From Rwandaring to Ugandaring

After a whirlwind few weeks kicking off our 3-year adventure setting ourselves up for our work in Rwanda, I am emerging from my hermit hole to shed some light on the current situation.

As I write, I am sitting in my new office, in a small town of 30,000 in Northern Uganda, called Gulu, poring over research articles and training manuals to situate myself to my new surroundings.

Wait… what? Uganda?! You might ask. I thought you were in RW-anda…

Sometimes life doesn’t turn out how you expect it to. Sometimes it throws you a curve ball. We got a big one in Rwanda and it smacked us square in the jaw. After three weeks of the most frustrating, unproductive and disappointing encounters with the Immigration department of the Rwandan government, we were chewed up by Kigali and spat out to Kampala. Emotionally and physically exhausted, our three-year stint in Rwanda amounted to nothing more than too many unfruitful, long hours waiting in queues in creaking seats in the drab office of the Immigration. The Government of Rwanda does not want us. We have been rejected.

How can this happen, you say?

Well let me first tell you: we fought. We fought as hard as we knew how, and so did our respective organizations. I spent some late nights, eyes red, rubbing the skin on my forehead thin, trying to figure out all possible roads to take to get to stay. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s not up to us.

The only explanation we were provided: you are not on the list. The list? What list is this? THE list, of course. The Occupations in Demand List. ODL if you’re hip with the lingo. What figures on the ODL list in terms of “approved” professions is a bit nonsensical to my eyes: beauticians, interior decorators, authors, and underwater divers. While some medical professionals, teachers, and certain scientists appear, neither sociologist, nor economist figure into the picture.

Apparently Rwanda is ratcheting up its closure of borders (despite their website professing the new ease with which foreigners can now obtain a visa to travel) to foreign workers.

We asked for more answers. I was told that I could not work there because I would be potentially stealing a job from a local person – something which, in normal circumstances, I completely understand. Enforcing policies to protect the well-being of your country’s own nationals by securing them as many opportunities to seek employment and support their families makes sense. I tried to explain multiple times that the skills that I possessed, in terms of standards of education and experience, was not something readily available in Rwanda, and certainly not obtainable for free. I tried to explain that the intention was to work as a volunteer, an in-kind contribution to an important local  organization in the country, and I would not be “stealing” a local person’s job! Immigration’s response: You are not on the list.

So you’re telling me that you can indeed find these skills in Rwanda and that you can find a local that can work at 100% for free… and for THREE YEARS?! And that that’s reasonable and preferable to wait for this magical angel to appear from nowhere than having a foreigner? That doesn’t really wash with me.

Both Gaetan and I tried to press Immigration for more information and better explanations, only to be quickly shot down. You are not on the list AND you are not an East African national – a new revelation that is nowhere mentioned on the Immigration department’s website of requirements. After “rwandaring” down some bizarre rabbit holes with some strange twists and turns and receiving contradicting responses, we couldn’t even manage to summon a representative down from their office to explain to us face-to-face. And so it went that we were banished from the country, as the Immigration department shoved an exit visa my way and told me to get out of their country in no less than two weeks.

It was disappointing and heartbreaking, and I sulked while begrudgingly packing my bags for the third time and dragging my feet to the airport terminal. It seems bizarre and senseless that the dream of Rwandaring should end so abruptly and prematurely, but it is what it is.

So here we find ourselves in Gulu. Trading in lifestyles and experiences to open our hearts to new experiences among the Ugandans of the north. The universe’s compass needle pointed us here, for whatever reason, and the winds of change have set us down relatively gently. Gaetan and I will be giving you all updates on our current volunteer projects as details emerge, and I am so excited to tell you about my new project.

We may not be wandering in Rwanda anymore, so we’ll have a “gander” in Uganda. Welcome to UGANDARING!