Growing up in Africa at least in the last 40 years has been one of the most-challenging experiences, because when one looks at the world in terms of the nearest family and community, it can’t compare to life in Kampala, the one and only cited city of Uganda. The other issue is that the level of sharing information and learning is so obscure and lopsided: From the beginning, one starts to learn that there are better worlds to live in. This other, better world is normally hard to reach not only in physicality but also virtually and practically. Yet, many Ugandans become fixated on moving abroad rather than developing their skills and using their resources at home.
The schools’ responsibility of properly educating students about the world in a balanced and realistic manner is often neglected. Therefore, the only opportunity a student has to be exposed to other ways of living is through courses like Geography.
Geography explains great communities and how they have overcame their cultural, social challenges. The way of living, movement, and any aspect of sociable life are presented to the student as ideal.
For a young learner, this knowledge about better communities eventually encourages a hatred of his or her own social and cultural settings.
His or her way of living becomes a historical phenomenon happening in contemporary times. So much so, that on average, rural Ugandan children go to school with bare feet, even though they are likely walking to school more than five kilometers away.
So from a young age, the hatred of their own community begins to dig deep in their minds.
They start to dream of going to boarding schools away from their community, and these schools enroll a variety of students from different backgrounds and classes. Therefore, as a rural student with very limited property — save for the school uniform and a pair of slippers — the students begin to see the physicality of growing up in “poor” communities. And I am calling it “poor” with intention, because poverty in such communities is at times created by their own thinking, lack of direction, and under-utilization of resources.
Rhetoric Spurs Flight
It is at this stage that the student is exposed to the well-to-do communities’ possession of objects obtained in foreign communities. These wealthy students are indeed in a position to share some of their travel experiences. And while some of their experiences are pictorial, a lot of it is rhetorical.
In Uganda, rhetoric has been one of the serious political, social, and cultural dilemmas.
There is indeed a lot of talk without doing the walk. If it is true that some of these individuals have been abroad to these developed communities, why can’t they learn and emulate some of the good things and bring them back home?
In addition, these individuals make sure to only relay crude feedback from their travels. I call it “crude” because most of the information and experiences shared in Uganda by those few individuals who have had an opportunity to travel tends to only be about the positives of that society. There is even a bizarre thinking that once you travel abroad, you will never experience any “poverty.” This kind of thinking has led most Ugandans to think that when you go abroad, you have a sure chance of accumulating wealth — and quickly.
The thinking of quick accumulation of wealth has been the driver of most labour migration in Uganda, in particular, but in the world, in general.
The Reality of Working Abroad
It has not always been easy for most Ugandans to secure an opportunity to travel and “work” abroad. I emphasize the word “work” in the context that most Ugandans who ended up working abroad did not have proper work entitlements. In fact, most of them indeed work(ed) but under very clandestine circumstances: Their travel papers have long expired but because they traveled as “visitors” after spending so much to secure visas, they need to convince everyone that one can go and work (ekyeyo) abroad in spite of their personal challenges.
The first group of labour immigrants from Uganda date back to the 1960s, but more serious large movements came in the 1990s. And indeed due to the struggles that await them abroad, quite a few of them have had to give up their “new life” and return to Uganda. A new crop of such groups also started returning to Uganda the beginning of 2010. The reasons for their return are vast but the most sophisticated reason is that it is no longer lucrative to work in such places.
Better Alternatives in Uganda
What one goes through to secure a travel acceptance to any of these foreign places is enormous. So much so that if translated into monetary terms, that expense could have formed a good investment right here in Uganda for some of these usually young people.
Additionally, our education has largely encouraged the thinking that the only jobs to do involve white collar jobs. The teaching of technical and practical skills has been relegated to non-performers at various levels, but these skills are what are indeed required when our “working travelers” go abroad. There is no country that can survive and provide employment for its people if they don’t involve itself in practical and creative vocations.
Indeed these vocations, including farming, are the pillars that will catapult Uganda to better and higher levels of development.
Everyone in Uganda who has not been able to travel thinks that the alternative is trade. The spaces for trading and commercialization far outweigh the productive spaces. We need to increase on these productive spaces. These spaces don’t have to be large. Small scale production and creative units should supplement the desire to trade, and when this begins to happen, those who think they have to acquire wealth abroad will start to change their mostly misplaced thinking. Growth can only happen when the inputs that support such growth are consistent and realistic, and such ideas must be shared at an early age: school age.
Presently Philip Kwesiga, PhD (pictured), is a chair and an associate professor at Makerere University, College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, School of Industrial and Fine arts, Department of Visual Communication Design and Multimedia in Uganda. He has been working and practicing art and design for the last 30 years and has a series of research, awards, commissions, and leadership experience. Dr. Kwesiga did his PhD at Middlesex University London.