What Goats Taught me About Myself

HOST INTRO: Straddling two cultures can be tricky to navigate, especially when you’re  one of a few black kids in your American school. And especially when, as a child of immigrants,  you don’t know any of your family’s native languages. Reporter Cynthia Betubiza talks about how she finally found peace in her identity as a Ugandan-American. [00:17]

Both of my parents were born and raised in Uganda. My siblings and I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, a 19-hour plane ride away in a nearly all-white town with a nearly all-white school.

One time at a St. Patrick’s day assembly, a teacher yelled out, “Raise your hands if you’re part Irish!”. My sister and I were two of four black kids in entire school, so you can guess how that went.

When we’d learn about slavery and Martin Luther King jr., my classmates would literally turn their heads to look at me with these sappy, overly sympathetic looks on their faces.

I hated sticking out in any way in general. Feeling like an alien made it hard for me to be proud of my culture.I was also bratty, to be honest. I thought Uganda was too dusty and that there wasn’t enough American food.  But I was also confused.

We spent every other summer in Uganda. I’d always have a good time with chasing cows, riding on my uncle’s’ motorcycle past papyrus swamps in the tropical, hilly countryside, and going to bright, beautiful weddings.  Even so, there was always a sense of disconnect because I didn’t know any Ugandan languages, at all.

I have to say, there is so much lost from not communicating with someone in their native language. Saying some things are lost in translation is an understatement. I got self-conscious talking to them, and they seemed less free.

Yes, I inhabit two worlds, but I certainly do not inhabit them both equally.

People I didn’t know could tell that I was American from a mile away, despite being a carbon copy of my mother. The second I opened my mouth and my annoying American voice rang out, I was truly busted. The way I struggled to finish my plate of mashed plantains and pinto beans was another giveaway. People would jokingly call my sisters and I “Muzungu”, which means “white person”.

As I grew up and matured, I started embracing my family’s culture, realizing that it added to my American-ness instead of detracting from it. Even still, there were days when I felt American, and days when I felt “other”.

Last January, my family and I went to Uganda. My dad was giving us a tour of the family banana farm.  As we walked back to the house, my little sister Martha and I shrieked: We had made it back in time to herd the goats. If you haven’t’ spent much time around goats, especially baby goats, I feel bad for you. Please get on that A.S.A.P.

We had never met our cousin Richard before, who was watching over the goats that day. I can only guess he was about 14. Cathy and Henry, our much younger niece and nephew, also came along. None of them could speak English.

We took the goats to another hill. As we walked, we were all quiet and awkward.

When we finally got to the hill, we let the goats graze in the valley. The sun was almost setting and the view was breathtaking.

The kids felt shy around us and we felt shy around them. But Martha had a plan. If we couldn’t talk to them, might as well play!

Cathy and Henry found a way to teach us a game similar to hide-and-go-seek. I pretended not to see their tiny bodies as they hid behind even tinier trees in the forest, “blocking out” the sound of their furious giggles.

When we got tired, Martha showed them how they looked with dog and bunny Snapchat filters and they howled in amusement.

I had forgotten all about the goats, but before we knew it, they circled back. On the walk home, we were all holding hands. After dinner, Cathy and Henry cuddled with us as we ate melon and sipped passion fruit juice.

That was one of the best days of my life. Now, I am finally at peace. I know who I am: I’m Ugandan-American. Now if you call me “Muzungu”, I’ll just smile and laugh along with you.


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