Before my trip, I thought the country where I was born would be unknown, perhaps unheard of here in Uganda. But of course I was wrong. Almost without exception, whenever I say I’m Colombian the reaction I get is a cheeky smile followed by a “Do you have any cocaine?” or “Are you a drug lord?” or “Where is Pablo?”.
Now, if you are Colombian chances are that you have spent the last couple of decades explaining foreigners that, no, you don’t have any cocaine with you, that your family is not in the drug business, and that you are not Facebook friends with El Patron.
And if you are not Colombian but have met one in the past, and have thought that making a joke about drug trafficking would be a good idea to break the ice, chances are that you have gotten an icy reaction, an expression of disgust, perhaps a rude reply.
In general, Colombians don’t like the prominent role the country has had among cocaine exporters and find offensive any hint that they are related to a business that almost destroyed the country.
During my first years living in Europe I was mortified everytime someone made the joke about drugs and felt a mixture of anger, frustration and shame. I couldn’t reconcile that the same amazing people I was meeting could be insensitive, not only to my reality but to the one of a whole nation.
It has been many years since the last time those comments could get under my skin. Perhaps it is the effect of having heard them a thousand times. Perhaps it is the realization that people are not trying to make you feel bad but are just trying to connect with you somehow.
I was in a meeting in Kampala the other day when my nationality was mentioned again, followed by the usual humorous remarks about drugs. But unlike other times, a colleague pointed out that, just as Colombia had Pablo Escobar, Uganda had Idi Amin, the brutal dictator from the 1970’s, famously portraited by Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland”. Both countries – he added – have been at the mercy of twisted, powerful men, leaving a scar in the souls of their inhabitants. Nobody tried to challenge that observation, and I could see for a moment in the face of my Ugandan colleagues a glimpse of the very same expression I have had so many times in mine.
Is there a way of escaping from those ghosts that haunt Colombia and Uganda, of shaking off the unfair stereotypes? Probably not. The gore stories of Escobar’s narcos and Amin’s gangmen have transcended the local boundaries in which they were born, and now they belong to the universal conscience. They fascinate people from all over the world, who think they are part history and part myth. And for us, the children of those tales, there might be no other way of leaving that past than to keep looking forward.