Being Educated…

Go to College, Get a Job, Borrow From the Driver

Some things take a long time to change. Take the (dis) advantages of higher education, for example. In the 1970s, to be highly educated in Uganda was a risky business. The military government of the day was deeply suspicious of educated people, who were deemed dangerous. Many of those who did not flee the country were killed.

Today, higher education is required for most jobs. That is why, so many people are going to university to earn a degree that will open the doors of employment. But again, this kind of education has its disadvantages. It tends to condemn a person to total dependence on salaried employment, making them vulnerable to sudden destitution should they lose their jobs.

Strangely enough, at the end of the day, when you trace the adult lives of people at most workplaces, it is the drivers, messengers and cleaners who do better as far as individual financial security is concerned.

After working for five years, a tea girl will have invested more than the secretary along with whom she was recruited. The driver will be more financially solid than the mid-rank graduate officer.

The tea girl, you see, doesn’t just earn a salary. She also supplies mandazis to the secretaries at break time. She arrives at work much earlier than them, to make sure her merchandise is distributed to various agents such as junior tea girls in nearby offices and a few street side vendors.

When the secretaries arrive, she greets them politely and asks what they would like for their break. Since she extends credit, many of her bosses are in her debt. They pay up as soon as they get their salaries, because it would be beneath their dignity to default on a tea girl’s money.

Meanwhile, her younger sister, whom she brought over from the village two years ago, is manning their stall in the market, where they sell second-hand clothes. From among these, the elder sister regularly selects the “first class” pieces and sells them at higher prices to the secretaries, who do not want to be seen in the downtown market stalls bargaining for used garments.

Because of spending so much time with educated people, the tea girl has decided that the child, whose birth forced her out of school six years ago, will have the best education she can provide. She puts the child in a good school and pushes her to work for good grades. She will even make sacrifices to pay for private coaching.

As for our driver, he is doing equally well. Extremely humble and obliging before the executives, he is regarded as indispensable. After working there for 10 years, he knows the secrets of the top men in the organization. They therefore tend to let him get away with small sins like those that fuel bills that seem on the high side for the mileage covered.

Unbeknown to his bosses, he is running two or three taxicabs as well as a small shop near his home. He has a line of one-room rental houses and any tenant who is late with the monthly payment isevicted ruthlessly.

His drivers and wives, who double as shop assistants, bow lower before him than he does before his bosses at work. His children, who are subjected to very strict discipline, will be sent to the best schools if they are academically promising. Otherwise, they are absorbed into the family business at an early age. He rules over his small empire with an iron hand.

The tea girl and the driver get salaries that are much lower than those of the secretary and the middle officer. However, because they live close to the ground, as it were, they spend much less and so are able to save and invest.

The young graduate, on the other hand, cannot imagine running a soda-and-cake network in the office. So, he has no income apart from his official salary. Yet he goes to expensive clubs and wears trendy clothes. So, come the end of the month, he has no money left! Whereas the driver no longer touches his salary, relying instead on his diverse incomes to run his home.

The graduate cannot invest in the places he frequents and the circles he moves in; he cannot build a five-star hotel. But the driver can open kiosks and bars in his slum.

One day, both these people will have to leave their employment. No prizes for guessing who is better prepared for life after retirement. The privatization and downsizing of the public service gave us many sad cases of senior officers who tried to start businesses with their retirement packages. At their age, it was too late to learn new tricks, and most got cleaned out within a week, ending up as frustrated alcoholics.

The stronger ones converted their family cars into cabs, and can be seen touting for teenage passengers outside discotheques. They live in unfinished houses and are always quarreling with their growing children, who cannot cope with the fall in their standard of living.

As the driver’s and tea girl’s offspring join the business sector with ease, the former officer’s sons and daughters sit around idly talking about Western film stars and singers. Such are the dangers of an elitist education...


The author, Mr. Buwembo is Editor of the Sunday Vision of Kampala.

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