Jude Ssempebwa reviews Atamuzadde, a bittersweet thriller authored by Henry F. Mulindwa. chronicling the life of an industrious female Ugandan university graduate who struggles unsuccessfully to achieve a good life for herself and her family.
Although she successfully completes a degree in Social Development, is salvaged from a Mexican drug and human trafficking cartel under whose captivity she faced real risk of having her organs harvested for sale and goes on to start a promising business, she winds up destitute, having lost a hard-earned $30,000 to a charlatan who also gives her HIV/Aids and an unwanted pregnancy before disappearing from her.
Sadly, I am unable to see the story for the fiction it is because I know too many young people in Uganda who are going through similar problems; not on the pages of fictitious books but in real life.
And for tracing the main causes of these problems and suggesting solutions to them, this book is a must-read for every young person, parent, teacher and leader in the country.
Set in the contemporary post-university world that is distressed by an escalating unemployment problem, the story starts at a typical Ugandan university graduation ceremony: disorganized by bad weather; fraught with poor time-management; and whose understandable merry-making mood is ruined by a horde of haranguing speeches with important messages but which the graduating students are unable to take in, being very tired and hungry.
Beyond the ceremony, the author immerses the reader into the incredible wealth of crisp Luganda diction and proverbial satire, which is poetic, humorous, and sometimes as extravagant as to have 30-lettered words! Via this, he calls out the main ones of the causes of unemployment among educated youths in Uganda: the pursuit of education for all the wrong reasons; condonation of the exploitation of young people in slave-like work conditions by crooked employers; and macroeconomic bottlenecks that literally stifle the startup self-employment projects of young people.
Poor families, the author reminds us vividly, make incredible sacrifices to pay exorbitant secondary and higher education fees - trusting that upon graduation, their children will not only live descent and progressive lives, but also support the families, particularly the education of their siblings.
That these children graduate into joblessness (and continued dependence) instead should worry the students and their teachers greatly.
Yet, ironically, the same students and teachers cause unemployment when their choice of subjects focuses on the egotism of studying fancy-sounding things and/or things in which the students will score top grades and esteem their schools to attract more students even when these are things about which the students are not truly passionate and for which demand does not readily exist in society.
Thusly, the author puts the education policy makers who allow these absurdities to happen under their watchful eyes on the pedestal. Even then, he leaves an important question unanswered: can students be admitted to subjects on the basis of their interest in them even if their scores may not be excellent?
Although this may not be practicable, the author contends, the interest a student has in a given study program (as well as his/her career prospects) should be added to the criteria for admission.
Otherwise, the sending of students to medical schools simply because their parents are medical doctors or to teacher-training institutions simply because they made the mark for admission has given us an oversupply of unkind health workers who have killed rather than treated patients and teachers who have cheated rather than inspired students.
Atamuzadde also casts doubt on the validity and reliability of our examination processes. Students have sometimes failed in subjects where they are strong and highly motivated and, ironically, scored top grades in subjects where they are weak and disinterested!
This is the consequence of reliance on summative assessment. And reliance on the same for admission to higher education study programs has led to unemployment among educated youths.
The book also shines a light on predatory employers. These take advantage of absence of a minimum wage and vigilant enforcement of labor standards to hire young people without issuing them appointment letters and to offer them ridiculous wages that do not even cover the cost of transport to work, which they still do not pay fully let alone promptly.
In many firms and private schools and universities, this is the modus operandi but no one in government and the labor unions cares!
Some government policies have also exacerbated the youths’ unemployment problem. Indeed, it is government’s imposition of a far-reaching, paralyzing, Covid-19 lockdown that would literally kill the poultry startup the protagonist had worked hard to establish using borrowed money - having tired of working without pay in a shop and a private school.
Despite stellar ingenuity and resilience in her poultry startup, the protagonist is forced out of the project because the lockdown renders her eggs unsellable and taxes on inputs that were increased at the height of lockdown, when business was at its lowest ebb, make it impossible for her to maintain the chicken.
Devastated, she is the ideal candidate for trafficking, baited easily by a promise of a job in the United States even if this is clearly too good to be true.
Through stinking rich, well-connected but elusive handlers that operate with the unmistakable complicity of actors in law enforcement, including at Entebbe International Airport, she ends up in Mexico, in the hands of gangsters who are keen to harvest her organs and stuff her corpse with narcotics so that they bypass customs and enter countries where they are banned.
Her imminent murder is delayed only by a benevolent undercover CIA agent at the gangsters’ medical facility - who lies that she has a history of Hepatitis B that renders her organs unsellable - and she gains creepy details about the human and drug trafficking operation during a hanky-panky with one of the gangsters that lusts after her.
These details, which she relays over top of the range spying equipment doubled agent style, support the CIA and Mexican police in a targeted operation during which they annihilate the gangsters and evacuate her to the United States.
And after months of a lavish posttraumatic rehabilitation program that is very generously funded by the government of the United States, she returns to Entebbe, where she is shocked that immigration officers in her home country harass her when strangers in the United States had treated her very kindly.
On reaching home, she finds that her father had died of diabetes and hypertension. These had been aggravated by suspicion that she’d been trafficked although, strangely, staff at the national hospital lied that he had died of Covid-19.
That his will assigned her as his heir (in view of her education, diligence and altruism) stirs frenzied controversy, an episode the author uses to critique simplistic interpretation of convention to use culture against women before making a compelling case for leveraging women’s strengths and stopping the prejudice against women that sustains undue male advantage.
The protagonist goes on to start a promising trading business. However, a stranger with whom she makes a business trip cons her of most of her business capital ($30,000) and, in a one-night stand during the trip, gives her an unwanted pregnancy and HIV/Aids before disappearing from her.
That such recklessness, naivety and lack of soft skills persist in youths who are educated up to the university level should abash educationists at all levels of the education system.
The reviewer is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at the East African School of Higher Education Studies and Development, Makerere University.