a comedy of donations across Africa


I DON’T normally read the newspapers first thing on Monday morning and also avoid going to Twitter early on that day simply because there are rabbit holes that can derail one’s jump-start to a work week.

I am that guy who can scroll through the timeline for an hour straight simply because when I get to a negative troll post I must go and find an uplifting witty, positive and inspiring one to erase the first. It is not easy.

But this Monday I found myself cooling my heels outside of a government conference room waiting for a meeting to take off so I could contribute to a discussion of national importance. It didn’t happen.

Naturally, I ended up on Twitter to find news updates but mostly irritations and chuckles to distract me from saying rude things to the people within the room itself. Within minutes I found tweets about a donation made to the Republic of Malawi from the People’s Republic of China.

This happened. For real. And it went up onto the internet. In broad daylight.

I would have thought it to be a joke, hoax or meme, if the original tweet hadn’t been posted by @LiuHongyang4 whose Twitter Bio and Curriculum Vitae posted to an official website of the Chinese Diplomatic Service (http://mw.china-embassy.org/eng/dsxx/dsjl/t1578360.htm) both declared him to be China’s Ambassador to Malawi.

He was quite proud of the donation of two (2) motorcycles sent by 1.4billion people in China to 18million people in Malawi.

The motorcycles were, presumably, brand new items. I couldn’t be bothered over where they were manufactured because I was occupied by the photographs of Malawi government and Chinese Embassy officials seated at a high table with the two motorcycles in front of them.

They even had a large banner hoisted up on the building behind them.

The twitter abuse and ridicule brigade went at this halfheartedly and I moved on to more regular news, falling upon the page one call-out in The New Vision under ‘CHARITY’ that read, “Minister Builds Sh100m Church’.

“At least this is a sizeable chunk of money,” I immediately thought, then repented when I remembered the parable of the poor widow in Church.

I wasn’t sure about the story. Turning pages, the actual headline caused me worry: “Minister Namuyangu builds sh100m church, prays for rain.”

I read that and prayed that this story wouldn’t go the wrong way.

God wasn’t answering that prayer that day.

“Residents of Kibuku district have been urged to pray for rains so that they can be able to cultivate food…” the story started, before quoting the State Minister for Local Government, Jenipher Namuyangu, saying there had been no rains since June last year and the district was now facing a famine.

“Most families now have one meal per day and this is a worrying situation,” she said.

My forehead had become sweaty and was wrinkled by frowns of disbelief – just six paragraphs into this. The New Vision had given the story cheeky prominence, placing it on Page Six and filling almost half the page complete with four photographs!

The State Minister, a well-educated politician holding a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and Master of Science in Agroforestry, was probably using understatement as a tool of emphasis. Otherwise there was no way a famine and “most families” having one meal a day could be called just “a worrying situation”.

This would have been a matter for her colleague at Disaster Preparedness!

But she had taken it to a higher authority, apparently, by building a Church. The New Vision report, by the way, carried four photographs of the Church launch event. The tweet by the Chinese Ambassador to Malawi was also accompanied by four photographs.

That juxtaposition made me think that maybe Namuyangu’s church could have done with many more photographs – comparing the value of their respective donations in US dollars or Chinese Yuan. Two motorcycles versus a Ushs100million Church? Little contest there.

But let’s focus more: The Church official at the launch of the Minister’s donation reportedly “urged the youth to desist from politicking and instead engage in income-generating activities.”

My furrowed brow relaxed as mirth spread within me.

It was now obvious that the journalists AND the church official were in cahoots to deliver top-notch sarcasm and irony!

Surely this Church official wasn’t hinting that instead of building a Church the Minister could have used the Ushs100million to create an entrepreneurship or income-generating activity for the youth of Kibuku District?

A few paragraphs later, they were joined by a resident comrade-at-sarcasm, Steven Luwala, who “requested the minister to lobby for irrigation schemes to improve farming, which has been affected by the dry spell.”

At this point I had to cross my legs tightly to maintain some self-control.

It came undone at the very next paragraph where another resident, Wilson Ganda, “said the entire village of over 1,000 people depends on one borehole. This, he said, has led to an increase in gender-based violence.”

Why and how?

“…because when women go to fetch water they return to homes late in the night and some husbands do not understand why.”

Another reason for why the Church built by the Minister makes a lot of sense – those husbands need prayers to sort out their significantly diminished mental strength.

And so do we, in general across this Continent, so that we learn to order our priorities for ourselves rather than have other people do so for us. It’s either that or we share a couple of motorcycles amongst millions as we ride past our solitary boreholes with the limited energy we get from one meal a day to pray for rains.

dig the well before you get thirsty


From the Order of Service of Mzee Edward Kwatiraho

I LISTEN to podcasts avidly – more than I do our local radio stations. The podcasts I choose provide wit, wisdom and work…of an intellectual nature.

One of them is hosted by a Personal Development Coach called Jordan Harbinger who has taught me the phrase “Dig the Well before you get thirsty.” The origin of the phrase goes back to Zhuzi (or Zhu Xi), a Chinese scholar (1130 to 1200 Anno Domini!)

Dig the Well before you get thirsty‘ is a profound statement for many reasons and it dismays me many times when I realise that in 2019 I might be among the people who don’t follow this simple tenet eight hundred years after the death of the person who first said it!

In short, it means we should prepare for everything well in advance. You know one day you will get thirsty, so dig a well in advance. Or: don’t wait for trouble to befall you before working out a solution.

So if you have a well already dug, when the thirst comes – as it must because of biology – you will have an option nearby.

Last week at the funeral of Edward Kwatiraho, a grand old man, the father of some friends of mine, the phrase came back to me as we spoke about his illness and his last leg of the journey of life.

During an afternoon-long discussion before he left for his last medicals in India, he shared a heap of wise thoughts with a group of us. When his children and friends eulogised him they recounted lots more he had given them through his 82 years on earth – including the need to always be organised and prepared.

‘Dig the Well before you get thirsty’. And that’s why it came up during his send off, as I thought of the fact that he had to go to India for that treatment.

See, it is a fact that one day we will all die of something, most likely medical in nature.

Being aware of that fact should make us dig our medical wells as soon as possible so that when the medical thirst strikes in the form of cancer or heart disease or any of those other conditions that are enriching airlines flying to India, we can handle them right here at home.

Actually, that is going too far to start with – not the distance to India, but the handling of more complicated ailments.

As Mzee Kwatiraho’s cortege was departing for Bukinda, in Kabale, to lay him to rest I thought of that saying again. “Dig the Well before you get thirsty.”

His children had told me along the years of the preparations they had made to ensure their home in Bukinda was comfortable. In fact, Mzee Kwatiraho had moved from Kampala and was enjoying his twilight years in Bukinda in comfort till the sickness returned to ail him.

We all have that village to go back to when we are being laid to rest, and most of us only visit it once a year during one of the long holidays and festive seasons.

How many “wells” have we dug there? Focusing strictly on the medical, many of us will go to the village totally unprepared as usual for any medical emergencies that may arise.

But, more importantly, when we do fall sick while there then we stop over at an interim dispensary or clinic nearby as we make our way to Kampala to be admitted at a ‘proper’ hospital. Even where there are serious hospitals at the District centres, in the town nearest to the village, we still only stop over there.

Why? Why aren’t we kitting out our village health centres so that in case we fall sick while there we can get decent treatment and, much more importantly, when we are away for the larger part of the year, our relatives and neighbours there enjoy good treatment?

How about this year we start digging “wells” in our villages when we go this Easter or, more practically, in December? Surely we can take along some medical equipment for our local dispensaries and kit them up so they are better capable of saving lives?

‘Dig the Well before you get thirsty.’

Until then, God forbid that you get thirsty the next time you visit your village.

going to inspect aeroplane gloveboxes? avoid the wandegeya mechanic’s syndrome.


Uganda Airlines Plane
Image taken from https://www.ch-aviation.com/

A FEW Mondays ago we were laughing at a newspaper story titled, ‘MPs to visit manufacturers of Uganda Airlines planes in Canada’.

My laughter started right at the headline, then dissipated after the first paragraph when I realised that this was, indeed, the case.

The Committee Chair, Eng. Sekitooleko Kafeero, was even quoted as saying they were going to “assess if the passenger planes meet the specifications laid out in the manufacturing contract with government at the time of procurement” and to “assess value for money before the planes are delivered to Uganda”.

He even said that his honourable colleagues would be checking “if the designs conform to the industry standards and evidence of due care to the passengers.”

Confused Nick Young

Don’t be speechless.

One Coca-Cola Beverages Africa unit in Uganda last year invested US$8million in a new manufacturing line and has this year put another US$13million in another. That company invests about US$10million a year in equipment, all of which adheres to the oft-used phrase ‘state-of-the-art’. These investments are highly significant for the company, it’s staff, and the government.

See, as a result of the investments the company will churn out more products and thus aim at higher profits at the end of the year; the staff will therefore earn more money in bonuses and salaries assured over the years; and the government will collect more in taxes.

The significance of that equipment that company procures cannot be underplayed in any way.

Now, the cost of the aeroplanes might be higher than the cost of the manufacturing lines and other equipment the beverage company buys, but I do not recall any instance in which a company official had to fly out to the country of manufacture to ‘inspect production’.

In fact, at all the private companies I have been employed at, the need has never arisen for the ‘political leaders’ of the company to conduct technical inspections at manufacturing companies.

Inspection does happen, but if it is necessary it is conducted by the technical staff. And here I write “if it does happen” because most of these private companies make arrangements for the acceptance of all equipment – and goods and products – ONLY when they have been received and found to be working.

Perhaps our Members of Parliament on this Committee who are heading out to inspect aeroplane manufacture are being super-patriotic and extra-zealous. We should give them a round of applause.

They are going out there to ensure that everything that should be done during the process of manufacture is actually done. All wheels in the right place; steering wheel fixed firm; hosepipe functional and clean…it actually reminds me of my days going to Wandegeya garages and fuel stations to ‘service the car’.

My peers and I spent many Saturdays sitting around in dusty, oil-stained garage yards claiming we were servicing vehicles while chatting idly by as the mechanics busied themselves around.

Few of us ever ascertained whether the ‘brand new’ second-hand part the mechanic brought in and showed you was actually the one that went into the motor vehicle.

At their level, those Wandegeya mechanics worked out how to keep our minds at peace and any suspicions at bay. At points they would declare in dismay at the doomed situation they found on opening the bonnet, before telling you they would do their best to fix it.

After the work was done at a much lower cost than initially feared, we would pay up with relief and even tip the guys some extra for “saving” us money.

Kumbe…

Tricked

The more advanced mechanics started making it comfortable for us to sit around on the side at a distance that ensured we didn’t interfere with their work or get to see too much. They provided chairs and sodas or more, and we’d immerse ourselves in other pursuits till the cars were done.

That memory alone should help the Members of Parliament who are going on this trip. Don’t get to Canada and get the mechanic’s treatment – being bamboozled by plush hotels and nearby bars, restaurants and shopping malls, or great company that keeps you in conversation by the side away from checking that the aeroplane glove box is properly lined.

And as they prepare to go there should be another consideration: The Committee has 29 members and would be accompanied by at least one clerk – so 30 people would travel on this inspection. Average travel allowance (government) being US$700 a night, let’s estimate this to be at US$500 because Parliament is frugal.

That would be, for seven nights (two days travel either way with three days being enough to walk round a plane and poke about its innards), a total of US$105,000 if the entire Committee were to undertake this trip. That is without counting out-of-pocket, lunch and dinner, and warm clothing allowances or the cost of air tickets paid to ANOTHER airline altogether.

Without quibbling over what percentage that is of the cost of one aircraft, might the honourable legislators want to consider keeping that money and using it to fly on the actual planes themselves when the airline starts service, so they Buy Uganda to Build Uganda?

leathered up – the Ugandan way in Uganda by Uganda


I AM such a leather enthusiast that I can almost recall every genuine leather product I have owned since I was a child – which explains why I tend to keep shoes for longer than some people keep friends.

One of my most prized purchases is a rawhide-cover notebook with a popular clothing brand name that still sits in my desk drawer and accompanies me on some of my outings.

At the time I bought it, in the 1990s, the only Ugandan leather I could come across was so raw it was either wrapped around live meat walking through fields of grass or in steaming stinking piles at a yard in Kampala ready for export. Technically we couldn’t even call it leather.

When I later got involved in the Jua Kali sector by virtue of my employment at the time I spent months and months sifting through products made of cloth, cowhorn, metal, beads, soapstone and very, very few that were made of leather.

In many cases the leather ones were of the synthetic variety that didn’t seem to be linked to our cows here in Uganda.

But, slowly, we started seeing genuine leather products cropping up more and more, and priced just high enough to make one believe that they were, indeed, made in Uganda.

The leather industry picked up steam quickly after that but I just couldn’t get my hands onto any of it.

Until last year, at the Nairobi International Convention Centre, where I was attending the 20th anniversary of the East African Business Council and walked down a gauntlet of stalls offering wares made in the EAC. This was a much improved arrangement from the Jua Kali exhibitions of old.

Back then we would take up space on yards in places like the UMA Showgrounds and the KCCA field, then have the artisans pitch makeshift tents (and shacks) out of which to display and sell their products.

Here, there was more method and we felt like we were walking through ‘proper’ shops. It was impressive and comfortable, and I kept stopping wherever there were leather products, and collected the flyers and business cards of the artisans that made them. Most were from Kenya, which was good because this was the EAC and I was quite ready to support all my people.

At the end of the alley, right under the hot sun, were two young ladies who looked a little bit familiar and were quite lively in their presentation. Their products stood out more than the rest so I spent a bit more time gathering up their details.

The company or brand name ‘NaRoho’ was in Kiswahili and it was only after many minutes of chatting that I noticed that the products were actually branded ‘NaRoho Uganda’.

The young ladies, to my pleasure, revealed themselves to be Ugandan – but I had to suppress that nationalism for the wider objective for which I had crossed the border – we were East African.

So I waited till I was back home before making contact with one of them – Isabel Agol – and placing orders for things made out of Ugandan leather in Uganda by a Ugandan.

Isabel surprised me even more. Within a couple of months, I was toting around a bespoke leather laptop bag, a leather-bound notebook, and a credit card wallet all priced so affordably I couldn’t believe I had to travel all the way to Nairobi before meeting her.

Here she is working on my brand new, genuine leather steering wheel cover just a couple of weeks ago – made by her right here in Kampala, Uganda!


Once again, she did a fantastic job there!

She’s on my speed dial right now, and is making more leather products for me as I wonder what other precious products made here that I am missing out on.

For now, it’s a better thought than trying to work out why we went all those years watching those steaming, stinking piles of hides and skins in the yards in Kampala being sent to other countries where they underwent processes that resulted in expensive products coming back for us to fail to afford.

we must be nuts for not seeing these nuts


BACK when I was in an overly-publicised position in the Executive of Government, I was convinced to ‘walk the talk’ and start planting things in the ground as proof that agriculture works.

Not too far away from where I settled then is where Robert Kabushenga has made a well-publicised and genuinely admirable success of his Rugyeyo Farm.

For some reason I cannot recall, I planted cashew nut seeds in a line, hoping to form an avenue of trees, and then forgot about them. They eventually grew into impressive giants and occasionally dropped some nuts that I presume are enjoyed in some form by the people and livestock in residence.

Even though I have a daily habit of snacking on a pack of mixed nuts that include the cashews as honourable members, I honestly forgot about my trees until I was in Arusha for the East African Community Heads of State Summit some days ago.

My own ‘trail mix’ made of nuts, soya, chilli and this and that (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

One morning at breakfast the conversation turned to Tanzania’s cashew nut problem. The evening before that, after checking into my hotel, I had walked to a nearby supermarket and bought up some packs of the stuff for personal consumption and was looking forward to my snacking weeks ahead.

The crop in Tanzania has been a major source of agricultural revenue for years. Towards the end of last year, President John Pombe Magufuli issued strict instructions that none of the 200,000 tonnes of cashews from the season could be bought by private players. Only the army was allowed to buy and process cashews, then store them for export at the “right” price.

Tanzania’s crop reportedly brings in about US$500million a year, making it possibly the top forex earner there.

We talked through the issue and I learnt quite a bit then tightened my tie and hopped over to the East African Business Council offices, with my fellow Board Members, to officially launch the new location.

The Chief Guest was the Rt. Hon. Al-Hajj Kirunda Kivejinja, accompanied by a suitably heavy team of Security and Trade Ministers and Permanent Secretaries.

The most important person in the room, however, turned out to be a young man who had shaken our hands and moved to the back of the room quietly along with all the other unnamed persons holding cameras and file folders.

Shortly into the meeting the young fellow was introduced to us with his raison d’etre, and when EABC Board Chairman Nick Nesbitt stood up to speak he declared, singling me out: “Simon, are we nuts?!”

See, the young fellow, Brian Mutembei, was Chief Executive of a little-known Kenyan firm called Indopower Solutions, and had just the day before signed a contract with the Tanzanian government committing to buy cashew nuts worth US$160,000!

Forget about the value for a minute here.

The issue that Nick was exclaiming about, and that hit me square in the middle of my forehead, was that this young fellow and his team of entrepreneurs had IDENTIFIED AN OPPORTUNITY where the rest of us were simply chewing nuts.

Indeed, we surely had to be nuts! Even throughout the discussion about the cashew nut problem that morning the thought hadn’t occurred that I could put together a few people and offer to buy some of those nuts for sale in Uganda, taking advantage of our EAC status.

And that was the crux of our presence in Arusha that week – how to ensure that phrases like “The EAC integration will be people-based and private-sector led” were turned into reality.

There are thousands of other such opportunities staring us right in the face in this region but, sadly, we simply aren’t taking seeing them, let along taking advantage of them to create wealth from top (entrepreneurs and processors like Mutembei) to bottom (the farmers who grow the crops, for instance).

Where are these opportunities? In the newspapers, on social media platforms, in government office notice boards and meetings, announced at public events though embedded within sometimes boring speeches….and so on and so forth.

But we don’t see them. Instead, we tend to see the sensational, seemingly-exciting and honestly time-wasting flotsam that keeps the majority of us in a state of despair, despondency and doom about the future of this country, region and continent.

We are the wrong type of nuts!