introducing, one day, Simon the carpenter

I am this close (the index finger almost touching the second finger but with a very small ka-gap in-between) to investing in a roadside carpentry workshop.

I’m not planning on the type with shiny, Chinese imported furniture or second-hand stuff from Europe; neither am I pointing at those ones with furniture manufactured on uneven ground that wobble uncontrollably when you sit on the seats, or place drinks on the coffee table.

I’m probably going to target one near my residence, where I recently made a series of startling discoveries in the midst of a frustrating project I brought onto myself.

Fed up of dealing with artisans who have no sense of time, quality, reliability, dependability and all such other adjectives we somehow expect them to possess, I have this year sworn to engage in as many D-I-Y projects as possible. Considering how terribly wrong these artisans are at their jobs, I felt that even as a novice I could not do much worse.

An opportunity presented itself when we needed to install mosquito nets on the children’s beds, and received a range of quotes that would only have made sense if we had been directors in the Eutaw Construction Company of Uganda or something.

I walked over to a nearby roadside carpentry workshop and without disclosing the existence of beds to which I wanted to attach them, found a willing fellow to quote for just the bed poles I needed. He was a little confused at first but eventually got the point with my persistence.

The fellow, who I later learned was called Issa, agreed to a minimal cost per pole inclusive of the necessary screws, and scrawled the measurements I gave him onto a dirty slip of paper. The one caveat, I insisted, was that the bottom of the poles consisted of a flat panel rather than a thick block, so that it would be easy for me to affix them to whatever I needed.

He understood. I believed so because he nodded his head, repeated what I said a couple of times, and said in vernacular that he had understood. Then we agreed on delivery two days later, I paid up, and walked back home.

For two days I planned my mission carefully so that I would send the children off on some jaunt, then have the poles installed and nets draped so they would return to surprisingly refreshed nets of protection from mosquitoes. I even converted a couple of Christmas Light strings into decorative accessories by printing out nice little pictures of their favourite things and cello-taping them over the lights so they would glow above the nets.

On the appointed day, I was back at the workshop to pick up my bed poles, a little more excited than normally necessary, only to find that I had caught Issa quite unawares.

“Haaaa, boss!” he began, and my heart sunk. Cutting him to the short story, I discovered that he had finished the poles but there was a small problem.

Mbitutte kku machine e Luzira!” (I have taken them to the machine in Luzira!). Not being a carpenter, my interrogation into this machine was useless and I left with a promise that the poles would be ready the next day; and for four days I kept stopping by to be told about the machine, if I were lucky enough to catch Issa there.

One time I suspected he had seen me and ducked, judging by the looks of the other people at the workshop.

Eventually, I took time off to conduct a stake-out and accosted him. A little flustered, he recovered quickly enough to withstand a stern lecture about the need for seriousness, and then presented the bed poles but there was another problem.

Sukulyu zibuze!” (The screws cannot be found).

At this point I was happy to have the neatly made bed poles without the screws but then a young fellow nearby who had been watching all this walked up and asked what the problem was.

Mzee, nkulabye wanno emirundi miingi. Kizibu kyi?” (I’ve seen you here on many occasions. What’s the problem?”)

Cautiously worried that his politeness was a con, I hesitated a little but he then told me he was the owner of the workshop and could not stand the idea that I was an unhappy customer. My startling discoveries began there – this roadside workshop was not just a shack with piles of neatly organised timber! This proprietor, Yunus Kizito, explained the set up and how chaps like Issa are hired carpenters who also do work on the side, such as mine, but essentially work for Yunus and his outfit.

Angry at the poor customer service, he tongue-lashed Issa afresh and sent him off to find me my screws at no extra cost, whence I discovered more – the ‘machine’ that Issa had taken the poles to Luzira for was a drill. Just that – a drill; the same type I had at home for personal use. One I had bought at the Game store at little over Ushs100,000.

Disturbed that a workshop such as his lacked basic equipment, I quizzed further and he pointed right across the road at a furniture showroom full of imported pieces, explaining that there was no way he could accumulate the savings needed to invest when THAT neighbouring establishment was in business.

And yet, he revealed, a lot of that ‘imported’ furniture was actually made right here in Yunus’ roadside carpentry, for which he gets paid a fraction for his work!

I unleashed lugezi-gezi telling him to professionalise, regularise and get an investor and what not so he competes. In turn he showed me his business documents and receipts (no mis-spellings), and explained that the banks had rejected his request for a capital injection of Ushs2million for equipment. See, he had no security besides his timber and expertise, and, since he lives in constant fear that his roadside workshop would be raided by other authorities, no address to register.

All very valid – which is why I felt the need to invest. We would train Issa in customer service (he was fired before I left that evening), use my address for the bank loan, and then raise a locally manufactured challenge to the imported furniture businesses.

Plus: we already have a ‘machine’ – my electric drill at home.

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