Living my Ugandan Dream? Perspectives from My Reverse Culture Shock

Four months ago, I returned to Uganda, my mother country, after ten years of studying and living in the U.S. This came soon after I completed a Global Health Corps fellowship in New York City, where I led programming initiatives to provide poor New Yorkers with public benefits such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition, Education benefits and legal services. A month after my return, I took on a task as a School Partnership Manager for Educate! Uganda. An organization, whose mission is to develop young leaders and entrepreneurs in Africa who will not only solve their community and national challenges but will propel their countries into sustainable economic futures. Soon, after my appointment, I took to the field for two weeks working to cultivate relationships with schools in two districts of Masaka and  Tororo. Most of my days were spent on non-stop boda-boda rides and in beat-up minibuses where conductors force 20 people in a 14-passenger capacity vehicle on dusty, pothole-infested, 1960 roads. My journey took me from small urban and rural towns to “last mile” village schools, where the only mode of transport is non-other than a motorbike taxi a.k.a boda boda. 

Soon after my two-week cross-country stint, I took a day off to reflect on what I had observed in the field. While editing my notes at a cafe in our bustling capital, Kampala, I realized that ten years ago, I would not have complained about the crumbling public schools, broken roads, and or inexistent public health systems, challenges I observed on my short field trip. Soon it occurred to me. Could I be undergoing reverse culture shock as some of my close friends from Global Health Corps had alluded? Of course, it made sense. I had been away for almost ten years, returning only twice and for short visits to my family and friends. I have also been lucky to live in relatively great cities, and in safe neighborhoods in the U.S. There is no doubt I have lived a privileged life.

Nevertheless, living away shaped my perspective in a way that I do not regret. Ten years ago, I was coming out of high school, jobless like 83% of the youth here. At the time, Kampala was not bustling with malls, expat cafe’s, expensive cars, so much wealth and as many Wazungu and local NGOs as it is today. Even finding a job in a restaurant was next to impossible for a young man of my age. Back then; I combed the streets of Kampala for six months after high school to find a job. I finally landed a manual labor job at and Indian juice factory for $45 a month in Kampala’s industrial area. I was lucky to have a job because they were always endless lines of mothers looking outside the factory. It made it so easy for our bosses to hull insults and abuse us verbally because we were easily replaceable. When I got my sponsorship to attend college in the U.S, it was a breath of fresh air. However, I have never forgotten my experiences and among many have always reminded me the challenges people face in this beautiful country.

In a way, my return has been sort of a necessary boot camp for a Ugandan who aspires to be part of grassroots political and social transformation in this country. In four and a half months of my return, I have been to 10 out of 112 districts and visited over 17 rural and urban secondary schools, and met with Chief Administration Officers (CAOs), District Education Officers (DEOs), Inspector of Schools, head teachers, teachers and students. I have traveled between small and rural towns and villages. My field trip has been met with a deep sense of appreciation for the natural beauty and the wealth of this country, as well as a sorrowful sense of realization of failed dreams and untapped potential amongst our youth who make 78% of the population. 

I returned here close to five months ago, with optimism to live my African if not my Uganda dream. Although it been difficult to keep this optimism.  Despite the wealth, the influx of international NGOs and companies, luxury brand vehicles- that resemble those I saw in Miami, Florida, fenced and well guarded mansions in Kampala, and across the country. There is so much that my country and its leadership leaves you desiring, and I fear that my optimism is turning more into questioning.

Why has Uganda, a country with rapid economic reforms geared to attracting foreign direct investment, a booming market-driven business and tourism industry with over 2 decades of relatively stable economic growth, and substantial mineral resources, not mentioning our fertile soils, lakes and rivers failed to provide the basic public health infrastructure to her citizens? A recent article in the local paper mentioned Uganda achieving middle-income status by 2040 while relegating poverty to a small percentage of our population. Although that would be every Ugandan’s dream, I am not very optimistic about Vision 2040 unless our 83% unemployed youth and those employed come together to find a solution.

Here are my reasons for pessimism and my challenge to the leaders who drafted Vision 2040.  Middle income status or not could we at least get the basic infrastructure right?  To borrow the words ofDaniel Kalinaki on the state of public infrastructure, “Our public health system is in coma. Learning has been suspended in our education system and replaced by attendance. Most of our streets are unlit at night, and filled with open sewers with no place for pedestrians to walk. The garbage goes uncollected. Our sewer system has not been expanded in decades.” Vision 2040 is and will remain a dream, if all of us, and most importantly our leaders do not selflessly invest their time and resources to move it from the books to its physical reality.

If tasked with implementing Vision 2040, here is what I would do to make this dream come true for all Ugandans

  • Start by making sure that all Ugandans have access to clean drinking water and uninterrupted electricity by 2040. This would ensure uninterrupted business activity, which guarantees clean tax revenues. 
  • Ensure all Ugandans have equal access to health care by instituting a national health system and investing more in health care education including physicians, nurses, and social workers.  A healthy workforce is a very productive one.
  • Overhaul our education system, so that children born in Kidoko sub-county, in the remotest place I visited in Tororo, have equal access to quality education as those born in Kololo.

Remember the words of our great African leader, Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”  If Uganda is to achieve the ambitious dream, Vision 2040, we must get our Education right.  We do not need to look far to see how smart-and context-specific educational reforms and policies have transformed the Eastern economics of India and China. Instead of an old education colonial model, that leaves the majority of our population unemployed why not change it.

Last and perhaps more important, 480,000 youth are churned out of Ugandan universities and only 100,000 are likely to find a job.  What Uganda needs now, is to collaborate with more organizations such as Educate! which trains our youth in entrepreneurship and leadership, to solve problems in their communities at all levels of society. Youth who ask not what their government can do for them, but who are creating jobs and employing their fellow Ugandans, and solving both local and national challenges. And Global Health Corps, which deals with the unemployment burden head on, by training and placing young people from all careers backgrounds and place them in cutting-age organizations working at the margins of health care to deal with social injustices and inequities in the world and mostly importantly our fledgling healthcare system. Our leaders must figure out how to get the national strategic plan if we are to all come to realize our dream of Vision 2040.

As I reflect on what a Ugandan Dream would truly look like, I am reminded of these words of Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogota, Columbia, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Vision 2040 will only become a reality if and only if, those who drafted it in the end get the same health care, and their children attend the same schools as their subjects. That is when I will gladly say; I am now living my Ugandan Dream!