By Sheila Lukwanzi
How challenging it is for me each time I have to narrate my life in Paris. What should I say? What shouldn’t I say? Do I describe the starry glow of the Eiffel Tower at midnight, the long queue at the Louvre to see the painting of Mona Lisa, the magical feel at Disneyland Paris, the onion soup at the Christmas market on the Champs Élysées, the stylish crowds during fashion week, the endless bank holidays in May, the fashion exhibitions, the warm summer strolls at night along the Seine, the designer stores on Avenue Montaigne or the taste of cheese on a hot baguette?
On September 19, 2012, I moved to France at the age of 19 to pursue my fashion studies. Having come from Uganda, a third-world country, almost everything was new to me. I had no relatives or family friends in Paris. I had a cousin who was living in Tours, another French city, but we rarely met up because it was quite far from Paris.
Like Ernest Hemingway said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Studying fashion in one of the fashion capitals seems like a fairytale, right?
Well, I thought so too, until I realized that it’s not what we see in the movies. Reality woke me up.
Since I had to go about everything on my own, from understanding the metro map to learning how to choose the perfect boots for winter after a few slides and falls, I grew up quickly.
Everything seemed odd: Why aren’t there any black students in my class? What’s the fuss about taking a baguette home every day? Why do I smell cigarettes on the streets ALL THE TIME? There’s a whole store of perfumes where I get to test whichever I like? Are you kidding me? McDonald’s — Of course I want to try, but how do I say, “I don’t speak French” in French? Ah, what a life.
“Studying fashion in one of the fashion capitals seems like a fairytale, right?”
For me, living in Paris meant hard work and sleepless nights. Did I mention needle pricks (from all of the sewing I was doing in my classes)? Well, that too! I missed home a lot, but I prayed often, and my father kept me going with lots of encouragement from home. He knew I needed that international exposure even before I could realize it.
Having a job after my first year — I was working as a part-time nanny teaching two boys English — helped. I could then foot some of my bills and treat myself on the weekends, but before that, I often got stressed depending entirely on my parents.
Handling my finances, especially in my first year, was a big challenge. I wasn’t used to the euro. To me, everything was “expensive.” I always estimated the price of an item in Ugandan shillings and thought to myself, There is no way I’m buying this. But I later got used to the system.
Living in France taught me not only about the fashion industry, this experience taught me numerous things about life. I got a clear view of life in both Uganda and France, and of expectations in these two very different “worlds” — learning how to respect others' cultures, values and live peacefully as one. It built my confidence and esteem, and I discovered values I didn't know I had. Having gone there at the last stages of my teen years, the system groomed me and I matured as a European.
I appreciate the fact that I never had any problems with racism or discrimination. Most of the Parisians I met were friendly and helpful. They made my stay there worthwhile. Many people found it hard to pronounce my last name, Lukwanzi, but hey, that made me feel unique.
“I believe if you succeed at home first, the rest of the world will welcome you with open arms.”
So far, I consider living in Paris the prime of my life. I used that opportunity to visit some wonderful European capitals, where I learned about these cities’ arts and origins.
Struggles aside, I enjoyed life in Paris and successfully fulfilled my purpose of being there, eventually graduating with a degree in fashion.
Then, I decided that I was ready to go back home to Uganda.
Believe me, it wasn’t an easy move to make. It’s tough out there, especially for a Muslim black lady trying to make it in an industry like fashion, but I had gotten used to the “Parisian life.”
Still, I have always believed that home is welcoming, and indeed it is — a place you feel most comfortable and loved. I believe if you succeed at home first, the rest of the world will welcome you with open arms.
This is the time for Africa, and the power is in the hands of the youth. What a great opportunity! Currently working as a trend analyst and stylist, and building my career as a fashion designer, I plan on raising the status of the fashion industry — first in Uganda, then in East Africa and later other parts of the world.
If you have had the chance to receive a first-class education in your field of interest, then return home to share it, you will make a big difference. I want to be part of great change. Sometimes I really miss Europe, but home needs me.
To all those students who have returned home to build their careers, thank you for making this decision. You are different, so embrace it. Apply all your skills and serve diligently, give hope and inspire others. With hard work, prayer and patience, let's meet both at home and abroad on our journey to success.
Sheila Lukwanzi returned to Kampala, Uganda, in 2015. She currently works as creative director for LUKWANZI, a fashion brand launched in May 2016, and is also the head designer for Haute Uganda Limited, manufacturers of industrial garments, and corporate and school uniforms.
A version of Sheila’s story originally appeared on Imported From Africa, a site that documents experiences of Africans living around the globe.