Bridget Ugwe: “Moving from Paris to Congo was like lifting a weight off my chest”

“From my childhood to my early thirties, If you’d ask what I was, I’d say I’m French.”

For Bridget Ugwe, the daughter of Nigerian parents and one of five children, she grew up identifying heavily with French culture even more so than her Nigerian heritage. “Growing up we still had Nigerian culture but we all spoke French so I was fully immersed in French culture.”

Born and raised in Montigny-le-Bretonneux, in north-central France, Bridget’s experience as a young Black girl in a particularly white neighbourhood left her submerged in a society that didn’t really reflect or celebrate her.

“I lived in a very white suburb and I grew up very fast. I had hips, big lips, and a big nose and kinky hair and I couldn’t really identify with anyone,” says Bridget. “It was difficult because I was so different and people would make me feel like I was.”

At the age of 16, Bridget and her family moved to the 12th arrondissement in Paris. While the move allowed her to be situated in a more diverse community, the anti-blackness which was already fostered continued to impact a young Bridget.

“I’d get asked “why are your lips so big?” and it made me develop insecurities in high school because it’s the age you start to have crushes and I had crushes but nobody was crushing on me,” she says.

“I started to try to fit in and be as skinny as possible and I’d go from not eating to over-exercising. At the time, I thought it was normal to try and be skinny, to have my hair as straight as possible to blend in — to me it was my taste.”

During this time, there were a number of microaggressions that Bridget experienced. While attending high school, a counsellor told her she should be a secretary instead of pursuing a career in journalism, because “it would be better to just learn to be a secretary so you can work fast and help your mother.”

Even as she overcame this adversity and decided to pursue a career in journalism, her experience working within French media was still plagued with discrimination.

CHANGE: Bridget overcame many challenges whilst growing up in France

All of these experiences became a norm for Bridget and is something that many Black women experience when navigating through predominately white spaces. But a trip to Nigeria in 2012 changed Bridget’s view of her own identity and sent her on a path to a level of growth that she never expected.

“In 2012 I went to Nigeria for the first time with my father and my sister and it was at the same time I started working as a journalist in a media house in Paris” she recalls.

“When I went there for the first time, I realised the reality on the ground is so different from the stories I was sharing with the people. There was a shift at that moment when I really began to identify as a Nigerian.”

This experience was a real awakening for Bridget, and she came back to France with a different outlook and awareness to the things around her.

“I totally changed and it even led me to resign from my job two years later because there was a disconnect between the stories I was sharing with people about Nigeria and Africa as a whole.”

After resigning, Bridget stayed in Paris for a year and started the website Nigerian Insights, in a bid to share uplifting Nigerian stories about entrepreneurship, politics, and culture. “I did this for a year and I was living on my savings. After a year, my savings were drained and at some point, my father was paying my rent so I couldn’t continue like that,” says Bridget.

As the journalist found herself at a crossroads, she turned to prayer to figure out where to go next. “One day I just woke up and I felt like I needed to leave France because it’s not where I was supposed to be. So I started praying and I said to God “I want to leave”.

SETTLED: Bridget now lives in Congo and works for Africa News

“After praying, I felt very empowered so I started browsing job offers but I couldn’t find anything — I cried myself to sleep that night. Then I woke up to a phone call from a former colleague and she moved to Congo to work for the channel I’m working for now [Africa News], and she asked me if I was interested in working there. I sent her my resume and the next day I got a Skype interview and it went well and I moved to Congo one month after that.”

This move to Congo provided the fresh start that Bridget needed for both her career and wellbeing. “When I moved to Congo from Paris it was like a weight had been lifted off my chest but I didn’t realise there was a weight to begin with. I felt so light and I embraced who I am.”

This sense of freedom is one of the things she loves most about Congo, alongside its sunshine and access to nature — but the move also came with its difficulties.

“The first year I moved I wanted to go back to France. I realised that I had my preconceived ideas about African people and I was trying to come with my knowledge of what I’ve learned in the West and change the people I was working with and it was not a smooth transition,” she admits.

“I had to be more humble and accept that because I learned something in France doesn’t mean that it’s the only way or the right way to do things.”

Bridget acknowledged that she had to shed some of the teachings she had picked up in France to fully immersive herself in a new way of living — something she has now done three years on since the big move.  

“In the beginning, I had to come back to Paris to breathe because I was just going crazy. Now every time I go back to Paris I don’t feel at home anymore. I want to come back to Congo after a few days or weeks.”

“This is the first year I can really say that I’m happy and I’m settled.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter: @bridget_uzezi

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