Far-flung homes: Keisha Mukasa on Ugandan identity in diaspora

First-year Keisha Mukasa poses for the Tufts Daily on Oct. 1. Mukasa was first raised in Uganda, but then left for school in Kenya when she was eight, before graduating from high school in Swaziland. (Mike Feng / The Tufts Daily)

This article is part two of a three-part series centering the experiences of students who are the only ones from their home countries to be at Tufts.

For most students, “home” is a food we grew up eating, a country whose culture shaped us or a house in which we find comfort. For first-year Keisha Mukasa, her experience of home is not rooted in concrete parts of a culture, like food or language, or even a specific space.  Mukasa was first raised in Uganda, but then left for boarding school in the neighboring country of Kenya when she was 8, before graduating from high school in Swaziland, a country near the southern end of Africa.

“For the nine years that I was going to school in Kenya, I didn’t internalize what that was doing to my identity and how I identified with myself in that space,” she said. “When I moved to Swaziland … I learnt a lot about a culture that I had never been exposed to before.”

Most of the people whom Mukasa has met in her first few weeks on campus are unfamiliar with East African countries and have asked her questions about Ugandan society and culture.

“If there’s anything I’ve seen, it’s that Tufts students, when they are curious about knowing something about you, it’s really at the end of the day just to know about you,” she said. “There’s no underlying reason other than just sheer curiosity.”

Mukasa finds that, when she is unsure about the answers to some of these questions, it is an opportunity for her to learn more about her home and her culture.

“When people ask me about [Uganda], I have this honor in having to represent it and talk about it but, at the same time, having not been there all at once for the last 19 years of my life means that I don’t have all the information,” she said. “It makes me want to learn more, but it makes learning about it really hard when I am not there.”

Moving to the United States for college has also made Mukasa curious about her own culture, even as she discovers more about others. She finds herself wanting to know more about her Ugandan home, now that the physical distance is much greater.

“Being this far away, in a culture that differs quite greatly, it makes me want to go back more,” she said. “It makes me want to invest more time in understanding who I am as a Ugandan, rather than coming here and feeling as though I should take on U.S. culture as my own.”

In this learning process, Mukasa feels tension between wanting to represent Uganda well on campus and having had a unique experience growing up outside of Uganda.

“I always question myself — should I be holding that torch? Should I honestly be the one to answer any questions that people have about this country?” Mukasa said. “I feel like I’m obliged to have the right answers, yet the truth of the matter is that I don’t.”

Mukasa still identifies as Ugandan, while she also now finds home in multiple other places.

“Although I say I am Ugandan, and that’s my physical home, there is another part of me that feels like home is wrapped up in moving and in understanding that my identity is just an amalgamation of a lot of different experiences in different countries,” she said.

Rather than a specific location, it is the trying of new foods, learning of a new lingo or traveling between different places that she identifies with as home.

“I find comfort in bus rides, just because for the longest time, when I was going between Uganda and my school in Kenya, it was always a bus ride,” Mukasa said. “It’s like a key to a new destination, a whole new experience.”

Her philosophy of being open-minded and wanting to try new things has stayed true with Mukasa in her move to Tufts.

“I really want to go and see a Red Sox game,” Mukasa said. “It’s something I knew I wanted to do, not because I knew anything about baseball, or I like baseball, but because I understand that the people here like baseball. It’s a chance for me to understand what people love here and why they love it.”

Despite having spent more than half of her life cultivating an open mindset to new experiences in her travels between countries, Mukasa shared that the stark differences between the United States and everywhere else she has lived have made the transition surprisingly more challenging.

“I did not think now that I’m here alone, and I’m supposed to be living here, that these things would shock me, because I thought that I’m accustomed to [moving],” she said. “I realize I’m not. I’m just as much a stranger as everybody else.”

Yet the transition was not something that she has ever worried about. In a sea of new people, she has found ways to relate to others’ experiences of growing up overseas.

“I’ve always assumed that wherever I go, I’ll find people like me. That has kind of been the case,” she said. “I found a lot of people who, even though they are not Ugandan, share a similar story to mine. They might be from one country, but identify with the cultures of others.”

Likewise, Mukasa is able to connect with other African students over similar interests and experiences, even if they are seemingly insignificant.

“I can’t say that I’m from those other [African] countries. No matter how small it is, it’s nice to have that feeling of knowing that … when I relate to somebody else from Africa, we’re connected instantly,” Mukasa said. “It’s enough to feel like that is part of a broader identity of mine than is just Ugandan.”

Previously, Mukasa used to internalize her struggles with home and identity as a personal problem. Realizing that she is not the only student on this campus who has lived away from home has given her much comfort for the future.

“Now more so than any time before, people go to school away from where they call home,” Mukasa said. “It took me a long time to learn that it’s okay to have to figure it out … [and] there’s some sort of beauty in the process. Now I can enjoy the process even more.”