Friday, Aug 01st

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Let's be Grown-ups about Africa

An open letter from Ms. Frances Mensah Williams

In an open letter, Frances Mensah Williams suggests that Africans and their continent would benefit more from a change of mindset from the West than from the tales of woe used to fill those rattling charity tins.

Dear Non-Africans,

Forgive me if you honestly believe the following does not apply to you.  But if any of the points below do hit home, please take them on board. 

The truth is that we Africans are fed up - and for good reasons.  So, on behalf of my fellow citizens of our great continent, here are some rules we would like you to observe in your future dealings with us.

1. Change your mindset. As we have (inevitably) proven false those among you who thought Africans could never host a World Cup and that FIFA should put a contingency plan in place, can you now get over yourselves and realise that it wasn’t a fluke but based on careful thought, serious investment and meticulous long-term planning.

2. Be prepared to have adult to adult conversations with us instead of the adult to child approach that so usually dominates your thinking.  In short, no more talking down to us, please, and no more not-so-subtle dismissals of our traditions and ways of doing things. If you don’t complain about our vuvuzelas, we won’t complain about your football rattles, rude chants, drunkenness and hooliganism.

3. Please take the look of surprise off your face when you hear us speak English just as well as (and, dare I say, sometimes better than) you.  We are not necessarily gifted or unique because we speak your language fluently; English is the lingua franca of many African countries previously colonised by Britain and, besides, many of us are actually pretty well educated. 

4. Quit looking astonished that we have successful world-class businesses and enterprises that thrive; it’s not surprising to us given the level of originality, entrepreneurship and ingenuity we see around us all the time.  And, don’t worry; Gatwick Airport is in safe hands.

5. Do stop damning us with faint praise and lose the condescension. It has strong overtones of that whole ‘noble savage’ era; it’s getting old, and does neither of us any favours.

6. Please get the facts before you voice your opinions. No, you can’t comment on countries that you’ve had no experience of except through the writings of lazy commentators who are happy to repeat other people’s misconceptions.  And if you did visit Africa 5, 10, 15 years ago (or even last week), it still doesn’t make you an expert.

7. When you get it wrong, please put in just as much effort on putting it right. Okay, so we might be just a little optimistic with this one, but here’s hoping.

8. By all means, give us your opinion about the governance failings of our leaders – believe me, we have our own criticisms of some of them too!  But (see point 2. about adult to adult conversations) don’t get defensive when we point out the failings of your own elected officials and parliamentarians or reveal how it is your corporations that are paying many of the bribes to said failing leaders.

9. Do remember that we are a continent of 53 countries with different cultures, languages, foods and customs, and not one entity. We don’t consider Greece’s economy to be the same as Germany’s, so can we ask you to start distinguishing us from each other. Use the names of the particular country or countries you are discussing, rather than the convenient shorthand of ‘Africa’. We enjoy our diversity and would like you to appreciate it too.

10. Let’s have a balanced approach to immigration and trade (see point 2. again).  Here’s the deal; we won’t come after your state benefits if you don’t come after ours. Agree fair terms with us on trade for our gold, diamonds, oil and minerals and we’ll have less incentive to access your assets. On the subject of immigration (by the way, why are we immigrants when we come to your country but you are ex-pats when you come to ours?), let’s agree that if you’d like us to know how to speak your language if we decide to come to your country, you will learn to speak our language when you ‘ex-pat’ to ours.

If you can observe these rules, there’s a real chance that we can forge a new relationship that benefits all of us - before we give up trying and start learning Mandarin.

Frances Mensah Williams

Author is the Editor of ReConnect ( an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.


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20 years after unification, German unity still a myth

It will take another 4 to 5 generations to achieve unity

Twenty years ago, on 3rd October 1990, the streets of Berlin were agog with people streaming into the city from all over the country and also beyond the borders of Germany. The Unter den Linden, one of Berlin’s most illustrious streets was packed with millions of people marching to and from the famous/notorious Brandenburg Gates.

The atmosphere was euphoric with lots of fun and frolic in the air. It was a real mela (feast). “Wir sind ein Volk” (we are one people) was a slogan that roared through thousands of throats throughout the day and continued late into the night. Beer and other potent fluids were gulped by the gallons. Many cows, pigs and chicken had to sacrifice their lives to fill the bellies of the hungry throngs that gathered in the city to celebrate the Deutsche Einheit (Reunification of Germany).

That was 20 years ago. What is the situation today? German unity is a myth. Why? Let me quote a former East German dissident whom I interviewed on the occasion of the 10th anniversary in Berlin in September 2000.

Rev Friedrich Schorlemmer from the Evangelical Academy in Wittenberg (the town where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517) explained: “Legally and politically Germany is a united country, but not in fact. The East Germans have always looked forward to unification but the majority of West Germans on the other hand are not interested anymore. The West Germans followed a very successful path and the people there were satisfied with what they achieved. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) collapsed politically and economically. One might say a dominance of interpretation, and economic power.

“This in turn is interpreted by West Germans as their victory in all aspects which has given the East Germans the impression that the country is dominated by the westerners. On the other hand, much has been done in reconstruction of run-down towns, roads and other social infrastructure. It is really great. But, that which is the centre of East German life - full participation in social life, has been shattered. Almost one in four adult of working age is unemployed and this is a very heavy burden”.

That situation referred to by the man in cloth ten years ago, has not changed. On the contrary, it has worsened and can safely be said that a large section of the population in the East are living below the breadline. Even those working have to be subsidised by the State in order to make ends meet. In the recent past, they have been joined by many areas in the West who have been hit by the global crisis.

One of the most galling problems with which the people in the East are confronted is the arrogance that blows over from the West. The Easterners are dubbed lazy, incompetent, and these insults go the whole hog. They are looked upon as poor second cousins. To be kept at arm’s length. The GDR was an “undemocratic, underdeveloped, dictatorial police state”. This picture is enhanced by Authoress Monika Maron in her book “Zwei Brüder” (Two Brothers), a collection of essays and speeches of the past 20 years. The language is bitter, full of hatred and very one-sided.

The fact is that Frau Maron was born in East Berlin in 1941 and had the opportunity of seeing things for herself before she skipped over to West Berlin in 1988, whilst many on the other side of the border are “guided” by people like Ms Maron and a very hostile press. Herr Klaus Wowereit, (Lord) Mayor of Berlin, has recognized this problem and made the following statement to a Berlin daily newspaper last week.

“In the West they refuse to accept any concept, other than their own, in regards to the East. The same applies to West Berlin, a city where people have the greatest opportunity of social intercourse. There are people in West Berlin, who even after 20 years (after the fall of the wall) have refused to set foot in the East”. Just a stone throw away from many areas of West Berlin.

For their one-sidedness, people like Ms Maron are feted and are recipients of all sorts of awards and decorations in western society. But the outpourings of this lady have not gone unchallenged by people in the eastern sector and here are a few examples from reader’s letters to the press.

One reader asks: “Who gives Frau Maron the temerity for her contempt for the majority of the people in the East? Many like me, still see that there were lots of positive things in the land that have now disappeared – honest work, study facilities and achieving something in life. Frau Maron is possessed by hate. Hate can make you sick. It can grow like a cancer and eat you from within. Instead of dwelling so much on the past, the lady should direct her energies to the disastrous economic situation that is facing millions of people today”. Both East and West.

This sentiment is enhanced by none other than Matthias Platzeck, Premier of the State of Brandenburg and one of the founders of the East German dissident group Neues Forum (NF). He told the West German Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that in Brandenburg streets and suburbs have been spruced up, which the naked eye cannot fail to see. But what the people do not see is the destruction of industries, lack of industrial potential or research thereby resulting in high unemployment rates in the eastern sector in comparison to the west.

Herr Platzeck has risen very high in the political hierarchy of Germany. He was even elected national chairperson of the SPD (Social Democratic Party) which he joined in the early 1990s after refusing to join the merger of NF with the Greens of the West to form the Bündnis90/Grüne. Last week he let the cat among the pigeons when he declared that he was not in favour of unification. He wanted a better and democratic GDR. Due to their inexperience and naivety, they allowed Helmut Kohl to actually filch the revolution from them and set himself up as the Hero of the Deutsche Einheit.

The problem of the East German dissidents was that they knew what they were against, but did not know how to go about getting what they wanted. That made very easy picking for the heavy guys from the West. Kohl, whose political obituary was about to be written after the disastrous results suffered by his CDU in the June 1989 elections to the European Parliament, saw the opportunity and grabbed it both hands. He made wild promises to all and sundry. It included a blossoming landscape in East Germany. The sad part of the whole thing is the people in the GDR and Eastern Europe believed him. It is also rumoured that huge sums of cash were in play. Maybe someday details of this aspect will be made public.

This is a repetition of precisely what Rev Schorlemmer said 10 years ago. “The social inequality in the GDR was not so pronounced as it is now. Today, the cleft between the haves and have-nots is growing immensely. We from the opposition did not want such a situation. What is interesting is that all opposition groups in autumn 1989 did not think about unity, rather of the transfer of Gorbaschov’s ideas into the GDR. We believed in Glasnost, Perestroika, in open information, but for the misuse of freedom for purely business reasons”.

The deliberate destruction of the industrial power in the East, as many East Germans will tell you, lies at the feet of the Treuhand, a trusteeship set up to monitor and administer the economy that existed in the GDR. Rev Schorlemmer mentioned the collapse of the economy. But the question must be asked – did it collapse or was it collapsed?

These industries were a challenge to those existing in the West. The demise of the industrial base meant that jobs were rare and the only alternative was to move West in search of work. To the young people that was not a problem. Not so easy for the older ones. That is why many areas in East Germany are like the ghost towns one sees in Americans’ cowboy films. Those from the younger generation who were unable to make the journey are at a loose end and have become prey to the fascist/nazi recruiters who are very active under such circumstances.

Frau Waltraud Neuner from East Berlin, penned the following statement: “After the war ended in May 1945, I, and many thousands like me, hungered, worked, removed the rubble that covered the city, and watched the steady progress being made from day to day. There was the establishment of children’s crèches; kindergartens; shelter in the afternoon for school beginners under supervision until collected by their working parents; school-feeding; poly-technical training; vocational training combined with examinations for entry to institutions of higher learning; medical centres; hospitals; affordable rents and visits to cultural facilities. Then there was that fantastic tenant community where mutual assistance was taken for granted. And many such things. Where are they today? Now, we have the elbow society. Each one for him/herself”. Fantastic achievements by “lazy” people.

The Premier of the State of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern also reminded the world of the economic situation that exists in the East 20 years after unification. Erwin Sellering said: “It is shameful that there is such a difference in wages for the same vocation (generally workers from the East receive about 60-70% of the wages that those from the West take home. More often than not in the same factory –ES). It is unbelievable that after 20 years of unification we still have a Pension East and a Pension West”.

There is a tendency to compare German Unity with the demise of Apartheid in South Africa. This comparison is absolutely false. South Africa has a whole of different ethnic groups, cultural differences, languages etc. The people were divided rigidly on ethnic grounds for centuries, so that there was very little ground for social mixing. Even the places of worship were segregated. Under these circumstances it is nonsense to frequently pose the question as to the progress of unity in South Africa. This will take time. It is an evolutionary process.

That is not so in Germany. They are one people with the same language (albeit different dialects), colour and culture. Yet Germany is making such heavy weather of this process.

I dare to say that it will take another four to five generations before this can be achieved to some extent. Hopefully.

By Eric Singh

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Carpe Diem: Rebranding Africa Now

The World Cup has given us a chance we must seize to change the way the world sees Africa, says Frances Mensah Williams

I have never been more proud to be a Ghanaian than over recent weeks.  Not only did we take the lead in Africa, gaining our freedom as a country from our former colonial rulers in 1957, and produce luminaries along the way ranging from Kwame Nkrumah to Kofi Annan; we have just shown the world what having heart really means.

Despite the loss by the Ghanaian team in the World Cup quarter finals, we saw a team that epitomised the meaning of the word.  A team that displayed spirit and courage and treated jubilation, loss and heartbreak with equal dignity.

I have frequently been reminded of the film ‘I Spartacus’ during these past weeks and, in particular, of the scene in which each slave slowly rises up to declare solidarity with the hunted gladiator, shouting ‘I am Spartacus’.  In the days leading up to the quarter final match, everyone – irrespective of their national origin - seemed to be standing up and declaring ‘I am Ghanaian’.

And it wasn’t only about our external brand and what those outside Africa thought of us; it was also about unity between Africans.  It was when South Africans cheered for ‘BaGhana BaGhana’, adopting us to succeed where Bafana Bafana had not been able to. And it was when my Nigerian friends cried at Ghana’s loss, that I knew that something had changed forever.

Now much as I would like to bask in the reflected glory of our national heroes, the Black Stars’ achievement, much like the liberation of Ghana more than 50 years ago, means nothing if it does not serve the interests of Africa as a whole.  So we need to use this historic feat to do something more than reminisce; we need to use it as the inspiration for a new picture of Africa.

Carpe Diem

We must seize today, urgently, as the time to reshape Africa’s brand.  We have the chance today to leverage the goodwill that exists for Ghana and to translate that into goodwill for the whole continent.  For me, being a proud Ghanaian is not enough; it has to offer an opportunity to also be a proud African.

This is the branding opportunity of a generation and, for those who may think this is about sentiment, the harsh reality is that branding is about business.  We spend money on brands that we think offer something distinctive; whether it is about quality, reputation, price or reliability.  Branding brings perception, experience and reputation together in influencing our behaviour.

We need to work actively on building on the change of perception that this World Cup has brought about for many millions of people. 

In her blog in the Huffington Post in July, American international development worker Shari Cohen epitomised what this football tournament has been able to do; provide an opportunity for people to cast away their prejudices and preconceptions and to see things with different eyes.

“To say that I have been blown away at the hospitality South Africa has shown the rest of the world would be an understatement,” Cohen wrote.  “South Africans are drinking deeply from the cup of humanity that has been brought to their doorstep. I would never imagine that an American World Cup or Olympics would ever be this welcoming to the rest of the world. And that saddens me for the state of my home country, but it also makes me feel the pride of the South African people.”

Having taken the time to really talk to the South Africans as well as the other Africans she encountered, and to learn about the guiding principles of our cultures, Cohen’s perceptions have been transformed. 

“When I think of Ubuntu and my recent experiences here,” she wrote, “I think America has much to learn from Africa in general, in terms of living as a larger village; and as human beings who are all interconnected with each other, each of us having an affect on our brothers and sisters.  As the 2010 World Cup slogan goes, “Feel it. It is here.” Well, I have felt it, because I am here. Thank you South Africa, for giving me this unexpected gift. I am humbled.”

Rebranding Africa does not mean avoiding or covering up the many difficulties and challenges African countries face today; indeed, while ours may be of a different nature, challenges are not unique to sub-Saharan Africa, as countries such as Greece, the USA and the UK will attest.

Branding is Business

Rebranding Africa means that we need to create a framework for the continent and its people that enables us to capture each individual hero or heroine, each national success, and each regional achievement as part of an overarching narrative about the continent, and not just a series of isolated successes.

Every successful conference and every major business deal needs to be used to shed more light on each of our diverse and distinct countries and economies and, in so doing, add detail, shade and nuance to what is all too often a one dimensional picture of a continent without hope.

How Africa’s various countries are seen will influence whoever wants to invest in a country or indeed across the continent, do business or even live there. In his speech on the night of Ghana’s independence in March 1957, Kwame Nkrumah said: “You are to stand firm behind us so that we can prove to the world that when the African is given a chance he can show the world that he is somebody! We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore.”

Just as Ghana’s Black Stars faced challenges and doubters, so does Africa today.  It’s time to show that we, as a continent of sovereign nations, can take on all comers, including the world’s superpowers.  By acting as a team and by ensuring that we avoid own goals and other self-destructive behaviour, we can show the world who we are and change the brand of and the narrative about Africa once and for all.

Ms. Frances Williams is the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect ( an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.

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The African PhD Syndrome

When are we, as Africans, finally going to start supporting each other? Asks Frances Mensah Williams

This is the big one; for the first time ever the African continent has played host to soccer’s biggest tournament, the FIFA World Cup. I’m proud and excited that the World Cup has come to Africa and yet I’m struck by the continual carping and criticism that was levelled at the African organisers of this momentous event, and a surprising amount of which was by Africans.

I visited South Africa last summer as part of a media group hosted by the South African government to witness the final touches to the pre-tournament preparations taking place. Parts of Cape Town and Johannesburg looked like building sites as existing stadia were upgraded and new arenas built. New and upgraded infrastructure reflected the billions of Rands investment that had been spent to get the host country World Cup-ready.

So what makes it so hard for us to get behind such efforts and to cheer on our African brothers and sisters?

The Other PhD

A phrase commonly used in Ghana – and perhaps elsewhere in Africa - is ‘Pull Him Down’ or PHD. A saying which reflects all too sadly on our propensity for looking for negativity when faced with other people’s achievements.

We’ve all come across negative people. People, whose aura is so toxic that they can crush enthusiasm, discourage initiative and poison enterprise just by being present. People who, when faced with the success of others, seek only to reduce or belittle these achievements with snide asides or warnings of impending disaster.

There’s a lesson to be learned from watching crabs. Toss a few live crabs into a barrel and see. As one starts to climb up the side of the barrel in a bid for freedom, he can count on at least one of his companions to reach up and pull him right down again, forcing him to enjoy the bottom of the barrel along with all the others that took no chances.

But while the sabotaging crabs may succeed in pulling down their friends who harbour greater ambitions than becoming someone’s next meal, they never manage to raise themselves up.

A Question of Trust or of Envy?

I am a great believer in networking but, as an African business person based in the UK, I see time and again a fundamental lack of trust in our own resources. Now everyone, me included, has had dealings with some people from our communities with scanty morals and even fewer scruples. If you are in business, you learn the lesson and keep a wide berth from such people in future.  But such behaviour isn’t confined to Africans by any means (proof available, if needed) and shouldn’t stop us from dealing with our people as individuals.

But what is it about our communities that make our own people look elsewhere when it comes to spending their hard-earned money? What is it that sees members of other communities – Asian, Jewish, Middle Eastern – turn money around within their communities to create prosperity for everyone, while we race to spend ours elsewhere? How can we convince investors to put money into our institutions, shops and businesses when our own folk hesitate to patronise our services?

We need to reflect on why we, as Africans, are so ready to spend our purchasing power everywhere but in our own communities. Sometimes it is about quality; we can’t deny that some of our services can leave a lot to be desired. But again, that’s not unique to Africans – how many times have you experienced poor customer service or shoddy goods from businesses owned by other nationals?

So is it about quality or an unconscious – or even conscious - desire to avoid putting money into the pockets of people we know?  Would we rather see another community enriched by our own foods, goods and products than to see some of our own succeed?

Here’s to the Cup!

The South Africans have a word – Ubuntu – which encapsulates what we should be aiming for.  In its essence, Ubuntu is affirming of others; where one does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for one has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that one belongs in a greater whole and that when others are diminished or humiliated, we are also diminished. 

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained the concept of Ubuntu thus: “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

Well I, for one, will be spending August (and afterwards) talking up Africa instead of pulling her down. If others are focused on denigrating our continent and people, it is not necessary for us to join in. Like any other continent, we have good and bad; so instead of focusing on the negative, let’s celebrate the positive.  Let’s rejoice in the success of others and as we lend our support, open the way to receiving support from others.

So, well done, South Africa; no matter how the games turned out, getting us to this point and bringing the games to Africa has been a fantastic achievement! 

Frances Mensah Williams is the Editor of ReConnect ( an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.

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Why it is better to stay home than do 'bbc' jobs in the UK

Demands from relatives and family back home compound problems for people living abroad

The London kyeyos may be contributing significantly to the Ugandan Treasury, but their lives in the UK are nothing to envy. If you are a Ugandan with a fairly well-paying job and plan to quit for a more lucrative one in the UK, think again.

I also used to believe that Ugandans working in London were a happy lot until I went there and got it from the horse’s mouth. A friend who left home for England in 1994 to work her way through school described earning a living in England as an ordeal. “You can’t get a professional job here,” the woman, who did not want to be named, said, adding that the only work she has ever done since arriving nine years ago was wash dishes in restaurants, make beds in hotels, work the tills in supermarkets and care for old people in nursing homes.

In London, there is no room for embarrassment over what work one does because life is really hard, and bills are often astronomical. “As long as you are earning the pound, nothing else matters,” the Ugandan woman explained. Survival for students is even more challenging because, apart from paying bills (electricity, water and heating), they have to keep themselves in school lest they get deported. Worse still, a student visa permits only 20 hours of work a week, which at the best rate of £6 an hour, adds up to only £120 a week. With rent eating up the lion’s share of £60-£100 a week, many students in London have found themselves struggling under a heavy burden of unpaid bills, with no other means of staying afloat apart from doing multiple jobs.

Though doing multiple jobs brings in the pounds, it has its downside. “I get so tired that I sometimes doze in class,” said Patrick, who is about to complete his accountancy course. He also naps on buses and trains, often missing his stops, to his utter  embarrassment. “One time I slept all the way to the last stop and had the bus driver not shaken me awake, I would have spent the night in my seat. I got off the bus but couldn’t tell where I was, and it was midnight and freezing,” said Patrick.

Men do mostly security jobs, but they also work in chain stores, supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.  Ugandans who don’t have to pay school fees have an easier time but they can only find work in nursing homes, restaurants and hotels. Many of these have been granted asylum status and are legally in the UK.

I am told that life is more difficult for people whose status cannot be defined, especially those who came on visitor visas but refused to go back. Although I have not yet met anyone in this category, I am told that they cannot operate their own bank accounts, and have to rely on the goodwill of those who are legally in the UK.

A story is told of a young man who got himself a temporary job during a six-month visit to England. His wages were posted on a friend’s bank account since he had none. To get rid of the young man, the friend reported him to the authorities that he was staying in England illegally.  He lost his savings because he could not take the friend to court over the theft of his money and returned to Uganda empty-handed. The highest paying job in London – care assistant in a nursing home – is also the hardest. Most Ugandans prefer it to the others because it rakes in the pounds. Most nursing homes pay between £5 and £8 an hour. However, it involves cleaning up old people who cannot take themselves to the toilet, washing their underwear, feeding them, bathing them, and making their beds.

Among the Nigerians in the UK, it is known as “a BBC job,” short for British Buttock Cleaning. With the number of old people growing, the demand for this category of workers is high, which is why the wages are good. However, some old people are really mean and can be rude.

Nusi, a Nigerian friend who works nightshifts in a nursing home, recounts how an old woman, whose wet diaper she wanted to change, shouted, “I don’t want to see any black faces! Get out of my room!”  Nusi left and closed the door firmly behind her. But the woman called her back after two hours when the wet diaper became unbearable, and this time she was “nicer.”

Many Ugandans who leave their jobs at home and sell their property to live in the UK get a rude shock when they discover that life is far from heavenly.  “If you have a stable job in Uganda and can live within your means, then it is better to stay home because the UK makes you work till your back breaks and yet the money is not enough,” said one Ugandan woman living in London.

It is more expensive during winter when heating bills increase, and one has to take a bus or train.

Warm clothing is expensive, which eats into one’s savings.  Demands from relatives and family back home also compound the problems for kyeyo people in London. Kyeyo is a Ugandan slang referring to odd jobs. Relatives in Uganda often have high expectations of family members living in the UK.  “I used to call home at least twice a week but now I don’t because all you hear are complaints, whines and whimpers for cash,” said Patrick. “When I say I don’t have money they don’t believe me and instead accuse me of letting them down.”

However, some people argue that the Ugandans living in the UK are partly responsible for fanning the high expectations. “Every time they go home, they get loans, which they spend lavishly once they arrive in Uganda. They buy expensive gifts which in normal circumstances they would not afford, and then dress in flashy clothes, giving the impression that money is the least of their problems,” said Barbara, who is saving money for an air ticket to return to Uganda for good.

How many Ugandan lawyers, doctors, journalists, accountants, teachers or nurses are doing odd jobs in the UK? We might never know.

We might also never know how much they contribute to the British government coffers via the income and other taxes they pay.

The London kyeyos may be contributing significantly to the Ugandan Treasury, but their lives in the UK are nothing to envy them for. As one of them aptly  put it, “It is a dog’s life.”

By Edward Mulindwa

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