In Search of Black Identity in Uganda

Uganda Narrative
by Julian Hill Aug 24, 2011
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

AFRICA WAS MY SECOND HOME. I had never been there, though.

Instead, I daydreamed about it from the Black Student Alliance office at Northwestern University. I sat in my black reclining chair that no longer quite…reclined, peering out of the window at our campus-turned-snow kingdom. Gusts of February winds seeped through the walls of the unheated building to reaffirm that I was definitely not in Africa, but Illinois.

I had just finished an AIM conversation with one of my best friends, B Chubbs.

I told him about my goal of getting to Africa soon.

I told him that it would be an opportunity for me to connect with my extended family.

I told him about my excitement over finding an organization in D.C. that I had heard could trace my ancestry to a specific region of Africa.

B Chubbs replied:

bchubbs1: even if you found out your family was from…i don’t know…ghana, what you finna do? go back and help out?

For him, the idea of finding an African ancestry didn’t mean much – we already had roots in the states. My Bahamian friend, Kortez, felt the same way. How his ancestors got to the Bahamas, or where they were before they got there, wasn’t important. What mattered was where he was and what he was doing in the now. Other black friends of mine thought that without some little Congolese cousins or Senegalese grandparents, my claims to a connection with Africa were sentimental at best, and disingenuous at worst.

During this time, some four years ago now, I had no idea what “going to Africa” really meant. What country would I go to? What would I do? When would I go? I couldn’t answer any of these questions. Though many of my black friends belittled my rationale (or lack thereof), something inexplicable kept calling me to the Continent.

I gazed at the walls of the office. There was a photo of seven black students standing around former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, a black and white flier for a talk by rapper Chuck D, a painting of Africa. Composed of green, red and black stripes, the continent looked like a flag. A bronze chain penetrated the canvas just off of the coasts of Ethiopia and Senegal. Red paint dripped from the southern coast.

Another painting, cooled by pale blues and grays, hung on the wall next to my desk. There were dozens of dark brown people. They were lying down horizontally in large cubbies, which were stacked on top of each other. One white guy in a collared shirt and dark blue slacks was standing in the middle with a whip raised in his right hand.

Those enslaved blacks, ripped from Africa, are my ancestors. Jamaicans, Brazilians, Ghanaians, Black Britons – all are part of my larger family. Most of us share the inextricable link of slavery. Though unsure what having this link entailed, I knew that, for me, there was one way to find out.


Though half-dazed from the brightness of the sun and half-exhausted by the fourteen-hour trip from Chicago, I managed to find Frank. He stood just outside the terminal doors, busy conversing with a plump taxi driver with shades instead of holding up the sign with my name scribbled on it.

It was like meeting a long-lost brother. Tall, dark and thin, he greeted me with a smile and an embrace.

“Welcome to Africa, my brother,” he declared. I was being welcomed back home…for the first time.

Soon after piling into the black taxi, we were winding towards Kampala along the coast of Lake Victoria. A bicyclist rested on a palm tree as a light breeze passed over the lake into my window. Tall buildings began to appear, and with them a street sign saying “Kampala 09” that, like many light posts, bus stops, and trees, was covered in posters with pictures of politicians and the word “LONDA” in bold letters. Yellow buildings with an MTN logo blended with dry sun-scorched land and served as a canvas for streaks of Ugandans walking to and fro. Western influences were everywhere: two young men walking rapidly in conservative black suits; a Crane Bank building that took up almost an entire block; a Shell gas station filled to capacity with vans, cars, and motorcycles.

Passing a roundabout with a large clock tower in the middle, the city infrastructure slowly began to shift to rural landscapes. In the jungle-turned-farmland that lined both sides of the road, clusters of banana trees were scattered around one-story brick homes. Occasionally a town would pop up with stands and storefronts that sold everything from chickens to dresses.

We finally pulled in front of a house that looked just large enough to contain two bedrooms. Frank’s wife, Christine, and their two sons walked out of the house to welcome me.

I took it all in – the towering tree draped in green mangos, the sweet smell of hair grease as Christine hugged me, the gentle wind that dried pockets of sweat on my forehead, the laughing of kids playing games outside the neighbor’s home. I was finally here.


By the end of my first week, I had learned enough of the local language, Luganda, to make a few friends. I would make the quarter mile walk into town, greeting elderly women in bright, multi-colored traditional dresses, called gomesi, and groups of shy children walking home from school in their yellow short-sleeved button-ups and maroon ties.

One day, I was making such a trip with Frank; we stopped to chat with a woman headed to the village. Though I couldn’t understand what she or Frank was saying, her stares and smiles suggested that she made at least one comment about me. After she said her goodbyes, she continued down the bumpy dirt road.

“What did she say?” I asked Frank.

“She asked if you were my brother,” he replied, chuckling lightly. It would not be the first time I was mistaken for an African.

Apparently, my five-year old host brother, Zach, asked Frank a few times if Frank was certain that I was indeed American and not Ugandan. According to Frank, his other son, Timothy, warmed up to me much quicker than he typically does to non-black volunteers. These situations made me feel the bond that I had hoped for on the Continent back on that frigid February day at Northwestern.

But it did not take long for me to see the limitations of race as a means of building relationships with Ugandans. Thinking that I could come to Uganda and, just by being black, relate in any meaningful way would have been rather naïve. It’s not that I expected this; I just still held out hope that it was possible.


“Muzungu! How are you?”

I turned to see a grinning, shirtless boy whose head reached my waist. Almost immediately, three more children ran up asking the same. It was the first time anyone had called me a muzungu. I had heard it used to refer to whites and even my Taiwanese friend, but never anyone black.

That these children called me muzungu initially upset me. How could these kids refer to me as a European? Wasn’t I more like them than any European they’ve ever seen? I took it as if they were trying to…disown me. You’re not one of us, you’re one of them. What perplexed me more than these initial feelings was that I was uncertain as to if they were right or not.

Putting my feelings aside, I generically replied, “I’m fine. How are you?”

Half-listening to their responses, I saw a matatu speeding down the road, honking to get attention. The conductor was sticking his hand out the window up into the air – the Gayaza route. I flagged the van down and the conductor hopped out and asked me where I was going.

In Luganda I asked him how much he charged to go to Nakumatt.

“3,000 shillings.” (About $1.25).

I gasped and murmured, “2,500.”

The conductor paused for a moment, looking at the ground and scratching his head, before replying, “Okay, we go.”

Feeling a little guilty for negotiating, I squeezed my way into the vehicle. I sat among fifteen others, cramped with four in my row, and called my friend to tell him that I was on my way.

“Yo, what’s good? I’m chillin’. I’m mad on my way. I’ll see you in like four-five. Fa sho. Word. Yuh.”

As I ended the call, I looked around. Great. Four sets of eyes were on me – each pair screaming “Muzungu!”

Once the hour-long trip ended, I anxiously scurried along Jinja road to Oasis Mall, which I’ve dubbed Moneyville, to meet up with my friends at an upscale cafe. A security guard, in a red and black SECURITAS uniform, checked my bag and patted me down before I could even get into the parking lot.

In Café Javas, Southeast Asian men in collared button-up shirts and dress pants were speaking a language I could not understand; three white women, wearing wraps and carrying Black babies on their backs, were greeting three seated friends; an African man in a conservative dark blue suit was chatting with a young African woman in a black dress with flower imprints. I could smell the cooking oil and ketchup from the French fries they were sharing.

I sat down and greeted my friends – Chad, tall and athletic African-American in jeans and a powder blue polo shirt; Monica, a Ugandan of British upbringing with hair twists, glasses, a brown skirt, and a yellow V-neck shirt; Tanya, a brown-eyed Londoner who was Malaysian, Italian, and a mix of other things,in black tights and a long white blouse. We fit in well.

I ordered a meal that cost ten times what I would pay at the local restaurant near my farm. Each bite of my quesadilla, which was literally the size of my head, unveiled a growing discomfort. It clouded my ability to concentrate on the conversation with my friends.

Sure, seeing a handful of African couples or groups at the café gave me some solace. At least there are some locals enjoying these spaces. I wondered, though, how I could forge any sort of solidarity with the neglected and exploited Ugandans in my village when my economic privileges presupposed the difficulties of so many of them. As an American, I could not ignore that U.S. trade and political policies help make it easier for countless Ugandan farmers to feed others around the world than to feed their own families. Who knows how much a local farmer got for the beans in my quesadilla? In a way, everyone in the café indirectly supported the economic exploitation of Uganda’s small farmers.

By the time I finished dinner, streaks of reddish-yellow, blue, and pink filled the sky. People walked out of the mall into the once-full parking lot, most carrying plastic bags. As if programmed, the café’s lights came on. Workers dressed in peach-colored polo shirts stacked wine glasses, typed away on the screens of their registers, and shared jokes with guests who generally looked like they did something important. My group soon left for my friend’s apartment.

I felt disconnected, and uncomfortably recalled my trip to Eastern Uganda only a week before.


“Why the fuck am I here?” I sat on a tourist truck in a drunken trance. I had just taken a boat cruise along the Nile River. Now, I was headed just north of Jinja to a campsite in Bujagali where I was spending the weekend.

I sat at the end of the fifth row, with a view of the people on the side of the road. Ugandans…black people…my people. There was a crowd around a small stand where a teen was selling chapatti in scrap newspaper. A woman, in a red and white wrap with a black V-neck shirt tight enough to show she wasn’t wearing a bra, walked slowly with a basket of roasted bananas on her head.

In front of me sat a hammered blonde woman with a thick build. She and the other dozen people on the truck (minus my friend and I) were white. This particular girl’s right hand hung lazily over the truck’s railing after she downed more of whatever was left in her red plastic cup.

“Let’s take a picture!” her friend yelled. A flash illuminated the night.

“Hey,” the photographer rambled to me. “How do you say ‘we go’ again? Tugenda?”

“Tugende,” I responded.

“TUGENDE SSEBO. TUGENDE!,” the photographer friend yelled as she and her four friends laughed.

For as different as she was from me, we had much in common. Like myself, she and the others were able to travel to Uganda and volunteer or work – some with the hopes of sincerely making a difference. Like myself, some were taking a break from the real world and enjoying Uganda as an escape.

Still, I felt a million times more comfortable on my farm, in my village, among Ugandans, than I felt on this truck. I wanted to live in two different worlds, but they were inherently in conflict. Though thankful for and benefiting from the advantages of my Americanness, I also felt the alienation and exoticism that sometimes came with being black.

After we returned to the campsite, music and a noisy mixed crowd of people welcomed us – most with drinks in their hands – at the site’s bar. Instead of going to the bar, my friend and I walked outside to an empty table. Aside from a Canadian rafter who had too much to drink, no one bothered us, and I was content with that. This was my way, though contrived, of not feeling like a tourist. Throw in a few of my patented Lugandan phrases with a local, and I felt less like the alien that I really was among Ugandans. As much as I wanted to deny the imperialist psyche, the hypocrisy, and the racist tendencies associated with much of America, I recognized that I would have had a much tougher time getting to where I am today had I been born in most African countries. How could I take the good of being American and being black and meld them together? It just seemed like I couldn’t have it both ways.


One evening Frank and I were eating dinner and watching the news on the thirteen-inch TV he carries into the kitchen from his nephew’s bedroom every night.

“What do you and people in the village think of African Americans?” I asked after swallowing a spoonful of rice and fresh fish bought in town.

“For us, we believe that you are our brothers. We read in school about your history, and we know that you come from Africa. So, for us, we know that…there is no difference – you just got there because of slavery.”

We shared a geographic origin, but also a racial category – black – that is arguably unlike any other. Across various countries and continents, blacks were condemned legally or extra-legally for something they could neither control nor hide from – their skin color. As trivial as I find race as an invention of society, its consequences even today cannot be ignored. Black people are still often harassed, assumed to be inadequate, and refused services in many parts of the world.

As the TV streamed videos of riots in Kampala, I thought about Uganda’s history. The country had been plagued with intra-racial conflict and division even before independence from Britain. Though the population is largely Black, divisions on the basis of tribe, culture, socioeconomic status, political views, and religious affiliation are entrenched. Ugandan Presidents, including current President Museveni, have exacerbated problems by recruiting security forces and members of key governmental bodies from their native regions of Uganda.

On the screen, one image passed after another: President Museveni at a press conference, wearing a tan polo shirt, his bald head shining, his customary sun hat sat on the table in front of him; women and men being taken in gurneys to the Mulago Hospital from beatings and tear gas used by Ugandan police earlier that day; three officers, in blue and gray camouflage uniforms, chasing down a protester and clubbing him on the ground.

I wondered how these soldiers could treat their fellow Ugandans in such a way. I would ask the same of West Africans who enslaved their brethren during the slave trade or Hutus who murdered thousands of Tutsis.

The Black Diaspora is a mixture of people with various backgrounds. To expect complete unity ignores the real tribal divisions that have existed on the Continent since well before European presence. Some scholars say the last time Ugandans rallied together was against their British invaders. They had a common interest.


No common interest seemed to exist one afternoon when Melvin, a friend of Frank’s, asked me to come and see his farm. Melvin wanted my opinion about his two-acre plot just outside the village. It seemed like a typical scenario – ask the muzungu to help you with something simple so that you can then ask him to give you money.

After giving me a walk-through, he asked me for advice.

“I’m no consultant, but I like that you have certain sections for certain crops. Plus, it’s good that you have a nice amount of space between them – it will make weeding a lot easier.”

“Mmm. Thank you, Julian. I would like you to take some of my greens – cabbage, collards – yes?”

Over the next half an hour, we walked through thick vegetation as Melvin pulled some of his best veggies – for me. Soon he and I were on our bikes riding back toward Melvin’s home. On the way, we discussed Ugandan politics, economics, religion, and our aspirations. When we arrived, we took tea and ate eggs as we watched a Nigerian movie with his wife.

An hour later, I was in town, sitting on a wooden bench outside of one of the dozen storefronts located along the main road. Outside one stood a group of four men; their chattering and laughing filled the air. People gathered in clusters talking and enjoying the gentle evening. The stocky store owner next door sat outside in her chair, frying meat patties, while the five pieces of chapatti I had just ordered sizzled on a hot plate at a stand a few few feet away.

As I sat there sipping a Fanta, the awareness hit me that soon I would be leaving this place. Soon, I would be leaving Frank’s farm. Next month, he will harvest corn cobs on the same plot where I helped him plant seeds just weeks ago. I wondered if he would think fondly of our time together, or if he would think of me as just another outsider who stuck around for a bit. I wondered if these Ugandans in town would think of me differently, or would see me only in passing. I knew both of these responses were possible. And truthfully, the same probably went for how I might think about them.

I finished my Fanta, and quietly watched the sun go down.

[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador. To read about the editorial process behind this story, check out 3 Techniques Creative Nonfiction Borrows from Fiction.]

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