Reflections of a Ugandan labourer.
Reflections of a Ugandan labourer.
Working in Uganda is like being a teenager, in Uganda. I’ve been a working Ugandan for about four years now, and the things I’ve met make me wonder if I really want to stay here and work here.
First, I’ve met the Ugandan colleagues and bosses, who have absolutely no respect for time, or for quality delivery. On my first job, one of my bosses accused me of being too strict. She said, “You can’t come here thinking the ideals you studied in school will be achieved. This is reality, and people don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. Learn to live with it.” I was fresh from university, and many people said I needed a few years and I would be like everybody else, and abandon my impatience with slow paces, and join the clique. It’s been four years now, I still don’t understand why we agree to do one thing in a given time frame, and then take our time to reach there. Nobody cares, you see, as long as something is done, in the end. This is not just the workers but the employers too.
On many projects, I’ve witnessed high levels of unprofessionalism and some of the advice I’ve got is that on my part, being professional means to accept other people’s unprofessionalism, not to try to deal with it.
But I will tell you one secret my ‘unprofessional’ friends knew that I didn’t. They knew that they were working for sharks, who exploited them at every turn, overworking them and then underpaying them, and leaving them dried up and empty, on the seashore. What I considered an unnecessary slow pace, was a deliberate move to refuse to be pushed about when it didn’t matter what they did right or wrong.
Over the last four years, I’ve had my share of this kind of exploitation. There are those bosses who will treat you like a teenager, like you’re a child who doesn’t know where to go and what to do. They’ll use every attempt to keep you locked in, and you’ll keep struggling to breakthrough, and somehow they seem to enjoy this kind of caging.
There are those, especially the foreign ones, who will treat you like all Ugandans don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re here to save you, along with your fellow Ugandans, from this wave of ignorance. In this category, that’s where you have volunteers who are infants in many senses, coming to lead elderly people, bossing them around, sometimes directly harsh, sometimes with an annoying pretend politeness.
Many of these ‘employers’ who are getting money from renown entities like UN and EU, to do projects here, need to justify their presence here. They need to prove that these wretched Africans are so immature and corrupt they wouldn’t manage a project on their own, so please give the money to us and we will know how to deal with it, especially to take it back home. So they’ll do all sorts of things to drive you crazy, from demanding a written documentation of how you spent each minute doing what you claimed you were doing, to delaying and withholding the peanut salary they pay you, until you’re a real angry African. And this is the picture they want. They want you angry and enraged so that they can show their partners how unable you are, to contain your emotions.
So some of my colleagues have said they keep quiet when they are treated like this, because they want to keep their ‘professional’ reputation intact. And I do understand, I honestly do. The part about keeping your cool to prove you’re a mature, professional individual. What I don’t understand is how one sleeps at night, knowing all these illegal, unprofessional things are going on, but one can’t talk about them, because the bosses will be angry, and they will take the money to another country or another employee. Why are we treated like teenagers, and why do we keep quiet about it? I’m not saying teenagers aren’t equally important, they are, I’m just saying that’s a special stage where people are trying to figure out who they are, but working adults have made decisions to be what they are, and can’t be treated like they’re unsure about why they are where they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had amazing employers here, about one or two, who touched my heart with their mix of kindness, strictness and professionalism. I have met those too. But with the market so filled with the other kind, what choices are there for the Ugandan labour force? According to UN guiding principles for businesses and human rights, many of these things could easily be dealt with by our state. But is our state the kind that would protect its citizens from these levels of exploitation? And with the levels of unemployment so high, where for every worker that demands to be treated right and paid properly, there are eight other workers waiting in line to be given half the cake, is Uganda the place to work, if you’re a hardworking, committed individual?
I have asked myself a million questions, and though I always wanted to stay home and contribute to changing and transforming things, I’m not so sure anymore. Uganda breaks you. You start thinking of giving up. If you don’t want to move at the pace you swore you would never succumb to, you wonder what the point is. To work so hard and gain so little, and be treated so bad. I used to think the workforce that fled to ‘greener’ pastures was unfair to this nation, but now, I think this nation is simply hard to serve. And maybe I’m not speaking for everyone; some people have had it quite easy. But easy or not, I want to be able to walk around feeling like my rights as a human being, leave alone a labourer, are respected. And right now, I don’t. And that makes me feel like I’m a fourteen year old looking for my parents and my peers to understand me. And that is not a good sign.