Repat: Sommas in Kampala

“I can’t wait for these Sommas to go” V exclaims whilst peering over her black cat eye sunglasses at the crowd gathering outside one of our favourite bars. ‘Somma’ is a term created by Ugandans to describe those who live/grew up abroad and come to Uganda during the holiday periods to live it up in our not so peaceful city, Kampala. Her accent is a mash-up of her ‘hood’ East London upbringing and Northern Ugandan heritage – you can’t help it and hate to admit it, but the accent rubs off on you. I continue to drink my Nile Special (local brew of champions) and think about how ironic that is coming from us, considering both of us used to be Sommas. Now that we live here, we have the right and foresight to make such comments.

V and I both used to live that 9-5 grind life in good old London town but swapped our oyster cards for boda bodas – Uganda’s answer to the rush hour gridlock. These are cheap Indian motorbikes that can fit a disturbing number of people and objects onto them.

The African Diaspora has been going through a subtle shift; young people are deciding to throw up the deuces to their surrogate western homes and return back to the motherland. The homecoming party should be filled with traditional food, Afrobeats and beautiful smiling faces, but life isn’t a Wizkid video (no matter how hard I try). Any move is going to have its ups and downs but being a ‘Repat’ has its own special breed of pits and peaks. Social economic status automatically changes so if you grew up in a council flat you will feel the culture shock of being catapulted into the middle/upper class.

Learning your way around Kampala is like understanding that each step you take is slightly different. This variation decides whether you step into a pothole or an opportunity. The local transport system (or lack thereof) is hit or miss, cheap but dangerous and it’s either things work, or you work around them. Finding your place in this emerging society is a modern African’s pilgrimage. From near death experiences and turning friends into family, to alienating ‘beg friends’… it’s a constant cycle.

My story will feel familiar to a lot of graduates; did my undergraduate at a great university, graduated, hunted for a job, couldn’t find anything so ended up in dead end jobs just to get by, decided to do a masters with the hopes of improving my job prospects only to find the job crisis in my sector was worse than I could have imagined. So what’s a girl to do? Think outside of the box or in my case outside the country.

I had always wanted to travel so thought: why not start at home? I have family there and my education would be held at high esteem. Upon arrival, I was so petrified I could barely go anywhere except the local mall on my own. After a while, I learnt that the only way to really settle in was to jump in at the deep end.

I came here with the promise of a job in a biological forensic laboratory but soon found out that people don’t always mean what they say or say what they mean. The systems in place in Kampala are filled with loops and turns that would send any fast-paced Londoner into a mini break down. It got so bad that just waiting for my bill in a restaurant could send me off the rails.

For me, patience is a virtue but not one I possess in copious quantities. I confided in friends and family out here who all had the same response; “these things take time, welcome to Uganda” – our version of the British stiff upper lip and possibly the most patronising/irritating thing you can say to any new repat/expat. The often-unintentional condescension is palatable. These setbacks forced me into the art/pseudo-science of hustling and three months in, I maneuvered my way into a teaching position at Mbarara University.

My students knew the basics in Criminology so I was tasked with introducing postgraduates to Forensics, not as an abstract idea or a glamourized career, but as the application of science and technology to criminal law and investigations. The hustle continued securing me a job, often with the only common theme being my varied interests; a private Forensic startup, PR consulting, events management and styling. Things were looking up and then finally my original job was secured! Through all of this, I realized that people were not being patronising at all but were merely asking me; “what is your rush! Enjoy this beautiful country and the rest will follow in due time.”

I forgot how to be still and live in the now, and let me tell you if there is anywhere in the world to live in the now… Kampala is it.