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, rooted in a culture that despises manual labour. The Kampala newspapers, including the Daily Monitor, 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 professionals in the Diaspora 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 Ugandans do in the Diaspora. 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 begs foreign aid.
These countries are the handiwork of men and women with basic or college education and 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 here in Canada, for example.
Only 25 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 years have university degrees. The figures for other developed countries are: Norway, 32 per cent; USA, 31 per cent; UK and Japan, 23 per cent each; Germany, 16, and Italy, 11.
From time to time, we 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 Toronto went on strike a few years ago, the 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 are as essential to my practice as the doctors and nurses. Working in unhygienic conditions is out of the question. We pay these essential workers 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, exceeding $1 billion 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 a senior member 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 far from our loved ones, in strange lands and do whatever it takes to provide a decent living for our families. We smile when 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 of us 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 entering one’s 36th 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 labourer’s job at Kenya Uniforms.
Carrying bales of cotton cloth from the trucks into the 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.