you always have the choice of walking away from that bank/politician/restaurant/tel-co

IN the late 1990s when banks in Kampala were staid, conservative, stuffy buildings with thick walls, intimidating, heavily-spectacled employees and strict closing hours, Greenland Bank did the unthinkable and kept their doors open for a couple of hours longer than usual.

To make matters worse, they lowered account opening fees and without a frown let everyday people inside their glittering banking hall enclosed in air-conditioned glassy walls rather than concrete blocks.

And so it was that one day I was inside the jam-packed Kampala Road banking hall, trying to reach the counter through the mayhem of customers unaccustomed to queues and a semblance of order, when one Prince Ahmed Kimbugwe (recently deceased) walked in.

I knew this gentleman to be involved in Greenland but had no idea what his job title was. He made it a few inches into the banking hall, stood there with a pained look on his face, and then plunged into the crowd and asked us one by one:

“What are you doing?”

“And you?”

Within minutes he had worked the problem out, whipped out a wad of small notes, and started dishing them out while telling them in Luganda, “Zziizo; Kati genda!” (There it is; now go!”)

He had realised that the bulk of that throng that was overwhelming what was probably Kampala’s most impressive air conditioning system at the time, was there to withdraw between Ushs1,000 and Ushs2,000! By expensing perhaps Ushs100,000 he very greatly eased life in the banking hall, leaving still many of us to queue up but in better breathing space; a short-lived solution, but one nonetheless.

Commercial banking in Kampala has advanced by leaps and bounds since, but there are still some lengthy queues that simply don’t move.

Until this Friday I was a customer of a bank with such queues. On Monday, weeks after I had made the decision to leave this bank, I witnessed a mini-riot led by a foreign businessman at their Forest Mall branch.

“What are you doing?” he raved, “What are all those things you are stamping, walking here, walking there. Why are you doing so many things behind there?! I want money and I am too busy to come and stand here for two hours while you stamp papers and walk around!”

This type of tantrum, I had discovered months ago, was useless. When you leave the office manager’s seat and take on the role of Bank Agent you uncover mysteries such as why your junior employees who acted as Bank Agents disappeared for so long when they went to the bank.

Stifling an urge to call up former employees to apologise for all the times you suspected they were doing a second job elsewhere when they claimed they were at the bank, you develop the skill of doing emails off your phone and drafting month-end reports while in the queues at this bank.

When I first started doing bank visits, I hopped from branch to branch till I realised that I was simply losing even more time in traffic. My decision to drop the bank entirely was arrived at after I threw a tantrum and was offered a short-cut by a floor manager that STILL took thirty minutes to effect!

But I will not name the offending bank here (but you can insert your guesses in the comment box below) because I believe they haven’t done anything wrong; you see, they have a right to their policies and apparent inefficiencies. Perhaps their slowness of execution is designed to safeguard our…I mean your, if you’re still a client/customer, money.

Ciao - see you later
Ciao – see you later

And if you don’t like it, as I didn’t, then you are free to leave – as I did, and I walked over to the angry foreign businessman to interrupt his tirade with that small piece of advice.

Especially because there are other banks here – and I’m pleased to say that the two I now use are both Ugandan – that understand customer care well enough to send you arelationship managerby boda-boda or office shuttle to collect your money transfer/tax/utility payment/forms once a month, and will email you your bank statement should you prefer that to going over to queue up.

Walking out of my big bank was so thoroughly enjoyable it got me in the mood of walking out on other places where my expectations aren’t met – telecommunication and internet companies with bad network services, restaurants with food as sullen as their staff, politicians with nothing to offer their people in terms of progress, development or even an ideology that gives us something to look up to...the list is long.

The path to alternatives isn’t.

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