Yellow pigs make a political point about youth unemployment in Uganda
KAMPALA, Uganda – In February , two leaders of a guerrilla movement here traveled to the financial district carrying a wooden container that contained three pigs, each painted yellow from snout to tail.
At a traffic light, the men unloaded the pigs into the streets. One of the animals sported a straw farmer’s hat – a symbol associated with President Yoweri Museveni – and another wore a sign berating the members of Uganda’s parliament: “You have the money and the army for 30 years, we have no jobs in a corrupt regime!!!”
It was just the latest porcine intervention by the Jobless Brotherhood, led by university graduates Mayanja Robert, 33, and Norman Tumuhimbise, 29, who hope to mobilize support against the high rate of youth unemployment in Uganda. Why yellow pigs? The color is identified with the ruling political party known as the National Resistance Movement and the pigs themselves are meant, of course, to symbolize greed.
So far, the painted porkers have materialized six times in key locations in the capital city, from the Parliament building to a park, all to make a point.
“When a pig is hungry, it will eat its own piglets,” Tumuhimbise says, wearing a beret and a t-shirt with ‘Young, Wild and Free’ printed in neon colors. “Our government has become greedy like a pig and so we are telling our brothers and sisters that our problems can only be solved by us.”
Tumuhimbise’s first experience with unemployment, “his pinching point,” came in 2007, when he was accepted to a recruitment program to join the police force, but after five months of on-the-job training, his post was given to someone who had a reference from a member of parliament.
His colleague Robert cycled through three jobs at two plastic companies and a sports betting website before quitting because, in each case, the salary did not even cover his travel expenses to and from his office.
“We could keep waiting or take matters into our own hands,” Robert says. “We chose the latter.”
No agreement on numbers
While Uganda has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, there is little agreement on the scope of youth unemployment there.
A joint study done by the International Labor Organization and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics puts the youth unemployment rate at 5 percent, with the number rising to more than 13 percent when taking into account “youth who are without work and available to work but not actively seeking work.” But independent studies put the number much, much higher. ActionAid surveyed more than 1,000 people and pegged youth unemployment at more than 60 percent while the African Development Bank has a study finding that unemployment for people 15-24 in Uganda is 83 percent.
Tumuhimbise says the government surveys are questionable. And there are those activists who suspect that the numbers aren’t collected or available on purpose, to deflect discussion on the hot-button issue.
Over the past decade, Uganda’s economy, bolstered by generous foreign direct investment, grew faster than the median growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa, but less than 10 percent of its young people found work in this bustling economy of new private sector jobs, according to a report by Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development. Even among the employed, wages are depressed. Only 10 percent of private sector employees earn more than 300,000 Ugandan shillings, or $101, a month. And in the shrinking public sector, pay is declining even further, the report states.
Even those with a college degree struggle to find jobs. One reason is a mismatch between skills gained at universities and the job market’s needs.
“More than 80 percent of the students at university do degree courses in humanities and social sciences. Yet the number of jobs for such graduates are limited,” says Venansius Baryamureeba, founder of the Uganda Technology and Management University. Curriculums are rarely informed by changes in the labor market, he says.
For instance, the discovery of oil in the Albertine Rift area in 2006 has not been accompanied by a proliferation of degrees in geology, waste management, engineering or construction – all of which are now in high demand.
Sitting on a time bomb
Some blame the mindset of young people who reject the jobs that exist. George Mondo Kagonyera, the chancellor of Makerere University, says urban graduate unemployment comes from a “white-collar syndrome.” He advises his students to stop turning up their noses at blue-collar jobs, according to a report in the campus magazine.
His view is substantiated in the latest report by Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, which says that unemployment is lower among people with no education, who are, presumably, not rejecting blue-collar jobs.
In Kampala’s Kifumbira slum, Betty Nyangoma, 25, fastens a cotton apron. She has a diploma in hotel management but works as a cook at a sidewalk restaurant, manning two frying pans, five plastic chairs and a stack of steel plates.
On a good day, she earns up to 35,000 shillings, or not quite 12 dollars, twice as much as she was paid working as a chef at an Indian restaurant.
“We need to create our own jobs or we will go hungry,” she says. “Because we are in a big, big problem.”
It was partly to address such anxieties that the government launched the Youth Livelihood Program, a program to help young people start their own businesses, in January last year.
Kyateka F. Mondo, the assistant commissioner at the Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, says a fund of 265 billion shillings, or around $90 million, has been set aside to be used over five years for collective loans to young people who want to start their own businesses. Each group can access approximately 12.5 million Ugandan shillings, or $4,200 to start a business without collateral, but with 5 percent interest on repayment after one year. So far, roughly 35 billion shillings have been distributed, Mondo says.
“We have young people telling us this came at the right time,” he says. “People are graduating, the job is not coming, they are saying their shoes are worn out looking for jobs and now this is redemption.”
But Rebecca Kukundakwe, who led the ActionAid study on youth unemployment as project coordinator at ActionAid International Uganda, cautions that “just giving young people a sack of money does not work.”
First, the program has an urban focus and second, many groups that accessed credit are no longer together. “Unless the government addresses the question of youth employment with systematic programming, we are sitting on a time bomb.”
A generation bereft
For Robert and Tumuhimbise, founders of the Jobless Brotherhood, intruding into public spaces with pigs is a desperate attempt to unsettle the ruling class. “We need to get their attention, to show them that we are not going to succumb to injustice,” Tumuhimbise says. “Some way, any way.”
To him, a variety of factors – corruption, nepotism, lack of reforms-have left an entire generation bereft of a right to live with dignity.
“You call yourself a graduate,” he says, “but you don’t have a job, you can’t dress well, you can’t sleep well, you don’t have respect.”
On Feb. 18, the two waited in the City Hall Magistrates Court,facing charges for their first protest – smuggling pigs into the parliamentary parking lot on June 17, 2014 – which was inspired by a similar action by another group in Nairobi.
The legal violations the two had been charged with included criminal trespass, interrupting the proceedings of the parliament and conspiring to commit a misdemeanor. But the duo stand by their actions.
“If I start a restaurant and I say that I’m selling very good food, and you see me eating from my neighbor’s house, would you come and eat that food?” Tumuhimbise says. “That is what is happening in Uganda. The president and his ministers send their children abroad for education, training and health care but tell us we have very good systems.”
Jobless Brotherhood is not the only youth group protesting unemployment or facing government crackdown. In January, six members of another advocacy group, Unemployed Youth, were arrested in Kampala for inciting violence when they were found with a brood of chickens they intended to send to Museveni as a retirement gift.
Earlier in September, three activists from the National Association of the Unemployed were arrested for conspiring to “overthrow the government.” They had planned to register unemployed youth in the country, and send a list to the government, to draw their attention to the scale of the crisis.
Billboards with Museveni, wearing his farming hat and pointing a finger to the heavens, have begun appearing around Kampala with the campaign message: 2016 Sole Candidate. The elections are expected to take place in February next year. The Jobless Brotherhood does not have a list of candidates they support in the upcoming elections.
“Movements like the Jobless Brotherhood can inform interventions only if they have a clear agenda,” says ActionAid’s Kukundakwe. “They only want to come out on the streets, and say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But what is the plan? What is that you want?”
Kukundakwe leads a group called Activista Uganda, organizing community events, workshops and talks to encourage young people to participate in political discussion. “Young people are not enthusiastic about initiating participatory actions, partly because they feel closed out of many opportunities,” she says.
But Mondo, the commissioner, says youth unemployment can’t be confronted until the country’s population growth is addressed. Between 2002 and 2014, Uganda’s population increased by more than 10 million people.
“In terms of production of human beings, we are doing a great job,” he says, interrupting himself to laugh. “The issue is that the economy is not growing in tandem with the rate at which we are producing human beings … It’s like mopping but the tap is open,” he says. “You mop and mop but you are not doing any job because the tap is open.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.