If we are going to feast on frogs let’s pick the juicy ones – Part I

Daniel K. Kalinaki

What you need to know:

  • Once women become significantly fewer than men, even those who, in ordinary times, would not be successfully accused of being easy on the eye, will raise their asking prices...

Every day, sure as night follows day, hundreds of young women file through the stuffy departure lounge at Entebbe International Airport. There are some young men, yes, but most of the cargo appears to be made up of young women. This exodus to the Middle East desert is of biblical proportions, and the young women are all trying to flee from the plague of unemployment.

They hurdle together, grouped by whichever attire the respective exporting company has chosen to distinguish its wares from those of rivals – and also, perhaps, to make it harder for them to be snatched in the crowded slave markets. Covered in hijabs, the head coverings worn by Muslim women, the girls lump together like faithful sheep, even if some wear the terrified looks of lambs headed for slaughter.

There is the excitement of going abroad, and the opportunity to finally be in a position to be able to rub two shillings together. Left behind in Pharaoh’s court are needy relatives eager to receive word – and even more importantly remittances – from the newly departed.

It is hard not to feel for these women. How many, if the question had been posed to them as young schoolgirls, of what they wanted to be when they grew up, would have answered: “a maid in Oman” or whatever a female “dhobi in Dubai” is called?

And yet, incredible as it sounds, the ones that get away are the lucky ones. They are among millions who have received a half-baked education before being vomited into the detritus of a low-wage, high-unemployment economy. It takes courage, humility and wisdom to accept that one’s second-class certificate in baking mandazi  from YWCA will not take one very far.

In the short-term, this exodus is a pressure valve for the young Ugandan Ninjas – those with No Income, No Job and no Assets. The money they make and send back home lifts more people out of poverty than any government programme.

But what about the long-term impacts? Let’s look at a few oblique ones. The exodus of mostly young women could create a demographic imbalance and leave many young men unable to marry. This is likely to lead to a surge in violence and crime as restless young men struggle to find the means to access the diminished female resources available.

Once women become significantly fewer than men, even those who, in ordinary times, would not be successfully accused of being easy on the eye, will raise their asking prices, so to speak, making the marriage market even more competitive and driving up crime and violence some more.

Even when these young women return from kyeyo  abroad they will be very different people. Socially, they might find the male contemporaries they left behind boring, unsophisticated and unworthy. It is possible that in many cases they will have more money, changing social gender dynamics within relationships in interesting ways. Warning: Fragile patriarchies ahead.

These changes will probably spill over into the political arena. We are unlikely to see the dramatic political changes that followed the return of World War II veterans and accelerated the independence movements across Africa. 

This is because war is more likely to inspire political thought than housekeeping. Also, many of the destination countries do not have political systems worth bringing back home. In addition, the return of these young women is likely to be a trickle rather than the sudden flood of veterans returning home in 1945.

Yet it is probable that Ugandans returning home with a bit of money and exposure will be more inclined to question the things that do not work than peers who stayed behind yodelling about parish development modelling. It might not be enough to change the political trajectory, but it will certainly colour it.

More than a century after “backward” African chiefs sold their people into slavery abroad, modern-day African chiefs continue to do the same while hiding behind the fig leaf of nomenclature as “labour exporters”.

For the sake of those young men and women paying a personal price for bad governance and global inequities, we cannot merely wish away this less-than-ideal state of affairs. We must, instead, find ways of making the most of it. Since we have chosen to eat frogs, next week we shall explore ways of picking out the fattest.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

Twitter: @Kalinaki

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