Ugandans in the US: A tale of ingenious tricks used to live the American dream

Thursday January 3 2013

By Emmanuel Gyezaho

Edward Musinguzi (not real names) left Uganda six years ago on a working visit to Kansas, a Midwestern state in the US. His non-immigrant visa had allowed him to stay legally in the US for up to six months. He was expected to return home when his visa expired, but he did not. Instead, he got a job – in Ugandan speak, he was on kyeyo, sweeping the proverbial American broom, and continued earning dollars by the hour despite not having legal documentation to guarantee his stay in the country.

Living underground, Musinguzi was making as much as Shs3m every month, money that dwarfed what many professionals earn a month back home in Kampala. All was well until the financial crisis hit town. Musinguzi lost his job. A few months down the road, he decided that it was better to move out of state and seek better employment opportunities in this vast country. He packed his belongings, jumped onto a train and headed to the east coast. For the long and tiring journey that it was, Edward found more than enough room to sleep. However, along the way, he was jolted out of his sleep by curious homeland security personnel concerned about the amount of luggage he carried. They asked him to show his paper work. He panicked. Of course he didn’t have any and the officials were more than glad to apprehend yet another illegal immigrant.

It pays to be or pretend to be gay
Musinguzi was soon handed over to immigration officials. They interrogated him and discovered he had over-stayed his welcome. The officials asked him to explain why he hadn’t returned to Uganda after his visa had expired more than three years earlier. “Well, I cannot go back home,” he told the officers, “because if I go back home, I am gonna be killed.” They must have heard similar explanations before. They prodded further. Edward dropped the gauntlet. “I am gay and being gay in my country is a death sentence,” he said. It was a plausible excuse, if anything but above all, an ingenious idea because Musinguzi, by his own admission, is heterosexual and not gay.

Musinguzi would certainly have been deported. The officers had no choice but to buy his excuse and that is thanks in large part to Ndorwa West MP David Bahati and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill he is crusading for. In the two years since that Bill was tabled in Parliament, Uganda pops up as the first item on a cursory search on Google with the question: World’s worst place to be gay? That unsolicited title is largely the result of international fury over the Bill, a controversial piece of legislation that appears to be offering many a lifeline to obtain asylum in countries that supposedly cherish civil liberties and protect gay minorities. It may not matter whether the person is actually gay or not. Former scribes Lillian Ikulumet and Val Kalende, are living abroad on similar grounds after coming out openly to say they fear for their lives because they are lesbian.

When marriage comes in handy
Officials at the US Embassy in Kampala admit that they do not have numbers on how many Ugandans have not returned home after visiting the United States recently and that is because there are a number of legitimate reasons for people to stay even beyond the expiry of their visas. The most easily cited reason is marriage to a US citizen. But as I discovered, it’s a brisk business going on where Ugandan immigrants are paying thousands of dollars to US nationals for a marriage certificate they regard a priceless ticket to live the American dream.

Husbands and wives are up for hire and get paid according to the bargaining power of the immigrant in need of their service. These individuals are reportedly paid a stipend every month for any period between one to three years, depending of course on agreed contracts, how quick the immigrant is able to raise all the fees and how soon they are able to obtain permanent residence status. Most are reported to be paying out as much as $10,000 (approx. Shs26m) to contract a marriage.


For many Ugandans, African-American men and women, have been the most available spouses for purchase. Our Ugandan brothers and sisters have also coined a description of their own for these people: banyaga (plural) and munyaga (singular), Luganda slang that describes crafty people who will fleece you at any opportunity. The scheme is not limited to banyaga, however, because involvement is often secured by the poor social-economic status of the US citizen, keen on making money.

Rebecca Musoke (not real names) is a mother of three. She travelled to the US in 2008 after a gruelling quest for a visa following two failed applications, leaving behind a husband and their teenage children. Her arrival in Los Angeles, California was a dream in itself and once she got there, it was clear in her mind that she would do everything possible to guarantee her stay so that she could make as much money as she could, to remit back home. She met up with other Ugandans who put her in touch with a munyaga friend. His charge was $500 (approx. Shs1.2m) every month and that was regarded quite cheap because usually, the fee is double that, per month.

The munyaga, however, was from another state, several miles away in Phoenix, Arizona. They soon got married and she adopted his last name. For the payments she would make from that point on, his job was to file petitions at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for his new wife to gain legal status. The petitions included filing out an immigration petition form, an adjustment of status form and a work authorisation form, a tedious process that saw her pay out a bill of about $1,400 (approx. Shs3.6m) excluding the fees to her husband. Four years down the road, Rebecca is a legal immigrant in the U.S, holds a green card allowing her to work and enjoys permanent residence status. It could have been a different story if authorities had discovered her marriage was a sham, with severe penalties, both criminal and civil including a prison sentence and a total ban from immigration to the US. But that was a risk Musoke was willing to take.

The unfortunate ones
Some other Ugandans have not been as ‘fortunate’ as Musoke. Sylvia Namale (not real names) did exactly what Rebecca did, contracted a munyaga for marriage. Unfortunately, for her, her husband got arrested a few months after their marriage, on drug-related charges and was locked up in prison for close to a year. As his “legitimate” wife, she frequently visited him in prison so as not to raise any suspicion of “marriage fraud”. Her husband, however, died in prison. And then bills associated with burial arrangements dropped into her pockets. All this happened while she was hundreds of miles away in another state. So she posted about $1,000 (approx. Shs2.6m) to her supposed brother in-law to make arrangements for the burial. The fellow reportedly received the money and that was the last she heard of him. Namale had to board a plane from San Francisco to Detriot, Michigan, as a grieving wife, to bury her dead husband, in the process paying out hundreds of dollars of her hard earned kyeyo money but that may be little a price to pay to live the American dream.

The lure of jobs with higher wages, a good life and all the prosperity associated with living the American dream has left many Ugandans thousands of miles away from home treading on dangerous ground.

Coming from a poor, third world, country, where corruption in grand scale has blighted provision of essential public goods and services such as roads, decent education and healthcare, it is easy to understand why many will clutch the opportunity of a ride on the American “gravy train”.

From New York to California, a number of Ugandans have devised a load of tricks to secure legal immigration to a country marketed as a place of opportunity and its overall quality of life. And they are willing to take huge risks.