Susan C. Anthony

Ugandan Student Scam

March 2, 1988

One day in Nairobi we were walking near the university when a good-looking young man with very black skin approached us.

"You are visitors here?" he asked pleasantly.

"Yes," Dennis answered.

"Where are you from?"

"Alaska, in the United States."

"Oh, Alaska!" he exclaimed. "Do you live near Anchorage?"


"I have learned about Alaska in school, but I have never met anyone from there. Can you tell me about it? Do you have a few minutes to talk with me?"

We looked at each other. "Sure." He seemed a nice enough fellow.

"Tell me about Alaska," he said. "Do you like living there? Do you see lots of bears and other animals?" We talked a bit about Alaska, and he asked, "Are there many black people where you live? I have heard that there is a lot of discrimination in America." We told him there are a good number of black people in Alaska, and they generally seem to be doing well. "Discrimination is not as bad in Alaska as it is in some places, from what we've heard," we told him.

"Why did you decide to come to Kenya?" he wondered. "How long have you been here? How do you like it?" All good questions, and he seemed to be genuinely interested in what we had to say.

"What do you do in Alaska?" he asked.

"We are teachers."

"What do you teach?"

"We teach children who are 11-12 years old."

"Yes," he said, "education is very, very important. I am a university student. Recently, I learned that I have been accepted by UCLA in California to study medicine. Do you know UCLA?"

"Of course," I answered. "Congratulations! Are you studying at the University here in Nairobi?"

"No," he responded. "I am not Kenyan. I am from Uganda. Have you been to Uganda?"

"No, but we've heard it is very beautiful."

"I would not advise you to go there," he said, lowering his voice. "Things are very bad—political battles, war, and corruption are everywhere. A few months ago several friends from my village and members of my family were arrested and taken away. I don't know where they are, but I feel sure some have been killed. I was lucky to escape to Kenya before I was arrested."

"That's terrible," I exclaimed. "We have read about problems there."

"Kenya is a good place, very peaceful. I like it here. Unfortunately, I cannot stay here. My visa expires at midnight tonight. I applied for an extension but they told me today it will not be granted. If I do not leave Kenya by midnight, I will be arrested by the police and sent back to Uganda. There is a train to Tanzania that leaves in about four hours, but it will cost 300 shillings. I do not have a work permit here and I haven't been able to make any money. You have treated me well, and have not discriminated against me because of my black skin. Can you help me?"

I had a sinking feeling. Would we never meet a person who did not want money from us? Dennis questioned the young man about his options. Could he hitchhike to the border? Was there any other way to raise the money, or to get permission to stay longer? The Ugandan was intelligent, articulate, and seemingly sincere. Maybe he really was in a jam.

Finally, Dennis said, "OK, we'll give you 50."

"50 dollars?" the young man asked. That should have been a clue.

"No," Dennis answered. "50 shillings."

"And you," he said, looking at me. "50 shillings from you, too?"

"No," I answered. "50 shillings from us."

He looked downcast. "There is so little time," he said. "I could be killed if I am sent back to Uganda."

"You'll just have to find five more people like us," said Dennis. "Good luck, and good luck with your studies."

"Were we conned?" I asked, as soon as he was out of earshot.

"Could be. He certainly had a good story," Dennis answered. "Let's assume he was telling the truth."

Dennis mentioned the incident to someone at the Youth Hostel that night.

"Haven't you heard that one before?" the hosteler asked. "The town's full of so-called Ugandan refugees. There's even another twist. They tell you their visa has already expired and they're being sought by the police. Whether you give money or not, when the 'refugee' leaves, another man comes up who says he is a policeman, and threatens to arrest you for aiding an illegal alien. The idea is to extract a bribe."

Oh well. Live and learn.

In the course of the next week, we met several more "Ugandan students" and learned to recognize them by their opening lines. All were intelligent, fluent in English, well read, good listeners, and interested in hearing about our lives and travels. All had been accepted by one or another prominent American university to study medicine. All had questions about prejudice and discrimination in the United States, and all, of course, were in desperate need of money.

Before long, when they came to the question, "What do you know about Uganda?" we could have finished the story.

"We know there is a war, and terrible political problems. Several of your friends and family members have been arrested and possibly killed. You managed to escape to Kenya. You are planning to study medicine in America and you want us to give you money."

Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to try this. The last "refugee" we met was from Sudan. He was blind in one eye from a wound sustained before he escaped to Kenya. He was not planning to study medicine, but he had a wife and three children to support. We didn't stick around to hear the whole story.

Unfortunately, there are likely true refugees from Uganda and Sudan who are seriously in need. Conditions in those countries now may be as bad or worse than those in Nazi Germany. I'm not sure how many refugees are in Kenya, but I would guess those in need are not well-dressed and fluent in English. It angered me that these con men used the plight of the truly needy as a cover for their own acts of extortion.

Go on to An African Bus Ride
Source:, ©Susan C. Anthony