most people seem to have one steady world in which they live most of the time. (Although it may be that no one actually lives in one world only). Now, I often try to put myself in the shoes of people who have likely never been there, yet have a picture of 'the west' based on what the media feeds them or the stories they hear from others. The different ways in which people perceive the world keep fascinating me. But doesn't my fascination make me constantly lose myself?

I feel like I am becoming steadier, less likely to lose myself, after many years of wondering. It is a weird process I find myself in. Is it what the Dutch call 'inburgeren'? Am I integrating in Uganda? I've been in touch with this country for 12 years and as with 12-year olds, it's as if my puberty started. I already learned a lot about Uganda but looking back on it, up until now I was still a kid. It's as if I am getting a more adult relationship with the country. I stepped into a new phase. I moved a lot in my life, tried to integrate in several different places but Uganda seems to stick to me. It's beautiful and it also feels alienating. It brings up even more questions in my head. The main question always being: can I really integrate in Uganda?

In the end, I will always look different from the people here and a lot of people automatically think in stereotypes when they see me. I cannot go to the Ugandan countryside and not hear people yell mzungu at me, often without (negative) judgement but with certain expectations that don't leave me untouched. Not only that, I am different, no matter how much time I spend here, work here and have my life here - I have a background in the Netherlands that might become blurry but will always be there. The same goes for my daughter (and her dad). We are and remain 'Badaaki', as they call us in Luganda.

When the above thoughts clutter my mind, I wonder if we shouldn't try to maintain our relationship with the Netherlands more. And I encounter problems because it takes a lot of energy and still feels like I fail all the time. When conversations don't go smooth, I write. Which helps but it's a lonely process. I don't hold onto any cultural things like bitterballen, haring or Kingsday because in the Netherlands too, I did not care much about them.

If we struggle to hold onto the Netherlands and also never fit in here, isn't it still more logical to move back to the Netherlands then to stay in Uganda? Maybe. And we might eventually, but it probably won't resolve my feelings of being a little alienated from the world anyway. So I end up telling myself that I can do my best to keep integrating in Uganda, although I may never fully integrate here, nor would I ever be able to fully integrate in the Netherlands again. And I get sad because it means I will continuously be put through the mill and I will often feel like I have to explain myself but the bright side is that I am at home in two worlds. We've already come far.

I keep the words of a Belgian friend in mind. She lived in Uganda for about ten years and recently moved back to Belgium. She must have had several reasons to have left Uganda but one thing struck me in particular. She said that she thought it had become unhealthy how she was treated with priority almost everywhere and that she had gotten to a stage where she started behaving like it. It was then that she decided it was time to leave. I loved her honesty. I feel like I have the advantages of living in the capital city (and not in the countryside, like her) and working in an industry that is very open-minded about culture and race. But I want to keep paying attention to the issue she talked about.

The fact that gender, inclusion and diversity are important themes in the western world, influence how I feel about my stay in Uganda too. In some circles in Kampala they seem to be themes as well but certainly not as much as in the Netherlands. I feel even more guilty about me moving to Uganda relatively easily while so many people struggle to move to the Netherlands - and in case they make it there, struggle to feel accepted. It feels like an old conversation and at least the guilt doesn't choke me like it used to do but ever since I came here for the first time, I obviously felt aware that it's beyond unfair how I can travel here without many problems and how it's so hard for Ugandans to travel to my country (and I am not even just talking about the large sums of money you need to travel, getting a visa is a pain in the ass even when you have money). Generally, the news about Uganda in the western world seems to become less onesided and more positive instead of news solely about poverty and hardship - although Uganda's anti-gay bill got a lot of alarming headlines. Besides what you think of the bill itself, a very sad thing of such news is, in my eyes, that it is difficult for people on a distance to see the nuance and difference between Uganda's government and Uganda's people. While in my eyes, a lot of Ugandans are actually ahead of the Dutch when it comes to themes such as inclusion, diversity and even gender and sexuality. Only people aren't always aware of it because a lot of things are simply a part of their culture. Not something they talk about much. What I think is real good about the discussions in the Netherlands is that they push people to look themselves in the mirror and allow others to express themselves. Because in the Netherlands, at times everything works so much according to one system only that a lot of people forget there are other ways to Rome. And forget to look in the mirror and question themselves (and their systems).

Uganda is great at teaching me how to keep opening my heart and eyes to the world around me but also listen to my own heart and intuition. It's a balancing act. To me, the discussion in the west tends to become too black and white at times, aimed at individuals instead of the system itself, which is logical for many reasons but I think it also blocks real change. People need to get out of their comfort zones and then act. If I keep staring at my own white skin and focus only on the places where I am treated with priority, I will feel stuck, start hating myself and make myself very unhappy. I know that from experience. Don't get me wrong, I am convinced it's very important to look yourself in the mirror. But don't people who look in the mirror all the time become narcissists? They lose their empathy and space to listen to others. The other day, I made a video at an event about Gender Based Violence and loved one of the statements that a guy I filmed made. He said that it's all about power; being aware of power balances, knowing where you are in a position of power and then not abusing that.

I asked myself how much I really know about Uganda by now. Did I learn a lot about Uganda in the last months? When I think about it, I actually did. I have taken up my Luganda language classes again and I traveled to new places for work. The more I keep learning the language, the more I understand the culture and know how to respond to people and situations. I never traveled much when I was in Uganda. (Which, as funny as it may sound, generally made me relate to other Ugandans more because a lot of people also don't travel much in their own country). The last weeks, I learned about other cultures from the north and west of the country and ate food I had never eaten before. My colleagues on one project laughed their asses off that I had never eaten white ants while I spent so much time in Masaka and I laughed at them, the city slayers, how uncomfortable they were with staying in simple country side hotels. I experienced what it is like to be a parent in Kampala and have a kid in school here. We had our first sports day and parent meetings at school. I got to know even more about Ugandan police officers, bribery and corruption. And find it even harder to judge it or have an opinion of it at all these days.

Last night, I had a very vivid dream. I sat somewhere with Nyla, no idea where exactly - because that is how dreams can be - and we were talking and playing. We seemed happy, although I felt a tension. Then suddenly, Nyla walked up to me, happy as always, and showed me that her tooth had fallen out. "Kijk mama! Kijk mama!" I looked and saw a hole where her upper front tooth used to be. I was happy at first, to see her so proud, then got worried. Wasn't she way too young to start losing her baby teeth? Then before I knew it, I felt that my own teeth were falling out too. And not just one but all of them. It didn't even hurt, I just suddenly tasted blood and when I opened my mouth, half of my teeth fell out of it as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. It scared the hell out of me but all I could do was let it happen.

I reread the first blog I wrote when we had just returned to Uganda. I felt confused when we had just come back, sure of us needing to be in Uganda and process things but unsure of what was ahead of us. I still often feel confused. But I am more aware that it's not necessarily a bad thing. Following your heart doesn't mean that you're going to have an easy ride. It could still mean a lot of sweat and tears. To me, it mostly means that deep inside you feel at peace, even in bad times. Because you know you're on the right path - as vague as that sounds. And I know that right now I want to be here, learn from Uganda and bring out stories together with people here. I love Uganda, her people, cultures, food and weather. What I should learn is to not question myself and my dreams all the time. Especially when life gets hard. Or when other people question me. As if it had been easier, had I not followed my dreams and stayed where I was... I made the choice to be in Uganda for now. It's a big life choice but I am ready to face and deal with everything that comes with it. Some people see me only as a rich mzungu, others as a poor single mum, others as a stubborn girl who cannot settle. Some might see me as someone who fights for something. I don't even know how people see me because the people around me are all so different that they surely all have their own opinions. It's all ok, I guess, as long as I try to stay close to myself.

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