Our Jasper Nation: From Uganda to the USA

Sometimes it is the pursuit of opportunity that causes people to uproot and move to a foreign place. It was in such a pursuit that Gertude Turinawe Hatanga, a junior chemical engineering student at Manhattan College, found her way to the United States from Uganda. “I’m originally from Kisoro… in the western part of Uganda. I was born there but I’ve lived all my life in Kampala, the capital city,” Turinawe said.

“Kisoro [is] a small, quiet and safe village with hardly any crime where practically everyone is family, to the extent that if someone needs something from a store and they don’t have money there and then, they can just take the item and promise to pay the shopkeeper at a later time,” Turinawe said, “that’s how close-knit the community is. The people in Kisoro actually rarely go shopping for food [since] most of it is grown on personal gardens. I like to help out in the fields once in a while when I visit my relatives in Kisoro.”

Unlike Kisoro, the capital city of Uganda has “a more vibrant feel to it,” Turinawe said, “[and] most apartments in Kampala are surrounded by a fence mainly for safety and privacy…[which] creates less interaction amongst the neighbors and therefore [feels] less [like a] community [than] Kisoro.”

Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga
Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga

Even though Kampala itself is a major city, it is in many ways very different from New York City. “The skyscrapers… that’s something you hear about New York,” Turinawe said, “while there are some skyscrapers in the capital city, they are closer to five stories tall,” unlike the massive structures that line New York City streets. Even the quicker pace of the New York City is something that Turinawe has noticed. “New York is fast paced [and] everyone is in a hurry,” whereas in Kampala, “it’s at a slower pace,” Turinawe said.

For a child, moving from Kisoro to Kampala can seem like a long journey, especially when it requires traveling for hours on a bus through the night. But it was in the search of opportunity that spurred this first move, and eventually the second as well. “The opportunities [in Kisoro] are not as many as in Kampala…so I went to study mainly and then the jobs are more available in Kampala” said Turinawe, “but most of my family stayed in Kisoro, all my grandparents [and] all my cousins, so we go there often. Whenever I go back I have to go and see them.”

In December of 2011, Turinawe first visited the United States with her family.  Her family made the trip because her father secured a job with the United Nations in the US that April. Her father had nearly fifteen years of experience working for the UN in Uganda, and applied for a position in the United States. Fortunately, he got the job.

“We all came together but we didn’t have a plan that I would stay and study,” Turinawe said. At the time, Turinawe had just completed four years of high school in Uganda. But the school system is Uganda is different than the United States, so even though she had completed four years of high school, Turinawe still had two years left to complete upon her return.

In Uganda, the school system starts with kindergarten, followed by primary school 1-7, then high school 1-6. High school itself is broken up into ordinary level, 1-4, followed by advanced level, 5-6. Students can then choose to attend university for three years. While the total number of years is equivalent to the number of years in the American education system, school is broken up and counted differently.

“I had just finished four years [of] high school… I was kind of on vacation and thinking about going to 5 and 6, and then we came… It so happened that my dad wanted me to stay and study… that’s when we got to look for schools” Turinawe said. “When I came I was, like, should I go to college? They were telling me ‘since you have four years high school you could move to college’ but then I wouldn’t have the education level for college because I hadn’t done two more years” Turinawe said, “you need that knowledge of the two more extra years in Uganda… so I opted to go to high school for one year, here, at Cardinal Spellman in the eastern Bronx.”

Looking back, Turinawe never imagined she would stay in the United States. “I was thinking ‘I’m visiting … for like a month or two and then we’ll go.’ It was a big thing in my mind… because I hadn’t brought some of my things from home… I just stayed… I never went back,” Turinawe said.  Her family and friends felt similarly, “in high school, no one is expecting after this first level you’re going to the United States because it’s a big thing… a fascination,” Turinawe said, “The US? Who goes to [the] US? I was shocked when my dad told me I could stay, and kind of happy because, you know, this is like the biggest place in the world.”

Although December is a cold month to arrive in New York, Kisoro can also be a cold place. “Kampala is … different from Kisoro because Kisoro is colder, the temperature is colder, so when I first came to New York I was thinking ‘Oh it’s cold, it’s like Kisoro, like where I was born’ and then it was really surprising cause my fingers were literally freezing, we went for gloves and scarves when we came to New York,” Turinawe said. But the cold weather did not keep the family from enjoying the beauties of winter. “The first time it snowed we all spent the whole day in the snow, all of us. In the morning, my dad woke all of us up and we were putting our hands out of the window to feel it,” Turinawe said.

Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga
Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga

Turinawe is the eldest of six, with two of her younger brothers studying here in the U.S. with her. “The rest are back home but they visit… I get to see them once in a while,” Turinawe said. Her brother was the first to attend school in the United States, at Cardinal Hayes, after a Ugandan teacher at the school was in contact with her family.  Since it is an all boy’s school, Turinawe had to look for a different school, and ended up at Cardinal Spellman.

Since arriving in the United States in 2011, Turinawe has been back home just twice. Having a family split across two continents has been one of the biggest challenges.

“We don’t do stuff together as often as we want…you know, it’s sad… we miss some celebrations,” Turinawe said. One of the hardest things for her is not being able to watch her little sister grow up, or even helping her youngest siblings with their homework.  Currently, Turinawe is in the U.S. with her father and two of her younger brothers, but her mom and three of her siblings are back home with the rest of her family in Uganda. Of the siblings in Uganda, “Two are in primary [school] and one hasn’t began, [since] she’s two years [old],” Turinawe said. The distance between the U.S. and Uganda is sometimes hard to bear. Turinawe has only seen her youngest sister a few times since she was born. “I get to see her when she’s one year older each time, and she looks different, because you know they grow and change… the change is so different when they’re young,” Turinawe said.

When thinking about her future, Turinawe knew early on that engineering was the best option for her. “From an early age I really liked doing science and math, so I was thinking in the direction of something where I’ll continue applying math and science,” Turinawe said. Turinawe found her way to Manhattan College after speaking with her principal at Cardinal Spellman, who happens to be a Manhattan alumna. Turinawe recalls a conversation with her principal when she spoke of her interest in pursuing engineering, “I told my principal and … she’s like ‘Oh Manhattan is a good engineering school’ so I applied and I got in, and since it’s in New York it’s also easier because my dad is working here,” Turinawe said.

Since Turinawe has learned the differences between American and Ugandan educations systems, she has adjusted with the hope of bettering her chances at securing a job, once she has her engineering degree in hand that is. “The difference I’ve seen over here is you have to work more to have a job after graduating… back home if you have really good grades sometimes you are offered a job when you’re still studying… some companies can even ask you to come work for them,” Turinawe said. In the U.S. though, excellent grades do not necessarily guarantee a job at graduation. “Back home if you try to maintain excellent grades, you can almost be assured of having a job,” said Turinawe. Because of this realization, one of the biggest changes Turinawe has had to make is trying to be proactive in the job search, which includes really preparing for interviews and even being active on campus, since just maintaining high grades is not enough.

When thinking of entering the workforce, “I would love to work here but I think because of my status that would be challenging, I am also trying to work on working papers to work in the U.S.,” Turinawe said, “So I’m depending on [my father], unless I break off and get my own kind of visa… so for now… maybe Uganda unless something comes up… then I [can] get papers to work here.” Although Turinawe is a citizen of Uganda, it is because of her father’s job in the UN that she is able to stay in the United States, so long as he remains in his current role.

Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga
Photo Courtesy of Gertude Turinawe Hatanga

While Turinawe is enjoying the opportunity to live in the United States, the country where she grew up is not absent from her thoughts. A perfect day in Uganda for Turinawe would be Sunday, since “that’s when almost everyone is off work and that’s when you get to spend the whole day with your family, often that’s when you visit relatives… so it’s mainly seeing friends and families and spending time with them,” Turinawe said, “usually that’s when we have a big, big meal… during the week you cook something simple but Sundays specifically you cook something different… something you can enjoy, something more special.” Turinawe’s favorite dish, and one she wishes she could have at school, is matoke. “It’s in the banana group… but it’s eaten steamed in the banana leaves,” Turinawe said, “and it can be eaten with sauce, that’s really good.”

While Turinawe is now able to speak English, it was not her first language. In the Kisoro district where Turinawe was born the language of Lufumbira is commonly spoken, especially around the house.  Aside from Lufumbira, Turinawe also speaks Luganda, which is “very popular in the capital city,” Turinawe said.

Luganda is a language belonging to the Baganda tribe, and is spoken in the city. Both Lufumbira and Luganda belong to the Bantu family, and are only two of the forty or so languages spoken in Uganda. While English is the official language, many other languages are spoken depending on the region. “English is mainly in the capital city… the farther you go in the villages, then the English is less used… and the local languages are used,” Turinawe said, “The national language [is] English… and they’re trying to make Swahili too because we’re in the East African community.”

While Turinawe did learn English at about age four, as she was beginning kindergarten, English words and phrases are often mixed with those of local languages.

In Uganda, “we sometimes include words from our local language or even make up new words for better understanding,” Turinawe said.  This Uganda-English language is known as Uglish. An example of a phrase is “stop cowardising,” which means “stop being a coward.” Also, the Luganda term for when someone is living a lavish or abundant lifestyle, “kura ubulamu,” might be termed as “eating life.”

New York, Turinawe’s most recent home, is “a completely different world,” Turinawe said, from both Kisoro and Kampala. “One the things New York is well-known for if its skyscrapers and diversity and it is just as I expected it would be. You know, it would make a bit of sense to think that more developed places like cities would have less crime and homelessness but to the surprise it is exactly the opposite,” Turinawe said, adding that “the best way I would describe the neighborhood experience in New York in my opinion is ‘everyman for himself’ because there is rarely or barely any communication with neighbors. It is just very interesting and also humbling to be able to experience different ‘extremes’ of the world.”

When reflecting on what she has been through, Turinawe thinks of what her father often says. “My father likes to use the phrase, ‘From the hills of Kisoro, to the skyscrapers of New York’ just summarizing the whole experience we are going through,” Turinawe said.

For anyone planning to visit Uganda, one of the biggest tourist attractions is the wildlife, specifically gorillas. “I would definitely… go see the wildlife at Bwindi Impenetrable [National Park] and at Queen Elizabeth National Park,” Turinawe said.  Other sites worth visiting include Kibale National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, and the Nile River.