Only six years ago, Elizabeth Kirumira, 32, was an object of pity for her neighbours. But today, she is a prosperous woman with extensive poultry, real estate and retail businesses. This remarkable change of fortunes came after her husband, Eriab Kirumira, migrated to the UK to work as a casual labourer, cleaning toilets and working as porter. Every month, he sends home the equivalent of Shillings 1 million (US$1= 1,842 Shillings). "He has also sent me a home theatre unit - a DVD player, television and a music system," she says happily.
With few job opportunities at home, a number of Ugandan men are now migrating illegally to the developed world. The home economy is in a shambles - not having recovered from the decade-long dictatorial regime of Idi Amin's in the 1970s, and the guerrilla war and human rights abuses under Milton Obote in the early to mid-1980s. Although there has been steady economic growth, in terms of GDP, there has not been a simultaneous boom in the job market. The government says that in a population of 27 million, there are 9 million jobless Ugandans.
Edmond Kasozi, for instance, was unemployed, while his wife, Sarah, worked in an international bank as a secretary. She felt it was 'unmanly' for him to sit at home while she earned their sustenance, and their relationship became strained. They were also worried about the cost of university education for their children. Ultimately, misgivings notwithstanding, Kasozi decided to travel to the UK. "Except for the loneliness and the day-to-day issues that I want to consult my husband on, I am doing well. It is worthwhile that he stays, though I don't know how long he will," says Sarah.
The trend of illegal immigration to developed countries has been on the rise for a while, but it was in 2000 - when these remittances touched US$ 300 million - that the trend really gathered momentum.
Young men like Kasozi, who works as porter, have nothing to lose. They do not mind cleaning the streets of London or caring for the old and infirm there. Because they are illegal migrants, it is the menial job market that is accessible to them. And the nature of these jobs more or less ensures that it is young men who migrate.
And this willingness to migrate and do a range of menial jobs that may not be attractive to citizens in the developed world is beginning to make an impact on Ugandan economy.
The US$ 700 million that they send home annually has transformed Kampala suburbs like Ndeeba from a sleepy habitation of robbers and crooks to a vibrant town with high-rise buildings jostling for space. In fact, cheap labour force as an export has now overtaken traditional exports like coffee, cotton and tobacco. This is also one of the reasons why the contribution of agriculture to the Ugandan economy has fallen from 54 per cent in 1990 to 39 per cent in 2005. (Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning; National Budgetary Framework for 2006-07)
It is difficult to estimate the number of Ugandan migrants working at these jobs. However, according to UK High Commission records, about 800 Ugandans get visitor visas to the UK every year, and few of them go back home.
Patric Asea, a Ugandan Professor of Economics at the University of Los Angeles, USA, says, "We failed to take advantage of the world's addiction to coffee. Now we must harness the other resource we have in plenty - cheap labour."
For all the euphoria, however, there is also a flipside. Elizabeth Kirumira's friends have been telling her that her husband is unlikely to return because he has not come back in six years. "They advice me to get another man. At times, I see it as a prospect, but I am still steadfast," she says. Joyce Achieng, 30, however, could not keep her calm. She took a flight to the UK to join her husband, leaving her adolescent children to the vagaries of Ugandan life. Her son has now dropped out of university.
Men have their share of troubles too. Some have been betrayed by their fianc?es or wives. Daniel Kiwuka, 35, used his fianc?e's social security number and bank account to receive payments. And she used the money to build a house and establish a business in her name. When she felt secure enough, she dumped Daniel. Then there is David Kasoma's tragic story, which hit the headlines in August 2004. He slaughtered his children and then killed himself after his wife eloped with another man and they set up a business using David's savings.
These and similar incidents have compelled Ugandans to channel their funds through established companies, and this has been something of a turning point. Evarid Maniple, Senior Lecturer, Department of Health Services, Uganda Martyrs University, says, "The government should ensure that remittances from Ugandans abroad are channelled through companies - formal and informal foreign exchange bureaux - because this also helps to build the country's economy."
There is another danger that Fair Fund, an international NGO that works with women and youth, warns about - the danger that Ugandan youth might fall into the hands of human traffickers. They have been working to ascertain the awareness levels among NGOs working with women and youth, and have found a disappointingly low level of awareness. There were reports of Ugandan women being duped with false job offers and taken to the United Arab Emirates, where they were turned into sex slaves.
Allan Katatumba, Coordinator, US wing of the ruling National Resistance Movement party, is optimistic, though. "If Ugandans speak with one voice, graduate into a forum to express their ambitions, plans and hopes, then we will be able to channel massive investments that will create jobs and promote entrepreneurship."
However, for that to happen, there is need to change the outlook. Dr Ian Clarke, an Irish doctor who has worked in Uganda for more than 10 years and built a US$ 12 million hospital near Kampala, believes that the Ugandan psyche must be prepared for wealth creation. He is perturbed by the fact that Ugandans are 'big life-ists' - blowing their money on wedding parties and depreciating assets like cars. It is an attitude that runs through from the citizens to the government. "We should not cry that there is no money, but take what we have and make it work for us," he says.