Managing uncertainty: livelihoods in lockdown

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Author: Charlotte Hawkins, PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology. Charlotte is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: A small low-income area in central Kampala.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread uncertainty of everyday lives in global capitalism. For example, uncertainties related to health and resources have been exacerbated, and it has been clearly exposed how they are both often so closely intertwined. This is at once a global and a specific experience. Various ethnographies of work around the world have demonstrated the contextual specificities of how people pragmatically mitigate these uncertainties, with seeking income also often tied up with family life. The majority of older participants in Kampala are still in full-time work, often Monday to Monday. It is often the reason they stay in the capital city, deferring aspirations to return home to the village in order to continue to earn money and support their families. This challenges notions of work in the city as an activity of younger generations, and of transient uncertainty as a preoccupation of youth (Honwana, 2012; Thieme, 2018).

Typical ‘industrialist’ categories of age assign certain everyday activities of economic production to particular life stages (Honwana, 2012: 12): education and childhood, a time of dependence; work and adulthood, a time of independence; and retirement and rest in old age, which in Uganda, is said to be ideally said to be a time of interdependence (Whyte, 2017). This feeds into the stereotype of old age as a condition of certainty, in contrast to precarity faced by youth. The linearity of age & work is disrupted by factors in the wider world, such as pandemics, politics and the economy. This is true in various ways in different contexts; for example, as evident in the other ASSA fieldsites, old age and associated activities are being redefined in response to global population ageing.

Since the 1970s, the informal sector has been a major employer in the Global South, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa (Hart, 1973; Thieme, 2018). Economies and state depend on informal labour, and yet often fail to recognise it as centrally productive employment (Ferguson, 2006). In Uganda, this major but often marginalized sector currently makes up the bulk of the economy; the National Labour Force Survey (NLFS) 2016/17[1] found that 41% of the working population work in subsistence agriculture, but of those who don’t, 85% work in the informal sector, which generates over half of national GDP. This contributes to Uganda being ranked the third highest nation in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) in 2014, with 28% of adults owning their own businesses [2]. In Kampala specifically, the informal sector provides 78% of the city’s employment, more commonly for women (83%) than men (74%). The informal businesses in Kampala cluster in low-income residential areas like this one, where they are often household-based, with proximity to customers and markets. According to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) ‘Informal Sector Survey’[3], and as evident in Godown, informal businesses are largely based on trade such as hawking, market vending, taxi and boda boda driving, hotels and restaurants, and manufacturing, including metalwork, tailoring, charcoal distribution and alcohol brewing.

Woman carrying mangoes to sell in April 2019.

These sources of livelihood have been totally intercepted by stringent social distancing regulations in Uganda. Many people rely on daily income to feed their families, so relief efforts for social protection at a household level are increasingly urgent[4],[5]. To friends in Kampala, this has emphasized the importance of social networks, and particularly neighbours, who can share whatever they have, sometimes assistance they may have received from further afield. And besides resources, the current pandemic situation has shown how people often ‘engage with the ambiguity of our surroundings’ through solidarity and dialogue with each other (Whyte, 1997). Particularly accentuated is the role of mobile phones as a tool to navigate conditions of uncertainty. We saw this across our fieldsites, in the ways people use mobile phones to overcome distances and maintain relationships and care for older people. And we’ve since all seen how important phone calls and WhatsApp have been to adapt to unprecedented times and keep us in contact. This uncertain context also supports the role of ethnographic research, which allows us to look at the patterns in dialogue, how people engage with the wider and indeterminate world, and how this responds to and shapes certain trajectories.


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  • Whyte, S.R., 1997. Questioning misfortune: the pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda, Cambridge studies in medical anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.

[1]Uganda Bureau of Statistics, National Labour Force Survey: (Accessed 18.11.19)

[2]Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), Uganda:

[3]Uganda Bureau of Statistics: Manpower Survery Report, p.138 (Accessed 19.11.19)

[4]Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE.

[5] Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA).