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Uganda is a beautiful country with beautiful people and incredible stories. But Justina Li realized that’s not the whole picture.

Justina Li

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.

'So? How was it? You looked like you had so much fun!"

Photo after photo revealed a happy me – dancing or travelling or making friends in a country most people have never seen. And it looked really cool. It looked like fun. It looked like I loved my life in Uganda, where I spent six months for an internship in microfinance.

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But the reality was that, much of the time, it wasn't true.

I never showed you the loneliness.

I took a million selfies with friends, yet I ached for a companion. I lived alone. I found my way around the city alone. I ate lunch in the office alone. I went to church alone. I took late-night boda (motorcycle-taxi) rides alone.

I also travelled to Rwanda alone. I posted photos of the amazing landscape and the beautiful children and artists I met. But I never showed you how I found it to be one of the most emotionally challenging things I had to do. The fear of being held at the border, the fear of getting lost, the fear of being on the wrong bus – those were all real and scary, but none of them were greater than the emptiness of never being able to share the experience with someone.

Yes, I found lots of friends in Uganda, but few that made me feel loved and understood. Most expat friends were from different cultures, often had exclusive friend groups and left by the end of the summer while I stayed on. Saying goodbye to the ones that I really connected with was painful, and the loneliness that followed caused me to drift away from the expat community to the local community, but I never felt like I belonged.

I never showed you the discrimination.

I ached to belong. I stuck out like a sore thumb in the local community. From my pictures, I posed like the "African lady" my co-workers called me, with the African hair and the shoes and the clothes, but never had I ever wished more to be a different colour.

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Not only was I called foreigner every day, but I was frequently approached (by men) for my perceived wealth, whether that meant "do business with me!" or "marry me!" or "give me your money!"

Some people only befriended me for the cash or status benefits. Not getting what they wanted, they ghosted, leaving me confused and hurt about what friendship really meant to them. But I couldn't show you that.

I was aware that robbery could happen anywhere to anyone, but it was the worst feeling to be a highly sought-after target because of how I looked. Regardless of how careful I was, I still ended up being dragged to the ground and across the sidewalk as a thief tried to take my purse. I eventually learned to brush off the fear and pain of being chucked forward by the straps when boda drivers attempted to swipe my bag as they passed by. But I couldn't show you that.

I never showed you the exploitation.

I went to a new country, believing that the majority of people in the world were trustworthy, with good intentions. I left, defeated, carrying new "street-smart" skills I had to learn to prevent myself from being exploited.

I was cheated nearly everywhere in the city due to my lack of knowledge about market prices. Boda drivers overcharged me, fruit-market ladies cheated me and the property manager conned me. But that was just money.

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I posted beautiful pictures of my trip to the islands, with an incredible jungle trek and a beautiful sunset. But I didn't show you how my friend and I were left stranded on a ferry port after the bus took our money and left. I didn't show you the tears I shed while trying to negotiate with a boda driver to take us to the city. I didn't show you the pain of the motorcycle digging into my lower back as we tried to fit three people and two luggage bags on an hour-long ride along a dusty, dry road.

Facebook is a fraud.

No wait, scratch that. I am a fraud.

Uganda is a beautiful country with beautiful people with incredible stories who gave me so many opportunities as a dancer and international worker. You'll find all of that in my photos.

But that's not the whole picture. It's all too easy for me to post the highlights, to watch the "likes" pop up one after another in my notifications, and to read comments like "Girl, I'm jealous!"

Being real is so much harder and scary, but necessary. That's why I was compelled to write this. Don't ever think that my life, or that of anyone else, is perfect. It's never as perfect as the pictures.

In my last smiling photo of the album, I wrote, "Thank you, Uganda, for showing me the beauty of your country," but I should have added this:

"And thank you, for the fear, the loneliness and the hurt, because it taught me to be braver, stronger and wiser."

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