A John Wanda Commentary
Let me begin this essay with a simple admission. I am (or was), a Nkuba Nkeyo, that proverbial menial worker cleaning foreign streets after leaving Uganda. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit because I have never manually cleaned streets. Few people do this in the Western world. Streets are cleaned every night by powerful motorized vehicles. They are fitted with enormous sucking machines that extract dirt and scraps from sidewalks and under cars, and they spray powerful water busts to clean up any lingering dirt. Within a few minutes, blocks of streets will be meticulously clean. What would take 100 Uganda cleaners a full day to do the job takes one man on a US street literally a few minutes. If all we did was clean streets, we would be woefully unemployed.
Nevertheless, those of us who live abroad have embraced the concept of Nkuba Nkyeyo. It is a demeaning, abusive term that more defines the ignorance of the sayer than the intended recipient. It is a term that Ugandans gleefully use to define us, but also that reflects their disdain for dirt. For all of Uganda’s poverty and sad situation, Ugandans like to look tall, smart, clean, educated, wealthy. They despise those who do dirty work. Ugandans like good things, the output of dirty work, but they would rather not be seen dirtying their hand to produce the goods they consume.
And so, it came as no surprise to me that two recent stories in the New Vision about the plight of the Nkuba Kyeyo’s seemed slanted against them. The first story was about a young woman, Anita Namisango. Anita graduated from Makerere, could not find a job, and eventually found her way to the UK where she did manual jobs in warehouses and factories to make ends meet. She worked two jobs a day, totaling more than 16 hours. She worked hard enough and smart enough that she saved enough money to send home so her relatives could build her a house, buy plots of land, and start her own business. Or so she thought. After four years of grueling work, she returned home only to find that no house or land or business existed. She had been conned by her relatives. Instead, when she went to the purported house in Kampala whose pictures she had seen, she was arrested for trespass and put in jail.
The second story was of a soldier serving in the African Mission army in Somalia. He used his earnings to send home to a girlfriend who had started a business. When his service ended and he returned home, he found no business. Instead he was openly derided and rejected by his girlfriend, who by now had a new boyfriend. In a fit of anger, the poor man took his gun and shot them both. The man was arrested sentenced to 35 years in jail.
Note that in both instances, it is the poor Nkuba Nkeyo who ends up in jail. New Vision does not mention what happened to those who swindled Anita of her hard earned savings. In fact, we are left with the feeling that New Vision, and the Uganda community, thinks they did nothing wrong. There is no outcry about their actions, or even an inference that this was not normal. A few days later, a Rev. Titus Makuma, in an article for the New Vision, actually used this story to castigate Ugandans who travel abroad to clean streets and toilets instead of remaining home and contributing to their country’s development.
I have shaken my head every day since I read these stories. The irony is astounding. Ugandans in the Diaspora, these same despised Nkuba Nyeyos, send to Uganda more than $800 million a year. They have done this for the last 20 years. Their contributions are the largest source of foreign exchange for Uganda. Not tourism, not coffee exports, not fish, not even development aid, raises this much money for Uganda. What we send to Uganda helps keep inflation down, helps pay for Uganda’s huge import bill, brings cars, clothing, oil and other luxuries to Uganda. We help pay for soldiers and teachers’ salaries. We help build new buildings in Kampala and Mbale and Mbarara. We help keep Uganda’s taxes down when we send money. As such, even those without relatives abroad benefit from our largesse. Diaspora remittances are the single best resource for Uganda. They come without conditions (or conditionalities), without a need to pay for local inputs or middle men. Our remittances for school fees, for medical bills, for construction projects, give Ugandans a better life. The money we send to Uganda is what has kept this country going, whatever the naysayers may say. And we do all this without expecting anything in return. When the World Bank sends $200 million to Uganda, they impose onerous conditions, including a pay back period, certain ways of doing things, and a change in the country’s priorities. When we send our $800 million to Uganda, we ask for nothing, absolutely nothing in return.
Beyond the money though, the Nkuba Kyeyo’s contributions to Uganda go further than most people imagine. Nothing illustrates this better than Anita’s case. She left Uganda as degree-holding, young woman, but without having held a job, she was un-experienced and unskilled. In her time in the UK, she learnt the value of hard work, she learnt the best skills she could in warehouse records management, data storage, use of computers, employee relations, etc. She grew progressively at her work to manage others and the company’s operations. She learnt integrity and honesty and a new work ethic. She learnt that work is work, and home and personal life is separate from work. She learnt that you get a limited number of sick and leave days a year, and must juggle your private affairs in those days and not take the time from your work to do personal things. She learnt customer service and the importance of treating customers as the most important part of a business, whether in government or the private sector. She learnt that you cannot use company or government resources for yourself. She learnt about production, about savings, about building for a future from your own resources. She learnt that at her age, work and advancement came first, and relationships and marriage and children could come later, and when they do, she probably learnt that all she would need is two kids. She learnt how a modern banking system works, how transportation is managed in a large urban community, how safety and work regulations are enforced, how it is everyone’ responsibility to pay their fair share of taxes. She learnt that parents have a responsibility to raise their children in a meaningful way. Children do not belong to government, but to families. She probably also learnt that the people and private sector are the creators of wealth, not government. She learnt that normal western societies don’t look to government as a solution to all their problems, or even ask government for basics. And above all, she learnt the value of living in a free and democratic society, where everyone can express their opinions without fear of arrest, harassment, or injury. She also about people and how they live in the Western world. They use simple machines to clean their homes, to cook, to travel. They exercise regularly, they take vacations. They volunteer in churches and shelters. They give to the poor and serve at their schools, because they know this is how modern integrated communities work.
These are lessons our Nkuba Nkeyo’s learn, lessons that cannot be easily learned without experiencing them. Every society that has had dramatic growth has had some of their citizens travel around the world and learn from them. American colleges and universities are full of Chinese students who learn every bit as much as they can, then return home to help fuel their economies with new ideas. I was at a World Bank seminar the other day and heard how the Koreans and Taiwanese left their countries in large numbers in the 1950s and 60s in search of employment and education in the USA. Their governments and their people did not object to this trend. They famously called it “Brain Banking”. They knew these people would come back, better educated, better trained, better experienced. It is what fueled East Asia’s growth in the 50s and 60s and 70s. In Costa Rica, for every immigrant from their country who lives abroad who decides to build a house back home, they offer $5,000 to them as an inducement. Why? Because they know that will encourage them to return home, to send more money, to build businesses, to employ others. The $5,000 is repaid many times over through taxes and other social investments. But imagine in our case the laughter and disdain that our government and our people would give if our Nkuba Nkyeyos asked for $5,000. They would call us greedy, ungrateful, insensitive, etc. No one would see it as an investment into our return, or a down payment on us sending more money to Uganda.
Let me say this again – not all Nkuba Nkeyos sweep streets or clean toilets, or look after elderly ladies in nursing homes. There is nothing wrong though with those activities. It was Martin Luther King who famously said that if you must sweep streets, sweep them to the best of your ability, as if your life depends on it. This is how many of us started. We swept streets, cleaned toilets, cleaned kitchens and washed plates. But because we did it so well and diligently, we got promoted. From kitchen cleaners, some became shift managers overseeing kitchen cleaners, then kitchen managers, then Food department managers, then store managers, then Team Leaders, and eventually Company managers. Those who started as filing clerks became bookkeepers, then Controllers, then Vice Presidents of Finance. Others who started as nursing aides cleaning frail and disabled women and men became assistants, then managers in the medical and nursing facilities, and through education, training and hard work, found their way to become anesthesiologists, those who provide relief from pain and the care of surgical patients before, during and after surgery. These people control the patient’s heart rate and rhythm, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature, and body fluid balance. And guess what, my friends, these people are the highest paid professionals in the United States, earning $112 an hour, better than doctors, lawyers, or engineers. These, my friends, are some of your Nkuba Kyeyos.
Let me finish this article by recalling Anita’s story. I don’t know what eventually happened to her. I am sure she will or has been released from jail. She will probably find her way back to London, and into her old job. She will work again as hard as she did before, because those skills, once acquired, are not easily lost. But she will think again before sending money to Uganda. She may never do so again. And as Anita’s story, and that of many Nkuba Nkyeyos spread through the Diaspora community, fewer and fewer of them will want to send their hard earned money to Uganda if there are no assurances of protection. If the police, and the government, do not take steps to address these challenges, and assure the Diaspora community that that they are on their side instead of the side of thieves, Uganda will be the net loser. Remittances from abroad will decline. Similarly, the people of Uganda need to denounce these criminal activities that taint Uganda’s image. They need to call out those who are cheating and swindling our Nkuba Nkeyos. There must be laws that protect the honest earnings of our people. Everyone has a stake in this. Instead of blaming Anita and the thousands of Nkuba Nkyeos for what they do, praise them. Raise a monument to their glory. Publicly thank them. Make a feast for them. Create incentives that ease their return. Make Entebbe a more welcoming place for them (instead of referring to them as “Other” or “Aliens”). These are the people who have kept Uganda going for so long, and are critical for its success. If you bring them down, or make them stay away, Uganda may never recover or reach the promised land. I say that with all seriousness.