After two years of teaching abroad in the UAE, Kristen Woodruff opted for a career in Africa, moving to Kampala, Uganda in 2015. She shares her adjustments and why she ultimately chose to bring her son along on her East African journey.
How did you end up moving to Uganda?
After working in the UAE for 2 years, I became more interested in learning more about African cultures. Since I was already on this side of the pond, I told myself that it would be amazing to have experience parts of the world other than the Middle East. Africa was on the top of my list.
At the time I was unaware of my specific African ancestry lineage. But I correctly assumed that my ancestors were from West Africa. So I desired to go to the western region of the continent for that purpose. I later found out that my paternal ancestry hails from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana. I’d also heard that those countries were a bit more advanced and had more business and professional opportunities for African Americans.
I’m also a lady who loves learning new languages. I’d learned a bit of Arabic during my time in the UAE. I also wanted to try my hand at French, a widely spoken language in various West African countries. So I used the database searchassociates.com. It’s a great resource for educators looking for well-established international and private institutions across the globe. However, my quest for finding teaching positions in countries such as Senegal, Mozambique, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea was unsuccessful; I wasn’t getting any responses. I really needed to figure out my next employment move as the school year was ending soon.
As an alternative, I started applying for positions in the States. Almost immediately, I received calls back from a few schools in the Las Vegas, Chicago and New York areas with one offering me a very lucrative position. However, my heart was not content with moving back to the States.
A couple of weeks later I was about to give up on the idea of living on the continent. Then I received a call from the International school I currently work at. They found my resume on that same database and expressed confidence that my credentials met their qualifications. Within two weeks of our initial interview, I was offered a position as a Year 2 teacher.
I didn’t receive the position with the level of excitement one would expect after receiving such news. The offer meant I would have to start all over again. It also meant potentially have to leave my son behind. This caused so much contemplation on whether or not my decision to live and work in Uganda was the best thing for me at this point in my life. In hindsight, although my experiences have been challenging at times and have tested me in multiple ways, I’m glad that I decided to give Uganda a try.
Now I teach Year 2 at an International British School which is comparable to first grade in the States. I have been teaching for almost seven years and I absolutely LOVE this age group.
Please describe your experience immigration wise, of moving to Uganda.
The immigration process wasn’t very difficult, especially since I’d dealt with residence visas and similar matters while living in the UAE. My school in Uganda covered the cost of the residence visa which cost around 500USD. They also cover my medical insurance. My son is not covered under my contract. So his visa and paperwork had to be completed on my own. Also, I didn’t have anything to ship and I made sure to pack as light as I could. This is mainly because I was still very hesitant about starting over in another country and leaving my son behind for an entire year.
What kind of professional and entrepreneurial opportunities have you noticed in Uganda, if any?
There are a lot of entrepreneurial opportunities in Uganda. Kampala is a developing city so there is still a need for more creativity, innovation, and new business ideas. Keep in mind that the amount of money you have is a crucial factor. You can start a business, buy land and even open a school if you have the money to do so.
From what I’ve seen, Ugandans wholeheartedly welcome westerners, especially African Americans, who may have new and innovative ideas to share. Ideally, it may be best to have a Ugandan business partner since dealing with the government side of the business hustle here can be daunting if you are not a local. If possible, I highly recommend anyone of African descent who plans to move to Uganda to invest in business opportunities. So many other nationalities, especially Caucasians and Asians, are starting businesses here and not investing their profits back into the overall infrastructure and community development efforts here.
How easy is it for a foreigner to start up a business?
I think it’s pretty simple to start as long as you’ve done the research and have the capital. It’s also important to have formed a genuine relationship with a local Ugandan who can help you navigate through any of the government politics.
You also lived and taught in the UAE for two years. How does your experience there compare to your new life in Uganda?
The experiences for me have been vastly different. In the UAE, I had greater access to the American lifestyle. I had a car, access to great malls, restaurants, tourist attractions and westernized social activities. So, living there didn’t give me much of a chance to adapt to a very different lifestyle aside from the fact that it is a very conservative, Muslim country. I learned a lot about modesty in regards to the way I wear my clothes. I also learned how to appreciate different cultural values. This is something that I never considered much before because in the U.S. I was primarily around African Americans, both at work and socially.
One thing I didn’t like was the way I was perceived as an African American. Most Emirates weren’t open and friendly unless they had a personal relationship with you. They also carried a certain level of arrogance and looked down upon African people in general. I was overlooked in shops or followed around. Some people judged me for having dreadlocks. I even had a racist taunt shouted at me once in a local restaurant. My son also was treated unfairly at the private American school he attended. An Egyptian teacher felt that it was okay to hit him.
Being a black woman in the UAE came with a lot of uncomfortable moments because of the people and their limited mentalities of other nationalities. Since I wouldn’t tolerate such behavior, I decided that it was best for me to leave the country and find employment and residency in a place that would accept my son and I for who we are.
The UAE lifestyle was very comfortable for me. Yet I still felt that peace, respect, and fairness were far more important. It especially mattered when it came down to raising my African American son who was also forming his own identity. So, I never found a completely satisfied balance in the UAE. However, I’m thankful for the friendships that were made there. I’m also appreciative of my church community there which helped me through the challenging times. Overall, the experience taught me a great deal about myself and opened my mind in many ways.
Now, in Uganda, I feel that life has shown me a new way of living free without being under the confines of materialistic restrictions. Racism definitely occurs here and especially from white expatriates. This surprised me at first. I discovered that many of them still have a very colonized mentality. Many of them become intimidated when they learn that I’m African American. Then they dislike me because they realize that I won’t allow such foolishness around me.
Ugandan life has taught me to appreciate access to natural resources, natural foods, beautiful weather, the laid back lifestyle, and diversity. In the UAE, I found myself mostly among Emirates, Americans and British expats. Here, there is more diversity which makes for a more interesting transition. Now I would be lying if I said that I don’t miss certain aspects of my American and UAE lifestyle. Still, this change was good for me. It has allowed me to see life and the world from an entirely new perspective.
What is everyday life like in Uganda for you?
Life in Uganda is very humbling for me. First of all, I never thought I’d live in the Pearl of Africa!
My average day consists of preparing for work. I don’t have a car here so I either walk or take a boda boda (motorcycle taxi). My school day is very hectic and demanding.
My son finds the school to be very engaging. He stays very busy and is getting more and more challenged by the workload. He also has access to various extracurricular programs offered at the school.
I am still not keen on his local school curriculum. This is because of course, it is influenced by the British National Curriculum. This curriculum has its own restrictions as to what is actually taught. It is especially limited in regards to African cultures and experiences.
After school, unless I have other activities, I cook and spend time with my son. I usually go to the local market at least once a week to replenish food and items for my apartment. On the weekends, if time allows, I engage in social activities or just have some much-needed downtime. Over my last couple of years overseas, my creative energy has really taken off so I tend to devote my free time to various endeavors that I find appealing.
How have you been welcomed as an African American?
Being African American in Uganda comes with several misunderstandings and judgments. However, once people develop a relationship with you, they are generally accepting.
I get the most flack from Ugandan women. Some assume that I fall into the category that is highly publicized in media regarding African Americans. Certain judgments are just automatically placed on me. For example, I am perceived as being conceited, ghetto or ignorant to African culture.
Additionally, people who don’t know me often put me in that Muzungu category. So I get charged more for things at the market or treated differently in certain places. Most of this treatment happens in the local areas of town. I am generally welcomed and treated warmly at expat frequented places and around my neighborhood. Another thing that is bothersome is that not only am I treated as a Muzungu; I am also called one.
This is disheartening. I thought I would be warmly welcomed because of my African descent. That is definitely not the case here. This leads me to believe that it may be a cultural thing for Ugandans who may or may not have had positive exposure to foreigners or African Americans in general. I think that for Ugandans who haven’t been exposed to different cultures, and especially the various complexions of the African Diaspora, there can initially be some apprehension towards Black foreigners.
During my visits to other East African countries, I didn’t deal with the name-calling and staring as much. I think this was because they assumed I was local. They just started speaking to me in the local language instead.
We are all human and I think if we can learn to understand each other and our apparent differences, we would all be able to move forward and start rebuilding our relationships and communities more productively.
Now, my experience with Ugandans hasn’t always been negative. In fact, I’ve developed some really good relationships with Ugandans who I know are genuine and of more open-minded perspectives. I do believe that Ugandans are very warm and welcoming once they, “figure you out” in a sense.
All I can do is be myself and take the opportunity to practice humility. I share my love, appreciation for life and interest in building relationships as an opportunity to extend beyond the cultural limitations that have unfortunately been a part of my Ugandan experience. I aim to move forward in the most positive light.
What is your social life like in Uganda?
Since my 9-year old son is living abroad with me this year, my social life has drastically downsized. Instead, I find activities to do with him on the weekends. Every now and then, I take some personal time to attend social activities with friends because I am a firm believer that you must get out and have some personal “mommy” space every now and then.
By the way, Kampala has an epic social scene. From the outdoor music fests, live concerts, delicious restaurants and city malls, there is something here for everyone. I really appreciate that most of the Ugandans I’ve met are very socially active and willing to indulge in different forms of entertainment.
There are different professional international groups based here such as Internations. This is an organization centered around uniting foreigners in particular countries for social and networking purposes. I have attended a couple of their outings. It’s been great to meet other expats who want to engage in various social activities during their time here. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to be very proactive here and make efforts to get out and communicate with others to build a network of like-minded individuals.
What do you love the most about living in Uganda?
I love the weather, cost of living, food, natural fruits and vegetables, culture, the freedom, optimistic perspectives, experiences and the overall lifestyle. It’s wonderful to be around Black people and having the peace of mind and ease of life that I never really had in America. I love being in close proximity to other beautiful African nations here for travel opportunities. Overall, I’m happy that I decided to move to Uganda. I have learned to adapt to my environment despite the challenges along the way.
What are the most challenging parts of living there?
The biggest challenge is being away from family. This is my fourth year living overseas. My level of homesickness has been raised to the nth power. Also, raising my son alone in a foreign country without much support or community has been extremely challenging.
What I also find very difficult is witnessing the passive behavior of some Ugandans. From what I’ve seen, there is still a very colonized mentality. This has somehow convinced Ugandans that Caucasians or Asians still have this infinite power. In reality, it’s in their own hands.
On the other hand, although I’m not from here, Ugandans obviously don’t regard me at the same level as other nationalities. I’m also usually charged a higher rate for things unless I have a personal relationship with the vendor.
Many people here also have extreme issues with staring. This is considered to be rude in America. If you’re not careful, it can cause some serious problems. However, in Uganda people stare with no shame. It especially happens once you venture out into the local areas. So be prepared for that!
Many people also question my African American identity. People assume that I’m “half-caste“ because of my lighter complexion. Trying to explain the plight of African Americans and the effects of slavery on our people is exhausting, but very necessary. The misunderstandings across the African Diaspora have to end in order for us to effectively progress to the next level of attainment both globally and in our own communities.
Can you share a few details on the cost of living in the community that you live in?
I live in an apartment provided by the school so I essentially don’t pay rent. On average, I pay around 10USD for water per month. Electricity is usually between 50-75USD per month. With the internet, I buy a portable wifi box. I highly recommend this because most places that advertise free wifi don’t have it or it’s usually not working properly so it’s best to have your own. The wifi service usually lasts me about 20 days out of the month and I pay around 60USD. It is absolutely worth every penny because I like to stay connected as much as I can, especially with my family in the States. For transportation, I generally take Uber, but sometimes, I call a private hire driver. Uber tends to cost between 2-10USD depending on where I’m going in the city.
Some parents have concerns about moving their children abroad. What advice could you offer them?
Wow! First off, moving my son to Uganda was not as difficult as leaving him behind. My decision to bring him was related to the idea that I wanted to expose him to more opportunities, a different culture and a new way of life. Besides that, I missed him like crazy!
What’s happening to our African American boys and men in the States makes me totally disgusted. It’s discouraging to consider this type of environment for my son as he gets older. However, I may need to return sooner than later so he can continue to develop a relationship with his father and the rest of my family.
On the other hand, leaving him behind to move here was more mentally and emotionally challenging mentally than I anticipated. The reality of moving this far away from him really set in after we were apart for a few months. I wasn’t in the proper head space to function at my optimal best. At a certain point, I even reached a state of depression.
I initially decided to leave my son in the States to encourage a stronger relationship with his father after he was away for two years while we lived in the UAE. Christion also expressed that he didn’t want to come with me to Uganda. He was ready to return home. I respected his decision and didn’t want to force the matter of him moving to Africa. In hindsight, I realized that at this age it was best for him to stay in a consistent home environment until he becomes more independent. So together, his father and I decided it was best for him to relocate with me for the remainder of my contract in Uganda.
I completely understand feeling undecided about moving abroad with your children. I won’t even begin by saying, “you should go for it”!
Be sure to research, research, research your desired location. If you can, visit before you decide to move. Connect with other locals and expats who have lived there. Ask them to be as candid as possible about their experiences. Moving overseas is not for the faint of heart and takes a lot of patience, mental preparation, and sacrifice. Moving to another country, especially as a single parent, takes faith, determination and strength like no other.
Initially moving to Uganda without my son was extremely difficult. However, being here before for an entire year prior to his arrival prepared me in innumerable ways. I had greater insight into the school system. I also gained knowledge about important resources such as recommended pediatricians, good restaurants, and extracurricular around the community. Moving here with him without having these nuggets of information wouldn’t have been unmanageable. Yet, it really helped to have these insights in advance.
What is your best advice for someone who wants to move to Uganda?
My best advice would be to come with a humble spirit and open mind. There will be electricity outages, price fluctuations and varying degrees of information among other challenges. Also be ready to live in a developing country that is still growing. Prepare yourself for cultural differences and a different lifestyle, especially if you are coming from the U.S. Be ready to learn, grow and experience life in one of the most beautiful and ever changing countries in the world.
What has living in Uganda taught you?
Uganda has taught me patience, self-discovery, tolerance, appreciation, gratefulness, and humility. I have learned that life can be great without the frills, materialistic matters or fancy cars. I have also learned how to appreciate time, money and family relationships. This experience has challenged me to be bold, courageous, and more knowledgeable of African cultures. I have learned the value of purpose and how to apply it daily to my life.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you are considering a move to Uganda, I would highly recommend visiting first. Let your spirit guide you and your experiences act as a remarkable teacher. Allow wisdom and knowledge to lead you. You can be an inspiration to someone else, no matter what path you decide to take. Traveling has changed my life for the better. I have been forced out of the comforts of what I thought was acceptable. It’s led me to embrace everything that life has to offer. I’m so thankful that I took this bold step of faith. It has opened so many doors and improved the way I view my position in this world!
Where can we follow your experience?