IT’S happened to me twice so far over a four week period in two different parts of Kampala.
Luckily, it’s not a daily occurrence otherwise I would have given up on using a mobile phone a long, long time ago.
The first time, I was walking home and decided to buy a little airtime just in case I ran out in the middle of the night. Going past the turn-off up the hill that I should have taken, I stopped at the first of one million shops selling airtime alongside sugar, iron sheets and boda bodas.
“Airtime? Orange?” I asked, politely, quickly amending it to, “I mean, Africell.”
“Wa mekka?” (For how much?) the chap asked me, seemingly disinterested.
I was sweaty and had a laptop bag slung over my shoulder but surely looked respectable enough for him to unfurl himself and attempt to take my money?
He also wasn’t going to answer my question before I answered his, which I found awkward-ish but then quickly dropped the lugezi gezi and replied politely: “For Ushs20,000?”
I was trying my luck and thought my tone conveyed that. I didn’t want to give a wrong answer and get sent away, just in case there was some rule I wasn’t aware of. But even as I responded the thought occurred that I could have walked into some spy secret set-up and the guy would hand me a box of spy stuff if I accidentally got the code right, and my life would change forever as I became a target of various global security teams.
“Ah-ah! Oyo simulina.” (I don’t have that.)
I needed more information – did he mean he did not have Ushs20,000 worth of airtime or that he didn’t have one single Ushs20,000 airtime card? Ten seconds I stood there just about to ask him to clarify but he was looking elsewhere, having closed that chapter.
Of course, I should have gone to the next shop, but I asked all the same.
“Nnina za lukumi lukumi zokka!” (I only have Ushs1,000 airtime cards!) he responded, still not looking at me, still seated in his chair. He had a very bad posture, I noticed, and if he had been more polite I would have helped advise him to change it so he didn’t end up with a painful back in his old age.
As it was, I chose the long game for his punishment.
The short game situation, I quickly realised, is the reason why they put bars in the front of those shops as if they are prison cells. Not to lock the stupidity in with the merchandise, but to stop people like me from snapping and committing regrettable acts that would probably soil the merchandise with blood and gore.
Three shops later, I made a note to self that telecommunication companies need to revise that part of their training manual that has all these retailers responding in this manner.
In the fifth shop, I changed tack and instead asked, “Can I buy Ushs1,000 of Africell?”
The young girl sold it to me. Then I asked for another.
“Aweddewo.” (It’s finished).
THAT’S when I checked my credit balance to confirm whether I really needed to continue with the circus – especially since I was walking further away from my home.
In one shop, the chap fell for my ruse and asked, “Ddala ddala, oyagala wa mekka?” (How much do you want, in actual fact?)
We question-duelled till he gave way and counted how much he had in his drawer.
“I’ll take it all,” I said.
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
I was bothered; see, his ‘Ah’ didn’t sound like that excited, “Yaaay; you’re giving me money and finishing my stock so I make a profit and then go and re-stock faster!”
“Naye awo ky’ogamba; sijja kusigaza airtime yenna okutunda?” (But then there, do you mean I won’t have any airtime left to sell?)
Unbelievable but true.
Eventually I got to this most progressive shop – larger than the rest and with no metal bars in the doorway.
Realising that if I didn’t fill my phone up with airtime as soon as possible I might spend the rest of my life buying it up in drips and drops, I asked this fellow for more – Ushs50,000.
He ran a Mobile Money outlet after all. He had those glass display cases in his shop. He also sold mobile phone accessories. Surely he would have airtime available to sell.
Again, an exclamation that didn’t sound like the one I hoped for – I needed to hear that ‘Ha’ of a man gleefully calculating the profit he would make off his purchase, and maybe even betraying some relish at the possibility that he could sell me some earphones or an extra charger.
This ‘Ha’, however, sounded like: “Small Problem, boss.”
I was about half a kilometre away from the turn-off point home, and thirty minutes off schedule. My patience had run thin and I had no more laughter to hold in whenever these people did these things. I needed the airtime.
“Man. Nyamba!” (Help me, man!) I pleaded.
I was breaking a rule I have held fast to for years and years; abdicating my role as customer and betraying all my kinfolk in the economic stratum of those with disposable income, therefore frustrating the rules of economics relating to supply and demand. My secondary school economics teacher would have rubbed his chin and proclaimed a lack of surprise as he recalled my distracted antics in his class, even though he can’t have my test papers to present as proof that this was how I would end up.
The shop attendant thought a little bit, progressive fellow, and a lightbulb went on in his mind.
“Leka nzijje!” (Let me come! <— this is our pidgin, and if you think in English it means, ‘Be right back’.)
Off he went, leaving me alone in his shop with all his merchandise and that drawer containing airtime cards and even some cash. Unlike the first chap I stopped at, this one disregarded my dishevelled looks enough to trust me with his shop as he shot across the road.
Five minutes later he was back, waving three airtime cards – two for Ushs20,000 and one for Ushs10,000.
“Nzifunye!” (I got them!) he declared triumphantly, with some irrational pride in his voice.
I gave him the Ushs50,000 and he was off again to pay the person he had sourced the cards from.
When he got back, he offered to scratch my cards and opened the drawer to extract an implement for doing so – a coin.
As he did so I got a good look at a collection of airtime cards amid the small notes of cash and other bits and bobs.
I didn’t want to ask, just in case he answered in the affirmative, but after he had scratched the cards and as I was loading them I could resist no longer.
“Do you mean you have NO Africell airtime here at all?”
“I have some,” he responded, totally unfazed by the implications arising from this confession, “But I didn’t have Ushs50,000.”
How much did he have of this much-wanted airtime, but in small denominations?
He STILL didn’t quite get it.
So I bought that, too – kind of as a token of appreciation for his having gone out of his way to get me the Ushs50,000 cards.
I cringed after placing the order, afraid that he was going to protest having to sell all his stock in one fell swoop.
Luckily for my nerves, he made no such protest.
“Webale nnyo, boss!” (Thanks a lot, boss) he said – the very same words I had said to him a few minutes earlier.