Why I moved to Uganda (and away from Europe)

Uganda is amazing. On this blog I will talk about all the reasons you should visit or consider spending some more time here, but that is not what this post is about. For now, I want to tell you a little more about my personal story and why I decided to move away from my homecountry Belgium and swapped it in for the ‘Pearl of Africa’.

When I announced to my friends, family and acquaintances that I quit my job and my apartment in Brussels and was planning to move to Uganda, many people reacted surprised. After the usual questions (“Why Uganda”, “Where are you going to live” and “What are you going to do there”), none of which I had a satisfying answer to, people usually told me I was really “brave”. This made me feel like an imposter all the time and I wanted to tell them I wasn’t brave at all.

To be brave is to face your fears

People think I’m brave because I’ve been to places with names they’ve never heard of and they know nothing about, blank patches on the map of the world that they can colour with the excesses of their imagination. To be brave is to face your fears, to have something that really scares you and do it anyways. What people don’t understand is that travelling to faraway places doesn’t scare me. What scares me is staying in Belgium and living an unsatisfying life. To arrive at the end of my life one day and regret the chances I didn’t grab, places I didn’t visit, people I didn’t meet, languages I never learned and waters I never swam in.

I’ve always been someone who likes to travel and explore, but certain developments – in my personal life as well as societal developments – have made living in Belgium less and less appealing to me. A lot of it became clear to me during the lockdown imposed due to the global pandemic, which for me exacerbated the issues we’ve had in Europe for a long time.

“Work hard, play hard” or How To Get a Burnout

I haven’t been happy in Belgium for a while now, and I don’t feel like I’m the only one. “Work hard, play hard” is something we say a lot in Europe, but it’s not as harmless as it sounds. What it means is that we have to be productive first – generally measured by the amount of money earned – and then we deserve to enjoy ourselves. It’s a constant trade-off, and with the prices rocketing, there’s hardly any time for play.

It started with my mother a couple of years ago. She felt exhausted. She couldn’t find the motivation to go to work, or some days, even to get out of bed. She was sad and angry all the time. She didn’t even have enough energy to do fun things anymore. My mom didn’t want to call it a ‘burnout’ (there’s a lot of shame around it) so she called it a ‘time out’ when the doctor told her to stay home for a while.

Later my sister followed, then my other sister, then one of my best friends. Now everyone I know either had a burnout or is on the edge of getting one. Or there’s me, paralysed to even start looking for a “real job” (one with a good wage) because I’m already exhausted just thinking about it.

It’s no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society

Jiddu Krishnamurti

There’s so much pressure constantly weighing on our shoulders. Not just to work and earn a living, but also to look perfect all the time, go to the gym several times a week, spend quality time with our children, make home-cooked meals every day, entertain a large group of friends and take care of your elderly family members.

To be progressive: juggling chores and opportunities

We pride ourself as a progressive culture where women have equal opportunities to men. In reality, this often means that women have fulltime jobs AND have to do most of the unpaid but necessary housework as well. The time that women get to ‘play’ is cut down even more by all the chores that need to be done at home. (And then we’re not even talking yet about all the women of color who are hired by the white women who make enough money to hand over some of those chores. Do they ever get to play?)

Like I said above, there’s a lot of shameful feelings around having a burnout, or not being able to follow with this rat-race that life has become. Most of us have learned to measure our worth with how productive we are. People are dropping like flies. If it’s not burnout it’s depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. And then there’s the so called “diseases of affluences”, the physical manifestations of our wretched lifestyles. The saying “it’s no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society” comes to mind.

That’s a you problem

When people fall out with a burnout or other mental health issues they often end up at the shrink’s office. That’s where I found myself about a year ago after a bad break up and a general feeling of being stuck in my life. I was feeling miserable and I cried every day, usually when I was alone in my bed but sometimes when I was on public transport or in a bar. When I would cry in a public space I would feel horrified. I didn’t feel like I could share my sadness with anyone, and this isn’t a reproach to any of my friends of family. This was just me feeling ashamed and not wanting to be ‘a burden’ to anyone. So I decided I should take matters in my own hand and started looking for a therapist.

The idea is that there’s something wrong with you – the individual – and so you should work on yourself to get better. Don’t get me wrong, going to therapy helped me a lot. I learned so much about myself, digged into my childhood, recognised my strengths and weaknesses, learned how to communicate my feelings and how to set healthy boundaries. I did – and am still doing – a lot of inner work.

Still, going to therapy didn’t feel like enough and I always felt like something was missing. By talking more openly about my emotions and sharing things I learned in therapy, I found that so many people around me were having the same issues. I thought, if so many of us are struggling with this, why are we all doing this learning in our separate bubbles? And why do we keep having such a hard time communicating and understanding each other? In the meantime, most people don’t even get to go to therapy because the waiting lists are endless and once there’s room for you it costs an arm and a leg.

Inscription on a wall in Kampala, Uganda

What about Uganda?

Last year I was able to attend a reading about the White-Savior Industrial Complex in development work organised by the No White Saviors group in Kampala. A Ugandan man talked about the many volunteers and expats who come to Uganda thinking they will “help” people and “transform” the country. What they end up finding is much more important. They find that Uganda helps them and they are the ones transformed. Some people next to me were laughing and mentioned the many Europeans who were living their best lives in Kampala and didn’t want to go back home. The man called them ‘spiritual refugees’. “Europe might have a refugee problem but we have refugees of our own” he said laughingly.

Comparing European expats and volunteers in Uganda with African migrants in Europe may sound like a stretch, however, the differences are also massively exacerbated. African migrants are not mostly “uneducated single men, looking for welfare coverage”. They are young, educated people, looking for jobs. Almost half of them are women and while regular channels to migrate to Europe remain limited, most are still coming on regular routes. Of course there are important differences, but they are mostly in the acceptance of the hosting countries. While I, with my European passport, can travel around in Africa without a problem, my Ugandan friend who wants to visit me in Belgium keeps getting her visa denied. It’s worthy to think about who gets the label of “expat” and who gets the “refugee” label and why.

God is dead, and so are “we”

In the west, we like to think we’ve become “modern” by throwing out any form of religion. “God is dead” is one of the most famous quotes of western philosophy (and widely misunderstood). Nietzsche wasn’t religious himself, but he still worried, because without God, how would we give meaning to life? I think he was onto something. It seems like we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Together with religion, we abandoned every form of community. We have no more common goals or beliefs, instead we are constantly in competition with each other. It’s as if life is a pie and the more one person eats, the less another one gets. Capitalism has become our religion in many ways, where money is the omnipotent deity. But there is no common morale, rather it’s every one for themselves.

Of course, a country like Uganda isn’t spared from all of these issues. Because of globalised capitalism no region in the world is, and more so, Uganda and other African countries are very much on the losing end of it. This makes for a whole other range of issues that puts someone like me, with a Belgian passport in a very privileged and ambiguous position. I worried for a long time whether it is ethically responsible to even be here in the first place. I still don’t have an all-encompassing answer to that. I have, however, decided for myself that staying away wouldn’t solve anything either.

When I visited Uganda for the first time, I felt immediately at home. I was blessed to meet an amazing group of people almost right from the start, who welcomed me into their lives and brought me with them everywhere. I never felt alone, and I never felt like I had to prove anything to anyone. Nobody really cared about how many diploma’s I had, how much work experience is on my CV, how many times a week I go to the gym or how many times I have worn that same outfit. The times I went back after that I never even had to pay for a hotel, there’s always a bed ready for me somewhere. The term ‘spiritual refugee’ resonated with me.

Whether this is the general culture or whether I was just extremely lucky to meet the right people right away, I will leave open for now, but I needed a clean slate and I couldn’t think of another place I rather wanted to be than here (and the people who know me know that I’ve tried).

The good and the bad

I don’t want to romanticise Uganda too much because I’m very aware of how the people are plagued by the colonial past, ongoing neocolonial powers and local corruption. I don’t want to downsize many of the problems my Ugandan friends have to deal with. I realise that many of the positive experiences I have here are possible because of my Belgian passport and white skin.

At the same time, I know that most of my friends and family in Belgium have a distorted and overly negative image of Uganda and “Africa” (which too many people still generalise as if it is one and the same country). Therefore I also feel the need to talk about the excessive positive experiences I’ve had. There’s poverty, but there’s also wealth. There’s disease but there’s also a lot of ‘caring for’. There’s power cuts but there’s also a young generation leading a digital revolution. There are safaris but also modern art shows. There’s pollution but there’s also a thriving fashion scene.

With its growing economies, resilient people, natural wealth and thriving fashion, music and art scenes, I very much believe that Africa is a leading continent in the making . And if you’re not happy in the present, where better to travel to than the future?

4 responses to “Why I moved to Uganda (and away from Europe)”

  1. Wow yes your right, you really worked so hard Mari am happy you made it. God bless the work of your hand, 😘


  2. Like

  3. Respect Mari! Ik volg je graag verder en wens je alle succes!


  4. I personally couldn’t understand why someone would travel from the countries we admire and come settle here but i now see, i wish you the best Mari🙏🏾


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