(Un)Common Ground: Discovering My Ugandan Heritage
Over the course of two pilgrimages to Uganda – travelling between Kampala, Gulu and the rural corners of the northern region – one Londoner embraces her African heritage and treads on strangely familiar territory.
21 December, 2020
When Winston Churchill wrote My Africa Journey in 1908, he called Uganda "the pearl of Africa" - and the moniker has stuck. Towards the east of the continent, the country is known for its natural beauty and diverse wildlife.
Kampala and the western region
The first time I visited the home of my ancestors and relatives, I was a child and my expectations were shaped by adverts and charity appeals. London was in the depths of winter when I left, so the warmth of the desert felt especially welcoming as I made a stopover in Egypt before flying on to Entebbe International Airport.
From here, our car raced towards the Ugandan capital. Views of Lake Victoria gave way to Kampala's busy streets along which my mother and godparents excitedly pointed out cherished old hangouts.
In the city, I played and chatted with children my age. Yes, they were used to sunnier climes than me, but our shared language - English is widely spoken in Uganda - and cultural references meant that we had lots of common ground.
Uganda felt like a happy place, and especially so around mealtimes, when extended families and friends gathered to share local delicacies. It was a very different experience than eating with just a couple of people - or even alone - back home. Much like the UK, however, Uganda's food and flavours reflected its cosmopolitan heritage. I enjoyed chapati, for instance, an unleavened bread believed to have first been brought to the country through trade with India.
Christmas was spent in Kabale, a town in the western region of Uganda and the home of my maternal grandfather. The area is sometimes dubbed the "Switzerland of Africa" for its cool climate, dense greenery and rolling hills - though you'll find mountain gorillas living there. Farms and homesteads dominated the landscape, goats were littered around small compounds and the people held welcoming smiles. We arrived at my great aunt's home, where dancers draped in traditional attire performed to the beat of drums. The pace of life felt unhurried, relaxed, gentle.
The northern region
I was an adult by the time I paid my second visit to Uganda. It was not for a holiday, but a landmark family event. We were having a reburial for my great-grandfather - through my maternal grandmother - whose funeral had been carried out without family members being allowed to be there. Now, 30 years later, extended family from all over the world returned for a proper send-off as he was honoured for his public service to the country.
The northern region had a completely different character to the places I had visited last time around. It was a scenic six-hour drive from the airport in Entebbe to Gulu, Uganda's second-largest city. The landscape looked vivid, almost pure. It was all earthy roads, lush green crops, wildlife and the occasional Manchester United shirt.
A few days later, we moved on to the Nwoya district, where Tangi is surrounded by Karuma Falls, Murchison Falls National Park and the river Nile. The place bore great childhood memories for my mother, who recalled playing on the family ranch with cousins. As we drove through the national park, I spotted zebras, kobs (a type of antelope), lions, baboons and giraffes.
It felt rather surreal to be in Tangi, a place so remote I presumed I would never visit. It was a part of Uganda that my great-grandfather had loved so much. I felt a swelling sense of pride as I tread on the same corner of the world where he had walked and toiled, my petite stature feeling his 6'2" presence.
There was a strange sense of familiarity as we approached the pillars at the entrance of the ranch where I was staying. Each morning, woken by the sound of roosters, I'd grab my camera, eager to capture Tangi's golden landscape. I wanted to remember the way it shimmered in the sun after the rain or how shooting stars pierced the clear night sky. Sitting by campfires, I listened to old family tales and ate plantain crisps while lions roamed in the near distance. Sometimes elephants would walk past silently as I slept, leaving gigantic footprints which I'd spot the next day. This landscape was part of my heritage.
Meeting Nwoya residents was as if being welcomed home. Though I had limited proficiency in Swahili or Acholi, we shared a mutual appreciation of Tangi, of Uganda and of my pilgrimage there. I found myself wanting to learn more about Ugandan cooking, to understand the language. These were the things that would help me feel connected to the country even when I travelled back to London - though I would miss the pawpaw, the fresh samosas and the good weather long after I touched down in Heathrow.
Reflecting on both visits, I felt as if a family trail of sorts had been completed. I had paid my respects to my heritage and, in return, I had been embraced by Uganda.