Nkuba Kyeyo: stories from America

From: Transition
Issue 106, 2011
pp. B-72-B-87

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Nkuba Kyeyo
stories from America

On a recent trip to Uganda, the kind he takes at least once a year, Angelo Kaggwa carried a backpack and three suitcases. The backpack contained everything he needed for the few days he would be in Kampala, and the suitcases, heavy with an eclectic mix of goods, contained nothing that really belonged to him. The suitcases would stay in Kampala, empty, their contents distributed among relatives and friends for whom he had carried Christmas presents. The backpack would return, only less heavy.

“I never came back with my watch, my shades, and a pair of shoes,” says Kaggwa. “Someone would come to me and say, ‘That’s a cool shirt. Can I have it?’ I managed to bring my shirt back. I also managed to bring my blazer back. At the end of the day, I don’t really care. I am privileged to be in a position where I can share with friends and family.”

Kaggwa’s tale is typical of immigrants who, once they arrive in America, find themselves caught between taking care of themselves and fulfilling their obligations to their families back home. Satisfying such obligations can be both gratifying and painful. For Kaggwa, a humble man who speaks in the polite language of “sacrifice” and “help,” it is a burden to be accepted with humility, which is to avoid saying no to those who expect to hear yes. This is not always easy.

In Kampala, people have been conditioned to think of overseas workers as the nkuba kyeyo, a Luganda phrase that immediately conjures up images of fortune and misfortune, envy and resentment, all at once. The term is a sad, painful reminder of the indignity suffered by Ugandans who make a living overseas—a powerful, if inaccurate, depiction of life abroad. The name imagines a conversation in which a Ugandan, recently returned from overseas, is asked what he does for a living, how he makes a lot of money. The answer is abrupt.

Okolakyi e Bulaaya?”: “What do you do overseas?”

Nkuba kyeyo”: “I sweep the streets.”

Bu Kaggwa, 28, doesn’t do menial work in New York. He sits in a neat cubicle on the seventh floor of a high-rise building in lower Manhattan, where he works for a nonprofit called the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy [End Page B-72] Coalition (AVAC). Kaggwa coordinates some of AVAC’s work in Africa, and the job takes him on trips that were once unimaginable. He may be the youngest of five children, but in Uganda, where his mother and many relatives live, his success has put him firmly on a pedestal. Kaggwa frequently swirls in his office chair, his gaze directed at the ceiling, giving the impression that he is constantly looking back.

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Migrant 7. Black and white photograph. ©2009 Caroline Kaminju.

Before the Christmas trip to Kampala, Kaggwa tagged, as he always does, most of the gifts he would carry, making sure he had something for all those who mattered, in the process spending at least $600 of his own money. Still, he left behind a few disgruntled faces. “I can’t afford to bring something for everyone, but it is very difficult to explain this to them,” says Kaggwa. “The last two years I have been in school. My work contract was such that I had just enough to be in school and stay alive.”

The fact that immigrants often don’t earn enough to meet the wild expectations of those who depend on them was long ago obscured by popular belief in Uganda. The phenomenon of nkuba kyeyo is grounded in fantasy as much as reality, a story more complex than the name suggests. Many of these immigrant workers lead poor lives in America, struggling to make a very modest living, yet they are wealthy by African standards and are perceived that way in Uganda. Paradoxically, while they are envied for the relative wealth they can display at home, they are not always admired. The [End Page B-73] only constant is that they find themselves pulled by two sets of responsibilities here in America and back...