Uganda now a net exporter of labor: Is it a sign of progress, that the cream of the nation is being exported?

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By Dr Martin M. Lwanga

One friend of mine who started her legal career outside Uganda but decided to return recently told me something when I asked her about her daughter. “I sent her to Canada and she has graduated with a good job!” She reported.
I asked if she wished her daughter to come back as she had done. “In this country,” my friend, an activist who sees a lot in her line of work, muttered, “with all the madness going on here. To do what!” She hissed.

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Once while traveling I had a bad flight connection in Dubai. I was checked into a hotel late at night. The receptionist’s accent immediately caught my attention. I asked for his name. “Mayanja Ssebo!” We laughed and rapidly went native. I asked him to tell me his story.
Mayanja had finished school at Kyambogo University. He couldn’t find a job here, however much he looked. Desperate, he surfed the net and landed on that Dubai opportunity.
I keep meeting them. Isn’t it interesting that the lads who now check you in at major overseas airports could be your countrymen. There are manning national airports of other developed nations, theirs long forsaken!

In fact I keep getting amazed at how many labor exporting companies I find these days. Almost everywhere I look nowadays there is a sign post of a labor exporting outfit. Jobs Abroad!
One knowing person told me that is where the money is these days. If you have any doubts you could start checking into who is running those labor export companies.
And why should I even be surprised. Sometime ago I used to get calls from some of my hard up relatives to help out with basic needs likes school fees and medical bills. But this year alone I have got three different calls. All want me to fund them access papers to go out and do dream jobs in the Middle East!

Again on my social media account I saw once a shocking post at Entebbe national airport. It was a queue that left me puzzled or maybe sad. There was a mile long line of our Ugandan girls all dressed up like newly minted Hajats ( no offense meant) checking in for those dream Middle East Jobs. I know something about the religious make up of Uganda and my guess is that many of these girls had just to change their identity to make that voyage.
And some of the stories if you sat down to a number of returnees are not very flowery. There was one girl I know who came back so distressed. Asked what had happened, she refused to share. But we all know something terrible had happened.
But don’t get me wrong. Others prosper and I recently came across one who returned but wants badly to go back. “I am just sitting at home,” she said, sullen. “But if I go I will get a job, make money and send some at home to look after my people!”

So there we are, guys! At a certain point we had a nation where you went to school to acquire skills for national development. For sometime that was the norm.
Graduates would be posted around the country to run the nation. When my mother graduated as a nurse in the late 1950s from Mulago Nursing School, Governor Andrew’s Cohens wife, came and handed her a certificate. She was then posted to a hospital in Acholi.
In those days the shilling was good, quite good for a nurse of those days. Actually she bought plots around Kampala, in Naguru and Mulago suburbs, where she put up rentals.
Then somewhere we started loosing it. Did it start with Idi Amin’s Economic war! A graduate now had to flee to Kenya for a job, which were mainly back end teaching jobs and even on to what was apartheid South Africa. Once in a visit there I ended up at a party where I thought I was visiting the Mulago Doctors village as I knew while a student at Makerere. In fact, once a cab driver on a visit there when I told him I was from Uganda, he lazily chipped in, “You we like you. Ugandans are doctors!”

Growing up, there is a neighborly family which my mother always used to point us to as a way to motivate me and my siblings whenever we slackened at school. All the kids in that house were making it to university. But then there was also something mother would not comment on. Each one of them soon after graduation would end up either in Kenya or South Africa. Now the last time I checked this family of engineers, a statistician and doctors, had all ended up with only one engineer sticking back home.
In 2018 I was very happy to attend the graduation ceremony of a niece from my alma matter, the University of Oklahoma, US. After the party I sat her down and asked her of her plans. She had graduated with a honors degree in microbiology and thought of returning to Uganda.

Immediately images of doctors striking because of poor pay came up. “No, just not yet!” I counseled. The last time we talked she had got a hot job with Nestles firm in Dallas. I think her monthly paycheck must total my annual gross!
Years ago Arab traders would come to this part of the world for slaves.
Slavery was long abolished. We are now in the liberalized age of free trade. And one of the hottest export commodity these days is labor. And the interesting thing these days there is no one forcing people into captivity. Folks are just making calculated human decisions.
They look at their nations and the way things are going. Instead of sitting on ones lap why not risk all and fly out!.

Around this time of the year the President of Uganda reads his State of Union speech and then we listen to the budget. I love going over the figures which seems to suggest a lot of progress. But there is one I struggle to find and have mixed feelings. How many human beings are we exporting these days? How much are the benefits? Is it a sign of progress, that the cream of the nation is being exported and therefore should be encouraged?
Or we should all be concerned. Can someone ask why are we not minting enough well paying jobs that folks can’t stay or come back home, when they want!

And then, how are other nations, like say South Africa, doing? Is South Africa headed to another Zimbabwe which exports much of her labor there?
Did I hear Ugandan doctors have ended up in Rwanda too because of better pay! Do our kids grow up hoping to end up somewhere promising far from home because there is apparently no hope in their mother country!
Or one day, perhaps, they will get to know. Something about some nation!

read: where are Ugandan graduates?

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