the word I spit out…


It is a word that I spit out, hard and quick, desperate to see it leave my mouth and my body and my soul.

Desperate for it to be purged and destroyed.

The Oxford dictionary defines it as this:

Corruption: dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery. The action or effect of making someone or something morally depraved

I define it as this: An evil that eats away at truth, humility and integrity. On a national level, it rages like a disease that seeks out and destroys the cells that are the lifeblood of a developing country emerging from poverty: representational, accountable democracy

And Uganda is full of it. Full to the brim.

One of the newspapers here recently published an article about a corruption index undertaken each year by ‘Transparency International’, ranking Uganda as the 2nd most corrupt country in the East African Community, second only to Burundi. That means that Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania are all less corrupt than us.

I never quite understood why so many people raged against this disease; trying to find cures or vaccines or at least treatment for the symptoms. Missionaries I met in Africa in the past spat the word out, as I do now.

I used to laugh it off. What’s a $5 bribe to a policemen here? Or a quick under the table $20 to a government official there? It just speeds the processes up a bit. Adds a bit ‘extra’ to the shameful government salaries in this country.* An unofficial tax you might say.

But it is much more than that.

Corruption filters down from the top. It demonstrates a lack of accountability to the people to which government is mandated to represent. It violates the contract between leaders and their people, which states that leaders of a democratic state are there to protect and ensure rights.  It takes away any semblance of a system, so all you are left with is millions of informal interactions characterised by power and exploitation. The more power someone has over you and the action you are trying to achieve, the more money they can ask for.

For example

Earlier this year, I needed one signature from a Ministry of Health official, to recommend us to the NGO Board. Without that signature we could not be a registered NGO in this country. Without any sign of guilt but with a face of greedy entitlement, he asks for a 5 million shilling bribe. That is about A$2000. For one signature.**

Recently we have had a shipping container full of medical equipment brought into Uganda. We also had a few boxes of personal effects. Both are supposed to be completely tax free, under Ugandan law. Medical equipment for an NGO – tax free. Anyone who is changing residence to another country, is allowed to bring to that new country their personal items, tax free. Simple. An internationally recognised system. And yet we were forced to pay 1 million (A$300) – on my wedding gifts, on books I had collected since I was 10, on our mattress, on towels I had used hundreds of times before.

Our lawyer earlier in the year helped us get our NGO certificate. He was told the fees had changed for NGO registration, from 15,000 (A$5) to 3,000,000 ($1000). That is a big jump. We all protested, suspecting corruption. But they produced documents, official papers, even a government bank account to transfer the money into. So we paid half the money to start the process. Then we found out it was a fake syndicate, a group posing as the NGO board who had a contact within the bank, who was later syphoning the money from the account back to them and taking a cut. We never got our money back.

We are trying to help a young woman in town at the moment, as she begins her Diploma in Laboratory at one of the biggest Universities in Uganda. She has her sponsorship from someone already. She has been admitted. And yet as a Kamwenge local, a stranger to the power plays of big city life, she has requested us to help her negotiate the system. At every step she has met officials demanding bribes. Bribes to get her papers back. Bribes for official admission. Bribes to get a copy of the fee structure to take back to her sponsor. All she wants to do is study the course she has been admitted into.

The more in need you are of the signature/service/requirement/registration – the more you pay.

So the big men in big offices are the ones who take the most money. And so doing anything becomes a very difficult, long process, with little respect for official systems and dozens of ethical dilemmas along the way. You want to report it? You pay extra ‘fees’ to corruption boards and committees so they will actually bother to look into it. Except the big men can afford to pay them off, with the money YOU gave them.

Trying to get

          A business registered                                                                                                                           Any kind of registration/recommendation
          Anything imported
         A passport/visa/permit
         Land titles processed
        Your wife treated as she dies of obstructed labour
        A thief arrested
        A university transcript/results for your course
        The council road graded to your site
        Your child taught at school
        Out of a speeding fine when you KNOW you were travelling within the speed         limit

                          involves corruption

And of course, this ‘tax’ is higher, the more you look like you can pay.

No matter how long you have been here, how well you know the law, how well you know the real costs, how many times you explain you are not benefiting and this is a project for the community, or how many times you explain you are on a Ugandan salary*.

If only I didn’t have money-coloured skin.

*One of my friends who works as a full time worker at the local Kamwenge government Post Office earns 50,000 a month, which is about $18. That is NOT a living wage. She however, manages to remain honest and integral.

** For the record, we didn’t pay the 5 million! Not one cent of it.

*** Ugandans come up against issues of corruption as much (if not sometimes more) than I do. I don’t want to give the impression that we are the only one’s who have to deal with it! There are thousands of stories I could tell of my friends here trying to get all sorts of things done where they have been forced to pay bribes.

Note: I don’t normally write such scathing critiques of Uganda. Please note this is not an issue that has ANYTHING to do with Ugandan culture. It emerges from the culture of leadership.

The views expressed within are ENTIRELY my personal views and are not the views of the NGO that I work for.  I am aware this piece is a very candid account of my experience, but I believe strongly in the democratic process and the need to keep leadership accountable.

8 responses to “the word I spit out…

  1. ‘If only I didn’t have money coloured skin’ – brilliant!

  2. Wow Kim. I experienced corruption to a small degree over there but nothing to that scale. I love all your updates, they spur me on to continue on in my degree in the hope that I can someday put it to use like you are doing so well. God Bless you in your work together!! xx Loz

  3. Thanks for the honest and candid update, Kim. From the outside, I always suspected that corruption was rife but it becomes much clearer just how much it affects daily life when someone experiencing it directly articulates it as well as you have. Money and power can be truly evil and it is sad to think that a nation’s attempt at progressing out of poverty is continually mired by greed. I hope that you are continually finding ways to counteract these negatives in your soul, heart & mind with the many positives you are achieving!

    • Mike – as always thanks again for the encouraging comment! We are trying to find ways to counteract these negatives but every now and again it does feel like you are a tiny drop in the ocean (kind of like putting solar panels on your house in Australia while the rest of the country is producing bucket loads of green house gas without a second thought!) The most encouraging thing is when I see Ugandan’s getting equally frustrated and indignant that this injustice exists in their own country – it keeps my hope alive that things can change in the future… On a separate note – how is your documentary going? Is it ready for viewing – would love to be able to watch it sometime, somehow!

  4. Kim, very much appreciated reading your honest and detailed account of corruption. Power/control/greed causes nothing but misery for peoples who are forced to bow down to/pay in order to achieve a normal desired goal in life such as going to university. Police / official corruption is rife throughout the world – not just in impoverished nations. Often a hidden evil until someone such as yourself is willing to write openly of own and friends experiences of corruption. You said you didn’t pay the 5 million yet understand the signature was obtained – how did you manage it in the end? How can all the ‘little peoples’ of the world band together wherever they are and expose/fight this evil? To not pay a bribe yet achieve the goal is a real positive……. as Mike Crowhurst says: one of the many positives you and Michael are achieving together with your wonderful Ugandan family and friends. Looking forward to hearing of Maranatha’s first patient…… not long now!

    • Hi Robyn – thanks for your thoughts. I often dream of a civil society in Uganda (the little people) who actually are active and united enough to make real change in this country. It is certainly on its way. Like Arundhati Roy says so eloquently “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

      In regards to the experience in the Ministry of Health – we ended up (after weeks and weeks of attempts) at having a very positive experience with a very high up official, who was very accommodating, helpful, and happy to sign our papers the minute he met us and saw our file and what we were doing. He asked nothing of us. Wonderful! So there are certainly very good people who are working within the machine!

      • Hey Kim, what a brilliant outcome and well worth your perserverance. Totally agree with Arundhati Roy quote and I could have a real good discussion with you about how we are all connected and linked and if one part is poison it hurts the other parts and so forth however best not! Your spirit of positiveness is wonderful! Love and best wishes to you and Michael – keep up the terrific work. God bless xxxx

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