(Un)Common Ground: Discovering My Ugandan Heritage

(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.

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

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.

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.

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