a tippy tap tale seeking engineers and designers

A COUPLE of weeks ago I amused a group of schoolchildren at Katosi, on the shores of Lake Victoria in the Mukono area, when I broke away from the main event to walk round their little school taking

Katosi Church of Uganda Primary School - Photo by Simon Kaheru
Katosi Church of Uganda Primary School – Photo by Simon Kaheru


I ended up in the corner of the school at the elevated latrines and paid those a quick visit, which got them chittering and pointing fingers at me.
When I stepped out of the latrine cubicle I found a small crowd waiting to see the spectacle, and though they didn’t give me a round of applause, I descended like a performer getting onto a stage.
Little did I know that I was slated to put on a little performance.
Having noticed a sign on the wall that instructed us to wash our hands after using the toilet, I expected to find a receptacle or something for water and some soap on hand as soon as I walked out of the latrine. There was none.
I was flabbergasted and disappointed. I had hoped that this poor school in rural Uganda was walking the talk. The entire village is highly susceptible to water-borne diseases the experts now refer to as NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases), and was the target of some serious programmes run by the Ministry of Health, USAID and RTI International.
The programmes they run are simple but highly effective. Just by getting children to take their preventive medicines seriously, parents to use mosquito nets as mosquito nets rather than as fishing nets, and everyone to use soap as often as possible, the entire community benefits in a massive way. Children spend more time in school, and therefore learn more; more of them therefore end up advancing to higher education, and the economy overall improves because they go out to do more than join the fishing or attendant trades.
The children gathered outside the latrine realised what my problem was, and pointed at a contraption that I had seen but failed to figure out as I walked past it to the latrines.
The initially confounding contraption
It was a wooden stand of poles set at four angles forming a square, with some 3-litre jerrycans tied to a wire going round the top. The jerry cans were recycled from used vegetable oil ones – as well do in our homes – and most of them contained a little water.
What puzzled me was a string tied to each jerry can, that was linked to a piece of wood hanging down to the floor. One child, eventually identified as Joshua, stepped forward to free me of my conundrum, and pointed at one jerry can, then the stick.
I had already seen them, but did not wish to be rude, so I leaned forward and tipped the jerry can with one hand to wash the other, but before switching he shouted, “No!” and gave me a demonstration that almost blew my mind.
The way it works is that you step on the stick with one foot (you can’t use both), which action pulls onto the string and tips the jerry can downwards to pour water out for you (or the children) to wash hands.
To complicate matters a little bit, the jerry can I used had a couple of holes punched into it near its mouth top, which made for a nice trickle from the perforation. But the water quickly gushed out after that through the top of the jerry can.
The children were pleased at how surprised I was, and laughed quite a lot as I made them demonstrate again and again. On Twitter, I asked if anyone could work it out from the photograph and found that some people knew about this system – called the ‘Tippy Tap’.
I haven’t checked to find out where it was invented or who by. It is just amazing. A water delivery system made only from local and recycled materials.
I’ve built a house before and know quite well how expensive it is to get all the plumbing into place and running fine, but the next house I am involved in will definitely benefit from the tippy tap though in an advanced form.
There must be an engineer in Uganda who can make some improvements to the system so that we can adopt it in homes both urban and rural. By just putting a cover onto the small jerry can, for instance, one can use less water to wash one’s hands. Now if an engineer worked at combining a rain water catchment system with a series of filters and some tippy tap for the showers and basins, the imagination boggles!

the makings of the idea of making an umbrella

FOR most of you guys who’ll read this, the worst direct effect of the heavy rains is the floods, traffic jams, and delayed or cancelled meetings.

It’s highly irritating and annoying stuff, no doubt, but compare those to my problem as communicated by the guy at my ‘farm’ yesterday.

Two weeks ago a hailstorm hit parts of Kampala and Wakiso districts. It was a heavy storm and in Kampala where I was I gathered the children and frolicked a little bit with packs of ice gathered up from the grass at Lugala, in Rubaga division.

It was fun.

And then the guy at the farm called to say that the hailstones in Wakiso had fallen so heavy that even the ground was not ready for it. First of all, the hail stones fell fast and heavy, chopping up leaves and some matooke suckers into a threshed mess.

Then, he continued, the ice sat there for two days, during which time it froze some of the young seedlings we had just planted, and melted to wash away a couple of others.

I am not entirely foolish, so I did hold some reservations about his report and in coming weeks will be checking the neighbourhood for evidence of freshly-planted mango tree seedlings in a number commensurate with the ones the hailstorm destroyed.

Is hail a result of El Nino?

Apparently, yes (see http://earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/3239, for instance) – you can google other articles on your own, but basically El Nino results in extreme weather patterns including heavy rains and hailstorms.

Now, I’m happy that some government departments responsible issued notifications and advisories around El Nino, but I was dismayed that there are still things that will surprise us about this weather.

My guys at the farm, meanwhile, have no idea of El Nino and that’s my fault. I will be appraising them this coming Saturday and hope they take it seriously.

I, myself, should take El Nino more seriously: I should read the weather forecasts with a more scientific mind and stock up on umbrellas and warm clothing.

This weather has put me between a flooded pothole and a thick downpour in many respects.

For instance, right now I don’t have a car so I must walk around a lot more – which is hard to do with confidence when it rains so heavily. Yet again, if I were hostage to driving around I would be caught in life-sapping traffic jams that my patience is not configured to withstand.

I have a pair of gumboots in the boot of the car, for instance, but I can’t use them when I am operating on foot – yet I would need to wear the gum boots when walking through certain parts of town… #kwegamba.

Then I keep losing umbrellas – because every time I stop somewhere I furl them up, prop them in the corner and the rest is a blur that leads me to three days later buying a new umbrella.

So why am I not making umbrellas, you ask, and selling them to all these people out there who are like me and keep buying them? What materials do I need? What type of engineering or design graduate or student should I hire?

According to the internet, umbrellas have existed for 4,000 years. I am not clear on whether anyone in Uganda is making any but I have checked in many supermarkets this week and found ZERO made in Uganda.

My imagination tells me that there are many buveera somewhere in Uganda wondering what to do with themselves after the kaveera ban, and there are many jobless youth out there who know (or can be taught) how to manipulate a sewing machine, and there is a lot of cloth all over the city, and there are many kids who know how to make wire cars.

Put all those factors together on one side, then put all of us umbrella-buying-and-losing-frequently people on the other side, add heavy rain into the mix, and the solution should be clear.

Am I the entrepreneur who is going to make this happen? Are you that entrepreneur? Or shall we continue to drown under showers whose very existence is foretold on every platform available to us?

By coincidence, as I typed this out I noticed right next to me a good example of this being a possibility – a bag lined with kaveera and Made in Uganda:

Photograph by Simon Kaheru; product available at Endiro Coffee in Kisementi

a walking all the way home incident during #UgBlogWeek

THIS week I am going to be walking quite a lot, so I’m grateful for the safety shoes I bought earlier this year on a semi-whim.

See, one of my clients runs a strict protective wear policy that has us switching out shoes and clothes when we go visiting (to work) sometimes, and at the start of the year I was caught in the embarrassing position of shouting out my shoe size to the incredulity of the person in charge of safety shoes.

My feet are not as big as my belly, but they cannot be made light of. The person in charge of providing security shoes that day had supposedly taken them into account by supplying what she thought was the largest shoe size in stock, and stated so quite sternly when it was noticed that I was struggling to squeeze into the brand new shoes.

She watched me for a couple of minutes, then started frowning. I could feel her stare down my back as my damn foot started to disfigure the top part of the shoe, and I wasn’t surprised when she said, “Wait! Leave it!”, and held out her hand.

Long story short, she recalled a ‘freak’ pair of shoes that had presumably been bought years ago, and brought me a dusty box with shoes that actually went round my feet.

A month after that, I found myself in a shoe shop many miles away from Kampala and noticed a very low-priced pair of light safety shoes tucked away in a corner somewhere. The shoes cost less than my lunch that day had, so I swiped them up and walked a couple of kilometres then began to regret not having bought an extra pair.

I walk quite a lot – even when I’m operating within a small room, my phone pedometer tells me. Many times, though, I walk long distances within this town of ours.

Last Thursday, owing to my mechanic being off sick and his colleagues therefore taking the opportunity to tinker with my Land Rover, I found my last lift of the day ending at Lugogo By-Pass (real name: Rotary Avenue).

Hitching my laptop bag onto my back, I commenced my walk to the nearest place with internet access in order to send a document that (as usual) the meeting I had just been at insisted was “needed urgently tonight”.

I could have emailed it in the room but that would have meant spending a few minutes cleaning it up, then tethering my mobile data and …my lift would have left me behind.

The Bay Lounge Car Wash joint looked attractive but I had heard stories about that place and didn’t want to be calling around for taxis late in the night so far from home. Same with the Oryx verandah.

Either I got home and sent the email, or found a place close by with stress relieving drinks (including spiced tea).

Because my feet were encased in the comfortable safety shoes abovementioned, I walked on towards the Game yard and was just about to make it when I spotted a chap walking EXACTLY like Jimmy Kiberu does; but Jimmy is the type of mafresho you can’t find walking the streets like this – and he can’t possibly wear shoes like mine – so I wondered what he was up to these days as I prepared to side step him then:



Kaboozi erupted and ensued for twenty roadside minutes as we caught up on everything – he now owes me a pair of geese. As we were chatting I spotted the last special hire taxi easing out of the rank – which I confirmed when I eventually got there and stood in place for ten minutes.

Walking on to the taxi stage on Jinja Road I figured that it would be wiser for me to walk to the Nakawa stage and get a taxi to Bugolobi, so I turned upwards and found it quite easy not to fall into an open manhole.

As I approached Nakawa I recalled the numerous taxi incidents in recent months that had conductors, drivers and even fellow passengers cracking jokes about my size. None of them were rude, and we always laughed rigorously, but this time I was sweating as well and in the evenings people are rarely in a good mood, after a long day.

I certainly wasn’t.

So I vumiliyad, and took the time to make a few phone calls so by the time I was at the Kiswa turn-off my options for sending the email while having a relaxing drink were further limited.

The untrustworthy Pinkie-Pinkie-Ponkie method had me turn to the Village Mall, and I called up a pal to find out whether he would join me.

“Let me call you back,” he answered the phone, which tactic I normally reject. See, once you’ve answered just talk – I don’t like being on the phone anyway.

“Just find me at Village Mall; we’ll have a drink. Don’t call me.”

“Kawa! Let me finish my meeting then I come.”

And just as I turned the corner past Bougainvillea Hotel, he drove out of the Village Mall and sped off.

I missed that sign, and a couple of hours later was finished with work and drinks, and I was now back at the gate contemplating a late night walk the rest of the way home.

My shoes were still comfortable but my soul was not, so I asked the askaris for a taxi and one of them quickly sped off to find me one. He circled the Mall and returned to declare failure.

It seemed I was going to put another five kilometres into the shoes, but just as I began the trudge another askari, at the Shell exit, exclaimed – he had spotted a taxi returning to the stage outside of the Mall!

Five minutes later, I was in the back of a special hire taxi driving towards the Luthuli Avenue exit of the Mall. One minute after that, I was listening, puzzled, to the askari there telling the special hire driver that he couldn’t drive out if he didn’t have the parking card, and the driver explaining that he had been let in without one.

Two things: 1) the Village Mall has just introduced the Card-operated gate system; 2) the askaris, in their excitement, actually didn’t stop the driver to make him press the button to get a parking card.

“Then you go back to those ones who let you in,” said this askari.

Unbelievably, back at the Shell gate, the askaris were nonplussed.

“Ha! There is nothing we can do now…this thing here needs a card,” they said.

I turned to my phone for a little distraction. More than five minutes later I looked up to realise the engine was off and we were waiting for…

“What are we waiting for?” I asked the special hire driver.

“I don’t know.”

“Askari,” I called out, to the very same chaps I had first approached twenty minutes ago, “What are we waiting for?”

“Boss! This thing won’t open if he doesn’t have a card…”

I actually thought about launching a discussion and then, again, considered walking. But I was tired, and I had gone through a long day of such inexplicable yet apparently necessary comedy.

I had had it.

“Mwe, you guys! Open and let us go!”







I didn’t even bother to grumble about it, but told the special hire taxi fellow in no uncertain terms how he needed to always think faster on his feet and what not, be serious, be focussed on customer and client service and then mid-way my little, irritated speech…

…he ran out of fuel mid-way up the hill.

So I also ran out of the notes coming out of my wallet, mid-way to him.

And I walked the rest of the way home.

In my comfortable, but cheap, safety shoes.

filling up a #UgBlogWeek quota

I’M the guy sitting in a restaurant that offers reliably free wi-fi, where I stopped over to get some work done as the evening came to a close and the traffic had piled up in a way that was threatening my promise to a client that I would “email it tonight”.

That “I’ll email tonight” is the supplier equivalent of offering to pay the bill at the end of the evening when one is dining at an expensive restaurant in a very platonic arrangement.

It is impolite to let the first offer stand if you’re a client.

Every time I say those words to a client I suffer mental anguish as I think about the one hundred and one things that can make that promise turn into the reason why I get dropped as a supplier.

Those one hundred and one things could be anything – one hundred and one badly driven vehicles causing a traffic jam right from the gates of the client’s premises to the next point I can set up my laptop and type out the email, or fifty five of those vehicles plus 45 boda bodas and one traffic police person who can’t keep traffic flow fair.

(I did the maths there properly, I think.)

If you live in Kampala then you know that traffic police person – the one who has obviously never driven a vehicle in their lives and therefore cannot begin to click how infuriating it is to sit there and see three hundred cars in the other line being allowed to go, then only four in your line before it is stopped for another three hundred in the other one.

That one hundred and one things could be a combination in any order of low battery life on your gadgets, electricity outages, internet being off or slow, someone visiting for tea, the children insisting on 88 different distractions…

That’s why I’m the guy in the free wi-fi restaurant – I’d rather kill that time sitting in a place where I can send all those emails, download a couple of things (polite) and then upload something like this without pulling out hair.

When I have a driver (including the special hire guy) and my batteries are sufficiently charged up then I skip the wi-fi allure of the restaurant and power up in the back seat so I am out of the restaurant faster. Clients are blown away by such speed and efficiency, though I know it sometimes sets a bad precedent and creates unrealistic expectations in them.

Plus, one needs time and coffee with a snack in order to fashion a proper email to a client.

Hence my being the guy sitting in a restaurant that offers free wi-fi, who has finally sent the client the email I promised I would send just before I stepped out of their building to find traffic lined up end-to-end, and my laptop and phone batteries both dead on account of having had them on during the lengthy meeting with same said client.

I’m also the guy looking at this bill and trying to compute whether this money would have been better spent in an internet cafe over the same couple of hours. But then there, I wouldn’t have had these drinks and that snack, in these comfy chairs, with the nice background music…

…and I’d probably be filling up my #UgBlogWeek quota of the day with something significantly different. Something better thought out. Something you would be reading now and nodding your head at instead of going SMDH.

If you had a look at my bill you’d sympathise and be thankful instead of complaining that this is a rip-off.

And if you’re that client and you’re reading this then next time feel free to jump in next time I promise to email you “tonight” and insist that I send you the damn email on Monday instead?

Fridays are NOT made for this nonsense.

let’s celebrate Philly Lutaaya again on December 1 – and take up his challenge to DO SOMETHING ABOUT HIV/AIDS

This coming December 1 will be World AIDS Day once again, and you might (should) wear a red ribbon to commemorate the day.
A short while ago I was in a classroom in Bweyogerere covering the visit of the RTI International Chief Executive Officer, Wayne Holden, and some of his Global Executives. Part of what they do, along with USAID, DFID (UKAID) and the government, is support educational programmes.
One of those programmes, strangely enough, promotes reading in vernacular. So I was in this classroom full of children reading schoolbooks in Luganda while a group of Americans who had no clue of the language, nodded in appreciation of something.
I was nodding at something different – the story the teacher was reading out to them, in Luganda, was about Philly Bongoley Lutaaya, and his role in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
The children were reading along and looking up in silence and serious attention as she enunciated her words carefully for their learning benefit, and they imbibed everything about the Ugandan hero.
I knew for a fact, as I watched those children, that my own did not know much about Philly Bongoley Lutaaya besides the comments I kept making every time I played his music.
As the teacher read his story I recalled his visiting us at King’s College Budo, and how I felt when I got to shake his hand. That was a mark for me that helped me overcome the stigma of how contagious the disease was.
And I still feel the rush of adrenaline I felt when he played cricket up there, with John Nagenda, and after swinging for one ball, collapsing in a heap to a collective gasp that seemed to go round the whole school.
He got up smiling after a panicked group had raced to him, unsure what they were going to have to do – it had been a small prank.
But when he eventually passed on the gasps we exhaled went round the whole world, as did our tears.Philly Lutaaya III
The man was a hero. A heavy-on-the-mind Ugandan hero.
I was sad that my children don’t know enough about him and that their schooling in english was neglecting these lessons, but I was happy that many other children in the countryside are getting this exposure.
And then it hit me that the gap was my responsibility.
That evening, I went home and asked them if they remembered him – and the name was familiar, so I assigned them the task of doing research on Philly Bongoley Lutaaya and presenting their papers to me within a couple of days.
To help them along, I played his music for a couple of days and was myself refreshed by how much he promoted tourism in his songs and videos, how much he promoted Uganda’s (not just Buganda) cultures, his contribution to health awareness, and how he ably demonstrated the fun and creative side of Ugandans.
I eagerly awaited the children’s papers and was pleasantly surprised when they handed them in Saturday morning – and I discovered from them that that very day was Philly Lutaaya Day!
Philly Lutaaya
As I was reading through their papers, celebrations were being held in Kanoni, Gomba District, which the official flyer I eventually received said were “to mobilise wanainchi to take action by coming out openly to share what they are doing as individuals, as communities and as a nation to STOP HIV as Uganda moves towards zero infections, zero discrimination and zero deaths.”
I couldn’t go to Kanoni that day, but we spent the day thinking about Philly Lutaaya, and that evening lit candles in his honour as we watched his music videos and appreciated further – adults and children alike – his importance in our history.
On World AIDS Day this December 1, we will pay attention to him again, as our Ugandan hero of the day, as well as address the challenge: “What are you doing to stop HIV?”
All triggered by a Luganda story book being read out to schoolchildren in a classroom in Bweyogerere, by a schoolteacher whose name I did not get but who also represents another group of Ugandan heroes out there making a massive difference in this society of ours.
Philly Lutaaya IV