Yes, Uganda is “Friendly” to Refugees, But That’s Half the Story

Uganda seems to be a darling of the international press lately over our all-welcoming refugee policy. In a world where countries are building borders and walls around themselves, Uganda is opening itself up to those who cannot find peace in their home countries. An opinion in the Washington Post this week wondered why Uganda is more welcoming to refugees than the United States. There’s been many other pieces of punditry of the sort all over the place.

It’s a good time to identify as Ugandan. Even more now that the country is hosting several heads of state, the UN secretary general, and numerous other delegates for the first ever Solidarity Summit for refugees.

But amidst all this frenzy, I am yet to read a nuanced account of what is behind Uganda’s “good” refugee policy – every major international outlet is regurgitating the same explanations, albeit by different “experts”.

Veteran journalist Charles Onyango Obbo tried to shed light on this Ugandan “exceptionalism” in the Daily Monitor this week (read his piece, and thank me later!). He uses the example of Ankole and Buganda as communities that have always welcomed migrants and assimilated them into their cultures; and in doing so grown prosperous because of the cheap labour provided by the refugees.

The story is the same, I suspect, for many Ugandan communities. In Tooro for example, with the influx of Bakiga and Banyarwanda from south western Uganda. The two communities have since taken on Tooro identity (with pet names to match!) and gone on to own some of the largest tea estates in the area.

How I wish Uganda uses this renewed interest in the country to “re-brand” itself as the welcoming, tolerant country many know it to be.

Because while all this good is happening, the image that is portrayed of the country is still one that is fraught with stereotypes. Most reference to Uganda today in any book still draws largely on the image (some say notoriety) of Idi Amin. Where the authors try hard enough to stay “current” their imagination can only take them as far as caricaturing Ugandans as bigots who want to “kill” gays!

I have just finished reading Nuruddin Farah’s 2014 novel, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” a book about Somali identity in a cosmopolitan world. In the book Farah makes an effort to deconstruct generalizations and caricatures made of Somalis all over the world – as prejudiced, war-mongers, etc.

The irony is that he makes those same generalizations about other communities in the book. So the Ugandans are bigoted, corrupt and homophobic. The Kenyans are cheats. Uganda’s role in Somalia has nothing to do with the country’s pan-African ideals, but a desire by the generals (and their lieutenants) to line their pockets by selling AMISOM food and fuel to the terrorists.

Oh, and all Ugandans seem to enjoy a good meal of mattocks (Matooke) and peanut sauce. So much for a generalization!

Back to the refugee question: I think Uganda’s “exceptionalism” needs to be looked at in a more contextual way; one that puts into consideration the country’s history and unique experience over the years.

For example, the very notion of “Uganda” – is it a theoretical definition of territory or a collective “consciousness” of what is Uganda?  Maybe it’s the unconscious belief that Uganda – the geographical entity, as we know it – does not really exist, so it doesn’t change much if we allowed members of other neighbouring communities (called “countries”) to join us, that is responsible for the country’s favourable refugee policy. We don’t know.

We can make a few informed guesses though. But I am afraid this may not be possible in the midst of the storm caused by excitement over the good press the country is receiving.

In short: why would a country made up of “refugees” not welcome refugees?

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