The Middle East: Uganda’s New Garden Where ‘Everyone Wants to Try Their Luck’ (2:2)

Joanna Ndagire, who was trafficked to the Middle East in 2017, and worked there as a maid, is now an activist against human trafficking. She says that the main push factor for young women into the Middle East is the [economic] “situation” in Uganda. “Most of the women or girls who go there to work have no option – the only option is to move [away from Uganda]. You reach a point of no return, whereby you have done everything. You have worked hard. You have not been paid. Life is hard, very hard. Then you decide, ‘let me go there and suffer, after all, there, they will pay me’”, says Ndagire who volunteers with the John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre. She creates awareness on human trafficking and provides support to its victims.

The new head of the household

Obika says some women are finding ‘a kind of strength and independence, and livelihood’ from migrating to the Middle East. “Someone will say ‘what’s the difference, suffering there and the suffering I am going through at home?’ Some of them are coming from abusive relationships. They are coming from homes where they are seeing brothers, sisters and mothers struggling to a point where they are not sure where their next meal is coming from,” says Obika. 

Through their Middle East exploits, some women have gone as far as buying and owning land. They have built houses where typically, their mothers, siblings and children live. They send back home money to look after them. In this case, they are clear heads of the family, challenging the long-held notion, which is still being taught in schools in Uganda, that the man is the head of the household. 

In some circumstances, spouses agree that the woman goes to the Middle East to work and support the family.“We are finding a lot of women becoming breadwinners. They get support from their partners. The partner says: ‘okay, it is two years. You can go. I will look after the home. Go, send money for children to go to school, because my job brings little income’, or, ‘I don’t have anything.’ So, that is an option,” Obika says.

“For me, what is really impressive is that agency that women begin getting when they make the choice to go, that ability to choose this path. This is a different time in history. Some have started businesses, and then one year, two years, they collapse – but it is not like they’re giving up totally now. That is more reason to go back, get capital and come and invest again. They seem to have the idea so they want a second chance, to do it right,” Obika adds.   

“The New Garden”

Traditionally in Uganda, women till the land and grow food to feed the family. Today, with increased education, population, socialization, urbanization, globalization and other factors, there are certainly more work and life options for them to consider.

“It is a comparison. You can have a garden and till it, get food and then feed your children. The era seems to be a bit different, the context is different. Now, with the Middle East being close – close in a way that people can afford an air ticket, that you can get a job where the boss pays for the ticket for you to go and work for two or three years – it seems to open up possibilities.

“They know about the slavery, but that bravery to think that maybe for me it will turn out okay, I think it is really something that we should also begin to understand – that these young women have this ability to choose their life path, what they want to do with their lives, because something doesn’t seem to be working at home. Maybe their education level is an issue, the jobs are not there, there’s too much competition, but they also want to see nice things, they want to step on a plane, we may take those things for granted”, says Obika.

Stepping on a plane

Stepping on a plane will look like a simple thing in some societies or families, especially in the developed world, but for some people it is the motivation to leave home, to have an experience away from home. 

“The Middle East has made it possible, because it seems so close and more open than the dream of going to the US or Europe. That possibility to go and see the beauty somewhere else, to be close to wealth and say, ’yeah!’ Then you call people and say, ‘I am abroad’, and take pictures. The world is now more open. It is open to many people. Domestic work [in the Middle East] is one way that can close that gap, that aspiration, and then you now begin to look at the livelihoods. It’s a completely different era. So, we can look at it in this context where the Middle East opens up a lot of possibilities for us, for women, to do a lot of things, and achieve” Obika says.

Who uses the money?

While some are happy that the money they earn from the Middle East has taken them a step ahead in life, they have built houses, educated their children, and even started businesses, there are also disappointments for many.

“We have found many who have been disappointed that the money they were sending never actually reached its target. You send it through a friend and the friend diverts it. You send it through a brother, the brother uses it to build his own house. That just breaks them down” Obika says. “You have gone to do something, but you are trying to stay connected. You are telling them ‘let my money go towards this’ but you really have no control. You still have to trust and depend on somebody to help you achieve that, and then you are disappointed.”

The researchers also state that the expenditure for those women can sometimes be inevitably high, as they try to support their needy relatives back home. “There are a lot of demands from a lot of relatives, and therefore often the money is gone much faster than expected. It is difficult to start a business that survives for very long. I would say that the problem is not just about the job, but it is also a problem that their salaries are not high for the work that they do”, says Mogensen.

More men happier than women

There are suggestions, as the study continues, that more men are happier with the outcome of their Middle East work than women. Many of the men we have spoken to seem to have positive stories about their going to the Middle East. Once I asked a gentleman whom I have been following since 2019 “how come I have not found a man saying negative things about their experience?” and he told me”‘it is because men know what is taking them there. They go, they work, they send money to their wives. You know you have a target, you achieve it, and then you come back home, and that’s it”.

“A number of women go when they are actually girls, very young, with a lot of excitement. They have not done this before. They get money which they think is a lot. Sometimes they spend it on relatives, other times they spend it on things that don’t build them, financially. One woman said that some girls don’t plan. They get boyfriends through social media who promise to marry them and then they eat up all their money. All of a sudden they are broke and they are planning their next trip back to the Middle East,” Obika says.

Women: The new champions

Overall though, there is a changing trend, with women becoming champions of families and heroines of their communities in Uganda. 

“You find that the way the household is set up, it is run by the woman – rented or built by the woman. She has put her relatives there – her mother, sisters, and then children. They may be her children, sisters’ children. There are many people there. The household head is that woman in the Middle East. She is sending the money. She’s making the decisions. There is no man there!

“Women are taking charge of a lot of extended family issues: burial arrangements, you see that it is women sending contributions; marriage, you see that it is women sending contributions,” says Obika.

Why the women’s journey to the Middle East will continue

When I ask Fatuma if she is not worried about her marriage since she stays away for long she says that she worries, but asks rhetorically, “What is the importance of being together when you are failing to make ends meet?”

“I talk to my man and reassure him of the goals we are looking at. If you understand each other, things work out.” Fatuma says. “There are no jobs [in Uganda]. If you get a job the wage is very small, compared to what we earn here. With our economy and all its challenges, you fear for your future and that of your kids. You see time running out and you have gained nothing year in year out. You compare yourself with your friends who have been successful and you of course will want to go back [to the Middle East]. That is why you see many girls are dying in the hands of the Arabs but many more girls are coming in. Everyone wants to try their luck.”

Unemployment is the biggest challenge, says human rights activist Mariam Mwiza, the Executive Director of Overseas Workers Voice (OWV).

“They have to find a way of putting something on the table. Those who return home, especially those trafficked out of the country, sometimes find themselves at a level worse than they were before they left. The environment is harsh. People are expecting you to be better than them, to help them. You think that maybe when I go back, I can make things work,” says Mwiza.

William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda

Dr. Julaina Obika, Gulu University
Prof. Hanne Overgaard Mogensen, University of Copenhagen
William Odinga Balikuddembe