Ugandan youth is divers, but they share one interest: the desire to go to the West. When I did my research on Internet usage in Internet cafés in Kampala I noticed that one of the main activities is seeking and creating opportunities to go to the West. Applying for scholarships, looking for sponsors and collecting pen pals are integrated into the daily activities of the online youth. Local websites show ads of scholarships or greencard applications and there are posters spread throughout the streets saying: ‘looking for pen pal or American sponsor? Call this number!’
Fact is that much of these ads are made by so called conmen. The youngsters, desperate to live their dream in the US or Europe, are so eager that they are willing to spend all their money on such ‘chances’. They have to pay registration fees, processing fees and other undefined fees in order to come into the pool of potential fortunate ones. To obtain an acceptable pass photo is the first struggle because the strict rules on size, facial expression, ears visible etc. aren’t obvious to most Ugandans. Therefore the advertisers ask extra money for these services that help to fulfill all these requirements.
Often the next step is to do an interview to see if they meet the other requirements. This is the moment that most of the fortune seekers get to hear that they are ‘not good enough to go to the West’. Others pass the interview, but get to hear that there are not enough donors at the moment; they just have to wait some longer. It can take up to years before people start realizing that they are tricked.
Scamming is a widespread phenomenon in Africa. Africans are popular targets not because of their phat bank account, but because of their (computer) illiteracy. Internet usage is still relatively small but growing, what means that everyday people in Africa encounter Internet for the first time. These illiterate people don’t have experience yet in recognizing authentic Internet traffic. These are the people that click eagerly on the pop-up saying ‘you are the 1000.000st visitor! Fill in your details and get your price!’
More technical conmen make fake websites of universities that offer scholarships. A registration fee of about 200 dollars needs to be transferred first. When the ignorant fortune seekers have send their money, it doesn’t take long before the website has vanished.
Besides looking for scholarships, there is another more personal way to get an invitation to go to the West – by contacting white men that are looking for African ladies. Some women are seriously trying to find the love of their life. Success stories circulate around Kampala about happily married mixed couples, but there are few. Others women invest in relationships online in order to get as much financial gifts as possible. In that case a bit of online flirting with a ‘muzungu’ (white person) results soon in an online relationship. ‘Plans’ to meet physically or even to marry are usually made early in the process. But something happens first! After a few weeks a family member needs to be brought to the hospital or needs medicine; money needs to be send immediately; it is a matter of life or death. Some later a trip is planned, but before the booking is realized a passport gets lost; money need to be transferred first to get a new one. Some do meet in the end. Most don’t.