the headaches caused by bad Ugandans


Today I came close to shedding tears.

I also experienced what I feared was a migraine.

All because of a concentrated set of bad Ugandans.

And I yearn for a day when I meet ONLY good Ugandans.

We come in many varieties, and I have trained myself to differentiate between good and bad Ugandans because I believe that both types exist. I used to say I had faith but there’s this Sunday School song that’s still in my head which makes “faith” the wrong word for my belief that good Ugandans exist: (sing with me)

“Faith is believing,

In what I cannot see.” 

I see good Ugandans on many an occasion, but today isn’t about them.

First, the Mechanic:

Go with me over my day, starting by driving out in the heavy downpour at 0645hrs and two minutes later fumbling mid-drive to whip off my jacket and drape it quickly and widely over my dashboard.

My car is a Land Rover Discovery 2 (2001) with about 87,000km on the clock and has been to the garage a number of times, no thanks to some quack mechanic called George Nigo who almost killed it as he has done many a Land Rover. He is a classic bad Ugandan, and still owes me Ushs3million for a fictitious gear box job, two months of my life and lots of trust in other Ugandan mechanics. He is located in Kigowa, Ntinda, so avoid him like a trader’s riot when you need a mechanic.

Anyway, this car now goes to Khalifani, on Sixth Street, and he has frequently done a good job with it…until last week when I sent it in again over a month-long problem and in passing asked that his chaps fix the unresponsive sunroof switch.

I got the car back on Friday morning and three hours later, after it had rained a little bit, unhappily discovered that the sun-roof area had developed a leak. But the switch was working again, so perhaps they believed they had fixed that.

When Khalifani responded over the phone with, “Ooooh-oooh. Nkitegedde.” (‘Aaaaah, I get it!’) I was a bit disturbed that he wasn’t surprised/astonished/shocked/horrified/alarmed <—any of these would have mollified me a little bit, and I realise now that I only wanted a bit of sympathy or an apology to start with before he fixed the problem.

I didn’t believe his offer of fixing the problem within ten minutes, having gone a couple of months with him spending hours and days at a time to fix stuff from brakes to gear box adjustments, and put it off till I had the time to spare.

Today, I found that I was driving a Bwaise house. I needed to open an umbrella inside my car. I should have left home in swimming trunks. My sun roof was imitating a sieve (akasengejja).

This is when the headache began – at about 0648hrs.

After a meeting, at about 1000hrs, I took the car to Khalifani’s garage and he apologetically took it after explaining that the fellow who had ‘fixed’ the sunroof switch had actually been outsourced. How long would the job take?

“One hour,” his mechanic, Wasswa, said.

“That means two hours,” I responded, trying for sarcasm, “I know you guys. Let’s make it two hours, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Wasswa responded without a hint that he had gotten the sentiments behind my reckoning, which intensified my headache.

Twenty minutes later, a niggling feeling that had been with me from the time I had come awake turned into a solid realisation that made me sit up so fast that my partner was a bit startled.

Enter the Plumber:

When I moved into this house, a self-build, money and scheduling were both tight and I argued eloquently that being in upmarket Kampala meant that we shouldn’t have to install massive water tanks to store water. We even have National Water reservoir tanks or something just above our house on the hill, so water supply really shouldn’t be a worry, I said forcefully. This is called, in Luganda, lugezi-gezi; which in English is known as being a smart-alec, which nobody likes and many times makes them set you up for some pain so that they can employ phrases such as “I told you so!”.

My contractor was fed up of my using logic and reasoning over such matters and left me to my devices, installing the 1,000 litre water tank I budgeted for in order to stretch our meagre resources enough to make the house speedily habitable.

Our suffering has been documented even here, and has been frequent because there is no shortage of dimwits forgetting to turn taps off while washing cars or clothes and so on and so forth.

Anyway, a year ago I got my then-new and efficient plumber, Sula, to calculate the costs of increasing my water storage capacity and I saved up money and kept the plans and estimates till I had him refresh them a month ago in readiness for work to commence. On Tuesday this week (the day before yesterday), I gave him the 50% deposit to enable him to buy up the essential materials and mobilise himself, and we agreed that we’d be meeting Wednesday morning (yesterday) at 0900hrs.

The timing was crucial: a) his work needed to be complete early enough for the tank to fill up and restore the water supply to the house, b) the satellite TV dishes (two) are nearby and needed to be moved and restored after the work, which is a ‘specialised’ process that involves one TV guy standing at the dish and moving it to and fro while another guy stands at the window in the sitting room shouting out how good the signal is, and c) the internet radio ‘dishes’ or whatever they are called, also had to be moved.

This needed coordination, and he claimed he understood the importance of this, so we agreed a time table:

0900hrs – Sula arrives and commences work, taking down the dishes and existing water tank stand

1300hrs – Sula’s almost-complete work can now accommodate the re-installation of the TV and Internet equipment

1500hrs – all is finalised and the tanks begin filling up, while the TV and internet guys re-install the equipment

1800hrs – water tanks to main house full of water or filled up sufficiently for normal operations to resume; and both satellite TV and internet access are restored

We agreed – Sula and I – after discussing the processes. Again, this was on Tuesday at 1530hrs when I paid him the deposit, and later that evening by phone.

On Wednesday morning it rained. Yeah – Sula didn’t show up. He did, however, call me at about 1300hrs to say that our plan wasn’t going to materialise. At that point, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to arrive four hours earlier etcetera etcetera. I took it all with good grace, since a University-degree Accountant with whom I had agreed a meeting for 0900hrs at the office had emailed me at 1045hrs to say that it wasn’t going to happen because of the rain, and Sula could hardly be expected to do better.

(I emailed the Accountant back telling him to buy an umbrella, and have since decided that I might buy him one instead and then deduct it from his fees).

We agreed, Sula and I, that he would instead be on site today at 0900hrs to do yesterday’s work that we began planning a year ago. That’s why at about 1030hrs I sat up quickly and startled my partner.

Today was crucial for the completion of this work: a) the kids begin their holidays Friday, and since they don’t watch TV during school, it is only fair that they get to watch a bit of it during their holidays b) tomorrow is Friday and if I didn’t have the internet guys begin trying to fix things early enough on Thursday, it would be Saturday and Sunday both without internet access c) I can’t stand another weekend night without water flowing in the taps, and I know for sure that Saturday evening will be without, as has happened for two years since we moved in.

And there was the delicate matter of timing my phone calls to the internet and TV dish installation guys; call them too early and they will be strangely efficient and then leave because you are not ready – afterwhich they will be justified in being inefficient because “the other time we came and you were not ready!”  

Sula apologised for the rain and swore that he would show up and do the work.

What about the timing for the TV and internet guys?

In Luganda, he confidently told me that he would take down the equipment without a problem and the guys would be free to come and put it back on Friday morning.

I would essentially be fine.

You can imagine my angry response, and he readily agreed with me and changed timelines so that we were now only two hours off. 

Then there was the TV Guy: 

Quickly, I called up the TV guy, Emma, who confirmed that he would be there at 1500hrs to re-install the TV dishes and confirmed that the kids would be watching TV uninterrupted, no problem, in the evening. I didn’t think it necessary to remind him of the last time he had done work till 2200hrs, and the demeanour of the entire household by the time he was done.

The Mechanics again:

My headache got worse at 1330hrs when I looked up to realise that the two hours I had estimated for the car to get back to me had now become three-and-a-half hours and the mechanics weren’t calling me. If I had believed their ten-minute promise to fix this same problem a week ago, how agitated would I have been then?

When he eventually called me at 1620hrs to deliver the car, I couldn’t help but admire the confidence with which Wasswa handed me the car keys – very much the same amount that Sula had used to tell me that the TV and internet dishes would be re-installed the next day, and Emma had said that we would be watching TV this evening.

Back to the Plumber:

Speaking of Sula, as I got into the car I wondered why nobody had called me to confirm that there was progress on the water tank, TV and internet fronts, and drove home meekly hoping to find everything either finished and in order or untouched and in order.

Of course none of these hopes was met. Sula and his team were welding a metallic tank stand together under the shade of the disconnected 1,000-litre tank, and greeted me heartily. There was no TV guy in sight, and when I enquired after him was told that he hadn’t shown up at all.

“But,” I asked, in between flashes of welding light, “should he still be coming over now, since you are still welding the new Stand and the old one is still up there…?”

“Yeah,” Sula said, “We’re almost finished with this one.”

And that’s when I studied the situation a little closer and noticed that the water tank stand they were welding together was quite the same size as the water tank stand already in place holding up the 1,000-litre tank.

Eyesight can be tricky sometimes, so I was polite.

“Sula,” I asked, “how is this going to work?”

“What?” he asked.

“The water tanks – how are you going to connect them?”

“Using the pipes.”

The conversation was in Luganda, and very level. He didn’t seem to be doing sarcasm or snarky.

“Okay,” I said, since this was technically correct, though also too obvious to have warranted discussion, and tried another approach:

“So are both Stands going to go up there or…what? How is this going to work?”

He looked up at the existing stand and together we contemplated the issue. My 1,000-litre tank is on a metallic water tank stand that sits on a cement slab built over the small guest house building. Most of the other space is occupied by the satellite dishes.

Without question, there was only space for one water tank stand at a time, unless one stacked another on top of it – which didn’t seem to be Sula’s plan as both Stands were basically the same size.

“This Stand,” he said, a little slowly as I was having difficulty absorbing the science of it, “is going to go up there.” And he pointed where the old one was.

“And where will that one go?” I asked, also slowly and pointing at the old one.

“The Stand?”

“And the water tank.”

“We will remove it.”

Again, technically correct and quite obvious.

“Sula,” I asked, a little louder, “what size is the new water tank…and where is it anyway?”

“Five metres.”

“Metres?”

“Yes, round…”

“I mean the capacity! How big is the water tank? How much water does it hold compared to this one of 1,000 litres?!”

“It is 2,500-litres.”

“Good. Where is it?”

“It is not here.” The trend of technically correct and obvious responses was exacerbating my headache.

“So where are you going to put it and how is this going to work?”

“We are going to put it up there.”

“And the old one? That one. The 1,000 litre one – where will it go?”

“We will remove it.” 

I looked away a little bit to release some pressure off the brain, and noticed that all work had ceased and his assistants were watching this conversation as if we were Agnesssss Nandutu with Anne Kansiime in Agataliiko Nfuufu.

“You guys, please continue welding and finish your work,” I pleaded, and asked Sula to outline his full plan.

In brief, he was replacing my 1,000 litre tank with a 2,500 litre one – not adding an extra 2,500 litres to my pathetic 1,000 litres. And he had no idea what I wanted to do with the old tank.

Eh! He had an idea, actually.

“Connect it to the Boy’s Quarter block.” Yeah, so that the maid or two have a 1,000-litre tank for themselves sitting on the ground, while the rest of the household uses a 2,500-litre tank elevated on the Stand.

I took my dismay off with me and called Emma, the TV guy, to explain that his lateness in arrival was going to hamper my other plans.

“I will be there at eight o’clock,” he said, after I had pressured him into giving me a specific hour of arrival.

“Please come tomorrow morning instead,” I begged.

“But I am already on my way!” he protested – clearly a set-up for tomorrow’s “I was going to be there on time (mbu) but you told me not to come…”

Sula, meanwhile, set off to take down the satellite dishes, internet equipment and the old tank, in order to clear the area and work out how to solve the problem of installing both water tanks.

I quickly and loudly explained the life-threatening folly of him approaching the problem in this manner, which successfully discouraged him.

The Askari:

By the time Sula had reconnected my old, 1,000-litre water tank and left to rest ahead of tomorrow’s tasks, my arrangements for a comfort food arrangement with the family on a night out were done, and we drove off an hour later for me to forget Sula and Emma and Khalifani.

At the mall we were going to, my headache was just beginning to dissipate when I noticed that the truck right in front of me at the entrance was half-full of gas canisters. I would have expected for that kind of cargo to be going in through a service entrance of sorts, but the askari had no such expectation.

The hapless fellow opened the passenger door, shone a torch into the glove box, muttered something to the truck driver, walked round the truck while shining the torch in about a couple of the gas canisters and then waved the truck through. 

Yes – you’re right about the possibility of the chap in the truck parking it there and setting it alight to cause a ripping, loud explosion. But the askari had checked the glove box and maybe because there was no matchbox, we would be fine.

And yes – I did think of the glee it would have given me to bundle Sula with the mechanic and the TV guy onto that truck and set it off. But the thought only lasted briefly.

I am now sitting up, awake, believing that I will have a solution to this headache in the morning – and that tomorrow will present more good Ugandans than bad ones so that this headache goes down for at least one day.

6 thoughts on “the headaches caused by bad Ugandans

  1. Bro, you know if you really tried, you can become your own mechanic, plumber and askari!! Those kind of jobs will be extinct soon. In fact they are almost extent in some countries. I can proudly say i do all those for myself plus carpentry, etc, you name it !! So you run the risk of becoming the latest addition to the list of “bad Ugandans”. Enter The guy who complains about the things he could do himself if he really tried DIY

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    1. 🙂 Yes, if I really tried. Actually, the small DIY jobs I already have locked down – my nine-year old boy and the odd-job fellow at home had just finished painting a patio when Sula arrived and I will be doing some more myself tomorrow. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for so many of us to be simply bad at our trades.

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  2. Having gone through the final phases of construction of our home early this year, I know exactly what you’re talking about. All the contractors – from the carpenters to the plumber – seem to have one simple goal: frustrate and annoy you till you drop dead. And then the icing on the cake is dealing with the utility service providers (UMEME & NWSC). Have to stop here because I feel my blood pressure rising already as a result of recalling the misery…

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