( extracted from an email to a friend in Kampala)
Greetings from the desert here in Abu Dhabi.
This has been an illuminating week but one which would not be complete without an introduction, for future reference to Mr. Andrew Turihamwe. Like many Ugandans in the UAE, Turihamwe is working hard to make a living but with a view to improving his prospects. His story of triumph against the odds may not be unique but it bears re-telling.
This is his story as he told it.
(opportunities for young people are scarce in Uganda. Recently the government has sought “orderly and dignified exit of labor. Labor markets in the Middle East are a key target)
When he was recruited to work as a taxi driver almost three years ago – it was a difficult start. The training itself, including traffic rules, location mapping and some basic Arabic takes approximately six months. As fate would have it on the very day he was deployed on the road he run a red light. In the next days, two other Ugandans in his cohort run red lights. TRANSAD – the regulator had a strict liability rule at the time.
If a foreigner hired to work in the UAE was guilty of the above transgression the consequence was that his work status would be immediately revoked. It meant that his taxi company was required to facilitate his deportation immediately. This process commenced for Turihamwe and his colleagues.
“ Our manager told us kalasi, there is nothing more I can do for you,” he told me. His Emirates ID and work card were taken. He was told to await deportation back to Uganda. Obviously upset he and his friends figured there was nothing left to lose. As they understood it while the transport authority applied this rule to migrant workers – the normal response on the road was the payment of a fine.
So they decided to appeal to the General Manager of TransAD directly. “We went to the headquarters and to the reception where we asked to see the manager”. The folks there were rather taken aback if amused as to why ordinary “taxi drivers from Uganda” would want audience with the GM. They explained their case but were told that the consequences were final. There would be no appeal and so no need for the meeting with the GM to proceed.
“ We however told them it was important that they listen to us. We had families at home. Coming to the UAE was not easy. We paid over US$1400 in the process. This was a huge investment besides the months we took in training. How could we return home empty handed? How can we face our families” he said. Turihamwe told me his story as he drove me the only driving school in Abu Dhabi in Masdar city, a sort of “home” for most Ugandan workers here. His cab company has 400 Ugandans on the road and another 150 in training he narrated.
“ That day however we insisted we needed listening to and our wish was granted. The officials said “ write down what you have told us”, and we did”, he said. The trio were asked to wait at their hostel. Later they would be invited back and interrogated about their experience from living in Uganda to being processed as taxi drivers in the UAE. It would be a detailed affair that would take three to four hours.
“ We were asked to go back and wait but time was running out. I asked one official what would happen if by the time we arrived at our hostel – the deportation process had started. This official said wait and wrote a quick email to my manager saying they should hold on deporting us until our case was resolved” he said.
His managers were flabbergasted.
“ How can mere taxi drivers appeal to TransAD?” they asked. The silver lining here is that he kept his job but most importantly that the regulator changed the limited liability rule. Taxi drivers would now be required to pay a fine and not face immediate deportation for running a red light.
Andrew and I had run into each other totally by chance after I ordered a taxi by phone. I was however in the company of another Ugandan, Ronald, a project management professional who is now a barrister at the Starbucks I frequent. It was like a family meeting between the three of us. Ronald and Andrew chatted away and promised to drop in on each other.
Andrew asked what I was doing in the UAE. I told him my family moved to Abu Dhabi and I was re-tooling as a consultant after nearly a decade and half working in newsrooms. I was in fact looking to organizing a training next year in some areas of the oil and gas sector in Uganda.
“ Ohh. This is great. I am just completing my courses in operational health and safety in the oil sector” he said and flashed his student card. This week ended on a truly positive note then. Ugandans in the UAE I have met are mostly in the security sector where their reputation as professionals – and their English language skills, have prompted interest in other professionals. “ If you are a professional here – and you treat others with respect it is returned” Andrew told me over lunch at the “Kilimanjaro Café” that is the go-to place for Ugandan drivers.
I counted at least seven. Orders are in Luganda and the conversation is mostly about news from home. Those who were not talking and eating were, I noticed, on Whatsapp or FaceBook – chatting with people at home. I ordered “ all food” ( posho, rice, matooke) and beans and beef and paid for our lunch gratefully.