The amount of opportunity we let go by us all the way to far-off lands like China is depressing but only if we look beyond, for instance, the flashing Christmas lights on that plastic tree you have right there in your sitting room.
I am not being predictable; you might not be aware that I am not an old man, yet within my lifetime it was commonplace for us to go out at around this time of the year to cut down our own Christmas trees.
I remember quite distinctly walking up through Nakasero and identifying potential trees, then securing permission (oba?) from the owners to chop them down for our use back home during the season. That was in the days when there were much fewer material comforts; before even those years in which we queued up for allotted crates of soda secured by connections I cannot dare ask my parents to explain today.
Until this year, for the last half-decade or so we have had a couple of those plastic artificial trees set up in our living room every Christmas, adorned with an accumulation of baubles, bells, tinsel and other shiny stuff.
It was convenient, the first year, because we were travelling upcountry and needed to pack up our tree so we could set it up where we were actually going to spend Christmas Day, to unwrap gifts from right under the tree.
As the children got older we cultured the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree together, with a family photograph at the end of the process; and at the end of the holidays, we have this take-down ceremony that we try to make just as much fun.
After a couple of years I realised I had to buy a new tree but settled for quick D-I-Y repairs on the old one, which over time have run their course so hard that this year I could no longer sustain the tree without importing a hefty amount of plastic.
But when I spotted the price of new artificial trees, sized appropriately for the ages and heights of my children, I had to urgently change tack.
There are tens of thousands, if not millions, of perfectly shaped conifers trees I see by roadsides here in Kampala every day, and in places like Nakasongola en route to Masindi. Surely I could find a Christmas tree locally grown at a fraction much cheaper than the plastics imported from Asia, I reasoned, with my mind in my wallet.
And so, delaying the date of our tree decoration ceremony, I created time and drove to a couple of plant and flower nurseries to shop. The first two were a dismal waste of time, where I was ushered by chaps who seemed to be hearing the word ‘Christmas’ for the first time in their lives.
The third gave me much hope for a full two minutes as I followed an eager twenty-year-old chap, the son of the proprietor, through the bushy nursery till he pointed me to the plant he understood me to mean when I said the words “Christmas Tree”.
As we stood there, him pointing at the “Christmas Tree” and me at a total loss of words, my heart fluttered a little bit because I had promised the children that they would be putting up and decorating a tree that very evening, but the trees I was being shown needed a year or so to grow to the requisite height.
I begged him to understand my need, describing eloquently what I believed a “Christmas Tree” should look like, until he released that phrase “Ooooh-ooooh!” that in English sounds like, “Why didn’t you say that before?!”, then led me through more bushy nursery to another corner of the business, and pointed at another batch of seedlings at knee level.
Since I was fast running out of time before evening broke, I appealed to an older chap working there, who offered his suggestion with authority that I foolishly believed till he had walked me through the bushes to another tree that had never had aspirations of being decorated, let alone picked, for Christmas.
Exasperated, I stated how improbable all their options were, and eventually googled images of Christmas trees for their visual reference.
It took me a full five minutes to realise that they were both pretending quite politely to have understood my mission, but only after they had walked me to some palm trees and, eventually, one they called Podo which looks a little bit like the one Google offers up under that name but not at all like the Christmas tree I had showed them.
It was exasperating to realise why, indeed, people were spending Ushs300,000 for a plastic tree imported from China for use during just this one month alone. A tree seedling of the type that one would need to grow a properly shaped Christmas tree could cost about Ushs500, and would take not many months (I can’t confirm how many) to grow to a respectable, sitting-room-decorate-and-show-off size.
Eventually, just as I was settling for a ‘Podo‘ and dubiously accepting its name, I spotted a misshapen young fir in the distance and headed straight for it. One clear command, Ushs60,000 and five hacks of the panga later, I made them profit from a tree they had not factored into their business model at all.
Like them, the other people who could be doing brisk business of this sort are apparently unaware and probably lamenting about their economic conditions instead of growing and selling Christmas trees. Meanwhile other equally ignorant yet more wealthy people are spending hundreds of thousands on trees imported from China into lush, tropical Uganda.
Next year, I am growing more of my own Christmas trees – on top of the ones I have already planted in my front garden. Supermarkets, importers, and Chinese manufacturers, please accept my apologies.