buying ugandan christmas gifts should set our pace for coming years

I NEED to declare that another government agency gave me a Christmas gift of the following, sent to me two days before the article below was published in The New Vision:

Gifts made in Uganda - from a government agency

I was very pleased.

BECAUSE IT is not too late to do your shopping for Christmas gifts, here is an idea – and if you have already bought all yours for tomorrow then consider this a New Year’s resolution tip-sheet:

Last week I was the gleeful recipient of a Christmas hamper, sent to me by a generous government agency office I have official dealings with.

This agency is quite efficient at what it does and is therefore useful to our national development by way of its ordinary course of business.

As I studied the hamper presented to me, I knew that the cost of all the Christmas hampers this agency distributed this year could not be so significant as to warrant the attention of any but the most nit picky amongst us.

My heart sunk as I unwrapped the cellophane, and all the good cheer left me just as lots of money had left Uganda in exchange for the honey, chocolate, wine and coffee in the basket – which basket itself also appeared to be foreign.

The agency in question here normally hosts me for meetings about once a month, and I am always loudly insistent on being served coffee and tea grown and packaged in Uganda, accompanied by biscuits of local origin.

For them to be crowning the year by presenting me with Arabian honey was a clear affront to me, and I wasted little time before calling them up to clarify the messaging intention of the gift pack. Their genuine apologies ended with a pledge that they would conduct a seminar for their procurement people and suppliers, ensuring that next year they buy Ugandan at every opportunity.

Christmas gift shopping is a major such opportunity. In a year when we have seen the shilling sinking into a quagmire that needs shoveling by increased production for export, the least we can do is buy as much as we can locally as individuals and organizations – every day.

If all of us do our Christmas shopping at the craft markets, and wrap our gifts in locally made materials, sending them across with cards made in Uganda, then spend the season feasting strictly on traditional dishes cooked out of food from the gardens closest to our kitchens, this economy would change even faster.

And if that attitude were carried on into the new year, then as we return to our offices we might introduce policies that have us serving strictly local products at our meetings, and procuring only t-shirts designed and made in Uganda, to be distributed in baskets woven by local women and youth in the countryside, and all decisions made sitting at furniture designed and made by Ugandan carpenters.

It is never too late to make these decisions and implement them; focusing strictly on Christmas shopping, if you haven’t bought gifts yet then consider avoiding the crazy last-minute city or town traffic just to buy some ‘Made In Elsewhere’ items, and go down to the closest market then buy a year’s supply of fruit or vegetables for your loved ones.

This year I bought someone some months’ subscription to The New Vision and his joy after receiving the first surprise copy and working it out still rings loud in my ears – though may not be as fulfilling as my own at having spent that money supporting the salary of someone here, and shareholders in my vicinity, while adding a small prop to an industry I care about deeply.

It is not too late – spend your money here and make a small change that may also translate into some long term change that our children’s children might benefit from, more than the children’s children of people in far off lands.

how big is your christmas tree this year?

img_20151216_165328.jpgMY sitting room Christmas tree this year is quite small.

It wasn’t a deliberate choice on my part, and when we finished decorating it a couple of weeks ago and sat under the glow of its lights for a while, I started practising justifications to give to the children in case they took issue with its size.

I had planned for the tree to be much bigger, having told everybody last year how disagreeable it was for any resident of Uganda to buy plastic imported trees when we could simply chop a few branches of our local Christmas firs and fully enjoy the nostalgic tinge of warmth it brings.

At the start of the year, I put aside space in a garden upcountry to plant a few trees of my own so that in November I’d have a small harvest to sell to like-minded persons keen on decreasing on our imports of finished goods and maintaining our childhood traditions.

After that, it took me three months to give up on that approach and instead turn to a gardener at a roadside nursery and seedlings centre in Kampala. After many discussions he finally understood my needs, though it took another two months for him to actually act on them even though I had paid for the seedlings.

This not being my day job, I could not spend enough time on the ground supervising the growth of trees. Even if it wouldn’t have helped the objective of the project, the gardener contracted to do the job did not share my horror and disappointment, one day not too long ago, at finding that the seedlings had grown to just a couple more feet than when I had last seen them months before.

When he eventually absorbed the reason for my irritation, he turned the blame squarely onto his employees – two old ladies who do the actual tending of his plants. Apparently, they kept trimming the prickly branches of the trees because that made it easier for them to weed around the base.

Of course, I told him, they would do that because: a) their protective clothing consisted entirely of one torn, bedraggled lesu each and; b) they did not have sufficient information about the project and therefore should not have been left unsupervised to raise a large, luscious Christmas tree – especially since even he, the owner and manager, had not understood what type of proper Christmas tree I wanted until I had taken him through seminars.

His sheepish apologies failed to result in a voluntary offer of a refund, and I found myself ferrying the trees – two by two – out of his custody and to my home, where I spent a few weeks sprucing them up myself and working at their enhanced growth.

I even had the pots ready for them and had commenced, together with my children, with their decoration in readiness for a magnificent display that would certainly result in happy sales.

This did not happen.

Instead, I have the best of the lot standing proudly in the corner of my sitting room, adorned by decorations and lights, attracting our attention every evening as Christmas music plays in the background.

I am happy with my tree because it is not a large, massive one going right up to the ceiling and weighed down with baubles and trinkets, then surrounded by piles of gifts like one’s imagination would create.

My life is not like that.

It is modest yet a proud statement of achievement, however little, of a goal I set out on and scored in some measure. But it’s compromised size is a direct result of the frustrations we face doing ordinary business with ordinary people who don’t pay attention to small details.

More importantly, it represents a promise that next year we will have a bigger, brighter, more luscious tree, as it will continue to grow even after we take it out of the room.

Plus, it will take more gardening effort of our own – which work I am looking forward to in months to come, along with the full batch of trees.

The same will apply to many things for us – from natural beauty, to bank balances, to the size of business opportunities and even basic knowledge as my children are still in school.

Actually, even if the children don’t take issue and ask me, I’m going to give them the more lengthy version of the justification for how small our Christmas Tree is this year – explaining how much bigger it will be next year and the year after that.


John Pombe MagufuliIT’S been two mirthful weeks since John Pombe Magufuli’s actions in Tanzania inspired the hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo on Twitter.
Under that hashtag, thousands of Africans on social media came up with hilarious memes (humorous images poking fun at an idea) on the concept of frugality that Magufuli’s actions represented.
See, the newly elected President of Tanzania took up his job with a zeal rarely seen amongst politicians on this continent and went around firing inefficient officials on the basis of visual evidence, blasted his countrymen in positions of leadership and authority, and most of all, started cutting costs of extremely important things.
For instance, the man stopped civil servants from undertaking international travel and urged them instead “to spend more time traveling to rural areas to fix the country’s problems there”, according to one report. Another report says he cancelled Independence Day celebrations due this week and diverted the money to buying medical equipment or something, as well as directing that the time be spent cleaning the streets.
All these noble moves appealed to most of us as extremely sensible and quite the tonic we need to see in all our societies across the continent, and the reaction on social media by way of those #WhatWouldMagufuliDo memes seemed to be evidence of our overall support.
But after two weeks of spreading those memes around and pointing fingers at our own Presidents and political leaders, there is very little evidence around us that even those who’ve been saying the #WhatWouldMagufuliDo phrase are actually asking ourselves that question.
We’re treating it just like the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) badge – which many years ago some people wore as wristbands or pinned to their shirts or onto their cars as stickers. It was surprising, at first, to be rudely and recklessly overtaken by a car with the WWJD sticker on the back, but then we got used to that.
And now, we’re moving on from #WhatWouldMagufuliDo without really doing anything like Magufuli would.
One young fellow on Twitter who shared round the memes also circulated a wedding budget last week and I was tempted to reply with #WhatWouldMagufuliDo but held back a little bit as I, myself, have not yet sold my car and opted for public transport to take my children to school even if I could make serious cuts to my domestic budget that way.
When I made a wisecrack about this to a dispassionate political observer currently researching our election campaigns, she retorted with one about politicians standing atop expensive four wheel drive vehicles upcountry and promising to cut government costs when voted into ‘power’, and applauded the single lady presidential candidate for making a small show by riding a boda boda at some point in her campaign.
On another forum one evening last week, a group of us sat round some bottles of dearly priced imported drinks and marvelled at Magufuli and his hard actions, our voiced support for him growing more heated as the night grew more cold. Not one of us suggested a menu change to something less pricey or locally made, even if most of us at that table belong to an ‘investment club’ that could have made great strides if we had ‘Magulufied’ our expenditure into savings for investment.
The next morning I raised the idea with a couple of pals that had been seated round that table and their response made it clear why the actions of His Excellency John Pombe Magufuli had gone straight from being presidential news to a humorous twitter hashtag with nothing in between.
Rather than take up lessons from him and actually change the way we do things in our individual lives as Africans, East Africans, or Ugandans doing whatever we do on a daily basis, we’re safer pointing fingers at ‘those people up there’ or turning it all into a joke that we can laugh at and ‘leave it here for a while’ (that, by the way, is another meme reference we like to use.)
On that note, I’m just going to leave this here myself – stop asking #WhatWouldMagufuliDo – #AreYOUDoingWhatMagufuliWouldDo?

never downplay the importance of good, expensive equipment

THE visit to Uganda by Pope Francis was highly successful – possibly even more so than the other countries can say – but for those with noses to the ground there were some hard lessons to be learnt – lessons we only ignore if we do not wish to develop more.
My favourite lesson was one I have been keenly aware of for many years – NEVER downplay the importance of good, expensive equipment.
And before you bring out a tub of popcorn in anticipation of a duel over television broadcasting, let it be known that I am talking strictly about photography today.
Photography because the avaricious side of us welcomed the Pontiff’s visit due to the tourism value it brought to Uganda as a nation and East Africa as a region. See, there are more than 1.2billion Roman Catholics in the world, and one World Bank study says Uganda receives about 1.2million visitors into the country every year – which figure includes anyone dropping in for a day or staying overnight en route to somewhere else.
Now, the Pope’s visit to Uganda was full of blessings and was rather exciting for all of us who lined up to wave at him and shake his hand, but back to the avaricious side of things and my lesson:
NEVER downplay the importance of good, expensive equipment.
The night before he arrived, I fortuitously received an email notification from a service I signed up to months ago, offering me some used camera equipment that cost at least a couple of thousand pounds sterling each for the cheapest items – lenses – and more than ten thousand pounds for heavier ones – cameras.
My eyes opened wide at the costs listed there, but I took an interest anyway.
The very next day, I was surrounded by the international media following the Pope and had whipped out my own digital Single Lens Reflex camera with a ‘big’ lens to take some shots when I felt shrivelled. Some of the lenses those photographers lugged around obliterated my view of the entire Popemobile!
Now, regardless of what you are talking about, equipment is important, and our neglect of the investment required to own and run serious equipment will always hold us back.
One of my first useful steps at one government office I worked in was the acquisition of a digital camera and memory card. I misappropriated (or re-appropriated) money meant for some other mundane and very traditional purpose and bought the damn camera along with a card and a rechargeable battery.
The complaints thereafter sounded serious at first but were muted by my brutish nature, and after a couple of weeks the difference in our public visibility was so vivid – both in the quality of photography we were producing and circulating and in the speed with which we had photographs out – that I heard some colleagues in a totally unrelated department trying to take credit for the purchase.
The cost of the camera, memory card and battery, I should add, was the equivalent of a couple of meals our delegation would have signed for – thus the early complaints over my actions. But the value it gave us far superseded that of the film-roll cameras that my unit carried till then.
Now, confronted by the gigantic lenses of the international press corpsIMG_1193IMG_1195

img-20151202-wa0043.jpg following His Holiness the Pope, I had to check the prices of some of them online and found them even more daunting than the ones sent by email the night before.

But then, I thought, double checking the number of Roman Catholics that were bound to be following news of the Pope’s visit and who would possibly see the high quality photographic depiction of his presence here, that cost would have been quickly offset by 1% of them if, as a result of good photography, they chose to visit Uganda and each spent less than US$1 here!
NEVER downplay the importance of good, expensive equipment.
The massive lenses enabled those photographers to get high quality shots of whatever they wanted from tens of metres away, while our photographs had to be taken from close range.
We couldn’t compete; and if they chose to take shots of only the ugly bits of the country while we focused on the vast number of beautiful parts, their submissions would defeat ours in number and quality – just because we don’t have the right equipment. In fact the event organisers, sticking to internationally set standards, kept providing media platforms for camerapeople and positioned them at distances that inconvenienced some of us very greatly while the international press corps simply clicked their tongues and got to work shooting.
NEVER downplay the importance of good, expensive equipment – and since we always go for the best when buying jets, cars, guns and whatnot, it’s about time we started doing so when buying photographic equipment as institutions and individuals wishing to portray the best parts of Uganda.