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Northern Exposure


I love Uganda.

Northern exposure
Elaine Eliah talks to Africans who discovered
that the West did not meet their expectations.

‘Everyone back home thinks this place is heaven,’ says Kenyan pastor Paul Akatsa about the US, ‘but in reality it is not for the unprepared.’ Akatsa, who offers Swahili services in a Texas church, has seen several Kenyan students who are lonely, impoverished and disillusioned. He knows three who have committed suicide. Twenty-one-year-old Joan Watoro does not let her family back home know that she works two eight-hour jobs daily or that she faces repayment of a $1,600 medical bill. ‘I cannot tell them I haven’t been in school for nearly a year. It would break their hearts.’ Her parents will shortly send a younger sister to join her, yet Joan can’t bring herself to explain the hardships she faces.

‘It’s a pity that you learn the reality when you are already here,’ comments Paul Chesoni. Currently working and living in a home for the mentally impaired, he works nights, attends morning classes and sleeps in the afternoon. Though his life in the US is hard, Chesoni says facing unemployment and his disappointed family in Kenya would be worse: ‘Even if I wanted to go back home I would have to ask for money to be sent for the air ticket.’1

‘Most migrants are not well informed before they leave home,’ says Charles Kwenin from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). ‘Because of their expectations, they’re almost always disappointed.’

Often after selling off everything back home to cover the fare they find that reality doesn’t match the television images they have seen. Ugandan Susan Mugizi, who never intended to stay in Canada, says: ‘I thought Canada was beautiful until I scratched the surface. I found the people incredibly fake and pretentious. I remember my room-mate from Trinidad wondering: “Are those people for real?”’ Canadians, Mugizi believes, feel superior to Africans and used to whisper about her when she could easily hear them: ‘It seemed incredibly racist.’

In exchange for being hosted for study, Mugizi says: ‘I used to be dragged to talk to students and church groups about Africa.’ Canadians seemed most fascinated when she told how she and some friends had been arrested for no reason. ‘They were only interested in fulfilling their clichés about Africans,’ she remarks.

Migrant expert Charles Kwenin from the International Organization for Migration.
photo by: ELAINE ELIAH

When Mugizi sought part-time employment, she found herself relegated to factory jobs rather than higher-paying clerical work, despite being more educated than other applicants. One time her British accent so impressed an employer over the phone that she was told an interview would not be necessary and to report directly for work Monday morning. ‘When I arrived I was kept waiting for hours and all of a sudden the job was not available,’ she reveals.

Many Africans move temporarily to earn money or gain experience, as Kwenin realized when working with a group of Rwandan doctors in Belgium. Despite having just survived the 1994 genocide, the physicians were soon ready to return – if not to Rwanda, at least to another African country. Although they were skilled professionals being trained as specialists, Kwenin says: ‘They weren’t given the recognition that they expected.’

While researching his PhD, Kwenin found this desire to return was common. He interviewed a hundred fellow-Ghanaians living in Britain and concludes: ‘They don’t go to Britain with the intention of becoming an immigrant.’ Of those surveyed, 93 per cent planned to return to Ghana, many after saving enough money for a house. Yet while 96 per cent of professionals living abroad planned to return home, among the unskilled only 75 per cent were as determined, due to their lack of money to return or the fact they earned better wages overseas.

The Kanani family, who left Uganda in the 1970s, settled in California after three years in Britain. They left after dictator Idi Amin exiled and seized the property of 50,000 Asians. ‘There I was,’ says Mehul, who was only six years old when they left, ‘looking like a Mexican but with a British accent.’ As the school’s only child of Asian descent, telling other kids he was from Africa only made things worse. ‘I got in a lot of fights,’ he recalls.

‘I never thought of coming back,’ remembers Manu Kanani, Mehul’s father. Yet in the early 1990s, when President Yoweri Museveni invited Asians to reclaim their properties, Manu returned. He explains: ‘I came here to die because I was born here.’

Now thirty-one years old, Mehul is economically successful in Uganda. He describes himself while in the US as ‘going nowhere in a big hurry’, playing in a rock-and-roll band. Then he came back to Uganda. ‘I realized there was no quality film and how crazy the Africans were about picture-taking,’ he says. As Kodak’s distributor, he wholesaled two containers of film a month. Mehul then noted a lack of quality film processing in Uganda and purchased equipment from money he earned selling film. ‘This is the place for an entrepreneur,’ he enthuses.

Dreaming of the easy life - Martin Etomet in Uganda.
photo by: ELAINE ELIAH

After living in Britain and the US, Margueritte Tandekwire returned to Uganda and opened her own beauty salon. Ms Tandekwire says she didn’t come from a poor family and that her youth in Uganda was relatively comfortable but admits: ‘You’re in Uganda and you think it’s a bed of roses on the other side and you get there and it’s hard.’ She wishes she could take fellow Ugandans overseas so that they could see for themselves that Westerners work really hard.

But young Ugandans still dream of an easy life in the West. Although Olivia Kitui has never been out of the country, she does not believe foreigners have to work as hard as she does. ‘When we are here we imagine that US life must be very soft, smooth.’ She would appreciate hot water on demand and a switch that starts food cooking – rather than having to light a sigiri (charcoal stove) each night when she gets home. It would also fulfil her dream to be earning $300 per month instead of scraping to earn her usual $100.

But seeing television images of Westerners living on the street confuses her as she believes that Western governments give ‘an allowance for all citizens.’ As Vice-Chair of Kampala’s Women’s Council, she enjoys working with many women each day and thinks most Westerners never even meet their neighbours. She says an opportunity to work overseas would be welcome. But she admits: ‘Basically, Uganda is home.’

Often migrants do not realize the benefits of their home country until after they leave. As he describes the Ugandan village where he grew up, Dr Seggane Musisi explains: ‘People have never experienced racism. The concept has never even occurred to them.’ In Canada he believes his reputation among leading psychiatrists shields him from professional racism. But he says: ‘Everyone here who is black has experienced racism at least once.’ He outlines Canadian academic Philip Rushton’s views that black people are biologically inferior, adding with a hint of bitterness: ‘You just have to hear that once.’

‘I’d never psychologically left Africa, but when both parents died, I knew I had to be physically living there,’ admits Musisi. ‘The thing that you will find in the West whether you’re black, white or yellow is the failing to belong.’ He says this ‘anomie’ – or lack of social contact – makes life meaningless for many migrants.

Simwogerere Kyazze had never heard the word ‘anomie’ when he described the total isolation he experienced during his year at New York University graduate school. Though he lived in his apartment for over a year, he spoke to the woman next door for the first time only after locking himself out and going through her apartment to get the key.

People he met were always wanting him to ‘tell me about this or tell me about that,’ rather than engaging in dialogue. Kyazze believes they were mutually lacking common experiences that make conversation comfortable. ‘I thought I had prepared for America,’ said the gregarious 27-year-old journalist. He’d read Roots and The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. He’d studied The LIFE History of the US and kept up with Ebony and The New Yorker magazines.

‘I concentrated on learning how people react,’ he explains. He expected to find a consumer society that was informal, rude, and very hard working. What he found were people obsessed with fitness and celebrities. He comments: ‘I psyched myself into a role I thought I had to play.’

Riding home on the crowded subway, he found no-one used the seat beside him: ‘A white person would get in and choose to stand rather than sit next to me.’ Kyazze discovered that reading a copy of The Economist or The New Yorker changed the way others perceived him and could entice someone to sit beside him. Yet when their eyes met his, he often noted forced grins: ‘I also found this level of phoniness when they tried to be polite.’

He felt that people did not expect much from him in class. When he produced quality work they seemed to heap praise far too effusively, as if his performance had surprised or overwhelmed them. ‘I wanted to relate to people without seeming to be throwing myself at them,’ he reveals, yet fears of sexual harassment lawsuits prevented him from ever seeking an American girlfriend. When his phone bill hit $800 one month he realized: ‘I just wanted to go home.’

But non-professionals like Martin Etomet, who drives a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) in Kampala, would jump at any opportunity – legal or illegal – to work overseas. The West continues to sound far more alluring than his present situation. He assumes it would be a more lucrative place for him to drive. As for office jobs, he figures that by the time business people take breaks for tea and go home for lunch, their six-hour days can’t be all that bad.

Etomet would leave Uganda tomorrow if someone would let him – but never permanently.

Elaine Eliah is a freelance journalist working out of Kampala, Uganda.

1. The EastAfrican 25-31 May 1998.

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New Internationalist issue 305 magazine cover This article is from the September 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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