Stories from Tororo

Sirah’s mother

I’m starting to believe—or maybe I’ve believed for a while—that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

A few weeks ago, ISC received a professional inquiry. The gentleman was writing from Africa—from Uganda, to be exact—where he was hoping to build a storytelling center. At ISC, we receive inquiries of many kinds, but this particular email caught my attention. Before I was born, my parents had lived in Uganda. Upon closer examination I realized my correspondent was writing from Tororo, my mother’s hometown—a tiny place that with a population roughly half the size of Johnson City’s. Sometimes the world feels very small.

Tororo sits on the Ugandan/Kenyan border. My mother’s people originally came to Tororo as Indian migrants who helped build the East Africa Railway. My mother was born in Mombasa, Kenya, where the railroad began, but she grew up in Tororo, which was one of the main stops for the railroad. My parents were married in Tororo. My brother was born in Tororo! So this place holds a lot of resonance for me personally, and for my family as well. When my brother was very small, and before I was born, my parents fled their home in Uganda as part of the genocidal purge of thousands of Ugandan Asians by dictator Idi Amin. On the 40th anniversary of that forced expulsion, in 2012, I visited Tororo for the first time with my dad and my brother. My mother had long since passed away, and we have no living relatives in Uganda anymore—and don’t know anyone who lives there now, for that matter. We were there just to pay homage to my mom.

This visit was my brother’s first time seeing the place of his birth; at six months old, he was a tiny refugee when my parents were forced to flee. During our visit, we stopped by the maternity hospital where he had been born. Just by chance, a nurse and doctor who worked there came out to talk with us. The nurse pointed at a room said to my brother, “You were born here.” He nodded. Yes, of course, we knew. “No,” she said. “You were born HERE.” She pointed to two maternity beds. “You were either born on this bed or that bed, since there have only ever been two.” My brother started to cry.

Sirah’s brother (left) and father when they found his mother’s childhood home in Uganda. Sirah’s brother spent his infancy there.

It was one of many emotional moments during that trip. We visited the home my mother grew up in. We visited her elementary school, Rock View Elementary, which in my mother’s day was just a hut but is now a cinderblock building. I remember many, many stories my mother told me about her time there, so it was a bit surreal to see it in person. While we were there, the kids—the students—started looking out the windows, and because of the excitement of visitors, they began pouring out of the doors of the school. In no time, it seemed like thousands of kids were surrounding us, bringing us into their moment of joy. We took pictures, and we met the head teacher. It was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience for us and for the kids, They were the same age my mother would have been when she went to school there.

Sirah with the students of Rock View School, in Uganda. They’re standing outside the original hut where Sirah’s mother went to school.

In Uganda, I made it a project to collect family stories from my father. Even though I wasn’t born in Tororo, it was poignant to consider that it’s where I would’ve been born had my parents not been forced to leave. One of the highlights of the trip was when an elderly Ugandan man came up to my family, looked us in the eye, and without asking any questions—without knowing us at all—said, “Welcome home.”

At ISC, we work formally and informally with different organizations all the time. (Most people can incorporate storytelling into their work, in one way or another.) It’s often a two-way exchange, because even as I offer ideas, I receive some in return. For example, one of ISC’s big upcoming initiatives was inspired by a conversation I had with a federal officer in Washington, D.C. I’m still corresponding with my new friend in Tororo about his idea for a storytelling center. Uganda isn’t my home, but it could’ve been. This month would have been my mother’s birthday. I was born and raised in England, spent most of my early adulthood in Scotland, and now live in Tennessee. But I think I know why the old man welcomed me home. As I said, there’s no such thing as coincidence.

I recently “met” with the folks from the storytelling project in Uganda via conference video, which was attended by many people working on the project, including elders in the community. My new colleague asked if I’d share the story of my family connections to Tororo so the elders could hear it for themselves. Before the meeting ended, one of the elders in the group told me, “Remember, Uganda will always be your home.”