walking on tyres – an economic miracle made in Uganda…or sadly not, anymore

Authentic and proudly Ugandan

I own a pair of lugabire (that’s the vernacular name for rubber-tyre sandals or flip-flops).

Keep calm and read on, I am not here boasting about my wardrobe achievements, even though the lugabire are a neat pair. I actually have two pairs – the first being very contrived, with cloth bits and a touch of exotic fine art that elevates them too many levels above the ordinary lugabire that in my childhood I only ever saw beneath the feet of miserable men pushing wheelbarrows.

My authentic pair of lugabire is straightforward, humble, but so decent that I have found myself standing in them at people’s homes over weekends (on informal visits, of course, and strictly with the closest of relatives and friends). I don’t even notice until someone brings it up or I have to make a quick dash in the life-saving direction of a child attempting inadvertent suicide or to a BBQ table. 

The last time someone brought them up in conversation was at my brother’s house, and the person who raised the topic, one Bryo, is a long-time coxcomb fresh (excuse pun, since the vernacular-slang for coxcomb is “mafresho”) from his United States base via his expatriate home, so his view was of even more significance.

“Eh, boss!” he said, with the dramatic pause that we use to give the statement its pidgin strength, “Ng-eh?”

“Yeah!” I replied, half-modest but a little proud that this Nike-, Adidas-, Reebok, Sean-Jean, Hublot-, Armani-and-so-on-and-so-forth wearing fellow had found reason to so clearly pay that lengthy, eloquent three-word phrase of respect for my lugabire.

If you’ve ever seen my feet you will appreciate why I am not one of those must-wear-sandals-at-weekend people. Yet these lugabire bring this out in me because they are comfortable enough to wear and I know the fellows who made them.

I don’t know them in the sense that I can recount their family trees going back any distance; in fact, I don’t even know their names or phone numbers right now. I just know that they are located in Nakawa, just above the place everyone calls “Em-TACK”, on the verandah of a red-brick-tile building with a distinct slant to its front wall up there, that you always see when driving from one traffic jam at the Nakawa-Lugogo lights to the jam at Spear Motors and Stretcher Road junction where the police play their torturous mind-games.

There are about eight men sitting on that verandah up there turning tyres into neat sandals, and they have been doing so for years and years, they say. They were lucky that I was fighting with a mechanic ensconced in that neighbourhood and while retrieving a vehicle from him spent a couple of hours hanging about till they caught my attention. Within ten minutes, I had negotiated two pairs of lugabire out of them at Ushs8,000 each (my wife rarely wears hers but she “likes” them. Mbu.

Anyway, I suspect they think they over-charged me – and I laugh at them (Mbasekeredde, as the late Samson Kisekka would say!) They refused to believe that people like Bryo spend more than US$50 on a pair of sandals.

Still, I activated my lugezi-gezi and advised that they give their sandals a brand name, erect a signpost above their verandah so people could come deliberately to buy their lugabire, and then go down to Capital Shoppers, Game and Shoprite and try to sell them on the shelves there.

Their problem, they said to me, was the supply of tyres. They sometimes have more tyres than they need but mostly they don’t have enough. Their strategy for acquiring these tyres is sitting and waiting for people to dump them there (remember, it’s near a set of jua kali garages).

The conversation returned to me this Monday morning when I saw a photo in The New Vision of a policeman standing above a large heap of rubber tyres SETTING THEM ON FIRE!!!

And not for fun or environmental (I shudder) reasons either:

’The Police in Masaka district have destroyed heaps of used vehicle tyres dumped in Masaka town, saying intelligence reports indicated they would be used in a riot.’

“These tyres were imported from Kampala. We received information that some opposition officials were planning a riot. We do not take risks; we had to take action.” reads a quote attributed to an unnamed source – and it was a good thing that the ‘source’ wasn’t named otherwise (s)he would be the subject of much well-deserved public ridicule.

In the photograph of the Masaka Police boss overseeing the burning of the tyres, there are a couple of youths holding up lugabire, and the story tells of how the youth claimed they had asked the Mayor to grant them the spot for this very purpose.

Would that the District Security Committee had gathered a quick team from the Private Sector Foundation and Enterprise Uganda to quickly mobilise the youth and turn these tyres into a pile of well-labelled lugabire for the likes of you, me or even Bryo to buy!

The political tide in Masaka would have turned somewhat because the issue that ignites the youth to riot would have been sorted out.

In fact, the solution would have put the police in the unique position of arresting any youth found NOT using these tyres to make lugabire and sell them for massive, life-changing profit.  

Unfortunately, everything political in Uganda today is tinged with “opposition” and “riots”; and those hopes of creating a new brand of footwear in Masaka and winning global awards for recycling in an environmental friendly manner while creating wealth and boosting local industry all went up in flames.

2 thoughts on “walking on tyres – an economic miracle made in Uganda…or sadly not, anymore

  1. Fantastic directions.
    Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a decent “around the house/ neighbourhood” pair of sandals? Slippers just don’t cut it and I will be damned if I am going to wear crocs. These lugabire are the perfect compromise. I am not going to pay 80k for those tourist trap leather dust magnets.
    I used to see Ian (that one of Canada ;-)) wearing them in a certain place of work. Mbu his shoes were being polished/repaired. I suspect he was just being comfortable at work.


    1. Lol! I remember trying that move of getting shoes polished for hours on end but the guys who did that were always irritating and I also had doubts about the hygiene. I’m buying up more lugabire for future use before the price goes up – and I will be handing those fellows my old tyres (when I replace the ones on the car right now) as goodwill so that they make top quality pairs for me!


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