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  • nikkiywema

Okugata

The year is almost over. It's that time of the year in which I automatically begin to reflect on life. (Don't we all?) I should find more moments throughout the year in which I look at my life and what I am doing. But right now, I also reflect on living at the same place in Kampala for exactly one year. We made it! Did I think we were going to stay in our current apartment for that long? Nope. Did I think we were really going to stay in Uganda for a full year? I wasn't sure. Did I think Nyla would be going to the same school when 2024 starts and I would be paying her school fees from doing the same work? I had hoped so. I didn't dare to even dream about it though. But I really just prepared the envelope with her school fees for the next term.


Have we integrated in Kampala now? I am not sure. My feelings about this still change every day. I remember writing about it earlier in the year, when I was going through a stage of wondering whether I could ever integrate anywhere. I feel alienated from the Netherlands but in Uganda I will also always be the outsider, the mzungu, the person from a rich country. In some ways very frustrating. How understandable it is that people give up trying to integrate into a society they do not come from, when other people keep approaching them as different anyway! If you feel like you can put in as much effort as you want but people keep seeing you a certain way, life can seem pretty hopeless.


Does integration mean we start eating matooke all the time? Does it mean I know how to peel? Does it mean I have to like mukene? Does it mean my daughter eats posho and beans at school every day? Does it mean I start valuing marriage the way many Ugandans do? With a kukyala and a kwanjula? Do I ever wear a gomesi? Does it mean I am ok with hearing nja kukuba? Does it mean I know all about African hairstyles? Does it mean I know how to dig? Does it mean I would bath my newborn in herbs? Does it mean I know how corruption works? Does it mean I know how to joke and laugh the way Ugandans can? Does it mean I kneel down for older people? Does it mean I read the New Vision every day or follow the latest Ugandan trends on TikTok? Does it mean I have to fully depend on Ugandan clients and no foreign money?


A thought that crossed my mind is that you have integrated successfully when it's relatively easy to move around in a place. It's relatively easy to come to Uganda from the Netherlands - nothing like going the other way around. But the fact that the journey is easier obviously doesn't mean I integrate more easily so that's not what I mean. I mean to move around when you're actually there, to find your way to places and through the system. Life in Uganda, the last year being no exception, has been anything but easy for me so far. Very often I didn't know the way. I didn't know how to get to places. I didn't know how much things would cost and sometimes didn't even know how to ask. It has gotten a lot easier, yes. Partly because I learned from experience, from trial and error. Partly because I see better which things are not easy for Ugandans themselves either. Being forced to think about how life is a challenge in itself, not just for you but for everyone, makes you feel more on the same page with everyone. Life in Uganda is generally not easy, not as focused on making things easy as in the Netherlands. Do Ugandans need to integrate in their own country? No - but of course there are things they need to learn too. So where is the line, how much do you have to integrate as a foreigner in order to be allowed to feel that you can start focusing on living more than integrating?


This brings me to another aspect of integration: struggling together unites. Part of Ugandan culture is the shared struggle. Ugandans can be so endearing to their children but many parents are tough at the same time. It is widely believed that kids need to learn how to struggle because otherwise they won't know how to survive later. And sometimes people also don't know any better than to struggle. I think I struggled enough in this country - and not only with battles foreigners face but with battles Ugandans themselves face too - to feel related to the people here. And I think the struggle helped me to get closer to people indeed. The fact is that for a lot of people in Uganda, life is an endless struggle. For me it seems as if things are finally going to get a little easier. (Although in Uganda, you never know). Now it is strange how this feels great but scary too because it may disconnect me from people and I may feel less integrated when life gets easier. While that is what a lot of people want; to escape their endless struggle! Why don't I embrace it when times get less rough?


I don't know if I can ever get rid of those feelings of guilt and shame, as if I, the mzungu, am not allowed to escape the struggle because certain other things in life have already been too easy on me. Now is the time for Ugandans to step out and speak up! Not me! But I battle my own mind, I am aware. Why would I want others to be happy and not me myself too? Haven't I thought like that for long enough? Why am I not more kind to myself? How can I help others when I myself am not well? Besides, how do I know I can escape the struggle? When I have not even proved this to myself? It is actually not a very integrated way of thinking - most Ugandans would jump into the opportunity to make their lives better if it presents itself.


When I came here for the first time in 2011, I think I thought that integration mostly meant: living the same lifestyle as the people here, living off the same budget, in the same type of housing, going to the same schools and events, praying to the same God, joining in the same traditions. It is that way of thinking that made me feel not very integrated in the Netherlands. Our family always seemed to live differently from others; in a blue house (which was not 'normal' in our neighbourhood), listening to experimental music, watching other tv shows. But my way of thinking blocked me from feeling like I could ever integrate in Uganda too. My way of thinking protected me when I felt hurt and like I didn't belong. I could tell myself: you see, you are different! It helped me to look at things from a distance, to not get too emotional. But it becomes less helpful when you actually want to integrate somewhere.


It is funny how, as I am writing, I realise how much integration is a problem in my own mind. Yes, many people will forever see me as a foreigner. But most Ugandans are extremely welcoming and just being respectful is enough integration for many. Being a country of a lot cultures and languages makes it relatively easy to integrate in Uganda; a lot of people (although almost all African) are different from each other and respect each other's differences. I think Ugandans (and Africans in general) are much better than most Europeans at looking at what we as human beings have in common and how to have a simple connection. People automatically watch out for each other more. In Africa, you don't always need to be so self-concious. In a way, being someone who often watches out for their neighbours and surroundings, made me quite naturally a part of Ugandan society.


Of course there is another side. Yes, in Uganda people watch out for each other. At the same time, you really need to do everything by yourself. Don't expect a government or other institutions to look out for you. It's not easy to get health care insurance, there is no social welfare in case you don't have an income and if you make any big decisions like subscribing a business or buying land, you need to make sure you double check all the people involved and every piece of paperwork yourself. In Uganda, you need to put in a lot of effort in understanding the culture and traditions in order to really feel integrated. The culture and traditions can be really rigid if you come from a western society in which you grow up much more with the idea that things can change. There surely are negative sides to tribalism - at times it actually comes with a lot of racism too. And because in a traditional society, some ideas are so deeply rooted, it can feel frustrating when they don't match with your own because you know it's you who has to change - nothing around you will.


I try to keep using my creativity to go about these challenges. I try to see that all these challenges actually inspire creativity for me.


In order to get closer to the feeling of being integrated, I keep taking language classes. 'To integrate' in Luganda is the same as 'to combine': okugata. It is about bringing things together. If you integrate, you blend yourself together with the new culture you become a part of. The difficulty here sits not just in my skin colour but also in the fact that there are so many cultures within Uganda - so where do I integrate really? - and in the fact that these cultures are more about family relations then the much more individualistic western cultures. In very simple words: in Uganda you belong because your family (and/or tribe) belongs. I cannot fully integrate, if I don't also have a family who's integrated here. Now the concept of family can be pretty wide in Uganda - someone would call another Dutch person my sister simply because we come from the same country so being part of a Dutch community here could be that family I need to feel that I belong. But what if the sentiment about belonging and identity in that community differs from my own? A few years back, my ex-in-laws helped me to integrate in Uganda in many ways. If they existed here, I think I had passed a few integration exams of the Baganda. Having sensed that I started to belong to a clan, gave me a feeling of what it might be like to feel integrated. It doesn't mean I know about all the different cultures in Uganda - it would mainly give me more confidence to walk around without constantly feeling different.


I got a smile on my face when I found out that 'to integrate' is the same as 'to combine'. It makes a lot of sense but I had never given it deep thought. To combine means that you don't have to fully give yourself up in order to succeed. I am allowed to make my own culture mix! You simply add the other culture to your being, your existence, your colour palette. It is why there is a difference between 'integration' and 'assimilation'. I never felt that difference as much as I feel it now. It makes me feel relieved; I don't have to give up on myself and still I am allowed to feel that I also belong here.


In the last 15 years, I tried to integrate in many bubbles and places. In the year I spent in England and months I spent in India, Brazil and Australia, I think I have always tried to do things according to the cultures in those countries. I carried those ways with me and also tried to constantly reinvent myself when I went to a new country. Uganda, however, has grown on me so much that I may never let go of certain behaviours I learnt here anymore, simply because they have become a part of my identity so much and will be too hard to unlearn. I may be hard to put in a box and I surely get scared that people might continuously misunderstand me. But if I had already accepted I would never fit in anywhere anyway: why won't I just continue to try and integrate, learn, feel at home wherever I am and then see how that goes?


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