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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Too Old to Stay Home, Too Broke to Live Decently

Many young jobless graduates are living in horrible conditions in slums. They don't have jobs to allow them to live decently yet they don't want to stay home because they want independence. Some have to stay around Kampala because they hail from upcountry and going back to the village means they might never get a decent job, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

Francis Walubi, 22, shares a single bed with a friend. The room is tiny like the inside of a pot. Dirty and faded jeans make a little mound in a corner. Old newspapers and crumpled papers litter the soiled cheap plastic carpet. Some weird smell pervades the room; it’s during the day but starved mosquitoes buzz about with malice and fiercely suck our blood.

In June last year, Walubi completed his first degree at Makerere University. He had big dreams but as he has come to realise, “landing that dream job is as hard as that proverbial camel passing through the eye of the needle.”

When dawn cracks, Walubi prepares to plod the streets determined to find work. With a khaki parcel containing his academic testimonials, he has had to visit countless corporate companies only to be shooed away by an “arrogant receptionist” or a note on the wall that reads: 'No jobs.'

He has grown thin, his face is pale, his once slick trousers are fast wearing out while his shoes are badly out of shape and could do with a cobbler’s awl.
The story of Walubi is the story of tens of thousands of youths roaming the streets for jobs. Every year over 18,000 students graduate but very few find employment.

Many have made themselves friendly to newspaper vendors so they can be allowed to flip through the pages for advertised jobs. Often the frustration is heartrending upon the realisation that they have the qualifications but lack the five year experience prospective employers demand.

“It’s so bad that if someone opened a school to teach experience,” Walubi says sardonically, “he would become an instant millionaire.”

While it’s antagonising, indeed, to apply to several organisations and get no response, it is equally ironical that some of these job-searching people shun opportunities they deem ‘low’.

Emma, for example, landed a job as a supervisor at a construction site, courtesy of his father, but turned it down. “I can’t stand the sound of hammers banging away in my ears,” he said. “I studied Mass Communication for which I deserve a cool job.”

Emma is today holed up in a Shs20,000-month-room in Katanga, a slum, almost more deplorable than what houses Walubi. He spends his days loitering around Makerere University and always is grateful on a few lucky days when a friend tosses him a meal card, upon which he carries his hungry, lanky self to Mitchell Hall Mess to partake of the characteristic campus meal of beans and posho.

And Emma comes from a well off family. It without doubt defies logic to leave behind the comfort and the support of parents to languish on the streets of Kampala searching for a job. They say they are too old to stay at home, yet they are too broke for independence.

“I have siblings who need to reach where I have reached,” explains Irene Adong, with a coy, but somewhat determined smile. “I decided the best option was to leave home and stop being a burden to my parents.”

Many other young graduates come from upcountry districts and returning home means they give up all hope of ever getting a job.

“People in the village say so and so’s son got a degree from Makerere. They expect you to have a good job and only come home during Christmas to share the good fortune not to become an idler in the village,” says James Mafabi whose home area is in Sironko District.

Carry their crosses
The jobless eat little and like Jesus of Nazareth, carry their crosses, praying for the day they’ll wake up to find the unemployment cancer healed. They lunch in cheap food kiosks commonly known around Makerere as kikumi-kikumis, where you can eat to your fill for only Shs200 (enough posho and free soup).

When called for job interviews, the really desperate ones borrow better clothes to cut a ‘presentable’ look.

Luckily, most of them still carry their student identity cards, which permits them to use university facilities like free Internet and reading newspapers in the main library.

Some seek to do voluntary work with private organisations but even then, they are mostly turned down. When the going really gets tough, the more tactful sneak home and feed their stomachs but leave in time before their parents return from work.

President Yoweri Museveni has often called for self-employment and challenged the jobless to be job creators than job seekers. “But how’ll you create a job,” wondered James Mafundo. “Where is the capital, how even will you access credit or even if you did, can you handle the huge interest rates?”

In the past, a money-lending scheme called Entandikwa was created to help the jobless and the impoverished but it was compressed by corruption and the non-payment of the loans. Even then, the Entandikwa was meant for peasants not graduates.

Not even the Shs3.3bn that Micro Finance Minister Gen. Salim Saleh allotted to the Saving and Credit Cooperative Organisations (SACCO) last year to help exterminate poverty has saved the situation. Observers have over the years stressed that the problem is that the Ugandan education system has neglected home-grown science and practical study that would equip students with the necessary skills that they can use to create their jobs.

The awkward state of affairs is worsened when the unemployed graduates look at Kampala as the only goldmine. Most of them confessed they would rather starve than abandon the ‘stylish’ city for a remote setting, which is why some seek solace in drugs while some girls have turned to prostitution.

“It’s not good to study and not get a job,” said Betty Iyamuremye. “The girls are doing carpet interviews (offering sex in return for job promises) and some get married to the wrong elements for money. This has increased unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and the spread of HIV/Aids.”

American dream
Uganda ranks number 144 in unemployment rate for youths (15-24 years), according to the 2005 Human Development Report, and because the university degree can hardly warrant you a fine job here, many are fleeing to Juba and other countries hoping for ‘better deals.’

In the process, many are losing a lot of money to conniving dealers who promise them US visas. Living the American dream is atop the agenda of most unemployed graduates but the dollar question remains: if somebody can marshal Shs1m to pay a visa dealer, why not Shs2m with which to start business?

The irony is that kyeyo workers in America say it’s a cracked up world out there: “The real thing is that people out there only tell the good things to people in Uganda and conceal the struggles and hard life,” said Peter (not real name) through e-mail. “For the record, just know that getting a visa is only the beginning of one’s struggles. Once you get here, you need a photo ID and work authorisation to get a job. These two are hard to get because a certain kind of visa entitles you to them and if you don’t have it then you won’t get them and if you don’t have them then you can’t get a job.”

Added Peter, "Life here is very stressful -I wouldn’t advise anyone to come and live here. This place is only good to visit for a couple of weeks but living here is not worth it. But of course someone who has never lived here cannot understand it."

By the look of things, not even the New Year seems to have a positive sign. Perhaps the jobless should live by the words of Harold J. Wilkiur: “The world of achievement has always belonged to the optimist.”

Published in Sunday Monitor, January 07, 2007