By Norman Katende, in New York
Five years ago, a Ugandan woman travelled to the US for a conference, but did not come back. She had seen glamourous photos of Hollywood and Ugandans working in the US.
She made up her mind before leaving Kampala that she would not return. She abandoned her job at a hospital in Uganda, where she had been earning sh3m. She also left behind a husband and two children, hoping they would one day join her in the US.
When she arrived in New York, a friend hosted her for a while before asking her to leave. Having failed to get a professional job, she decided to take on kyeyo (odd jobs) like sweeping roads and cleaning toilets. Eventually, she became a bus tout.
Realising that life was not as rosy as she thought, the lady made up her mind to return to Uganda, but five years down the road, she has not been able to save $1,200 (about sh3m) for an air ticket.
When hope of getting a decent job fades away, immigrants resort to selling merchandise like bags
The cost of living is so high that all the money she earns goes into feeding, accommodation and bills. She could not tell her husband the truth about what she is going through. Eventually, they developed a misunderstanding and lost touch.
With most odd jobs fetching about $1,500 (about sh3.8m) per month, and accommodation costing $3,000 (about sh7.5m) in New York, she has to share an apartment. And she is not alone, many African professionals are going through untold suffering in the US. Some of them sell land and everything they have in order to go for kyeyo, only to get disappointed.
According to the US government statistics, over 11 million illegal immigrants are doing odd jobs in the country. Over 40% of these come as genuine visitors, but stay longer than permitted.
James Mayanja, who travelled to America in 1998, says with the economic difficulties of the recent years, opportunities have dwindled to the extent that it has become suicidal to go for kyeyo in the US.
“It is not the America of the 1980s where you used to come and settle. Life is expensive and people’s attitude has changed,” Mayanja says.
When Mayanja arrived in the US, he was hosted by another Ugandan, who at that time had 10 people in his house.
However, with increasing economic difficulties, no one wants to feed an extra mouth, which would mean an additional expenditure of at least $400 (about sh1m)a month.
“Life has become harder and the only advice I give to those people who are travelling here for odd jobs is to be sceptical and do good prior research.”
A Ugandan, Lawrence Kiwanuka, who travelled to the US in 1995, wonders why some Africans go to the extent of selling their properties just to get to . “That is madness. I know some have made it, but those are few and they are the lucky ones,” he says.
A homeless man shields himself from the cold while another sits on the street at Times Square
He adds that anyone with assets that can be sold for a trip to the US has enough capital and only needs guidance to invest and make money within Uganda.
Joshua Mmali, a former BBC correspondent in Uganda who is currently working in the public information department of United Nations in New York, says he has seen unbelievable living conditions of Africans in the US. “The situation is appalling. It is not a life that anyone would love to have,” he says.
“If you come down here with a job waiting for you or you are going to study, it is quite different; but if you are going to come to start a new life with a blind leap of faith in search of the so-called American dream, then better think twice. The situation is not as rosy as it is portrayed,” Mmali adds.
Pius Bugembe, the chairman of the Uganda American Association of the Greater New York Area, says many Ugandans have been duped by those who live large when they return home.
“Some come home and stay in expensive hotels, hire expensive vehicles to move them around and then run back to spend another two years clearing the debts,” Bugembe says.
He adds that unless you get documents that allow you to stay and work in the US, life becomes difficult from the moment you settle in as no one will give you a sound job. Some of them rush into sham marriages with American citizens in order to get employment. They pay over $4,000 (about sh10m) for the marriage.
The situation is expected to get worse in 2017 as the US is planning a new bill, which will make it more difficult for the ordinary person to win a visa lottery.
Even then, these lotteries only come with an employment visa to the US and not a job. As a result, even winners of the visa lottery can get stranded, if they do not get a job. No wonder that some are found begging on the streets while holding placards.
Some women resort to commercial sex work as a last resort, especially in summer when tourism booms. Some men become thieves or peddle drugs and end up in jail.
According to government statistics, almost 90% of couples who travel together to the US for odd jobs end up breaking up because of circumstances caused by economic difficulties.
While many professionals are starving in the US, many in Uganda are planning to quit their jobs and board the plane. Many immigrants are hawking fake leather bags and other merchandise on the streets.
Many professionals leave Uganda to do odd jobs they would not dream of doing here