I left Uganda on August 6 2001. My nineteen months old baby Hannah was sleeping in her cot when I picked up my bags and headed to the airport knowing it would be a long time before I held her in my arms again. Her older sister Joannah would turn three in November while I was on my way to political asylum in the USA. As soon as I arrived in the United States on an H1B visa in February 2002, I started plotting means of bringing them to join me in the United States. When I left Uganda I was in a highly charged and defiant mood, angry at what I perceived to be a great injustice of violent and highly irregular national elections. My attitude was negative and aggressive and it came through in every interaction I had. I had not stopped to think how leaving the country stealthily and launching a transnational campaign against a government might impact on my family and whether indeed it might mean not seeing my children for a very long time. Their father John; a military officer and I were separated before I joined opposition activism, nonetheless he took time to visit me in Kololo and warn me that the consequences of my outspoken activism would have adverse consequences for him personally and the family. I ignored him.
The morning after I left Uganda the girls’ nanny called John and told him I had left and he needed to come and take the children into his care. My separation from John had been a bitter one but despite our political differences, irreconcilable domestic arguments and hot tempers, I had never doubted John’s love for his daughters. Now settled in Washington D.C, I applied for dependent visas and the US Embassy in Kampala would only grant them with the written consent of their father. He gave his reluctant consent and on May 15 2002, I went to Dulles Airport to pick my two daughters who were accompanied by my mother. I had not seen them in nine months and it was a tearful occasion, made even more poignant when my baby girl called me ‘Auntie.’ Hannah-Banana could not remember her mother.
Two short months after my mother and daughters arrived in D.C. I was out of a job and had lost my H1B status. My brother Andrew had moved to live in the USA from Britain in September 2001. He worked as a radio frequency engineer for Motorola and lived in Florida. Andrew opened his home for us and we moved in to wait for the long immigration process that would give me employment authorization. My mother tagged along and remained with us for a while before returning to Uganda. I lived with my daughters at Andrew’s house for a year before being granted asylum and getting that all-important employment authorization card.
Now that I could return to Washington to take up my Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) the full impact of being a single mother in the US hit home like a rock. After my brother dropped us outside the airport at Fort Lauderdale we were on our own. So as the summer of 2003 drew to a close I moved into an apartment community in White Oaks, a woody suburb of Silver Springs, Maryland. Hannah was all of 3 years old and I pushed her in a stroller with 5 year Joannah tagging along with the three or four large bags that were our worldly possessions. We moved into an empty apartment and our first purchase was a queen size air mattress which we shared that first night. Sabiti a family friend who had helped us find the apartment was a pillar of support in the nightmare that followed as I tried to juggle lining up for food stamps, shopping for groceries, cooking dinner, enrolling Joannah in the nearest public school and finding day care that would be safe for Hannah once I started on my Fellowship.
Many times I sat in crowded rooms waiting for a social worker to explain my next course of action in building the American dream. I wondered how I had gotten to this new low in life. I reflected on the great irony of completing education at some of the best Universities in Uganda and England only to realize that nothing prepared me for a world where degrees would not get me what I needed in life. A good education in Africa and Europe does not prepare you to find a suitable baby sitter in Maryland and if you mention to a social worker that you went to LSE for your Master of Laws degree they stare blankly at you and ask ‘where is that?’ I had tried to get our loyal nanny in Uganda to come along with the children but the US Embassy in Kampala had denied her a visa. I realized that until they came to the USA I knew next to nothing about my babies. Hannah spoke her baby words in Runyankore with a thick ‘Kiga’ accent because the nanny was a Mukiga. At times I had no clue what she was saying and I relied on Joannah to interpret her demands for milk and for attention.
Until I lived with them alone, I never knew how difficult it was to raise toddlers and preschoolers. In Uganda, the nanny was assisted by a crew of relatives who passed through the home on visits. The girls always came to me after they were bathed and properly dressed and I cooed and cuddled them without thinking of the work that went into making them look cute and ready for bed. I marveled now at the great gift of a society that raised children communally. I considered the irony that in the developed world where women were vocal and fought so hard for their rights they found it next to impossible to have children and a career concurrently because the system was run in such an anti-family manner. I longed for Uganda and all the neighbors and villagers whom my kids still called ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie.’
At 50 I know that we still have many advantages from communal living and community support but I will always be thankful that America gave me the fortituous opportuntunity to bond with my daughters in a very special way.