Our ‘Mygration Story’ series tracks the family histories of staff and fellows at UNU. The aim is to show that many of us owe our lives and careers to the courage of migrant ancestors. People who left their homes to build safer or better lives — for themselves and for their children. With this monthly series we want to show that migration is not an historical aberration, but a surprisingly common element in family histories worldwide.
“I was born in Uganda, I am Rwandan, but I grew up in South Africa.” This is my standard response to the question “Where are you from?” – because I genuinely feel like I am from all three countries.
My parents met in Kampala, Uganda as students and young professionals; she in the travel industry and he embarking on a career in government that would later be the driving force behind the family’s collective migration a first, second and third time. My mother had already experienced her first migration. Born in Byumba, a city in northern Rwanda, her family fled conflict in the early 1960s to neighbouring Uganda when she was around 2 years old.
My father was born in a territory that by border definition is a part of Uganda but contains a large population of persons who are culturally Banyarwanda. Even though my father’s family was indigenous to the area where he was born, the history of conflict in Rwanda beginning at the turn of the 20th century meant that there were large numbers of Rwandan refugees present in Uganda. This presence met with a long history of political division along tribal lines in Uganda, which led to generations of Ugandans of Rwandan heritage being considered outsiders. Therefore, many among them held the hope of one day ‘returning home’.
Mygration by choice
This opportunity came in 1995. My father had been working in Ugandan military intelligence around the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) emerged victorious, ending the Genocide in Rwanda and taking over as the ruling party. He was recruited to assist in rebuilding the country and accepted a new position as Director General of External Intelligence and so the family relocated. I was 6 at the time, so my first migration began with little to no agency.
I had some agency in the next move however, at least to the extent it can be said that a 9-year-old girl choosing which school she will attend from a set of brochures counts as agency. Education was of utmost importance to my parents, and when at the end of fourth grade it was not assured that the primary school I was attending in Kigali would have the entire infrastructure in place for the fifth grade, my parents made the decision to send me to boarding school.
My parents were right to underline the primacy of education. If there is one variable that can be located in both of their lives and linked directly to their ability to afford them the opportunity to do better for their children it is education. In my family, the generational jump in what one might term ‘upward mobility’ is huge. Both my parents were born in rural settings — what we would call ‘the village’.
My still living paternal grandmother is illiterate and once on a trip to the village to visit my grand parents, my father took a day and showed my brothers and me where he went to high school. He showed us the path he walked to and from school, nearly 20 kilometres each day. There I was, at the time a rather spoilt teenager, having it dawn on me that whilst he had walked kilometres upon kilometres, technically, I flew to school. I took a flight at least three times a year from Kigali to Johannesburg to attend a reputable private school, which in the late 1990s, only a few years after the fall of Apartheid, was still reserved for a privileged few in South African society. My luck and privilege is not lost on me.
Mygration by force
I spent a decade going back and forth between South Africa and Rwanda and about 3 years officially designating South Africa home. In the tradition of armed rebellions, not long after liberation from the Genocide, the new Rwandan regime began its descent into dictatorship, where many believe it has long since arrived.
My family was caught in the cross hairs. In 2006, after being arrested, charged and convicted of ‘insubordination and desertion’ and serving 13 months in prison, which had been preceded in 2005 by an incommunicado 5-month detention in an undisclosed location, my father was advised to flee the country. He did so, to South Africa, where at this point my brothers were also studying, and obtained political asylum.
My mother stayed behind, believing she was apolitical enough to safely run her businesses and manage her rental properties; but in 2010, my father and other political dissidents were charged and convicted in absentia for ‘terrorism’ making her feel unsafe, so she too joined us in South Africa.
Following an assassination attempt against a former army chief who had also fled to South Africa in 2010, our family was placed under state security. This prompted my father, the army chief and two other dissidents to form an official opposition party to the regime in Rwanda, the Rwandan National Congress (RNC) — which of course put an even greater target on his back. He was, unfortunately, assassinated in 2014.
Life under state security was severely restrictive, and given the danger posed by proximity to my father, my mother and brothers sought asylum in the United States in 2011 – a process that is still under way.
Once I completed law school at the University of Cape Town, I headed closer to my family in North America to obtain a Masters in Law at the University of McGill in Montreal, Canada, where I now reside. I soon received a fellowship to study another masters at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). This year, I had the opportunity to be a Junior Fellow at UNU in Tokyo, and I am about to expand my international law experience in The Hague where I will be training as a law clerk. In other words, my migration story continues and there is no telling where it will go.
For many people, migration is a one-time event, often having taken place in the lives of the generations before them. For me it is an ever-present reality, as I have never not been an immigrant; and while I may walk around with a feeling the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’ – or ‘homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was’ – I am also simply grateful.