Point of view | 'Those who journey see': Becoming a Canadian citizen is a transformation with gains and losses

This week, Iryn Tushabe traded in her permanent resident card for a citizenship certificate in Regina. Originally from Uganda, she says in her 12 years in Canada she has learned the process of immigration is one of holding onto some aspects of her homeland dearly and letting others go.
Iryn Tushabe's family joined her (top right) at her Canadian citizenship ceremony in Regina this week. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In December 2007, I walked out of the Regina airport for the first time. I took a deep breath — the coldest I'd ever taken — and the air I exhaled formed a patch of white against my black scarf. Magic! My own breath made visible, given weight. I said to myself, "Always remember this moment."

Immigrating to Canada from Uganda — and finalizing the process of becoming a citizen this week, which took nearly 12 years — has been a journey of gains and losses.

It took Tushabe nearly a dozen years to become a Canadian citizen. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)
I became a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction during a brief period in 2015 after my work permit expired, effectively terminating my employment as a newspaper journalist. I'd submitted my application for permanent residency months before, but these things take as long as they take. Suddenly, I had more free time on my hands than I knew what to do with, and it made me infinitely anxious. 

Because of my in-between non-status, I'd been thinking a lot about the idea of home, about belonging. I'd been feeling generally uprooted for a while, a sense of displacement. It's hard to articulate the root of this feeling. I felt welcomed by the University of Regina, where I studied film, and then journalism. I had no difficulty finding work afterwards. Yet I walked around feeling ever so invisible. There was always that nagging sensation that I was at a wonderful party, laughter and conversations all around, but no one wanted to hear what I had to say.

An old proverb my father is fond of is abagyenda bareeba or "those who journey see." In other words, travelling, wherever that may lead you, will open your eyes to the unfamiliar. It exposes you to experiences that will transform you, whether you like it or not.

As soon as I began writing I realized that I'd lost a fair bit of my language, Rukiga, a dialect spoken in Western Uganda. Growing up, I was ashamed of it. Rukiga is a bodily tongue: long vowels that slow time, the words breathlessly colliding, forming seamless liaisons; there's no telling where one sound ends and another one begins. There's music in it certainly but not everyone hears it. 

I didn't always hear it — not when I was young. In Uganda, we're a minority tribe often considered inelegant and vapid. They say that we swear a lot, which is true, and that our laughter is much too boisterous (also true). But these qualities are deeply embedded in a way of life that has sustained my people, the Bakiga, through generations of upheaval.

Tushabe's children, Jordan (left) and Precious, celebrate Canada Day in 2018 in Regina's Wascana Park. (Robin Schlaht)

But now even my dreams were in English. I tried to remember the Rukiga word for dreaming and grasped only at air. The desperation nearly drove me to the brink. To forget one's language also means, in some way, forgetting a part of one's history.

So I turned to creative writing as a way of salvaging what had been lost. Writing has guided me to a deep appreciation of my mother tongue, and to my family back home. I'm always writing out of immense love for them.

Along the way, I've also learned to let go of many things I once held dear. At some point I became disillusioned with the Christian god in whom I'd been raised to have absolute faith. My sister, when I told her, said, "Why? What's happened?" I didn't know. I couldn't point to one particular moment that had turned me away from god. I told my sister that I wanted instead to hold to the mysterious interconnectedness of humanity. "That's not a religion," she said. I told her I was OK with it not being one.

Tushabe says she has considered Regina her home for a long time now. She is originally from Uganda. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

This week, I traded in my permanent resident card for a citizenship certificate. Gratitude overwhelmed me and again I told myself, "This moment: remember it."

Regina is where I became a mother and a wife and a writer. It's home. It's been so for a while now.

Yet always the characters who live in my stories are Ugandans: people who look like me and talk like me. So I must contend, even as I become a Canadian citizen, with the fact of my writing always belonging in the margins of the margins. 

Most days it's hard not to wonder if these stories even matter. With whom do they land here, anywhere, really?

But this is Canada, I reassure myself. A multicultural universe whose very name, Kanata, is derived from a Huron-Iroquois word for "village."

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion. There was a transgender dancer to my right, and to my left, the CEO of a non-profit organization that enables people with disabilities to make art. I stared across the room at arts officers from funding organizations across the country. They were listening attentively to us discussing the ways in which they could be more equitable and inclusive in their programs. It was an invigorating conversation, which acknowledged that all our voices matter.

This village — this Canada — is one I'm incredibly proud to belong to.

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Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan Canadian writer and journalist. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Adda and Prairies North. Her short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize 30: The Best of Canada's New Writers and in the Carter V Cooper short fiction series. She’s completing her debut novel set in contemporary rural and urban Uganda.