Silent discrimination in Uganda

Racism is rife not only in western countries but also in Africa
Racism is rife not only in western countries but also in Africa

Kampala, Uganda | By Lindsey Kukunda | All people may be equal according to the United Nations, but in Uganda that depends on who you are and where you are.

All human beings belong to a single species and share a common origin. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an integral part of humanity… The differences between the achievements of the different people are entirely attributable to geographical, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors. Such differences can in no way serve as a pretext for any rank ordered classification of nations or peoples.

– Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, adopted by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation

Racial divides in Uganda are not commonly spoken of because it is such an accepted part of our society that no one notices it anymore. This does not mean, however, that they do not exist. In our country today, there is no special race that is singled out for discrimination. That is what is so unique about Uganda. Everybody suffers, be they Ugandan, Caucasian or Asian.

If you are Ugandan, many of you reading this have probably heard the phrase, “Me, I hate Indians!” spoken several times. Truth be told, many of you have uttered that same phrase yourselves. There is an unexplainable mutually shared hatred (a strong word but true unfortunately) between Ugandans and Ugandan-Indians.

Several Ugandans asked me this same question, “Do you know how Indians mistreat and abuse their Ugandan employees? Underpaying and abusing them every day? Me, I hate those people!”

But when I asked them how they knew of this, they had no answer. It is a rumour, spread like a wildfire over the years that has been accepted as fact. While these allegations may hold some truth, there are a large number of Ugandan employers who treat their workers far worse than any Indians do. When I pointed this out, I received the response, “That is why we say they are like Indians.” Obviously, this is an argument that cannot be won.

Sheila Tusiime (a pseudonym) is one Ugandan who said that when she observes the behaviour of locals working for Indians, she can understand their boss’ poor treatment of them.

“I entered a shop, and stood there for around five minutes waiting for assistance,” she said. “There were two Ugandan girls just sitting there chatting. Eventually, their boss rushed up to them and ordered them to assist me.”

This trend was confirmed by an Indian businessman I spoke to. Mr. Patel runs an electronics shop along Kampala Road and discreetly took me to a back room to narrate his daily ordeals.

“I am not a racist but it is my personal observation that there is hardly a lazier people than Ugandans,” he lamented. “They just come and sit around, wait for break tea, wait for lunch and then decide they are not feeling well, or they do not come in because they have lost a relative. You Ugandans, you have so many relatives who keep on dying. But I am still expected to pay you.” (Many a Ugandan boss is also tired and weary of the ‘dead relative’ story.)

Mr. Patel is further outraged because his workers do not look up to him as an example.

“My children, they come in after school to learn how to run a business, so the Ugandans are happy because they have less work to do,” he scowled. “They think of us as crazy because we work hard, can you imagine that?”

In that light, one can understand Mr. Patel’s anger. It is not uncommon to enter a workplace and find employees surfing, watching movies or simply sitting and waiting for the end of the workday. The laziness of Ugandans is a story well told, with the infamous saying that it takes two Kenyans to do a job it would take five Ugandans to accomplish.

Ugandans suffer, not just in how they are viewed as workers, but in how they are viewed by businesses. To call a spade a spade, there are a few elite restaurants and bars in Kampala that are certainly guilty of assuming that Ugandans have less money than Caucasians and as a result, may not give them the best service.

As a resident of Speke Resort Munyonyo a few months ago, I was astounded at how the waiters would pay special attention to the ‘Bazungu’ tables and no amount of hand-waving could get you their attention until these ‘rich white people’ were served and comfortable. Locals who were not decked out in showy attire were treated like a forgotten memory. Needless to say, my company resolved to never spend our money there again.

“I mean, I may only be taking a soda, but it’s not necessary to ignore me because of that,” complained Ronald, a victim of this at the Emin Pasha restaurant in Nakasero. “What if I come back next week with a large company and money to burn?” The waiters have heard this argument before, and couldn’t care less.

And then there is Bubbles O’Leary’s, an Irish pub that has come into the limelight several times over allegations of racism. There was the famous incident a few years ago when an American female referred to a Ugandan as a ‘monkey’ and blood almost spilled. While she and her friends were asked to leave, the damage had been done and Ugandans simply left the bar to the expatriate community.

I myself experienced the oddest form of racial favoritism when I went to Bubbles on a Friday night with a Dutch friend who had never been there before. While he sailed through, I was stopped and asked to pay an entrance fee. When I inquired why my friend was not required to do the same, the bouncer said he must be a member.

My friend came back and quickly assured the bouncer that he was not a member. The unashamed bouncer then proceeded to ask my friend to pay. We were both flabbergasted. A Ugandan discriminating against a fellow Ugandan in this fashion. Without expecting even a tip for his efforts.

Is it better when it’s not a Ugandan doing this? Joe Lawson, a Briton working in Tanzania, went to Effendy’s while on holiday in Uganda and narrated his experience there.

“I and two friends were lining up to pay the 10,000 shilling entrance fee when this white guy (I assume he was the proprietor) pulled us out of the line,” an unamused Lawson said. “He said the entrance fee was only for black people and no Mzungu was required to pay it. He then ushered us past the entrance.”

Lawson was livid at the thought of all the Ugandans queuing up to give the establishment of Effendy’s their money.

No worries, Joe Lawson. Discrimination is fairly meted out to ‘Bazungu’ as well. The term ‘Mzungu prices’ while indicative of being too expensive for locals, also refers to an unfair hike because the purchaser is a white person. Every time a Mzungu purchases local items or gets on a boda boda or enters a ‘special hire’, one can be sure they are being charged ‘Mzungu prices’.

“It really annoys me, because we are not all the walking ATMs Ugandans think we are,” complained Kerry, an American here on internship. “But we have to give in or we’ll never get anywhere or buy anything.”

Even the police are adept when it comes to ‘racial profiling’. Henry Dawkins, an NGO worker, claims he has never failed to be stopped by a traffic officer.

“It’s like they have this radar out for any white face, and they’re just waiting for you to be missing something,” he complained. “It really frustrates me because now I see a traffic officer and immediately get anxiety attacks. Sometimes I just use boda bodas to avoid the inconvenience.”

Wouter Van den Brand is also tired of all the ‘new friends’ he has to endure every time he’s in a bar alone. “It’s always the same story,” he said. “Someone comes up to you, sits down with you, next thing you know you’re buying him a drink and giving him money to go away.”

The onetime Mattia, another Mzungu living in Kampala, refused to be ‘friendly’, the Ugandan abused him roundly and he and his friends threatened to become violent. Perhaps it is the bias of experiences like this that cause white people to only run in expatriate circles.

When all is said and done, can things change? It is hardly likely because Ugandans see nothing wrong with the most basic forms of racial discrimination. It simply remains for individuals to fight for their rights and not allow themselves to be victims of the practice.