Matthew Bolton, from Independence, holds dual U.S. and British citizenship. He is a Ph.D. researcher in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kampala, Uganda – As a child growing up in England, I was never that interested in the Thanksgiving holiday, as obviously none of my friends celebrated it. My mother, a native of Independence, would prepare us a nice meal and explain the purpose of Thanksgiving, but I never gave it much thought.
However, living in the U.S. as an adult, the celebration has grown on me, and I appreciate the idea of a holiday set aside to be thankful, enjoy good food and reconnect with family.
So while I do not really remember when Thanksgiving is – my wife had to remind me this week – it makes me sad to think of missing the big meal, card games and laughter with countless relatives crowded around a dining room table. This has contributed to a growing sense of homesickness I have felt over the last week or so.
I’ve always considered “homesickness” a strange word, because it evokes dramatic images. When I hear the word I imagine the poor sufferer covered in spots or sweating out a high fever.
But homesickness is something more subtle, a sense of unease, malaise, a gnawing feeling in your stomach when you think of someone you miss. For me, it is rooted in missing the familiar and known. Missing a place where I don’t have to explain myself, where situations make sense, where you know what to do if something happens, where you know what to say and what not to say.
Part of the difficulty of the itinerant modern life is that we live in a permanent homesickness. For me, I no longer really know where home is, having moved around so much. But even those who stay put are faced with a world that is changing so rapidly that they may no longer recognize their homes, filled with new gadgets, or their towns’ rapidly changing landscapes.
Living here in Uganda, my homesickness is layered with guilt about my lack of ability to affect the situations of poverty and conflict around me, and a sense of chosen isolation from local culture and society.
Occasionally I catch myself beginning to resent local people because of the pain and inner turmoil I feel when confronted with the reality that someone’s life chances and opportunities are so radically different than my own. Then I end up with another layer of guilt for being so petty and self-centered.
The festival of Thanksgiving was first celebrated by those who had also travelled many miles from their homeland. I wonder whether the Thanksgiving feast was an attempt to create a sense of belonging in a foreign land and take note of the things that were worth being thankful for. I feel I can empathize with that sense of displacement and trying to put down roots in a new place.
But Thanksgiving is also deeply rooted in the colonial experience. We need to recognize that many of the original inhabitants of the Americas had little to be thankful about the newcomers’ presence. While there were more honorable settlers like William Penn, for many native Americans, the European conquest of the Americas was an unmitigated disaster.
It is recognition of a related colonial history here in Uganda that sometimes exacerbates my homesickness. I feel conflicted with my role in the ongoing dynamic of relationships between the West and Africa. I sometimes realize that by sticking close to expatriate circles, living in a walled off compound and remaining in complete ignorance of the local language, there are uncomfortable parallels with my colonial ancestors who subjected and oppressed this region of the world. I know that my wealth, power, education and health – all due to an accident of birth – are often resented.
Recognizing this reality, I am sometimes unsettled by people’s graciousness to me here. Why are they so welcoming? Why don’t they resent me when they have every right to do so?
I suppose that is at the root of what is good about Thanksgiving – the acknowledgement of grace, undeserved blessing that confuses us, takes us by surprise. A recognition, for instance, that there were Native Americans who took pity on the new settlers and were moved to help them, even if colonists sometimes repaid the welcome with systematic destruction of indigenous societies.
Perhaps the celebration of Thanksgiving is made that much richer by an awareness of this ambiguity. Recognizing that it is rooted in an “original sin” of imperial conquest of the American continent, it can nonetheless be a celebration of undeserved grace. It also challenges us to act with such grace to the latest newcomers, to give them something to be thankful about as they build a new life and struggle to overcome homesickness in their adopted homeland.