Nestled away deep within the otherworldly green expanses of East Africa for the past few years has provided perspectives on change, growth and adaptation otherwise unknown to me throughout my life.
Growing up exploring the federally protected natural spaces of the western United States allowed me to develop a profound appreciation for the abundance of beauty with which Mother Nature permits us to engage. Here in Uganda, working as a part of the international development industry, I watch all around me as what we call development rapidly changes before our eyes, often at the expense of the natural world.
About a year ago, I wrote a piece that illustrated the deep connection I have forged with the wilderness of our Earth, and the immense power each of us can tap into through it. On the banks of the River Nile, in the gardens of my former home in Bujagali, I spent over a year in routine communion with what came to be regarded as my Spirit Tree. Through a series of events that corresponded with my own tumultuous life at the time, the papaya tree slowly fell, decayed, and disappeared. Nothing remains today.
Perhaps this is part of the reason I always feel so unsettled when I return to Bujagali Village. Weekend escapes there are often dominated by water sports and relaxation at the source of the Nile’s famous backpackers camps, interspersed with visitations to my families who continue to go about their daily lives along the red dirt roads I once trod upon in much the same way they did when I was a part of their community.
A visit to Bujagali this weekend brought with it a profound realization: this community is theirs, but it is no longer my own.
In much the same way I no longer consider Sacramento, California to be my home, even though it was my birthplace and the grounds for my upbringing, I finally feel after more than a year living in the bustling hills of Kampala that Bujagali is not my home. I feel a deep familial connection with the mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers that took me in as my own, and relish each moment I get to spend with them since the move, but it is a far cry from the sense of belonging I once felt there.
This weekend I learned of changes in the dynamics of the community over the last few months that sparked my realization that I am no longer as connected to the place as I once found myself. This revelation was paired with an overwhelming devastation that sent me on a deeply contemplative inward journey.
With our obsession with development, with change, with the need to grow and strive for something beyond our current realities, how do we maintain our roots in the places we come to call home?
Distraught with the feeling that I had somehow lost the essence of who I am in Uganda, that I by leaving for new job opportunities in Kampala I forfeited my membership in the warm embrace of the most remarkable community I have ever known, I embarked on a walk through the paths and gardens of Bujagali to reconnect. I visited families I had gone the past two months without seeing, I sat with them, held the newest babies, comforted the newly sick, and ate all the food that was generously brought before me. We laughed endlessly, I fumbled with my limited Lusoga, and I smiled as the warmth of the sun and the warmth of those I spent my day with inundated me with a deeply welcoming feeling I feared lost.
I ended my village walk in the place that perhaps meant more to me than any other – the garden behind my old home, my former sanctuary for meditation and reflection, and the former home of my Spirit Tree.
As I meandered through the groves of banana trees and past fields of lush green crops that would feed more mouths than I could count, I found myself at the exact location of the fallen Tree. In its place, to my amazement, I found a fully grown and blossoming avocado tree.
When I had first written about the fall of the papaya tree, I reflected on how once fallen, that tree would allow for new growth and new life, and hoped that with the personal events in my life that corresponded with it, I would find new growth and a new life as well. Placing my hand upon the firm bark of this new avocado tree, I felt pulsating within her a reminder that everything that had happened to me in this place, everything I had learned and lost and loved and lived, it was all a part of me, and it makes me everything that I am today.
With destruction, with decay, comes new life.
This avocado tree, I thought, will provide food for all the families that I have loved for all these years, and the energy of my Spirit Tree lives on in her roots, her leaves, her fruit, in everything she creates for the world around it.
We cannot stop change from happening. People grow, places transform, this country continues to develop infrastructure and ideas and with that development will come new possibilities for generations to come. What we lose along the way can only remind us of what we gain as a result. While Bujagali is no longer my home, it is a part of me, and always will be, and the man into which I transformed while there is the man that so many in Kampala love today.
I finished my walk out of the village to make my way back to Kampala reminded of how blessed I am to have been a part of the experiences I have been a part of in this country, and how grateful I am that those experiences have only just begun. And that gratitude is the one thing that will never, ever change.