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Study Abroad Diaries: My First East African Days

Kyle Tam | The Africa Channel   in  ·
July 26, 2015

I always wanted to go to Africa, a place where my ancestors came from and, therefore, a place that was a part of me like no other in the world. It would be different from my upbringing and current situation, but I welcomed the change. I grew up in an urban environment, went to an inner city school in working class America, then went to, and currently attend, a prestigious liberal arts school in the suburbs that is attended primarily by students of wealthy backgrounds. The saddest thing is these institutions are all in my hometown. I was a student in the Poughkeepsie school system, located in the City of Poughkeepsie, and am currently a student at Vassar College, located in the Town of Poughkeepsie. Having both of these experiences, I was ready to go somewhere new, but also someplace that I had a desire to visit. When I prepared to study abroad, I chose to go to Africa, and was ecstatic when I was accepted. A third-year history major, ready to learn about post-conflict transformation and his roots, I eagerly awaited my trip; but the journey hasn’t been as smooth as I thought it would be. From assessing poverty, privilege and race, my first weeks in Uganda exposed me to new ideas and new challenges that have given (and continue to give) me an education I couldn’t get back home.

Currently it’s been four months since I arrived in Uganda. Prior to arriving, I had been thinking about my trip for three months, but in the final days before I left, my most prevalent thought was how unprepared I was. Not having thought much about the trip (besides the fact that I was going), I had taken all my shots, talked to a fellow classmate who participated in the same program a year ago, and read some blogs, but I barely knew anything about where I was going and what I was actually going to do. But I still I boarded that plane to Entebbe airport and tried not to look back.

After I touched down, I began to know more. I was in a different place, which reminded me of Jamaica at first, with the warm breeze and the the palm trees; well, at least I made it seem familiar. I needed something to remind me of my past, especially when I saw AK-47s being held by airport security. I needing something that seemed to be “my normal,” because my present was different from my history. But the first few days weren’t normal at all. I took a seven-hour bus trip up a mostly dirt path to get to my study abroad destination, Gulu. Along the way I saw monkeys (they were kinda cute), roadside shops, and a man casually walking with a live chicken. But this was life, and I had to accept it, even though some things shocked me. As I arrived in Gulu, I saw poverty like I had never seen before. Kids in tattered clothes, roads that were half done without sidewalks, and hastily constructed shops that had zinc roofs and wood sidings.

Due to these sights, I started to think about privilege. I started to think about the common African thread, about poverty and underdevelopment. Then I realized I didn’t want to be a part of that. But I couldn’t help thinking these thoughts, because I’m an American, and that’s what I’ve been taught. I started to think about what poverty really means and how subjective it is. How the hood back home doesn’t seem so bad, yet because of comparative circumstance, I may think what I see is worse, while it might be a middle-income life for someone else. These thoughts force me to grow, in ways I never had the opportunity to experience before.

Since I was not in America, my definition of other ideas, particularly race, started to change. Back home, we tend to think a person is black if he or she has one African ancestor; in Uganda, not so much. I remember one day someone told me I was white. As a guy whose mother is black and father is black and Asian, white wasn’t what I was or what I would care to describe myself as, but to them I was. As usual I got pissed, and I would also be called mzungu, which actually means “aimless wanderer” in Swahili, but is the term used for white people. Again, as an American, I’m definitely not white, and my country makes sure to remind me of that, in the news, politics, movies, economics and American society as a whole. So I began to get angry. Fortunately, I found a way to think about it differently, before it ate up my world. I began to understand Blackness as a politic; that a person’s beliefs and actions could determine his or her Black identity, but his or her heritage could not be changed. As for me being mixed, I wasn’t just one side as America likes to classify people, but I was African and Asian. With that heritage I could have a Black Identity, as long as my politics and actions were for supporting people of African heritage.

Safe to say, my world changed when I stepped off the plane and has been evolving ever since. My relations with privilege and race have gone into personal struggles and breakthroughs that I feel someone else could relate to if they experienced what I did and had a similar background. Furthermore, I recognized how much it meant to be a Black college student in Africa. To experience it with mature yet youthful eyes. To understand that it was a place for young people, beyond all the stereotypes that I was used to. It showed me a place where I was learning about history, eating local food, buying kitenge cloth, traveling on the Nile, and clubbing in Kampala. Eye-opening journeys that I rarely heard of, but I needed to experience.

That’s why I am writing.

There’s a world out there and stories that never get told. For folks like me, I wish they did. I hope these articles and others are spread so it will be a little easier for the next person on that 17-hour flight.

Photo Courtesy of Mark Nordahl/Flickr

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