Monday, June 22, 2015

Heading Home

One thing that I learnt in the United States was that no matter how much more money I made it would only barely provide what I needed and certainly never be enough for what I wanted.  I completed my MBA at the University of Florida in 2005 and the education loan companies were quick to send me my first loan installation payment bill.  At American Express I had started to earn above the low income mark required for free medical care and food stamps.  I celebrated getting off state charity but was now faced with more bills in addition to rent, child care and the car note.  My weekly grocery bill went up and I had to buy medical insurance for the family.  I found that while I was earning more money at my new job I was actually spending more and saving nothing.  I had stopped working two jobs but quickly realized that I was going to need to work additional hours and weekends to meet financial obligations.  American Express offered overtime hours regularly in those days and so after I picked the girls from after care, I dropped them home found someone to take care of them and headed directly back to the stressful job at the AMEX service center to take more calls.  The ladies at AMEX told me about going into business.  If I could afford a good computer with an Internet connection I could go into business for myself so that instead of returning to office to take calls, I could sign up with ‘work-at-home’ companies that take overflow calls for customers after hours and on the weekends.

It sounded like a great idea since I would then not need a baby sitter and could tell the girls to behave while I took calls in my bedroom.  So I went to the City of Plantation’s chamber of commerce and registered my company – Global Management Services – a big name for a small work-at-home business.  Within a few weeks I no longer needed to go in to work overtime, instead I was taking orders for Pizza Hut, selling ‘As-seen-on-TV’ miracle products from golf balls, to hair products, sharp kitchen knives and women’s stretch underwear that promised to hide all your flab.  It all seemed good for a while but after a year working phones from 9am to midnight it starts to get old.  Too much work for just enough money.  The business helped me to pay off my car note, and I consolidated my education loans and found that the extra money in my pocket could pay for a ticket for one of my parents to visit Plantation while my brother paid for the other parent's travel.  When they came to visit us a second time in Plantation, my father was appalled by the hours I was working but even more so the fact that I seem to have accepted this quality of life.  He reminded me that this is not why he had sent me to college to become a lawyer and then settle into what he regarded as hard menial labor.  He probably had said the same things the first time he came to Plantation but I was too stressed to listen.  This time I listened and realized that as long as I had time to engage politically, write an article for the column I wrote for the Observer in Uganda, I had no care about how I lived.  I had tried to find jobs in international development and in international organization but they simply were not responding.  A part of me did not want to work for any organization that did not allow me to do my political work.  I feared to lose my political voice.

That is when an old friend Herbert, who was working with the United Nations in Sudan stepped in.  When I told Herbert the work I was doing in the USA, he asked me why I chose to do work that I should leave for less qualified people.  That got me thinking.  He patiently showed me the strings of how to apply for international jobs teaching me the difference between consulting jobs, national positions and fixed term appointments in the international civil service.  Herbert introduced me to career websites that I did not know existed.  When I started filling the lengthy forms it started to feel like looking for an international position was like doing a job in itself.  I submitted application forms in Galaxy, Taleo and other recruitment software for organizations like the World Bank, United Nations Secretariat and Agencies, IMF, IFC, IRC, Red Cross and for a year nothing, not a response.  Then I got a break with the Global Fund in Geneva and traveled there for an interview but then was not successful in securing the position.  That was a big blow to my hope and I started to waver and think that maybe I had stepped so far out of sync with an international civil service or NGO career, that I could never fit back in.  I almost gave up hope but in 2009 I started receiving letters informing me that I had been placed on a roster for various positions, which still meant I had to wait for a hiring manager to find my experience interesting enough to offer me a position when they had an opening.  But now there was hope.

2011 was approaching and my circumstances were not getting better.  I had made one last move from Plantation after the housing finance crush in the US, which caused job losses and meant less income from my sales position.  Once again at the instigation of my brother who always wanted to help with the kids we moved to live with him in Lake Mary, Florida.   I found that life was not getting easier no matter where I lived in the United States, so I decided it was time to go home.  Joannah had started to demand that she wanted to see her Daddy after nine years.  I had all the immigration documents I needed to travel anywhere and I also applied for Ugandan passports for the family, which the Embassy in Washington granted without question.  I saved some money, sold my car and on 10 June 2010, we boarded a Delta Flight to Amsterdam headed for Entebbe.

Enough time had passed since I left Uganda for me to feel safe.  I could not fear persecution and hope to make an impact when I saw new activists being mistreated on the streets of Kampala.  My voice was becoming faint with the passage of time because of my distance from the political scene.  It turned out that I had grossly overestimated my own influence within even my political party and would be taught more difficult lessons in humility when I returned.  The country, the party, my activist friends had moved on to a new political era and I was stuck in the past.  Someone once said a week is a long time in politics; I was about to find out that in political activism a decade is an eternity. 

At 50 I know that the decade I spent abroad helped me put in sharp perspective the meaning of poverty and a life without privilege, which I had never known.  The experience caused a positive change in the way I understand and treat people that are less fortunate than I.

— feeling tired.

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