I do not know how I got past Mr. John Bikangaga when I interviewed to join the Foreign Service. I arrived at the offices of the Public Service Commission in late 1989, quite confident that I met the qualifications for the advertised vacancy but my confidence crumbled as a I faced the stern old man seated behind the desk, easily dominating the room and the other panelists next to him.
The questions from the other two gentlemen were quite straight forward: 'Name three French-speaking countries in which Uganda has Embassies.' (Realły? Was I being interviewed to join secondary school.). Then it was Mr. Bikangaga's turn and his look was as intimidating as his questions: 'Do you have any children?' Yes Sir, one boy.' 'How old is he?' 'Five years, Sir.' 'Are you married?' No Sir; 'So if you were to work abroad, who would take care of your son?' 'His father of course, he has been caring for his son since I went to study abroad in 1986.' Mr. Bikangaga gave me a long hard disapproving look and I thought I would never get the job, but the offer letter came weeks later and that is how I became a civil servant in Uganda's public service.
Prior to my recruitment in the Foreign Service I had contract work at Uganda's Constitutional Commission as a research assistant and even though they paid an above average salary, I soon discovered that my monthly salary could not maintain my life style for more than a week. I was constantly broke and suffered the humiliation of living with my parents without any hope of renting my own place in the near future.
I thought hard about it and realized that I had studied economics at 'A' level and law up to postgraduate level but I had never sat in a class called: 'Personal Finances: How to make money.' Nor was there a Step-by-Step guidebook on how to turn your meager salary into a fortune. I left Makerere without once being invited to a career fair, a career guidance course or just a seminar. They churned out graduates and turned them loose on the streets where they discover that they might get a job if they are very lucky but the chances of making enough money to meet basic needs (food and shelter) from a monthly salary were close to zero. I was lucky to have parents who allowed me to live in their home for as long as I wished but not all of my colleagues were that lucky.
At 50 I know that the salary structure of many public service jobs in Africa forces many well meaning public servants to moonlight from their jobs, put their hand in the till, embezzle public funds and become outright thieves, just to keep their heads above water and meet basic family needs.