“Do you miss Uganda?”
People, including me, ask me this now and then. The truth is that I don’t, really; I don’t miss anywhere. My relationship with the country that my parents fled was born in trauma, and I think that a reflexive fear of attachment to any place has been with me ever since. Despite this, though, Uganda remains with me in a couple of persistent ways. Behind me in the kitchen as I type this, on the cooker’s furthest hob, is a pot of red kidney beans in peanut butter sauce, to be accompanied later by a side of polenta: the same dish that hungry members of my family have been wolfing down for generations. In my bedroom, crumpled beneath a slowly-growing pile of fellow laundry items, is the Uganda football shirt that I wear to every training session on Monday night.
Every so often, something happens to trigger reflections like these. Most recently, it was reading the first instalment of Letters From Africa, a piece of work serialised weekly by Pigeonhole, a new start-up probably best described as “an online book club”. Letters From Africa features the work of four writers sharing their impressions of various African cities, in this case Lagos, Nairobi, Harare and Cairo, and the countries whose heartbeats they represent. The most striking of these essays, in my view, was Tolu Ogunlesi’s essay on Lagos, a place that seems to trump even Rio de Janeiro for chaos. To quote Ogunlesi, “Lagos is a place of freedom; freedom to decide whether a red light means the same as a green light, to decide in what direction to proceed along a road marked ‘one way’. The freedom to decide just how much time you’d like to spend in a police station, should you find yourself there; the freedom to set your own laws and limits and negotiate around other people’s own. The freedom to surrender or to fight back; to run away so you get the chance to fight another day.”
I had felt something similar, if less intensely, on my last visit to Kampala about fifteen years ago. That was the first time that I had set foot on Ugandan soil since my childhood, and so I spent those two weeks taking in everything that I could: the endless clutter and chatter, the rugged terracotta of the clay roads, the huge plates of pork as tender as fillet steak. On balance, though, this was not the most comfortable of reacquaintances with the land of my heritage. Footballers, when they have been absent through injury for a long while, often complain when they return to action that they are not match-fit: it takes them a few games to get back into the rhythm of it all, to recover their form. By the same token, I felt that I was not “match-fit” for Kampala. It was bewilderingly fast, a pace of life that made New York seem like a Sunday afternoon stroll. The nightlife surged on into the early hours, showing something like contempt for the dawn. Even being polite was exhausting. On one occasion, I left the way in the street for someone to pass, and a convoy of people charged through the opening that I had created. They probably didn’t even notice me: they were all in such a hurry that I may as well have been a bubblegum wrapper in the wind. After two frenetic weeks, I headed back to Europe, which has been my base ever since.
I often wonder if I will ever go back to Uganda, or whether letters from there will suffice for a connection with the place. My family are from the north of the country, hundreds of miles from Kampala’s urban churn, and it may be there in Gulu that I find somewhere with a more lasting resonance. For now, though, Uganda remains a distant relative, whom I am reminded to check in on every now and then; and to whom, every now and then, I am inspired to write.