Thoughts on the meaning of home during my trip to Uganda, my dad’s former homeland.

Edited Dec 20, ‘13

Growing up, Uganda was always a land of legend and lore. The homeland of my father and my grandfather before him, Uganda has always been a place spoken about with great fondness by my father’s family at our reunions. My dad and his 8 brothers and sisters grew up in Soroti, a small town north-east of  Kampala, and often my dad would share stories about how he’d play cricket on the streets or climb mango trees that grew an abundance of fruit in and around town. The sheer idea that mango trees lined the streets of his city used to excite a younger me. As he reminisced, I’d paint vivid pictures in my mind’s eye, substituting my dad in these day dreams with myself, imagining what my life would have been like playing on those streets, climbing those trees.

I recently travelled to Uganda for work, an opportunity which I was immensely thankful for, to conduct some research interviews in Kampala. While Kampala was not the city of my dad’s youth, it was, upon getting there, like being home. Kampala is a lush city, with large trees lining the streets and dotting the hills making Kampala unique amongst its East African peers. The city throbs with people, but in all the madness, there is still some method, something that keeps the city beating even through the chaos of traffic and daily life. I was fortunate to meet family friends from Montreal who had settled in Kampala. As my friend drove me back to my hotel from Khane, he commented that traffic here is negotiated to the millimetre, never mind the inch. Cars that are seemingly set to collide with bodas (motorcycle taxis) avoid the impact at the last second, with barely a hair’s width separating their cars from the much more vulnerable motorcycle. And yet, things move along.

Visiting Uganda was a long time coming. With the dictatorship of Idi Amin, my dad’s family, and many other Asian families, were expelled from their homes and the country where they were born. My grandfather I was told had a hard time coming to terms with this mass exodus, incredulous to Idi Amin’s demands that he leave the country. Uganda was (and I think till the day he passed) his home. My dad at the time was in India where he was completing his studies when the expulsion took place, with a few of my aunts already in Canada. My grandfather, grandmother as well as my aunt and uncles were in a refugee camp in Malta before they were patriated to Canada in the 70s. My father, cut off from his family for some time, eventually made his way to Canada as well. It was because of the relationship between His Highness the Aga Khan and our then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau that many Asian Ismailies were able to find a new home in Canada. My family established their lives here. My dad met my mom in Montreal and, very smartly, married her in Ottawa. They set up and built a life for their family in their new home. And while I feel that my dad has always had a sense of nostalgia for those days of his youth, much like many of us are susceptible to, I think seeing the new life that he established for his children made the plight and struggle of those intervening years between his expulsion from his homeland and his adoption by his home-land bearable.

As I drove around Kampala getting from meeting to meeting, my driver spoke about Uganda’s history, not aware of my own personal  ties to this land. He mentioned how his father, a banker, had lost his job when Amin came into power. In the back of my mind I thought to myself, ‘Ha! That’s funny. We lost our home’ but I couldn’t begrudge him. We all lost something during this time in Uganda’s struggle. A generation was lost because of one man’s twisted fanaticism. Thousands died, many lost their jobs, the economy went bust and others lost their homes. On the whole, I know things worked out because the lives we established for ourselves in Canada became so meaningful. It was being accepted by Canada at a time of immense need and despair that made us fall in love with Canada and Canadians. Our transplanted community began to thrive, to make Canada their home and native land. From our diaspora, we have a senator in the Upper House with Ugandan heritage, the beloved mayor of Calgary with Ugandan ancestry, and businessmen, teachers, engineers, doctors, and philanthropists born in Uganda or to Ugandan parents.

Driving to the airport after a short two days in Kampala, I looked onto the horizon over Lake Victoria. The water was the exact shade of the sky above it, reflecting it’s dull greyness so that is was impossible to distinguish where the water and the sky met at the horizon. I stared out onto the lake trying to make sense of this experience. I felt a sense of peace and belonging in Kampala. I felt that in a big way I had closed the loop on my family’s history by being there. Even if I hadn’t seen my dad’s hometown, just being on this soil, looking out over hills and streets that my dad must have looked over in his youth, brought a great sense of closeness to my father and my family. I think for many of us born to a Ugandan parent, there has always been this fascination with this place. And I can understand why.

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