Rags to riches: Pursuing the Ugandan dream

Today the Daily Monitor published an article I wrote about the “Ugandan Dream.” Like it’s American counterpart, this dream is shared by millions of low-income workers across East Africa. If I work hard enough, I can make it. I can escape poverty, buy some land, and build a better future for my children.

Well, it’s not quite that easy, as Charles Alisingura’s story shows. Like the American Dream, ambition in Uganda is often slighted by things beyond our control. Personal and structural obstacles have led some theorists to believe that the American Dream is a romantic myth, at best, and a deliberate lie crafted by the wealthy elite, at worst. It leads people to believe that their failure to become millionaires is their own fault and that if we work hard enough, we can all become Bill Gates.

For most of my life, I bought into this argument more than the libertarian viewpoint that success is almost entirely determined by individual merit. But I also think that some social critics, like Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Outliers I read a few weeks ago, take this theory a bit too far. By focusing almost exclusively on the strong correlation between  predetermined factors (parental income, birth year, and place of birth) and long-term success, Gladwell doesn’t leave much space for grit, determination, and hard work. This is exactly the kind of leftist thinking that makes my libertarian friends cringe because it leads to the fatalistic conclusion that none of us controls our own destiny. 

Like any argument, however, there is a middle ground. Of course external factors matter. Class, race, gender, nationality, age, and any other external indicator have an enormous influence on who we are and how we live. But you can’t dismiss the role of free will. While people are constricted by their environs, they can still choose how they respond to them. And whether you’re the daughter of Bill Gates or the son of a Zambian coal miner, no one can take that away from you.

I first heard about Charles Alisingura during a dinner conversation with friends. We were discussing the plight of house boys and girls in Uganda. As I mention in the article, there are thousands of these servants who are the equivalent of modern-day slaves. For around $2 USD per month, they attend to Uganda’s wealthy elite and have almost no economic or social mobility.

In the brief encounters I’ve had with house boys and girls, I have been surprised with how optimistic they seem. Even if their current situation is dismal, they assume that they’ll move onto bigger and better things if they just keep on keepin’ on.

So I asked my friends–do you know of any house girls or boys who have actually made it, who have achieved their dreams?

They responded with an enthusiastic “yes” and told me the story of their driver, Charles. Last week, I met with Charles and tried to document his story. The story is inspiring because he is achieving his dreams through hard work and perseverance. But I also tried to document the moments of change in Charles’ life–the opportunities that emerged and how he reacted. Ultimately, it is this intersection between luck and choice that I think we need to pay attention to. You can’t control external factors, but you can control how you respond to them. So here’s the story of how Charles responded to his limitations and opportunities.

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Houseboy-turned cab driver and land owner

By: Brian Klosterboer

Daily Monitor

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Charles Alisingura poses by his cab at Kisementi. He started making his living as a houseboy but now owns his own cab and 16 acres of land. Photo by Brian Klosterboer.

It is a relatively short drive from Masindi to Kampala—three hours under the best of conditions. As a special hire driver in Kampala, Charles Alisingura knows this trip well. But for him, a former houseboy with 41 brothers and sisters, the journey from living in the village to becoming a businessman in Kampala took half a lifetime.

There are thousands of houseboys and girls in Uganda. Most of them are young, uneducated, and do menial tasks for as little as Shs5,000 per month. Although they are compensated with room and board, most house helps have no social or economic mobility. Some of them live and work in a compound for 24 hours a day and are rarely allowed to visit friends or family members.

Sending a child to work as a houseboy or girl is seldom a parent’s first choice, but with Uganda’s birth rate being one of the highest in the world, over six births per woman, some families have few options.

Getting into domestic work
Alisingura’s father had six wives and 42 children. Although some of his elder brothers and sisters were able to attend secondary school, the school fees quickly ran out and in 1979, Alsingura’s parents decided to send him to Kinyara Sugar Works to become a houseboy for a family from Pakistan. Alsingura was 16 years old.

Alsingura reflects fondly on his first few years as a houseboy. It was difficult work—he often laboured from 6am until midnight—but he gained valuable skills like cooking, cleaning, and speaking proper English.

With the Shs250 he earned per month, Alsingura helped to pay the school fees for some of his younger siblings. Three years later, the family at Kinyara returned to Pakistan. Because Alsingura was a hard worker, they recommended him to an Indian family living in Kampala.

For a young man from Masindi, Kampala was a big and exciting place, but Alsingura felt trapped when his new family refused to give him a single day off. “I asked them to go see my parents and they wouldn’t allow me,” Alsingura said. “And that made me hate the work.”

Alsingura remembers being trapped inside the family’s compound as the darkest moment of his life. When he was finally allowed to leave for a short visit, he met a friend of his brother who was working as a taxi driver in Kampala.

When Alsingura told him about his predicament, the man invited him to become a conductor. Alsingura began working as a taxi conductor in 1985 and for the next five years, he shuttled people into Kampala’s taxis for a small amount of money every day. During the end of Milton Obote’s presidency, inflation soared and soldiers would force themselves into Alsingura’s taxi without paying.

Some days, he would earn Shs500,000, but the money was almost worthless until the National Resistance Movement captured Kampala and reset the currency.

Even under the new regime, working as a conductor was hardwork and Alsingura only earned about Shs60 per day. But once again, he saw an opportunity. Whenever he could, Alsingura took the wheel and taught himself how to drive.

By the end of his stint in the taxi business, Alsingura was a capable driver. In 1990, “there was a friend of mine who knew me, who contacted me to drive a special hire,” Alsingura said. “Because I was a good driver, they gave me a car and I started driving and saving some small money.” With 41 brothers and sisters, and an entire network of family burdens and obligations, Alsingura found it incredibly difficult to save money. He frequently sent money back to the village, but he also tried to save a little for himself.

Acquiring land
For every Shs1,000 Alisingura earned, he tried to save at least Shs100 and by 1994, he had saved up Shs120,000, enough to purchase 16 acres of land in his home village. Today, with the improvements he has made, that land might sell for Shs50m.

Although Alsingura knew how to dig on farms, he was not a farmer by profession. But he found yet another opportunity in life; to become an outgrower for Kinyara Sugar Works, the same place where he had worked as a houseboy.

“When I first bought my land, I dug on it, slowly,” Alsingura says, “But when they, [Kinyara] said they needed outgrowers, I went and registered and they planted for me. They give you the workers and they even bring tractors to dig for you. They call it a loan and take the harvest, to pay up the loan.”

Alsingura did not make much profit in the first harvest. But 18 months later, Kinyara paid him Shs15m for the second crop of sugarcane. Now Alsingura’s farm earns between Shs15m and Shs20m every 18 months.

When he returned to Kampala, Alsingura paid cash for a used car from Japan. He joined a stage near Kisementi in Kamwokya and used the English he learned as a houseboy to develop relationships with Ugandan and foreign customers. Now he receives dozens of phone calls a week from customers who refer him to their friends.

“The secret to my business has been faithfulness,” Alsingura told the Daily Monitor. “For those houseboys and housegirls to succeed, they must first be faithful. Faithful to their bosses and faithful to themselves.”

Unlike many drivers in Kampala, Alsingura tries to give consistent prices to every customer. “Sometimes drivers charge Shs30,000 for what should be a Shs10,000 ride,” Alsingura says. “But when someone discovers that you were cheating them, they will not give you any more business.”

Future plans
“I have worked for a long time,” Alsingura said. “To this day, I wake up at 3am to go pick people from the airport. But in 10 years, after my last child finishes university, I want to retire.”

Alsingura claims that his greatest challenge has been his lack of education—not being able to read, write, or use a computer. For that reason, his primary goal is that all four of his children graduate from university.

His oldest son has already graduated from Makerere University with an accounting degree and three others attend Kiteteka and Nalia Secondary Schools in Kampala. “The school fees are high,” Alsingura said, “but I know that they will get the scores to attend university.”

Alsingura has been married to Sarah Birungi, since the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until he started selling sugarcane that he could afford for her to move to Kampala. Because of that investment, Birungi now owns a small shop in Kamwokya.

Alsingura has overcome tremendous odds to reach where he is and the secret seems to be seizing opportunities along the way.

“If you have no help, it is very difficult to come from the village to the city,” he says, “You need somewhere to stay, money to buy food. So for me, it helped me to come to Kampala while I was still a houseboy. It helped me to know the city and learn English.”

Alsingura is the member of this transport association that has four cars they rent out and he owns one of the cars. Add that to his 16 acres of land in the village, he has certainly journeyed a long road.

Now that he has connections in the special hire business, Alsingura has paved the way for his younger brother and nephew to become drivers. “Now they have the opportunity,” he said.

For houseboys, and housegirls, it is a long, difficult road to join Uganda’s growing middle class, but Alsingura’s story shows that with a few opportunities, a little bit of luck, and a lot of hard work, it is possible to achieve the Ugandan Dream.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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