Canadian Kyeyo- The Naked Truth

Canadian Kyeyo- The Naked Truth

Understanding the sacrifices that kyeyoists make.

By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
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First published: December 27, 2005

Many people who live in Uganda have strong misconceptions about ‘kyeyo’ and living abroad. Their idea of the realities and the actual realities are very far removed to the point where many think that kyeyoists are lying when they explain the dichotomies. More often than not many people think that the streets of developed countries are littered with gold, diamonds and dollars, but that is not the case at all. They are lined with concrete and sometimes the occasional homeless person, sleeping on the streets with a torn tattered blanket and clothes that were last washed months ago.

The occasional homeless person, sleeping on the streets with a torn tattered blanket and clothes.

Once upon a time the expression kyeyo was used to refer to people who had left Uganda in order to sweep the streets and clean toilets in developed countries like England, USA and Canada. Now it has taken on a broader meaning and envelopes all people who work abroad, whether their jobs are considered glamorous or not. There are all types of people living and working abroad from university educated Ugandans to people that barely finished their O’Levels. What they all have in common, with the exception of those who are on the welfare system (receiving money from the government-usually a pittance) is the fact that they are all working very hard.

The Price of Working Illegally

Working kyeyo is not as easy at it seems. For one thing in a country like Canada you would need a SIN number and sometimes a work permit to work legally. Without these the options are very meager: most likely one will be relegated to factory jobs, cleaning other peoples houses, looking after the elderly or looking after peoples children. Not very promising when one has a university degree or even a master’s degree, yet it beats begging in the streets or depending on relatives overseas to send a monthly allowance.

These conditions are usually abusive and deplorable. Often times the factories are health hazards, with no windows or decent aeration. The employees are not protected from any potential harm from for example sharp objects. Many times the hours worked are inhumane, sometimes lasting well over 12 hours daily. For the other jobs, mostly done by women, they find themselves working hard 12-16 hours at least and having all kinds of other roles being thrown at them. Nannies for example are hired to take care of kids and find themselves cleaning, washing clothes, cooking, ironing, washing dishes and on top of that taking care of the kids or elderly person. There is very little difference between themselves and a house girl in Uganda. They may get paid more but the standard of living is higher in Canada than Uganda in huge leaps and therefore it’s like comparing apples with oranges.

Most people in these situations are continuously living on the edge, looking behind them and worried about being caught by immigration officers and being deported. Once in a while factory stings are done, where immigration officers and the police go into factories unexpectedly and catch more than your average number of illegal immigrants, shipping them off to their lands of origin. Unlike what many people think, these illegal aliens are not just from Africa. There are other ‘kyeyoists’ from Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and even some from Eastern Europe. So technically Ugandan ‘kyeyoists’ are competing with others from other countries for these manual jobs.

The Expenses of Living in Canada

The expenses of living in Canada are high.

The standard of living in Canada is very high. Many people find considerable percentages of their pay cheques going towards bills. Renting a small one bedroom apartment in Toronto, for example, can be as expensive as $900-$1,100 CAD (Canadian Dollars) per month. That is approximately $850-1,000 USD. Then there are other bills that one cannot avoid especially in the winter like the hydro bill (for heating) and the electricity bill which can very easily run in the $100’s. But many people also have to pay the telephone bill, cell phone bill, car insurance bill, car payments bill, credit card bills, taxes, day care expenses, internet bills, cable bills, student loans and other mind boggling debts. This is without considering food, gas, clothing and pocket money for the children and pocket money for oneself. Maybe that explains the drastic decline in Canadians of child-bearing age that are having children. It is just too expensive to have them.

 One would be hard pressed to go in a restaurant and pay under $10.00 for a meal.

It is understandable that people need to be able to use their money to treat themselves. After a hard day of work, it is well deserved. One would be hard pressed to go in a restaurant and pay under $10.00 for a meal, the average book in a bookstore costs $15.00, the average Music CD is $20.00, and watching a movie is about $12.00. A decent winter coat and winter boots cost about $100.00 each. That definitely translates into a higher standard than Uganda where one can get a plate of fish and chips as well as a soda for only $2.00.

What has not yet even been mentioned are the mandatory taxes that are taken off all the pay cheques. A bi-weekly pay cheque of lets say $1,200 could easily have $250.00-$300.00 taken off even before the employee receives the cheque. Add that to the fact that every time you enter a store, whether it’s a clothing store, food store or any other store, you have to pay GST (Goods and Services Tax) and PST (Provincial Sales Tax) on any and every item. Taxes are also included are in all the bills mentioned in the paragraph above. The higher the income bracket, the more taxes are taken off the pay cheque.

Canada is a workaholic community with many company managers clocking about 60hours a week at the expense of their health, their families and sometimes their own sanity. Some jobs like customer service call centre jobs are very stressful with people expected to take approximately 80-100 calls a day, many of them dealing with irate customers. They often work in big brother environments, every single move being monitored and micromanaged: how long they are on their breaks, lunches, calls, breaks between calls, punctuality, absences and sometimes even how many times and how long they are in the toilet. To top that they are expected to do overtime, sometimes without pay and take their puny 2-week vacation per year at the whim of an employee. It is not encouraged to take the two weeks off consecutively. Companies prefer it if the two weeks are broken up into increments. Some employees even find themselves stuck on body-breaking, mind-boggling, family destroying shifts like the graveyard shift (midnight to 8:00am). A number of employees go on stress leaves as a result of all or some of the above.

Winter in Canada

Winter in Canada can look very beautiful.

Winter in Canada can look very beautiful. The snow on the ground can look picturesque, serene and pristine. This is the time for winter sports lovers to revel in sports like skiing and ice-skating. But that is as far as winter goes with practicality. When it comes to working during this period, it can be a logistical, physical and emotional nightmare. The winter months are some of the worst months to work in Canada. That is especially true for those who have no cars and have to travel to work in minus 20 degrees, trudging through knee-high snow against buffeting, ice-filled windshields. For many people getting to work either by car or public transit takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Imagine having to do that every weekday in -15 degree weather for 4-5 months. A condition known as winter blues, a sort of depression because of the never-ending coldness, descends upon many people; both Canadian-born and immigrants. People socialize and entertain less in winter because of the severity of the coldness, so most people find that their only activity is work. That can be depressing for many immigrants.

The Price of Immigrating To Canada

Many families have to pay high exorbitant immigration fees to come to Canada as immigrants. One family of five from Mauritius for example paid $50,000 before they were accepted by the Canadian government to come to Canada. The fact that they were young, had university degrees, had working experience and were bilingual (French and English) made them highly eligible. Both of them had excellent jobs in Mauritius but the promises of the “Canadian Dream” had ensnared them. They got to Canada and it took a year before the wife could find a job. At that time they had run out of their savings and had even considered going back to Mauritius. None of them were able to find jobs in their fields and had to settle for customer service call center jobs. They were luckier than many other immigrants with university degrees who end up driving taxis, working as security guards and cleaning at the airport. Many immigrants also suffer from other issues like loneliness, isolation, cultural shock, weather shock, ageism and racism.

What About Those With University Degrees?

Many immigrants make valid observations that their university degrees mean very little in Canada. There are some grains of truth in that statement. They are immediately faced with the fact that few employers will accept them without Canadian experience. For those that catch on, they overcome this obstacle by doing volunteer work for a few months. This enables them to have not only the experience but also great references in preparation to the Canadian workforce. The reality though is many of them will probably not find jobs that match with their degrees.

However this daunting degree situation is not just limited to immigrants. Many Canadian-born people have to face that adversity as well. They spend many years in universities, coming out with student loans, which they have to pay back to the government by a given period. However that fact does not necessarily equate to their finding jobs in their fields, nor does it equate to them finding well paying jobs.

Sending Money Home

Sending money home.

Despite all of the factors mentioned above, many kyeyoists still send money home. It can be a very stressful venture though. Many are inundated with requests from numerous relatives asking for all kinds of monetary assistance; others are responsible for the school fees of children they may have left home or their relative’s children and still others are responsible for their parent’s well being financially. Whatever the case is kyeyo money cannot be underrated but sometimes the demands that people back home make on those that are abroad-the so called kyeyoists are preposterous.

One single Ugandan mother in her late 20’s for example is providing employment for 4 relatives in a store that she opened in Kampala. On top of that she is paying school fees for her siblings’ children in Uganda, as well as providing for their accommodation in a home that she bought there. Lately she has found herself also paying school fees for her half-siblings and gets letters and phone calls every week from other people asking her for financial assistance. Altogether she is taking card of ten people, although she has chosen to just have one child and is working two jobs to keep supporting all these people. It costs her a lot of money to send her money home whether is it via Western Union or a bank wire.

When there are weddings and burials, she is expected to finance them as well despite the fact that she does not have the ticket money to go for them herself. When she tried to explain how hard she has to work in order to send them money, her explanations fall upon deaf ears. When she does not help because she just cannot afford to, she receives nasty pieces of feedback. She is emotionally and financially burnt out and wonders if she will ever achieve her own dreams. Most of the people that she is helping are able-bodied people. Her example is hyperbolic for sure, but there are many people like her, operating as a sort of welfare system for relatives back home.

Another Ugandan woman who did not have a car herself and was struggling to make ends meet kept getting requests from relatives to send them a taxi so that they could make money at home. Others even had the audacity to ask her to buy them houses, when she herself was living in a small apartment and could barely afford to visit them more than once in ten years. What annoys her is the fact that some of those people that ask for aid have more than she does and others spend money from relatives partying. She has made it clear that she has nothing to offer and her family has decided to leave her alone.

The Moral of the Story

Despite all these harsh realities, there are many immigrants with success stories. There are numerous Ugandans for example who have bought houses in Canada, have bustling businesses, are doing relatively well financially and are doing the jobs that they went to university for. However they had to make a lot of sacrifices along the way like all other ‘kyeyoists.’ These acquirements did not simply drop out of the sky simply because they live in Canada nor were they picked off the concrete streets. They had to work hard for them.

It is understood that some people do need some form of assistance for example the elderly. But for those able bodied people who send emails, letters and make phone calls to their relatives abroad asking for all sorts of assistance, hopefully this article helps them understand what kind of pressures it puts on those that are sending the help. Maybe they would think twice before expecting the world of their relatives abroad. Perhaps it would increase their respect for the contribution that kyeyoists are making to the Ugandan economy by helping their relatives. Perhaps they would not take it for granted.

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By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
more from author >>
First published: December 27, 2005
Jane Musoke-Nteyafas, poet/author/artist and playwright, was born in Moscow, Russia and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She is the daughter of retired diplomats. By the time she was 19, she spoke French, English, Spanish, Danish, Luganda, some Russian and had lived in Russia, Uganda, France, Denmark, Cuba and Canada.

Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named ‘one of the new voices of Africa’ after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.

She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at