Personal history | UK to Germany

A healing journey

The author Musa Okwonga hasn’t looked back on his decision to leave his home country Great Britain. On a life between Eton College, day-to-day life in Berlin and memories of Uganda
Musa Okwonga leans against a railing, he smiles into the camera. In the background you can see the bridge Oberbaumbrücke in Berlin.

Musa Okwonga in front of the Oberbaumbrücke in Berlin

I was born in the UK in the late seventies. My Ugandan parents fled to England from Idi Amin's regime. They were medical students and had five children. In the early 1980s, my dad returned to Uganda to work as a military surgeon for a resistance armed group battling the insurgency of  Yoweri Museveni, who has been president since 1986. My dad was killed in a helicopter crash when he was 40 - when I was just four.

I grew up with my mum and siblings in a town called West Drayton in outer London. I went to local schools and then private ones - reflecting my mum’s view that education was key to everything. I spent five years at Eton College, the private school that was attended by Boris Johnson, David Cameron and other politicians who have been terrible for the country. It was stratified and elitist and when I was there, only four of 1250 students were black. The racism wasn’t severe, but I was frozen out of some social situations and there was lots of ignorance: one friend’s Dad assumed I was a Ugandan spy.

I went on to study law at Oxford University and trained as a solicitor, before spending years as a poet, author, sportswriter, broadcaster, musician and commentator on current affairs. I wrote about anything I was passionate about, spanning: culture, politics, football, tech and race.

“In the UK you're never really English if you’re black - You’re labelled as black British - even if you play for the England football team!”

For the 2014 World Cup, the BBC sent me to Brazil to make a documentary. On the flight, I had one of those chance encounters that changes your life, becoming good friends with a couple of Brazilian architects. During our long conversations, they asked why I was still in the UK given my international outlook and suggested I move to Berlin.

At that time I was considering moving abroad. During my stay in Brazil, I read the British press every day, and was overwhelmed by the hatred of migrants. It underscored what I already knew: In the UK you're never really English if you’re black - You’re labelled as black British - even if you play for the England football team! I remember telling my mum, a doctor, that I can’t live my entire life in a country that despises migrants. “You did so much for this country, but they still hate us,” I said.

For me, moving to Berlin was incredible. It distanced me from UK politics and meant I could focus on my writing. Berlin is full of artistic spaces, music studios, poetry nights. It’s a city of wide streets, even lakes and forests. As an artist, physical space gives you mental space. I became more focused and prolific. 

“As my father died when he was 40, I simply couldn’t imagine living beyond that age”

In 2015, I published a collection of poetry, then wrote four books in close succession in Berlin: An autofiction novel, In the End it is all About Love; One of Them: An Eton College Memoir, and two children's novels. I’ve also made music, recording with BBXO in a Hamburg studio. Our spoken word and bass music did really well with just minimal advertising. I also co-present the weekly Stadio football podcast.

But like I wrote in In the End it is all About Love, Berlin is a city of extremes: “sooner or later Berlin will punch you in the stomach”. Here you have progressive rallies as well as far-right extremism to an extent that I hadn’t ever experienced. There’s a Nazi bar not far from where I live. I had to adjust emotionally to acknowledge that this element was resident of the same city, the same country, as me. At first, I was shocked to see the German Empire flag flying on rallies, in allotment gardens. I’ve gradually gained resilience and strength to deal with the racism, partly because of the strong and inspiring network around me.

At the End of the Day, It’s All About Love was very autobiographical. I wrote it a few years before I turned 40 because I was in the throes of a crisis, not a midlife one, but more like an end of life crisis. As my father died when he was 40, I simply couldn’t imagine living beyond that age. I had only been back to Uganda once since going to my Dad’s funeral as a young child. But in 2018, my Mum suggested I should to go to Dad's village to visit ancestral lands and family members. To be honest, I didn't want to go, but in the end I was so grateful I did. 

The trip was healing for me - when you run from something, it starts to seem bigger than it is. It was very traumatic to lose my dad and I lost him before I really knew him. There are pictures of us together but my first memory of my father was of him in a coffin. The whole experience made me grow up fast. As a child, my family used joke that I was an old man. But, the reality is, if you are the eldest son, you aren’t allowed to fall apart. 

In some ways, writing In the end it's all about love was like the beginning of the rest of my life.