appreciating your taxes – but without the ‘bosses’ whose salaries you pay


SHORTLY after I started walking around the Independence Grounds at Kololo attending the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) Tax Payers Appreciation week, I felt the urge to ask a few people there for their motivation to attend.

The responses didn’t surprise me until I got to a tent being manned by a friend, Andrew Mwandha, whose company – Tata Motors Uganda – manufactures and supplies large and small motor vehicles.

He was surprised when the crew that he had hired to erect banners and other merchandising materials asked him for a favour – they needed a little personal time so they could go round the stands.

“In Uganda we have a problem!” Andrew told me, “People are desperate for health services! My guys are here running from corner to corner to get free dental treatment, blood tests and yellow fever injections! We need more health services!”

Most of the people I had struck up conversations when I got there told me they had come for the free government services. But, I argued with Andrew, that didn’t necessarily mean that these services were scarce round the country.

“Some of these people told me they hadn’t tried to get the services at the regular government offices or departments near them because they didn’t believe they would get the services,” I explained, suggesting that these services might be available on ordinary days but these people don’t try accessing them.

But I had no back-up for that thought (I can’t call it a position). After talking it over for a while we walked around a little bit and found my target – URA Assistant Commissioner for Public and Corporate Affairs (therefore, Head of that department), Vincent Seruma.

Andrew left Vincent and I talking about various observations and opportunities in a manner that seemed anguished.

I had enjoyed my visit except for one missed experience – the opportunity to meet with the Chief Executives or Senior Officials of the government organisations present. Vincent was also irked by that but other things as well, as the last paragraph here will hint at.

My logic was that the leadership of the government agencies should have taken the opportunity of the event to present themselves to the taxpayers – Ugandans – who pay their salaries and fund these organisations.

Earlier on, Economist Ramathan Ggoobi had challenged the government (URA, to be honest) to conduct an ‘Accountability Week’ instead of an ‘Appreciation Week’ and we variously explained that accountability was officially presented annually during the State of the Nation and Budget Addresses.

Nevertheless, he had a point and the leaders of these organisations could have done a lot better that week by being the ‘Accounting Officers’ they are paid to be, in more than financial terms.

I had hoped they would be manning their tents and stands alongside their mid-level managers and hired ushers, interfacing personally with Ugandans of the more ordinary walks of life than they do at those large events with tents and statements like, “All Protocol observed…”

If the Chiefs of these government agencies had been there they would have seen the long queues of people eagerly seeking services even though they pay taxes daily to receive these services – again daily – without much hassle.

Then the leaders would have had the opportunity to explain to their employers – those Ugandans – where they could go for these services in their districts and villages without having to wait for a once-in-a-year event like the URA Tax Payers Appreciation Week.

If these ‘Bosses’ lacked the necessary directions, though, they would be challenged – as leaders should be – to create solutions for these people who pay their salaries and fund the purchase of their large four-wheel drive vehicles, comfortable offices, and all the perks that go with being called Executive Director, Managing Director or Chief Executive.

We would surely appreciate that.

business should lead government in east african integration


Entebbe from newvision.co.ug
Photo from http://www.newvision.co.ug

HEADING out to a regional meeting in Arusha last week to discuss the importance of business over politics regardless of how related the two realms are, I sweltered in the warm air of Entebbe International Airport and wondered – as usual – why it was so hot inside the terminal building.

I always refer to this as a ‘phenomenon’ because dictionaries define the word as, variously, “a remarkable person, thing, or event” and “a fact or situation that is observed to exist or happen, especially one whose cause or explanation is in question”.

You would think that the Departure Lounge of an International Airport in a tropical country would be fitted out with functional air conditioning but the person in charge of this has been unconvinced for a while. I say unconvinced because there are some six-foot high air conditioning machines standing on the floor but they don’t get switched on.

We will return to this shortly – but at another airport.

Normally, by the time you are at the Departure Gates you will have spent time juggling toy cups in the one eatery at the airport, while trying not to buy the grossly overpriced food prepared by people whose interest in the word ‘gourmet’ cannot possibly go beyond how to score it in Scrabble.

It is confounding. The very best airports in the world, the ones that enjoy visitor numbers and positive reviews in the millions and hence boost their economies, deliberately do the opposite of this.

And they do not necessarily use government monies – inviting ten restaurant chains to set up outlets there with sensible, tasty, properly priced food seems to be easy. Plugging in air conditioning machines and fans even more easy.

During our meetings in Arusha, I didn’t broach the topic directly but most of our discussion was around how to integrate business into regional integration and how handy organisations like the East African Business Council could be in doing this.

We said all the right things – including how we would “foster sustained economic growth and prosperity in the region” and “promote the interests of the EAC business community” plus “create new business opportunities” while “enhancing global competitiveness of EAC businesses”…

On our way out through Kilimanjaro Airport I followed the directional signs to the airport restaurant and found myself on the top (first) floor, quite alone. The three tables present seemed to have been procured from someone’s 1980s dining room, so I made myself at home.

Twenty minutes later I discovered there was no interest in me or the potential outflow of cash from my wallet and laptop bag. I didn’t feel disrespected, but asked for help when two cleaners turned up nearby.

One sacrificed her precious time and sent me downstairs using halting speech while her body language sent me further away in a manner I can’t repeat in polite society.

At the cafe downstairs a waitress eventually walked over to us, most likely because we made noises in her direction, and sullenly agreed to take our orders but only if we paid in advance since their electronic systems were in limbo.

We forced her to take our money and sat back to wait for the meals as ordered. Some time later, an Asian couple walked in and took a table behind us. As the gentleman walked past us towards our sullen waitress, she hailed out a jolly: “Hi!”

I was alarmed, and turned back sharply in case she was suffering a medical emergency. My colleague, Jim Mwine Kabeho, was also quite taken aback. Our jaws dropped to the ground as we watched her miraculous transformation.

She engaged the Asian man as if they were long lost friends, offering various suggestions for the couple’s meals (she had told us: “You can have, like, Burgers but with no chips. Potatoes are finished.”) and lighting up the area with a wide smile.

The Asian wife walked up and asked her husband, “What is the woman saying?” in a manner I considered rude but who was I to protest?

Completing our dismal meal was quite an ordeal, as we had to keep asking for condiments that she brought us one by one, slapping them onto the table as if to ward us off in the future.

Eventually we left her station and went to the Departure Gate where, once again, the air conditioning phenomenon returned.

We were sweating within minutes. The two of us had chosen a spot right next to the six-foot high air conditioning units but they were simply not switched on.

Jim gave way after a while and walked past paying passengers fanning themselves with newspapers and baseball caps, till he got to the Security personnel – the only staff in view – to demand that the situation be fixed.

He was prepared for a difficult but heated discussion and stood at full height in case it escalated into a fight.

“Eh?” asked the young security officer, “Yours is not on?”

And that’s when Jim noticed that it was much cooler in that area where they make you take off your belts and shoes and unpack your underwear because the scanner saw something in your suitcase.

The security chap walked across the room and flicked a switch, then returned to give Jim a thumbs-up.

Ten minutes later, the room had cooled down.

Is that what’s missing at Entebbe Airport? Someone to flick a switch so the air conditioning can start running? Where are the switches for the improved restaurant facilities? And the ones to increase the number of sockets so we can plug in devices as we await flights?

Why are these things off, anyway?

a generation that moved the nation


Malaika Nnyanzi is an erudite and elegant, beautiful and brilliant young lady. She is smart in most respects and so well-spoken that she is often called upon to direct events of a mostly glitzy and glamorous nature.

The World Premiere of the movie 27 Guns was one such event.

The set up in the Metroplex Mall changed that nowadays-dreary venue into a glittering hall offering an array of displays all in support of the story that the movie re-created.

Malaika fitted in very well with the smartly-dressed guests, all in their black bow ties and flowing evening dresses. With her co-EmCee of the night, Dr. Mitch Egwang, she chaperoned our thoughts and kept the tempo high and befitting of a movie premiere of this nature, graced by Citizen Number One – the President himself.

She said one of the most profound things of the night – of which there was no shortage – at the end of the viewing:

“On behalf of all the millennials here and out there, I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you! I would NEVER EVER have realised what the Bush War meant, what sacrifice, pain and heriosm went into this.”

Her voice was shaking as she said this, and the hesitant microphone didn’t help either. Like most people in that cinema hall, her eyes were quite moist.

Walking out of the camera flashes of the Premiere Reception floor into that dark cinema to spend an hour under flashes of AK-47 and mortar shell fire on screen silenced us all. Going from an hour and a half of looking at three hundred people in smart formal wear into that cinema hall to watch a small band of rag-tag, unkempt men and women in assorted military fatigues was disorienting.

The juxtaposition of the two settings was probably unintended but worked quite well – as will the juxtaposition of the normal, day-to-day lives of the type of people who will be walking or driving off the streets of Kampala into cinema halls to watch 27 Guns.

The movie is not the normal, hero-based fiction that we normally go to cinemas for, but it is not a documentary, as such, either. It is based on real events and recreated according to the accounts – written and verbal – of the people who were there.

In your seat, for those more than one and a half hours, you develop a high sense of trapped anguish along with the combatants and civilians of the time – which, besides the millennials, was most of us in the hall sent back in time.

Malaika’s situation was understandable and proved the success of 27 Guns. If these couple of hours just watching that movie makes one feel this way, imagine what it was really like back then for the people who actually spent all those years in the thick of that action?

But there are two aspects to this movie, that should both be taken seriously.

The Opening Prayer at the Premiere was delivered by Lorna Magara, who captured both quite clearly, “…that this movie will specifically speak to our people, young and old – reminding us of our history and God’s grace over us all these years.” and that the movie be, “…shot out as God’s arrow, silencing every contention against Uganda, speaking not just for Uganda and it’s people but resounding across the world on behalf of all the African people!”

See, after the idea formed and grew in her mind, Natasha Karugire started putting together the elements required to make a movie of this nature but kept getting repulsed and questioned by the world outside of Uganda.

There was so much skepticism about the possibility of the story being interesting on its own and more interest in fictionalising it, that she pulled back and decided to do it herself. Using Ugandans in Uganda and keeping it authentic and realistic. Just as she promised when Isaiah 60 Productions was launched – this was an opportunity for Ugandans to tell their own stories to the world by themselves.

She packed up her crew and cast, headed for the Luwero triangle and months later her strategy had worked, just as the Bush War did 32 years ago. Malaika Nnyanzi’s little speech made that quite clear.

27 Guns Image

finding opportunity in ebyangwe (loofahs, for the non-Ugandans) without having to bathe

finding opportunity in ebyangwe (loofahs, for the non-Ugandans) without having to bathe

Ebyangwe (Loofahs) in real, vivid colour. (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

On the dashboard of my regular vehicle is a bathing sponge – the type I was raised on, made out of the cucumber-type plant that back in the day was staple in most of our homes.

It’s called a Loofah (Luffa) and originates from somewhere in Asia – in fact, the original name for it is Arabic – ‘luf’. But in Uganda we call it ‘Ekyangwe‘.

The one in my car will join about eight others placed in various spots round my home. I don’t actually use them – the details around which will be best kept private – but started gathering them up recently because of an interesting twist to a trend Kampala dwellers should have certainly noticed by now.

At various roundabouts, road junctions and traffic-heavy spots there are groups of little children vending these loofahs in categories. Some of them (the loofahs, not the roadside children) are as bare as the one in my car, but others have a cloth piping round the edges to make them look nicer.

These children, in the beginning, appeared to be urchins begging for change. But someone somewhere hit upon this interesting idea of conscripting them into a sales team. When I first started noticing them and declined to make the purchase I was being enticed to, they tended to ask for some bottled Rwenzori Water or, in rare cases, money to buy a snack.

But one day my wife and I were taken aback when two of these children, little girls, handed us two loofahs and insisted that we take them both free of charge. I couldn’t understand how this would work in their favour, and quizzed them briefly.

“So that next time when you come you will buy,” said one little girl.

It was nonplussing, should the word exist. Did these little girls have a marketing budget that provided for free sampling? By the way, how come they are so many in number? And they all appear to be the same size and age…?

Actually, wait! This appears to be a rather lucrative and well-organised industry going on here right before our very eyes! Whoever is behind the business is so orderly that they have recruited a sales force, trained them, probably put them in some sort of uniform, and deployed them strategically at points of vantage.

The one problem, besides the possible lack of the relevant licensing for this trade to continue uninterrupted, is the use of children in situations that put them at risk.

The people behind this Loofah trade, though, are more sophisticated than many other businesses I know that have not gone so far as to open branches anywhere!

But that’s not all that this clever entrepreneur, or even one better than them, could do.

It is a very easy plant to cultivate, so making excuses about it not growing would be difficult. The internet presents a myriad of recipes from almost every country in Asia, that involve this plant – including its young fruit, its rind and all!

Besides food it also gets to be used as medicine for a long list of ailments (administered carefully).

Back when we were little children every home in our neighbourhood had one of these vines climbing up trees and little homestead buildings so I imagine we would be at middle income status by now if we had continued this practice with focus.

The first use of the ‘ekyangwe‘ we all know as the Bath sponge, though some of us also used bits to wash dishes through the 80s and 90s, before the imported scrubbers became normal.

In Paraguay, however, they make furniture and house construction materials out of the loofah by combining it with other vegetable matter and recycled plastic – a point I am going to raise with my colleagues at Coca-Cola who do plastic waste recycling.

In Japan it is grown over buildings to shield windows from harsh sunshine, while many other countries use it as a decorative creeper the way we did when my grandmother was still alive, complete with those bright yellow flowers.

In the United States it is also used as a bath sponge.

Note that the ones that the little children sell by Kampala street-sides go for Ushs1,000-2,000 each if they don’t have a piped border, and Ushs2,000-2,500 with the piping. The ones in the US go for US$10 a piece…

The Kampala roadside children don’t have internet access to establish that last fact alone and establish contact with the people who could buy their sponges and put them on Amazon – but YOU do.

Even if you can’t work out how to turn ‘ekyangwe‘ into food or furniture, lazima you can go down to those children and buy up their stock, liberate them from the street, then make a very neat profit selling them on Amazon!

Opportunity is spelt ‘Ekyangwe‘.

a random weekend episode with a wheel spanner in Hoima


Wheel Nut

IF you’re having a mildly bad time on any given day, call my Dad to give you a recount of any ordinary episode in his life upcountry.

Like his Saturday a couple of weekends ago, in Hoima, when he set off for an extremely important family event (we should all have been there but life being what it is, we were not) and had ordered life to ensure respectability all through.

The event was slated to begin at 1000hrs so he was in Hoima town by 0930hrs, but stopped to top up his fuel tank at the biggest fuel station there – a prudent move because the truck he was driving had been in a garage for many months and this was its maiden trip on discharge. As such, a few things were not working fine, including the fuel gauge.

Being a strict Accountant, and even more old school than myself, he kept count of the litres therein and calculated the mileage (not kilometres) mentally all the way but tended to avoid taking unnecessary risks.

As the fueling process came to an end, a fellow nearby pointed out that a tyre needed changing.

He was right.

Changing a tyre, for a man of my father’s age, experience, and intelligence, would take just a few minutes. He taught me how to do this at an early age, hence my predilection for Land Rovers over snazzy, shiny cars, even though there are Landys that fit that bill.

“Fair enough,” said the old man, suspecting correctly that the months of garage admission had probably stripped the car of essential tools.

Confirming that the unauthorised property allocation had taken place, he asked the garage fellows to oblige.

They readily agreed and shortly thereafter another fellow approached the car with the attitude of someone providing the relevant tools.

In one hand he held a car jack, the type that we used to have many years ago and still exists quite obviously in many places here. In the other hand – nothing.

“Good,” said the old man, even throwing in a “Thank you” with a wry smile while asking for the rest of the kit.

“We don’t have other things,” they said.

At this point, we can only imagine the looks being exchanged in silence all round thereafter.

I have no idea what the fellows at the fuel station look like so I can’t work out how sheepish they appeared but I know full well what my father’s facial expression was right there and then – running from irritation through incredulous and to that one where he was straining not to slap someone.

Surely, at a fuel station such as this in the major town of an oil-producing region in a country on the brink of middle-income status, this couldn’t be happening in 2018?!

It was.

Not all was lost, however; as one shamefaced fellow suggested that the old man go over to another fuel station within the town that might likely have the requisite tools.

Time check: 1000hrs.

He was late for his event.

Either way, at this point he needed to actually fix this tyre situation otherwise he would be doing this all over again in the evening at an even more remote point.

He drove over at a respectable speed and presented his problem to a fresh set of fellows at the second fuel station. They understood it well.

One fellow shuttled off and returned a couple of minutes later with a wheel spanner.

The old man took it up happily and reached out for the other pieces of the puzzle. He was not ready for the consistency of the second hand offering – nothing.

He asked where the rest of the tools required for this operation were.

“Haaa…” replied the fellow.

If you don’t know that ‘Haaa’, I’ll try to make it clear: This is where a guy says, “Ha” and keeps the “aaa” part going a bit longer while tilting his head a little bit and keeping his mouth open for a bit longer yet.

In English, it means: “I’m afraid I am speechless at your request and cannot express how screwed you are, at this point in time.”

My old man, holding up the wheel spanner, insisted on the full version. Because he is not aware of candid camera television, he had no false hopes that the comedy would end soon. And his age bracket cannot spontaneously shout out appropriate phrases like: “WTF?!?!”

The wretched fuel station fellow, nevertheless, explained that whereas they had the tool as presented, they were not in possession of a car jack to raise the motor vehicle and allow things to flow smoothly as they should.

On one side, a rather stern non-plussed look was aimed at the fellow wielding a wheel spanner. On the other side, the fellow sent back an innocent look of earnest bewilderment over the vehemence in the face of helpfulness.

A painful exchange ensued, kept barely civil by the 70 years’ experience of similarly frustrating comedy that my old man has accumulated.

Eventually, another chap with more authority showed up and said he had a solution but that it was available from a mechanic based elsewhere but quite close.

“How long will this take?” my old man asked, skeptically.

“He will be here soon…”

My old man protested the ‘soon’, but the chaps insisted it was genuine and that they believed the word to mean “in a short time to come”.

Unconvinced, the old man proposed that he take their tool over to the first fuel station where he was certain there was another piece that would provide a solution to the problem. They did not know the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” or any variant of it involving an unidentified mechanic possibly being ‘nearby’ at an undisclosed location.

They counter-insisted that their unidentified mechanic friend at the undisclosed location ‘nearby’ would be there within the indeterminate period of time they defined as ‘soon’ and even offered the old man a seat.

“But how long is this ‘soon’?” he asked, weakening and losing that small but significant battle.

“Ten minutes,” they said, with that confidence that you normally recognise after about ten minutes to be basic bollocks. Basic bollocks designed to shut you up.

It worked.

He took his seat and, in that warm, slow-moving heat, he leaned back.

Big mistake. He woke up thirty five minutes later with a jolt – probably dreaming about tyre-changing tools in the after-life complaining about being separated so illogically.

The rest of the fuel station operations were running as normal in full swing, without the tool he required and any care for his problem and presence.

Aghast, he quickly tracked down the fellow with the wheel spanner he required, and the one who had promised an unidentified mechanic was on his way with a jack.

“Haaa…”

Patience was of paramount importance here.

“The man hasn’t come. It seems he doesn’t have one,” said the chaps, with confidence.

The old man’s temperature rose, not because of the climate around him.

“Enough!” he declared, “I am taking this spanner with me to the other fuel station. I will bring it back when I am done!”

Their ability to resist had been greatly diminished but they stated their reluctance for the record, from a safe distance, and waved him on.

He sped over to the first fuel station, and impressed them with his possession of the part they didn’t have but that was essential for use with the one that they DID possess.

Eager to be done with the entertainment, he supervised the work closely. Ten minutes in, they still hadn’t managed to make a single wheel nut budge.

My old man realised that the pneumatic wheel spanner at the City Tyres bay in Kampala had tightened the nuts so much so that the raw strength and enthusiasm of these particular Banyoro offered little hope.

But they were optimistic, as usual, and called upon their ancestral strength, ingenuity, and experience. You may know that the practice, in such cases, is for the person faced with tight nuts to take up a thick metallic pipe and introduce it into the equation for greater leverage.

They did so, making the wheel spanner set longer and allowing for the solution as follows: rather than using the arm and shoulder muscles to move the wheel nuts the men took to the task by jumping up and down onto the end of the pipe inserted into the wheel spanner.

Twice.

Then the wheel spanner snapped.
Snap

Into two pieces.

The fellow who had been hopping up and down onto the pipe fell to the ground, a short distance away from the piece that had broken off the wheel spanner, and just metres below my old man’s priceless look of disbelief. Nobody laughed.

“Haaaa,” said one fellow close by.

If you don’t know that ‘Haaaa’, I’ll try to make it clear: This one sounds much like ‘Haaa’ but with a slightly longer delivery and less of the head tilting.

In English it means: “This unexpected turn of events is quite unfortunate but I can’t be blamed for it on my own and, therefore, will not offer an apology right away. Nevertheless, suffice to note that we are, at this point in time, screwed.”

Time check: 1300hrs.

Attending the event had become a remote possibility by now. Plus, the tyre was actually flat.

The old man stopped communication with the fellows around him and gave the matter some thought. Five minutes away there was a shop that sold tools. These tools included a wheel spanner.

Fifteen minutes later he was back with a new wheel spanner and a resolve not to accept any further nonsense.

Thirty minutes after that he was handing over the new wheel spanner to the flummoxed fellows at the second fuel station, along with a lecture about their need to be more sensibly equipped to provide the services expected of them.

Time check: 1500hrs.

He got to the event thirty minutes later to find it hadn’t started on time either, by luck and providence. He was just in time for a most crucial part of the ceremony, and didn’t have to explain why he was so damn late.

One thing’s for sure: he will never drive into a fuel station again and assume ANYTHING will go as planned thereafter.