“Sometimes God closes a door and opens a gate.” This was the facebook status of Adi Kakande, sometime in March 2013, a month into her trip to her homeland Uganda, and about the time she decided she would be staying on. For the last three years she had lived in the United Kingdom (UK), first as a Masters student doing an MBA in Marketing at University of Wales, institute of Cardiff campus, while part-timing as a home caregiver; and after, as a home caregiver, as well as a sales representative for an energy firm. On her decision to stay after her second trip to Uganda, the beautiful, and unpretentious light-skinned young lady confesses that it was not an easy decision; “I weighed the best of two worlds”, and Uganda won. The search for greener pastures had led her home.
For the longest time, many Africans in general, and Ugandans in particular have been scampering for a chance to leave the homeland for the ‘land of opportunity’ as America and Europe have come to be known. The BBC notes that “the majority of African migrants living overseas are in Europe – about 4.6m compared with 890,000 in the US, according to the International Organization for Migration. But the Migration Policy Institute believes there are between seven and eight million irregular African immigrants living in the EU – the actual number changing depending on regularisation schemes in the member states.” The number of irregular African immigrants is about the same as the population of Burundi, a Sub – Saharan African state whose population stands at eight million.
This is both a blessing and a curse to the country of origin (that receives remittances yet experiences brain drain), and the country of destination (that receives a labour force but also dependants competing for resources alongside citizens). Mark Tyers, a contributor to Counterfire, an organisation of revolutionary socialists, writes that “Since the global economic crisis began, many European politicians have been particularly keen to blame migrants for their countries’ economic and social woes and mainstream media, such as the BBC, have been eager to give them a platform. David Cameron’s support for the UK Border Agency’s planned deportation of 2,600 London Met students is just the latest example of such institutional racism.”
However, the tide is changing. A much publicized international cross-media project called Surprising Europe that has been running on Aljazeera attests to this. Initiated by Ssuuna Golooba, a Ugandan Photo journalist turned illegal immigrant in the Netherlands, with the help of a European production company The White Boys, it consists of a documentary, a nine-part television series, and a website hosting a community of people interested in African-European migration issues. In this, Ssuuna wants to show his fellow countrymen, and Africans at large, the truth about living as a migrant. Surprising Europe examines the European migrant experience from as many story angles as there are people to tell it. It is a powerful tale of all that glitters not being gold.
There is no better time to discuss the migrant issue than the present, in the wake of the financial crisis whose global impact is still being felt to date. Timothy Kalyegira, a Ugandan journalist and researcher writes, “When the global financial crisis erupted in September 2008, I wrote in my then Saturday Monitor column sometime in October 2008 that this was the beginning of the end of the good times. From now on, life in the Western world would be tense and uncertain at best and grim and anarchic at worst. In that same column in October 2008, I wrote that the world financial crisis was going to result in the rise of extreme right-wing nationalism in Europe and an increase in hostility to immigrants from Africa and the Islamic world.” In light of this, is it still a safe bet for Africa to believe that the answers to the good life are off the continent?
On the afternoon I met Adi, she was clad in blue skinny jeans with a black, satin, fitting jacket over a pink cotton vest. She donned an African beaded necklace, and a pink and black metallic bracelet. Her earrings were a diamond shaped black stone sitting in a bronze plate of the same form, and she wrapped up the outfit with black ballet shoes and a Caribbean style plait in her hair. Nothing of her appearance told of time spent in the UK, save for her large, well used, white Samsung Galaxy S4 that was not common in Uganda. She spoke clear and confident, with a faint English accent that you would miss if you were not looking for it. In a 5th floor boardroom-like office in Shumuk House, a building right in the heart of Kampala, her current work station, she explained her decision to be in Uganda and not in Bulaaya as she fondly calls the UK.
“I left for the UK because I wanted to study, have a change of scenery, experience other cultures, and to get away from a relationship I had been in. Before leaving I was working for Opportunity Uganda as a Credit Officer. After a year of studying there, I started looking for a job in sales or marketing. I got one doing sales for an energy company which I did from 1am to 9am – because our clients were in different time zones. In the meantime, I kept working as a home care giver, which I had been doing while studying. Life was tough there. Our clients in the sales job would take liberties abusing us saying they did not want to talk to Africans or Indians but to the real bosses. The other job was not easy either, because I had to feed and wash those under my care, some could not move and had to be carried yet they were heavy.” “It was tough.” she added matter-of-factly.
“Tell me more of your experience in the UK.” I invited.
“London is a beautiful place, but then there is no time to go around and see the beauty because I worked two jobs, one of them paying by the hour, and the time in-between was for rest. It is a costly place and the people are not social, you cannot talk to your neighbours. Everyone minds their own business. It gets lonely without a network of friends; I was fortunate to have one.
“However, in all of that I learned a lot, evolved, and found myself. Before I left I was a very timid person but now I am confident.”
At this point we are interrupted by her colleague, a tall, dark, and welcoming gentleman with a presence “Adi, do you have the number of UBA?”
“No,” she answers, “But I have a number for someone who works in Prestige”
“Call him and find out if the network is on.”
She then goes ahead to make the call, her demeanor changes to an all-formal one, talking about networks and transactions. She talks business for a minute or two and then hangs up. “Where were we?”
Swirling in her office chair she tells me why she chose to stay in Uganda. “There is adventure, and that is good, but after that, one has to settle down. I wanted to be home sometime later in life and I thought why not now? It is not easy in London. I was going to stay in the UK studying but that would be spending time that I could use more constructively back at home. In Uganda one can put down some roots, which is impossible over there, unless you are sending the money back home. It was more progressive to be in my country; there is less hassle, better weather, and the people are good – not that people are not good over there, but it is different.
“Currently I am working for Telexfree (an electronic advertising system) that is new in Uganda and launching soon. I also want to work for an NGO, and I’m considering my options at starting up a pig farm in the village within a month.” She adds, with an infectious smile, “I would like to settle down, get married, and have a kid or two.” Does she miss London? “No. I do not miss London. However, I miss the people there. Here in Uganda I do not stop and crave for London, yet when in London you can crave for Uganda.”
Peter K, a Ugandan who spent three years in Norway studying for his Masters and returned home after is of the same view. He passionately notes, “The money is in Uganda. I would not go back there unless I was going to study and only if I am fully funded. Home is the place to be. Many people do not realize that.”
Still, many do not share the views of the returnees. Speaking to a bodaboda cyclist in Kampala, he said that he would leave the country if the opportunity presented itself to him; he knows it would not be easy but at least the money would be coming in. According to Immigration Statistics a 9% increase in people granted British citizenship in 2012 was noted.
Chris Amani, a Congolese in the Netherlands who decided to go back to his home after two years, writes in his Surprising Europe blog post and notes that “It would be a pity to abandon a promising career in Africa to end up in Europe cleaning dead bodies or work as a prostitute in the streets of European cities. All I recommend is information. Get to know what you are going to do in Europe and don’t just embark in a journey you don’t know where it will lead. Sometimes, once you’re in there is no way out anymore. And it is a decision that will affect the rest of your life. So, please, if you are thinking of coming for adventure in Europe, think again. Africa needs you!”
When asked what she would tell someone who wants to go overseas to look for a better life, Adi said “It is good. Explore, learn about places, evolve, find yourself.”