Many Ugandans despise us. We are the Nkuba Kyeyo, a Luganda phrase that literally means: “I am a sweeper”, as in sweeping the streets and other facilities in foreign lands.
It is used as a derogatory term for the Ugandan Diaspora, rooted in a culture that despises manual labor. The Kampala newspapers refer to the work done by Nkuba Kyeyos as “odd jobs”, a not so subtle expression of contempt for manual and other relatively underpaid employment.
Even many Ugandan Diaspora professionals protest at being called Nkuba Kyeyos, their common refrain being that they are highly educated people who do “serious jobs” that demand respect.
In fact there is nothing odd about the jobs that hundreds of thousands of Diaspora Ugandans do. Factory workers, home and road maintenance workers, sanitation workers, personal support workers, other service industry employees, farm hands, taxi drivers and other transportation workers, salesmen and so on are the backbone of the economy.
Their work is no less vital and no less valuable than the work of lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, politicians or pilots.
All are respectable and essential jobs that have built these countries into developed societies from which Uganda receives foreign aid and investment.
These countries are the handiwork of men and women with basic or college education and outstanding skills acquired through apprenticeship and experience.
The Ugandan obsession with university degrees and so-called white-collar jobs is in stark contrast with the attitudes in the developed countries.
Data from the OECD and Statistics Canada show the following figures for people between ages of 25 and 64 years who had university degrees in 2012:
No doubt a university degree confers many advantages on the holder. In Canada, for example, “returns on education” data shows that, on average, university graduates earn more than college graduates.
However, increasing numbers of university graduates are seeking a college diploma following university graduation. In the year 2000, 10 per cent of college graduates had already obtained a university degree. By 2005, that number had risen to 13 per cent. It is not clear what motivates university graduates to seek college education. One view is that the applied programs in colleges may enhance one’s abilities at work. Studies suggest that one’s field of study may be of greater value than the type of academic institution one attends.
From time to time, university degree holders are reminded of the indispensability of what Ugandans call “odd jobs” when groups of workers go on strike.
When, for example, the sanitation workers in the City of Toronto went on strike a few years ago, the rot and smell on the city streets quickly brought the negotiating teams to an agreement that increased the workers’ wages.
The teams of employees who clean my clinic and ensure maintenance of the systems and equipment are as essential to my practice as the doctors and nurses.
Working in unhygienic conditions is out of the question. So we pay these essential workers very well. And they live very well.
Among these essential workers all over the world are Ugandans doing the kyeyo that their compatriots despise.
They remit large chunks of their savings back home, approximately $1billion per annum.
If the Nkuba Kyeyos decided to withhold their remittances for one year, it would probably open the eyes and ears of our compatriots to appreciate the important role we play in the health of our country.
As one of the most senior members of the Nkuba Kyeyo Clan, I praise and honor my compatriots.
We left our homeland in search of personal safety and economic opportunities.
We live abroad, far from our loved ones, in strange lands with strange cultures and challenging climates and do whatever it takes to provide a decent living for our families.
We smile when fellow countrymen despise our jobs but not the cash we send back.
I gladly wear the badge of the Nkuba Kyeyo, for I salute the foresight, choices, stamina, humility and patriotism of those who chose to go abroad or to stay abroad after the wars, to earn a living and to advance our careers and lives.
My claim to membership is not false modesty but a true description of one in one’s 39th year of toiling in foreign lands.
As a young refugee medical doctor in Kenya in 1977, unable to find paid employment in my profession, I landed a laborer’s job at Kenya Uniforms.
Carrying bales of cotton cloth from the trucks into the tailoring factories was a blessed experience that humbled me and quickly disabused me of the illusion of being special simply because I had studied human medicine.
I learnt to respect manual labour and to respect and appreciate my modest wage that supplemented the stipend that I received from the Joint Refugee Services of Kenya.
I thank the Lord that He enabled me to pursue my professional career. I thank Him for the numerous Nkuba Kyeyos who have successfully advanced their education, careers and financial health through hard work and sacrifice.
We are blessed not to be dependents on anyone except the Lord’s grace and mercy. We are fulfilling the teaching of the Apostle Paul who urges us in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 to “work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
We voluntarily give significant chunks of our earnings to Uganda. We build homes and businesses in Uganda. We do not steal from the public purse.
We ask for nothing in return, except our rights of citizenship, including the right to vote in genuinely democratic elections, and to be full participants in the political and economic development process in our motherland, without being discriminated against simply because we chose to cast our nets far and wide.