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Musa Okwonga is foreign where he lives. He is always foreign, always has been. His is an expat life.
Kitgum district, northern Uganda, December 1983. “I was the first person to put soil on his grave. I shovelled a bit on — I had these Velcro trainers — and I shovelled some on with my trainers. I buried my dad.” Okwonga was four years old. Until then, he had never seen his father’s village. He came as a foreigner.
His parents moved to England before he was born. “My father arrived in 1971, my mother in 1972, with nothing but a handbag.” They were medical students — Wilson and Phoebe, Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin.
He was born in west London in 1979, the year Amin was toppled. His parents had four children. He is the eldest son.
His father returned to Uganda in 1983, during a period of civil war. He was chief army surgeon and he died in a helicopter crash alongside General Oyite-Ojok. Officially, it was an accident. Unofficially, it wasn’t. The aircraft was hit by a missile, some people say. And some say that missile was fired by troops of the National Resistance Army commanded by Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda since 1986. At least, that is what the son of the late chief army surgeon says. But he has no proof.
Okwonga went back to Uganda in 2000. And not since. Two visits. “Even if I do not return, that is an important part of who I am.”
We meet in Macondo, a café in East Berlin. Okwonga, 36, has lived in the German city for a year-and-a-half. His manners are politely buttoned-up. He is a journalist, musician and author of two books about football. He is a poet, too, and he writes in the café, which is worn and warm. He has the air of someone who is far from home. Berlin is where “outsiders feel at home”, he says.
The art of the happy expat is to feel at home anywhere, I suspect. Failing that, he should look at home.
In the mid-1990s, Okwonga looked perfectly at home at Eton College. We were in the same year, friendly, but not friends. Among the other pupils were the heirs to the Swire and Goldsmith fortunes, an heir to the British monarchy and Prince Nirajan of Nepal. More than 1,250 boys and Okwonga was just one of two or three with black skin. He may not have felt at home, but he excelled — a scholar, prefect and football nut, bright, charismatic, cocky.
Cockiness comes with the clothes, he says. Etonians attend classes in tail suits, and dressed in “wedding clothes, you have to be confident”. Likewise, if you own a black face — “you have to look confident, even if you’re not, otherwise you’ll implode”.
At England’s most famous public school, Okwonga felt foreign: “I lived only a few miles away — probably closer than most boarders — but it mostly felt like another world.”
His family was poor compared with most Eton families. He was on a 50 per cent bursary. He lived with his mother and three siblings in West Drayton, an unlovely suburb on the edge of Greater London. Chalk swastikas on pub doors were part of that unloveliness, as were the racist murals on car park walls, the KKK stencils and the National Front foothold in nearby Northolt. At night, he used to vary his route back from the basketball court — “you knew something was in the air”.
Racism was also a feature of Eton during the 1990s. I never knew a member of staff to make a racist remark but among the boys it was casual and rife. Okwonga remembers one boy who was keen to share his family history. “I hate that guy so much,” the boy confided to a mate. “I wish I could tell him that my great-grandfather was a slave driver.” Wisely, he never told Okwonga. But someone else did.
Where did he think was home? “There wasn’t really anywhere. I didn’t feel like I was from Uganda. I didn’t feel really at home in West Drayton — I was keeping my head down. I didn’t feel at home in the environment I was in.” Yet Okwonga is warm about Eton; he was guarded but he thrived. “Weird as it may sound, that school was a sanctuary.”
It can’t have been a sanctuary for the boys who were secretly gay, however. To be homophobic was to be normal, when we were there. Okwonga joined in with the homophobic banter.
Needless to say, he is not proud of it. He has even made apologies. He is wiser now. After Eton, he studied law at St John’s College Oxford. Then law school. At law school he came out — and “everything basically fell apart”.
For the first time in his life, he failed exams. He was terrified. “I had almost no gay friends, and so I was stepping into a totally unknown world. This journey wasn’t made any easier by the fact that the first gay black man I met had just discovered that he had HIV.”
It was tough for his mother, too. “I’m the eldest,” he says. “I’m a man from Uganda and a conservative Christian home . . . Bisexuality was not discussed.” She worried if he would be OK.
Until Okwonga was 21, he had seen girls — he was not aware of his sexuality at school, he says. Then, for seven years, he identified as a gay man. “And then I started dating women again.” Today, he identifies as bisexual. He is back on terms with his mother.
Before Berlin, he had been based in London most of his life. But about two years ago, he grew sick of it. He had given up law; he was a writer, who travelled often. “Each time I returned home, I felt less and less attachment to the UK,” he says. Finally, he could not stomach “the anti-immigration stuff”, he was reading in the press. “They made us sound like an infestation.” So he moved here.
He lives alone. He has no partner. He is not part of the Berlin gay scene. And he never hides his sexuality. Indeed, he wants to be an example: he wants people to look at him and think “it’s fine to be who I am”.
His area — Friedrichshain, in the old East Berlin — is grubby and nice — graffiti and co-ops, patches of unmanicured beauty. Social and political activists meet in this part of town, which he likes.
Is it easy to be black in Berlin? It’s fine, he says, “if you’re a middle-class black guy”. Less good if you’re seeking asylum. Yet even an old Etonian is not immune to prejudice. In January, Okwonga wrote: “I am struck by how often — even on the most crowded of trains — white Berliners will leave a space next to me, somehow fearing the prospect of sitting next to a male of African appearance.”
Does he feel African? “As I get older I feel more Ugandan,” he says. Why has he not been back since 2001? “I feel very much part of the diaspora but I didn’t feel I fitted in there.”
Perhaps it isn’t easy to feel like you fit in to a country ruled by a septuagenarian who believes that science proves that people are not born homosexual, who signed the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014, and whose troops killed your father, or so you think.
In another life, Okwonga might have been a politician. Even in this life, it has occurred to him to try. Yet no more. “What do I represent?” he wonders. “I have no constituency. People might look at me with suspicion. ‘Is he posh? Is he one of us because he went there? Or is he black? Is he this, is he that, is he straight, is he gay?’ Eventually, I was like, ‘actually you don’t really represent anyone’.”
He is happy in Berlin. “It’s where people end up who didn’t feel like they fit in anywhere else.”
On that bright note, I leave the café, step into some unseasonal snow and return almost immediately because I forgot to pay the bill. I find Okwonga scowling at his phone. He thinks he has overexposed himself. It worries him because he has no “constituency” — no constituency to fall back on.
He is foreign. He is one of God’s eternal expats.
Alexander Gilmour is deputy editor of House & Home
How the cities compare
Buying in London
Move funds to the UK before you make your final move, when you’re likely to be considered a tax resident, writes Hugo Cox. The buying tax — stamp duty — is heavily loaded on more expensive homes, growing from £43,750 for a £1m home to £273,750 for one costing £3m. If you already own a home abroad, ready yourself for an additional 3 per cent second-home charge.
In the UK a binding commitment to buy and sell only arises when the formal exchange of contracts takes place. Exchange is traditionally marked by a 10 per cent deposit. If you pull out before the completion date, expect to lose your deposit and to be pursued for compensation if the seller has suffered further loss.
When you come to sell, estate agents’ fees — paid by the seller, whom the agent represents — average 1.3 per cent of the purchase price on the high street; for more expensive properties it is worth haggling. There is no notarial function in the UK; both buyer and seller rely on solicitors, who check the title deeds and collect and advise on other key information, including the results of any structural survey.
Buying in Berlin
Purchase taxes are the same for expats as locals, but vary between Germany’s 16 states; Berlin’s is 6 per cent of the sale price. Extra costs in the city soon mount up. Buyers pay the estate agents’ fees, even though agents represent sellers — 6 per cent of the sale price before tax. You will also have to pay for a notary — typically €6,000 on a €1m sale — who drafts the purchase contract, checks the ownership claim and draws up the new legal title, at which point the deal is binding. You’ll need a bilingual lawyer since agreements are in German. Budget another €3,000 for land registry fees.
Sell a property less than 10 years after buying it and, unless it’s your primary residence, you’ll be taxed on any capital gain at your income tax rate.
Photographs: Christina Theisen; Jenny Matthews/Alamy; Massimo Borchi/4Corners