Opinion | In praise of the despised, ridiculed Nkuba kyeyos – By Muniini K. Mulera

Posted January 7, 2013 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Opinion ~ 7,194 views



Dear Tingasiga:

Many Ugandans despise us. We are the Nkuba kyeyo, a Luganda phrase that literally means: “I am a sweeper”, as in sweeping the streets and other facilities in foreign lands. It is used as a derogatory term, rooted in a culture that despises manual labour. The Kampala newspapers, including the Daily Monitor, refer to the work done by Nkuba kyeyos as “odd jobs”, a not so subtle expression of contempt for manual and other relatively underpaid employment.

Even many Ugandan professionals in the Diaspora protest at being called Nkuba kyeyos, their common refrain being that they are highly educated people who do “serious jobs” that demand respect.

In fact, there is nothing odd about the jobs that hundreds of thousands of Ugandans do in the Diaspora. Factory workers, home and road maintenance workers, sanitation workers, personal support workers, other service industry employees, farm hands, taxi drivers and other transportation workers, salesmen and so on are the backbone of the economy.

Their work is no less vital and no less valuable than the work of lawyers, teachers, doctors, accountants, politicians or pilots. All are respectable and essential jobs that have built these countries into developed societies from which Uganda begs foreign aid. These countries are the handiwork of men and women with basic or college education and skills acquired through apprenticeship and experience. The Ugandan obsession with university degrees and so-called white-collar jobs is in stark contrast with the attitudes here in Canada, for example.

Only 25 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 years have university degrees. The figures for other developed countries are: Norway, 32 per cent; USA, 31 per cent; UK and Japan, 23 per cent each; Germany, 16, and Italy, 11.

From time to time, we are reminded of the indispensability of what Ugandans call “odd jobs” when groups of workers go on strike. When, for example, the sanitation workers in Toronto went on strike a few years ago, the smell on the city streets quickly brought the negotiating teams to an agreement that increased the workers’ wages.

The teams of employees who clean my clinic and ensure maintenance of the systems are as essential to my practice as the doctors and nurses. Working in unhygienic conditions is out of the question. We pay these essential workers very well. Among these essential workers all over the world are Ugandans doing the kyeyo that their compatriots despise. They remit large chunks of their savings back home, exceeding $1 billion per annum.

If the Nkuba kyeyos decided to withhold their remittances for one year, it would probably open the eyes and ears of our compatriots to appreciate the important role we play in the health of our country.

As a senior member of the Nkuba kyeyo Clan, I praise and honor my compatriots. We left our homeland in search of personal safety and economic opportunities. We live far from our loved ones, in strange lands and do whatever it takes to provide a decent living for our families. We smile when countrymen despise our jobs but not the cash we send back.

I gladly wear the badge of the Nkuba kyeyo, for I salute the foresight, choices, stamina, humility and patriotism of those of us who chose to go abroad or to stay abroad after the wars, to earn a living and to advance our careers and lives. My claim to membership is not false modesty but a true description of one entering one’s 36th year of toiling in foreign lands.

As a young refugee medical doctor in Kenya in 1977, unable to find paid employment in my profession, I landed a labourer’s job at Kenya Uniforms.Carrying bales of cotton cloth from the trucks into the factories was a blessed experience that humbled me and quickly disabused me of the illusion of being special simply because I had studied human medicine.

I learnt to respect manual labour and to appreciate my modest wage that supplemented the stipend that I received from the Joint Refugee Services of Kenya. I thank the Lord that He enabled me to pursue my professional career. I thank Him for the numerous Nkuba kyeyos who have successfully advanced their education careers and financial health through hard work and sacrifice.

We are blessed not to be dependents on anyone except the Lord’s grace and mercy. We are fulfilling the teaching of the Apostle Paul who urges us in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 to “work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

We voluntarily give significant chunks of our earnings to Uganda – more than $1 billion per year. We do not steal from the public purse. We ask for nothing in return, except our rights of citizenship, including the right to vote and to be full participants in the political and economic development process in our motherland, without being discriminated against simply because we chose to cast our nets far and wide.

Dr Mulera is a Daily Monitor columnist based in Canada.

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.



    it’s strange that lives of human-beings’ lost the values being creatives and inventive creatures on earth, due to so many reasons by not care to look more-extra carefully around us everything deserves another to survive, in world that we live in everthing is important cause everything was created for a reason if someone puts down by calling “okuba kye” don’t hard on him/her. Struggles, stress, and bussiveness that we see today started decades ago and still going on even in this modern-times where the human-beings’ should know better than those decades gone-by, in other words, it’s like who cares weather you’re alive or dead now days furthermore the world is deing-creaming at as, and this applies land which vanishing everyday if you dont know history you wont know tomorrow.

    Joseph Tumushabe

    Dr. Mulera President Museveni recently acknowledged the impact our remittances have on the economy. The main challenge is his government and him personally have come to take us for granted. To the government our remittances are just like the sun, rain or free air. Our right to Uganda citizenship, to vote and demand that we participate in the decision process at home will have to be wrestled from those that take us for granted. It will not come easy.

    James Bill Ochamgiu

    The executive recently paid Irish Government with the money from public coffers without going through the parliament. That is not the way to go. In any case we have lost money two times. If its was $5mn from the office of the prime minister and the same amount from the treasury then we have lost $10mn. Is the regime on its way to the limbo? Let me assure you this year it will not be business as usual with any body misusing public resources without following the proper channels.


    The fact is i need more time to read through.this length-notes inorder for me to understand this company and the lady Harriet’s dealings at this company, if all goes as the esy i pressume we msybe friends with Lady Harriet in business perhaps soon i hope.

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