Reflections from Masaka

“It’s good to take risks,” she said, head cocked to one side with a twinkle in her eye. We were deep in the heart of rural Masaka, a Ugandan district renowned for its lush villages, paved highway, proximity to a known cannibal tribe, and delicious pork. This interview was the third in our first full day of field research on vulnerable communities’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding human trafficking. We had found the respondent—an eighteen-year-old girl—folding laundry in front of her parent’s cement block home. She had an infant son, we learned, but no husband or live-in boyfriend. She looked so young in her bright floral shirt and faded capris stretch pants. Young and full of life.

My four weeks in Uganda were filled with similar conversations. I was there with Willow International, a Ugandan nonprofit dedicated to the fight against human trafficking. To complement their already-existing safe houses and case management services for trafficking survivors, Willow has dedicated programs to trafficking prevention and education. I was recruited to help design a field study that would form the baseline for community education efforts, probing communities’ current knowledge and awareness so that Willow can craft a program tailored to their needs. During the course of four weeks, our team surveyed over 310 households, held numerous focus groups, and interviewed dozens of local leaders. We literally drove across the country, from rural villages to border towns to Kampala slums. Any one of our destinations could have been a National Geographic cover. Uganda is truly beautiful.

But amidst the beauty was a sobering reality: there are simply not enough jobs to go around. Facing extreme poverty and a shortage of local opportunity, our respondents repeatedly looked to outside districts and countries as their best chance of advancement. Compounded by the myriad of misconceptions about human trafficking that emerged in our data, their circumstances make them prime targets for exploitation. And while many seemed to recognize their vulnerability, insisting that they do not trust anyone and that they would never leave their home districts, others seemed eager for us (perfect strangers) to offer them a job. Looking at their circumstances, I could not blame them. Ignorance is not the sole or primary cause of human trafficking in Uganda. Amidst relentless poverty and unemployment, safety becomes a luxury that not everyone cannot afford.

As we neared the end of our third interview, the respondent nursed her child and told us about her friends who accepted jobs in other districts only to find themselves mistreated. Today, she refuses to work outside Masaka: she wants to stay close enough that she can walk back home if things go wrong. As we thanked her and turned to leave, I wondered if a girl so full of spunk would really stay homebound forever. All I could do was pray that if she decides to risk, her risk will be a good one.

-Annika Mizel