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Paynesville Press - August 15, 2001

Journalist compares Uganda with the USA

By Yusuf Kalyango Jr. World Press Institute fellow

Yusef Kalyango There is an English adage that says: east or west home is best. For most Africans, who have never traveled beyond the boundaries of their country, home will always be home. But as a roving journalist, I have discovered that home is never so homely.

Most African youths are made to believe that the United States of America is what Hollywood motion pictures depict. It is about being a good gunfighter or hero, owning a mansion or living near beaches, driving an expensive car, romance in bathtubs, and fighting street gangs.

Yusuf Kalyango Jr. works in television news in Uganda (click here for map) and for CNN.

African youngsters think that every single American is wealthy, strong, and beautiful. They think Americans do less work and make too much money.

Coming to America from the world's poorest continent and the remote east African nation of Uganda is mind boggling. It is about imagining to reinvent yourself into this American dream. Throughout my flight from Africa to Atlanta I dreamed about becoming like the American movie star idolized back home.

Some travelers from Africa are questioned intensely by United States immigration officials, who consider shoddy visitors with television gadgets like myself a prime terrorist suspect. The immigration officials remind us and affirm our conciousness about how great America should be regarded.

After going through marathon daily boardroom briefings about a whole range of aspects of life here in the United States, I have come to revisit my perception of America. This is not merely the land of great opportunities, but the land of the free and the brave.

The first taste of American life to imbue this African visitor with an inferiority complex is how big everything is. The roads are eight times larger than our narrow, pot-holed roads, where people must cross intersections without traffic-control lights. In Africa, motorists have full right-of-way and do not respect pedestrians. Buying a 20-year-old used vehicle is a privilege and a symbol of wealth and success in Uganda.

Here in Minnesota, everything we see is larger than life. It is quite embarrassing to note that the capital investment in the wholesale and retail businesses in the Mall of America alone is bigger than that of wholesalers and retailers in the entire nation of Uganda. Most of the supermarkets in Minnesota are big and computerized, something unimaginable to Ugandan eyes.

When I visited a supermarket in a suburb of St. Paul with one of the host families assigned to me by the World Press Institute, I failed to make a choice of the cheese I wanted. My host mother explained to me that one of the tasks of parents in America now is to teach children how to make choices.

Indeed there is a whole range of choices Americans have to make in their daily lives. From the choice of food in supermarkets, to the choice of television channels and radio stations, and choices of cars, houses and entertainment. These choices are an ideal symbol of America's consumerism, I was told.

Allow me to point out without annoying the honorable citizens of this "big" nation, the fact that it is not only malls, houses and cars that are big…even the people are big. There are more fat people in America than in Uganda, at a ratio of 100:1 it seems to me. Americans eat more fatty foods than Ugandans, who can barely afford a meal. Whereas the Americans are fighting to lose weight, Ugandans struggle to put on some weight for recognition. The life expectancy of a Ugandan is 52 years, compared to above 77 for the United States.

Besides these unprecedented circumstances surrounding the different lifestyles of both nations, there is one thing that we share in common. Peasants and most city families in Uganda – who are not exposed to these wonders of American invasions – are more contented with having "nothing," just like the way Americans are contented with having microwaves, bathtubs, cars, and computers in their homes.

It is surprising to note that Americans have worked and still work so hard to earn a living. They work overtime, are always on time, and are overtaxed by the federal, state, county and city governments on every dollar.

In Uganda, we take everything for granted. Ugandans with government jobs work fewer hours, take more days in vacation, and have little sense of accountability and responsibility.

An American family cannot survive without employment, because lives here depend on buying food, heating or cooling homes, supporting families, and servicing debts created by mighty credit cards. On the other hand, more than 20 percent of Ugandan families survive and support their families without jobs.

An American family considered to be living below the poverty line earns about $6,800 a year, whereas 70 percent of Ugandans live happily on the equivalent of $1 a day. The house of my host family in Ely – used by a single couple – would house more than 20 relatives if it was a home in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.

I could not imagine that some people in America are homeless or living on government support. The United States still battles with ethnicity and racial tensions on the individual and social levels, something one would regard Africanish.

Crime is still rampant in most cities of America, as it is in Africa. Drug trafficking and gangs are major causes of insecurity amongst the African-American neighborhoods. In one of our WPI briefings, we learned that there are more black American youths in prison today than in college. Some Americans are jobless by choice or by the lack of college education, where as Uganda has 12,000 university graduates who are jobless because of a lack of employment opportunities.

This explains why there is an influx of illegal immigrants into the United States in search of these abundant jobs.

Pertinent issues urgently need to be addressed in Uganda. Ninety percent of Ugandans have no access to electricity, and over sixty percent lack clean water. Uganda depends mainly on agriculture and tourism and is rated among the 20 most corrupt nations in the world.

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