Uganda: Of Ugandans Suffering in the Middle East and Why Slave Trade Lasted Four Centuries

For a number of years now, media has been awash with horrific stories of Ugandan girls and women being abused and killed in countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Oman.

One would expect that with the graphic horror of these narratives something would have been done if we had leaders that cared for their citizens, but it only gets worse every other year.

The most you hear as Government action are promises that something will be done and romantic threats to the companies trafficking these desperate women into involuntary prostitution and slavish conditions of work.

What is even more disturbing are the rumours (if anything to go by) that some big people in government are not being responsive because they have vested interests in this barbaric trade! In a book we published last year, titled Decolonisation Pathways, Dr Moses Ssenkosi's chapter discusses the push and pull factors for many Africans' wish to migrate to Europe and North America.

He argues that whereas many Africans are pushed by economic desperation to seek livelihoods elsewhere, many are driven by the inferiority mind-set that those places are better than Africa in all ways.

That is why some would leave some good opportunities here and sell all they can to get a visa. Whereas there are merits to this argument, I think the majority of migrants from Africa are pushed by hardships back home. It is a matter of life and death by which some even risk death at seas in canoes, just to get a chance to leave Africa.

This might be hard to understand for those of us for whom life is fairly kinder. But, if we care enough, we should ask ourselves why people would reach such extremes.

In Uganda, despite the fact that the gruesome stories of beastly treatment of Ugandan women in the Middle East have been out there for some time, many still line up to be taken there! It is true that some have found decent jobs there and have been treated fairly well, but the many cases of mistreatment would have caused hesitation among people in Uganda. This is the logic of those with alternatives, but desperation is real in Uganda.

I have come across people willing to sell their vital organs if they can find a buyer! Some girls are employed as maids for Shs 40,000 a month! Reports have been in the papers of young girls trading in sex around Kimombasa in Bwaise for as little as Shs 2,000!

As the Slovenian philosopher Slovak Zizek said at a recent public debate with American psychologist Jordan Peterson, the refugee crisis is not going to be solved by tightening Western borders but by picking more concern in the governance issues causing them to flee their countries.

The world can no longer continue to pretend to mind their own business in small porous units called countries. Trouble in any part of the world will tend to destabilise other parts. Of course, some will benefit from it too. Just like the Middle East has gotten a steady supply of slaves and prostitutes from countries whose citizens don't mean much to their leaders.

Soon we shall hear about the only thing that matters: the contribution of this savage trade to our GDP! In a country that is not sure what to do for the bulging youth population and whose priority is holding onto power, it comes as a relief if these people can leave and go elsewhere - even if as slaves. In here too is a disturbing revelation about us Africans which may not be generalised but quite telling.

Behind our Ubuntu and other communitarian claims are hearts difficult to explain. If the philosophy by which our societies operate is John Mbiti's "I am because we are", then why all this ignored mess amidst us!

For some countries in societies that we call individualistic, just one citizen of theirs in danger somewhere raises state concern. Even a president will tweet about it, like in the case of the American lady said to have been kidnapped recently.

And, especially if the victim were white, we also respond by falling over ourselves, putting in more effort than we can ever invest in saving our own! One of President Museveni's pet history topics is 'why Africans were taken into slave trade and colonised'.

He argues that it was mainly because Africans were divided and therefore weak. With more strength, we can easily defend ourselves against aggressors. This has been one of the reasons why he has had to invest heavily in the military.

Ironically, of late, the most visible purpose of this artillery is to intimidate and silence public discontent! If only a quarter of the energy, vigilance, and resources that have been invested in supressing Dr Besigye and Bobi Wine were put into addressing the degrading treatment of Ugandans in the Middle East, it wouldn't be this bad.

What version of security and PanAfricanism is this that does not care about the dignity of Africans! It has also been documented that many slaves were actually sold by their African chiefs in exchange for beads, mirrors, and guns.

We are not far past that yet. The Ugandan traffickers, working together with Arab agents, know all that is actually happening to many of the girls that they promise heaven on earth. But due to the greed for the benefits of the trade, that doesn't matter.

Stories of girls returning with suspiciously stitched stomachs and damaged behinds have not sufficiently touched government either. Not even the unaccounted dead bodies we have received? What degree of humiliation and trauma will it take for us to do something beyond indifferent rhetoric?

Shall we allow to remain the laughing stock and play thing of every race!

jsssentongo@gmail.com

The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

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