In Nairobi, there is an estate known as Eastleigh (also referred to as Isili in the local language). In this estate, there are many powerful Somali businessmen, most of them illegal immigrants from Somaliland, Djibouti and Somalia who usually come to Kenya as war and economic refugees. But before they get legal documents permitting them to settle in Kenya, they hide out among their fellow nationals at Eastleigh estate, from where they mix with other Somalis and then jump into business. This happens because many Somalis look exactly alike; one can hardly differentiate a Kenyan Somali from a Somaliland Somali. After a short while, the business stabilises and the refuge-seeking Somali becomes financially secure — this is so due to nothing other than the fact that many small businesses thrive easily in the Kenyan environment. And who among you, my dear readers, would not answer when money calls? Money is so powerful that it can even silence the devil — for a time.
Around the same Eastleigh estate, there is an open field known as Kamukunji grounds. On these grounds, there is always a crowd of women, comprising mainly of teen-aged girls, between the ages of twelve to nineteen. There are also a few young and mature women, between the ages of twenty and forty. On most days, the crowd consists of over a hundred young girls and ladies; they usually arrive at the grounds early to wait for rich men or women who come looking for domestic workers to hire. For your information, these ground-hovering and job-seeking crowds of womenfolk are from different tribes and cultures of Uganda. They speak Luganda among themselves but switch to English when speaking to a person not from their ilk. On closer interactions with them, you discover that some of the girls are from the Bugisu and Karamojong communities in Eastern Uganda, while others are from the Ankole community in Western Uganda and the Buganda community in Central Uganda. The jobs they get are usually not on permanent and pensionable terms, and if any of them is lucky to get a job, it’s usually a day’s work. The kinds of jobs they do include linen washing, dish washing, baby washing and general house cleaning. They are usually paid at the end of the day, and sent away. Any girl who gets a job for the day will help buy food for another girl who was not as lucky.
Consequently, the girls share sleeping places, food and clothing items.
I don’t know if it is a work of nature for one refugee to be an employer of another refugee in the country hosting both of them. My angst is pecked on the special ‘phenomenology’ in which the rich folks who come to hire domestic workers among the Ugandan refugees are also ‘refugees’ from Somaliland or Somalia themselves that have settled illegally in Kenya. It is even sadder to watch how, when the rich folks come, some of the girls and women desperately jump around like young goats after suckling, howling clownishly and twerking wildly for attention. One cannot help wondering at the similarity of the Ugandan ladies’ behaviour at the Kamukunji grounds to the scenes of slave market behaviour on American slave-markets often narrated in literatures of black slavery. The police have been unable to stop the ladies from coming to Kamukunji grounds. Those that have been arrested and deported have always found a way to return to their life of scrambling for money and yelling, “Domestic workers here!” at Kamukunji grounds. My earnest desire is that, one day, things will change for these ladies, and that they will come by good, permanent jobs. Not only at Kamukunji but at any other place that can accommodate a person interested in earning a decent salary.
Why the Ugandan girls in Nairobi, though? It is somewhat unfortunate that this article is yet unaware of any systematic research that has been done to reveal why businessmen of Eastleigh prefer domestic workers from Uganda. However, one non-governmental organisation revealed that Kenyan employers prefer domestic workers from Uganda because they are cheap and easy to supervise; they are honest, hard working and humble, kneeling or bowing when serving their bosses. These reasons, however, only favour one side; they are reasons that give employers an opportunity to exploit their employees. It is a social condition that must not be allowed to flourish, a cause to be upheld under the contextual light that injustice to a worker somewhere is injustice to workers everywhere.
Aristotle, the son of Nichomacheas, wrote in his essay, Politics: “Slavery is a gift of nature.” I consider this philosophy flawed because it is only the (human) will which accepts to be broken that allows slavery to thrive as a gift of nature. Slavery will definitely not thrive if we all embrace the “civil stubbornness” propounded by Mahatma Gandhi that no one can ride your back unless you accept to stoop. The people of Uganda have assented to “a collective stooping,” as can be seen from the semi-slavery among the Karamojong girls.
In August, 2020, an investigative journalist and feature story creator, Hussein Muhammad of the Kenyan Television Network (KTN), interviewed one of the ladies, and asked questions including how she came to Kenya only to end up in such deplorable social and economic conditions. The lady interviewed revealed that, she was a Karamojong from Soroti District in Eastern Uganda, who had been brought to Kenya along with others from her village (about a dozen of them).
According to her, they had been deceived by a Ugandan human trafficker who told them that there were many good, highly paying jobs in Kenya; that they were coming to Nairobi city where there were no muddy roads — all roads flew in the air and the people lived in sky-touching buildings. Kenyan men were said to be loose with their money; they paid in thousands to red-light district workers. Now, we agree that the human trafficker acted mischievously, but his prank obviously thrived on the absence of a collective will against enslavement, as well as the prevailing mentality among the Karamojong villagers of making money through any means including questionable ones. These apparently served as a good landing for the prankish intentions of the human trafficker at Soroti.
In the same month, a footage sent by the Ugandan Daily Vision News service to KTN birthed a feature story. It showed a pregnant Karamojong mother at Soroti town selling away her three daughters, aged between twelve and eighteen years, to the human trafficker. She accepted to sell off her three daughters after the human trafficker offered to pay her thirteen dollars for each girl, an equivalent of one thousand, three hundred Kenyan shillings each. One point of concern was observed in the background of the footage: there were many long-horned cows and goats, and they were not for sale. One cannot help asking: “Why is a human being cheaper than a cow in Soroti town?” It is even more difficult to understand why the Karamojong people, who are known for owning a lot of cows, would prefer to sell their children instead of their cows to get money. And why daughters? Does this mean that the Karamojong families do not value the girl child? This may be disturbing to the modern, enlightened mind but may not be so to the mind conserved in Karamojong custom and cultural values.
It is unfortunate that while these young Ugandans are wallowing in Kenya’s urban camouflaged slavery in Nairobi, their Kenyan age-mates are in school continuing their education — and given the fact that it is a crime in Kenya for an infant to not be in school! An infant in Kenya is any person below the age of 18 years. This type of law guarantees that most young people will have a secondary school education in Kenya. Now, that the Kenyan government has put on the blinkers on the social vice of Ugandan children being trafficked into servitude and child labour in Kenya, is an immoral act that hinges on other immoralities. It is either bribery has fettered the process of law enforcement in regard to Uganda-Kenya child trafficking, or nationalistic malice has made the Kenyan government overlook Ugandan children labour in Kenya. Or it could be that the Education Act, the Child Labour Act and the Employment Act in Kenya does not apply to the Ugandan child labourer in Kenya. Otherwise, all those vicious Ugandan human traffickers and illegally-settled Somali consumers of child labour living in Nairobi are supposed to be indicted by the law. In an ideal situation, all those Ugandan child labourers would either be rounded up, rehabilitated and educated in Kenya, or deported to Uganda and taken to school.
The reason for the laxity in administrative laws against the vice of Ugandan child servitude in Kenya can be ascribed to the fact that politics in Kenya recurrently gravitates towards becoming monstrous. Those in power measure the relevance of the law using their stomachs — an immorality that has had a trickle-down effect on the police service and a lateral effect on the legislature, thus making the legislature an epicenter of poverty of thought. In such circumstances, one cannot blame the judiciary for failure to execute justice; it has become a complete social vacuum devoid of moral concerns, a social abyss in which the unfortunate powerless ones like the self-enslaving child labourers of Uganda will languish to the last shred of their flesh.
This article must be allowed some latitude to blame this situation upon the fallacy among the people of Uganda in their collective and loud nursing of the blind faith that there is a lot of cash in Kenya. This intellectual flap among Ugandan elders has misled a lot of young people from Uganda into defective decisions about moving to Kenya. It is this fallacious notion that is mostly responsible for the ever increasing population of Ugandans on Kenya’s red-light districts, as well as the Sheeben keepers, Boda-Boda riders, and hawkers of perfume, sugar cane, and pieces of sliced water-melon and pineapples. I need not be forbidden from highlighting the fact that baby-sitting and cutting of knappier grass for cattle fodder especially the zero-grazed cows in Kiambu County in central Kenya is the kind of work reserved for Ugandans. It is sad that Ugandans do all these type of jobs for very little pay. Where a Kenyan worker is paid a thousand shillings, a Ugandan is accepting two hundred shillings. Even more cruel is the fact that some disingenuous Kenyans may decide not to pay the Ugandan labourers at the end of the day; they do so deliberately knowing that the undocumented Ugandan immigrant will not be able to seek legal assistance in enforcement of their contractual rights.
It is my strong desire, however, that a keen Ugandan youth comes across this article and reads it with an objective mind without feeling affronted by the nationalistic overtones in it. I write with the hope that this youth will accept the continued illegal immigration of Ugandans to Kenya to make quick money as a type of misadvised social and economic thought-culture that does not help Uganda as a country; neither does it help Kenya or even East Africa as an economic block. This is so given the economic logic that for a country to develop it must depend on the well-directed labour of its citizens. It is a fact that Uganda needs to be liberated from the economic quagmire caused by bad governance. This overdue liberation has to be done by the Ugandans themselves. Thus, Ugandans must choose to remain in Uganda and fight for a better Uganda. There is no way any Ugandan can liberate Uganda from bad politics and poverty by working in Kenya as a dish-washer, child-laborer, human trafficker, boda-boda taxi driver, herds boy, red-light district worker or Sheeben dealer. It is until Ugandan girls stop kneeling and bowing before men in the name of work and choose to fight for their rights in Uganda that their economic freedom will come. Just like any other person living under oppression, Ugandan girls must learn some political wisdom from the words Zimbabwean writer, Tsitsi Dangamregba, who said: “For you to get freedom, you must act; an action comes from hope.” These are the words of wisdom that apply to all of us; they apply to those Kenyans girls and young ladies, running from Kenya to Dubai hoping for the opportunity to make quick money. The words apply equally to the handsome and beautiful young Ethiopian men and women running to Kenya hoping to make quick money from the informal sector, and also to those heartless and faceless cartels of Tanzanian human traffickers trafficking disabled Tanzanians to Kenya to work as street beggars. Obviously, the above actions do not come from hope. Rather, they are acts of hopelessness. We shall never deliver East Africa from the powers of poverty and the abyss of bad politics if all our social actions are risibly irrational and are as hopeless as the evident social depravation we boldly display through our addiction to trafficking our fellow kinsmen and countrymen to other countries and distant lands out of our blind avarice for making quick wealth and shunning of genuine hard work.
In Volume 1 of Capital, Karl Marx authoritatively averred that, “developed countries are the picture or the image of the future of the poor countries,” and thus, poor countries must learn from developed nations. It is under this rudimentary context that studying the social behaviours of the people in the developed countries and nations like Germany, Japan and the United states is scientifically justified. The study shows that developed countries achieved development partly because they were blessed with resilient citizens who stayed to soldier on in spite of the size of their challenges. The Americans did not run away from the economic depression of the last century nor are black Americans running away from the fiercely fangled racism in their country. These Americans may be socially insolent, as many think, but they are indubitably a positive lesson enough for social benchmarking when it comes to wangling through and wriggling around national challenges to achieve the American Dream. The American Dream is not the only nationalist dream on earth; we can also have a Ugandan Dream. Of course, we have the dream, but how do we achieve it? We can achieve by refusing to be enslaved by our neighbours, by observing a certain law of power by Robert Greene: “For you to win, convince a competitor to come and work for you; for you not to win, accept to work for your competitor.”
Reflecting on the Ugandan dream in relation to the episodes above in light of the deliberations at the KUSI ideas conference held in Kigali Rwanda in 2019, will lead us to the premise that the self-enslavement of Ugandan youths to Kenya’s informal labour market is a social bus stop at the table (one of the implications) of African politics. It is politics in Africa that will hinder or facilitate the actualisation of the dreams of African youths. Politics must stop doing what it has been doing; it must rather choose to use the youths in pushing Africa beyond the confines of poverty. Africa’s elders must observe and listen to what the youth want. The youth want to cooperate and work, but not to compete; the youth want to work beyond political boundaries. African youths want technology, they want to work in the service sectors, to save and invest. These are some of the economic variables that push the Ugandan youths on to the Kenya labour market. Politics is obliged to respond to these economic paradigms of the youth by equipping them with education, technology and jobs as well as entrepreneurial opportunities in the service sector.
ALEXANDER (ERNESTO KHAMALA ISLAM NAMUGUGU) OPICHO
is a published poet, short story writer, essayist and social critic, living and working in Kenya. His published work is available online. He is most humbled for getting published in The Shallow Tales Review, Agbowo Magazine, Homintern Magazine, Queer Africa II anthology, The Carribean Writer, Lunaris Review, Syd Harrex Special Issue of Transnational literature and the Awaaz Magazine as well as the Buwa journal. He loves trees, books, and wildlife.