THE day a Land Rover Discovery came to fetch me as a taxi was an Uber day – in more senses than one.
I occasionally do things like this to test out systems and scenarios so that when I am asked questions I have answers that make sense to a visitor (see, I use www.shiyaya.travel so I need to be knowledgeable).
For some reason I had this nagging need to set off three hours early for a radio programme, and as I like being on time for things I didn’t need too much encouragement even though I did feel a little strange about being a little too early this one time.
So I decided to get an Uber to a point where I knew my favourite snack to be sold, at the bottom of Eighth Street, from whence I would take a short, leisurely stroll to my final destination. Plus, I needed to see how the Uber map would react to my command – but it didn’t let me choose my random spot, so I had to select a marked location close by.
For a couple of weeks I’ve been discovering that not many Uber drivers in Kampala trust or use the digital maps and pins that come with them, and I had raised a complaint about it before.
It irritates the hell out of people who don’t like: a) Using the phone to talk b) Giving those endless directions during which neither you nor the person you are talking to are clear about the reference you are making – if the guy doesn’t know left from right and you don’t know kkono from ddyo, okikola otya?
On stepping out of Endiro Coffee I ordered for the Uber, because that is a location where one is likely to have a car show up within a matter of seconds, so before clicking the Uber button you don’t have to factor in the time it takes to pay the bill, shut down the computer and walk through the gauntlets of “Let’s have a coffee some time” and “Hey! You also come here?”
Seconds later, my phone rang and the number on screen was uber organised in a way that made me pause – should I take the phone call then miss the Uber guy’s call?
A number with 444 444 was likely to be…what? An MP? Sudhir’s other PA? Google?
I answered, planning to make it quick, and as I did so I noticed a dapper looking chap not too far away from me in a nice-looking jacket and speaking into a phone.
“Yes – Simon speaking.”
“Hi. This is Charles – Uber. Your pin said you were at Kisementi but you know the parking here is bad. Where will you be, exactly?”
“Right at the entrance of Endiro.”
“Is that on the main road itself?”
I thought so, and replied in the affirmative.
I then saw a flash of brown as someone dove into a silver Land Rover Discovery II – like the one I owned till quite recently.
What would life be like, really, if there was a Land Rover Discovery on Uber?
I shook my head to clear out the fantasies, then waited for the Uber.
Even thinking that the fellow I had seen on the phone was an Uber driver was off-centre.
Uber was supposed to be disruptive, and had presumably introduced newer, neater cars and drivers into the taxi eco-system. Even campus kids were driving taxis, apparently.
The average Special Hire taxi driver in Kampala was an annoying, irritating muyaye-type fellow. The average one, not all of them.
The first Uber guy I used this morning, for instance, was definitely a Special Hire taxi driver who had slipped through whatever filter Uber uses to get us uber-neat chaps and cars.
His car, a Platz, was not only filthy but had its paint peeling off. He found it difficult to follow directions, even in Luganda, and when he eventually arrived and I opened the door I was confronted with a dirty pinkish-brown rag at the foot of the back seat, and an empty mineral water bottle.
He seemed to think this was normal but I refused to let it pass even though I did feel a little awkward knowing we were going to do a trip for which I would pay a third what I used to pay just weeks ago.
He cleaned up the two offending items, and left the dust intact, then proceeded to drive gladiator style through traffic while insisting on a conversation over which route to use. His gold-coloured Samsung looked very high end but he only looked at it to answer a phone call and then check the fare at the end of the trip.
“You decide, boss. I need to listen to this podcast,” I said, of our route, before succumbing to a coughing fit as the Air Conditioning kicked in with a movie-style special effects dust storm.
When we got to my destination I had to give the guy a lecture and told him I was “with Uber” (technically, true, being a customer with the app) and that we were doing random sample rides to test whether drivers were following all the rules.
He was visibly scared and promised to drive better, but my faith in the entire service was uber-low by the time I was rating him (they don’t have a ‘0’ for ‘Fire this guy’, so I had to go with “terrible”).
The disruption that Uber brings to Kampala’s ‘special hire’ taxi system is therefore very welcome when we have the right type of Uber chaps zipping around in those cars – for various reasons, not least of which is promoting our tourism sector and making life comfortable for travellers.
The Silver Discovery, meanwhile, went past smoothly and I wistfully remembered the good days in my own, as I watched it sail past and go towards Lohana Academy.
And two minutes later, it was back…
THE SILVER LAND ROVER DISCOVERY II WAS MY UBER!
“Really? YOU are my Uber?”
“Yes, sir!” the fellow responded brightly.
I hopped in, sliding perilously along the shiny clean leather (maybe faux) seats as he punched buttons on his iPad screen in its holder, and kicked off the journey. None of that “Where are we going?” stuff.
“But you guy!”
I had to ask.
“What engine do you have in this thing?”
It was a 3.9Litre V8 engine, which is really a four-litre engine. Those are the engines where they say the moment you start up the car a litre of fuel goes out the exhaust pipe.
I owned a car like this for many years, and made very acquaintances with many fuel pump attendants along the way. They even got to know my children, I spent so much time there.
“I just love Land Rovers!” he said, with an enthusiasm that made me suspect he was doing Uber just so he could drive this thing around bila profit or even logic.
“I used to drive a Range Rover, but I sold that one and now I have this. It’s a great car!”
Encouraging him to join Land Rover Uganda, he told me he had tried doing so and even wanted to attend our event back in May but had missed it.
I promised to help and he handed me his business card – that said he was a “Verkstallande Direktor”, as I interrogated HOW this arrangement made sense. WHO does a taxi service in the city while driving a car with THIS engine? Disruption was one thing, but this was just madness.
Even before I bought my own V8 I did a lot of mathematics to justify the purchase to myself, and consistently operated in a manner that ensured it was profitable – which is why I still know how to avoid traffic jam scenarios by simply avoiding certain engagements at certain hours.
He told me it made sense, and explained how – including how he only makes himself available for specific jobs and whatnot.
And what is a “Verkstallande Direktor” anyway? What witchcraft is this Uber engaging us in, where people casually charge less than Ushs10k for a trip that I used to bargain DOWN to Ushs30k? Where the drivers are on campus and have degrees?
Last week a chap told me he owned the Premio he was cruising, having inherited it from his mother, and that even though he was earning less that week than he had when Uber had just come in, he was okay because the rental income from the apartments…
What is this jadu? And seriously, what is a “Verkstallande Direktor”?
It’s Swedish for Chief Executive Officer. See, we have taxi drivers operating in Swedish now and yet they charge far less than those ’special hire’ taxi drivers did.
Uber is not (really) jadu – it is this guy who is even more different, as I see when I flip the business card and find that he runs a company that does Electronic Security System Installations in Sweden and Uganda.
“I have done many things, and I am yet to do more. After I left the army I went into private business and I found myself in Sweden and Finland, but I had to come back to Uganda to do things here,” he said.
This is where I started to make an appointment to buy him a coffee on Friday morning. By the time I was handing him the Ushs8k for the trip and tipping him an extra Ushs2k out of some irrational guilt – which he thanked me for – he was telling me of his plans to introduce cable cars in Mbale. I had to make him stop, confirm the Friday morning coffee, then check my bags to make sure that he really didn’t have some jadu to make my laptop turn into a stone or something.
And I had to take another photo of the car – just in case, because, now cable cars?
We agreed that I would call him Friday morning to work out that coffee.
Which is why he tried to call me on Thursday evening (using his secondary number that has 44 444) then sent me an SMS saying I had neglected to set the appointment.
Seriously, what energy did this guy have?
Friday morning I called him up, he eventually made it to where I was, and immediately launched into his story.
Charles Lwanga Bbale, but in the army, he said, he was listed as Lwanga Emmanuel ’Speed’.
He wasn’t as neat as he was inside the Discovery, but still had an impressive presence in spite of his being small-bodied. His loud voice helped, and I really wished he had kept it down a lot of the time.
The tone of his voice caused the waiters and waitresses some visible consternation and occasional alarm, and some of his stories were so hair raising that at one point a young waitress said, “Eh! Wano ‘kanveewo!” and fled.
That was when he was telling me about the time he walked 256 kilometres in six days. As a communications technician with the UPDF he got deployed into the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Kisangani tours, and once got into a disagreement with a superior that could only be resolved in one of two ways.
He chose the one that didn’t involve dying at that young age, and set off on foot from a location called Ango, near the Central African Republic border on May 5, 1998.
“I had my rifle, sixty rounds (of ammunition), six tins of beans, two tins of beef, some medicines, mosquito repellant, and some coffee. In the mornings I would find a place where to warm water, then mix coffee. People don’t know but coffee helps you fight off sickness and also keeps you alert!”
Clad in his military fatigues, a pair of jeans (it was the DRC) and a waterproof jacket, he put a dangerous tail off his tracks by taking a fake route for 5 kilometres before cutting through a forest to pick up his actual route all the way to Buta.
No – he had no map and no compass. No – of course there was no Google Maps.
The medicine came in handy because it was currency. Life was so hard in the DRC that people would do ANYTHING for a pill to treat ANYTHING.
When he got to a river called Uele he found the crossing to be 500m. He exchanged the mosquito repellant for a boat ride and enough goodwill to stop the people there killing him either on the spot, or as they crossed the river, or when they got to the other side. Apparently the majority of them suffered from serious skin diseases because of nairobi fly bites or something, so his tube of mosquito repellant was priceless.
After that he met a band of chimpanzees that blocked his path and seemed to be planning to rip him apart. The confrontation ended by him firing off two rounds to scatter them.
Then he met a band of pygmies with hunting dogs, which they seemed to be setting upon him.
“Those ones wanted to eat me, and I knew I was in serious trouble.”
He fired off another two rounds.
That was when the waitress fled.
I had to cut the story short, his fluency in Lingala and Swahili be damned, because we had about 100 kilometres more to go and this could easily have been just day two of his trip. If only they had Uber in the DRC back then, oba?
In the army, his number was RA23470, and when he was promoted to Second Lieutenant (one of only five Non Commissioned Officers to get promotions then) while in Kisangani in November 1999, he was given RO8480. But that lasted only two months because someone in the records office did a switch and he found himself dropped back to Sergeant.
It was annoying – especially since his promotion had been communicated by no less than the State Minister for Defence at the time, Steven Kavuma (now Deputy Chief Justice).
“Afande Kazini was not amused. He said, ‘Who is this Lwanga that the Minister is the one telling us about his promotion?’”
So there was no help in getting the promised promotion effected, even though there were some awkward phone calls and radio messages to and from Kampala – stuff he arranged quite easily since he was in the communications section of the tactical unit.
But after all his trials and tribulations, this was the final straw, and Emmanuel Lwanga ‘Speed’ (his name in the Army) applied to leave the army.
That ended a journey that had began in 1988, when he joined the army as a ‘kadogo’ (child soldier) at a tender age.
He said he was born on February 2, 1978, at Ndejje in Kampala off Entebbe Road, which would make him ten at the time he joined up – first as a cadre at one of the training schools, before being regularised as a soldier.
“I admired soldiers a lot. I had an uncle in the Uganda Army who was just a sergeant but he was very smart and very disciplined. You would see him in his car and leading troops and you would just say, ‘Yeah!’. I had to join. But later on I would see soldiers and wonder where the professionalism went. In Congo I even saw a Captain slapping a Major in front of a Colonel and nothing happened!”
(He named all three officers involved – two are still alive and one is still serving. A man needs to verify such stories before writing out the names.)
His admiration for soldiers was somewhat helped along by his father, who he says was a trailer driver plying routes from Mombasa to as far off as Burundi and even Zambia, being a collaborator with the NRA/M rebels.
“There is a time he disappeared for three years and we just knew he was in the Bush but we didn’t know what he was doing,” Lwanga says.
That’s why Lwanga spent time with his uncle, a sergeant instructor at the kadogo units in Mbarara and Bombo.
Along the way he wen to various schools – one in Iganga because it was along his father’s route, and there he became one of the big boys in the school.
“We were with the sons of Oyite Ojok, and Kalule Setala’s son. We used to have guns in school, man! But I was always the first in every class!” To be fair, I was sometimes sceptical as a child whenever my own father told me about being the first in class, but I proved that to be true in various ways. Here I just had to allow – and the man is the first in the class of Uber Uganda drivers, as far as I am concerned.
Eventually he was sent to St. Elizabeth Namasuba Primary School where he says he was such a superb student he scored the school’s first ever first grade in Primary Seven.
“I scored 12 and got a Grade One – their first ever. The headmaster, Vincent Kayima, was so happy; and begged me to repeat so that I get an even better grade. I was even Head Boy. But I had gotten a place at Lubiri High School through my uncle, who was on the Board there, so I had to go to Senior One,” Lwanga narrates.
But to do his headmaster a favour, Lwanga ALSO did Primary Seven again – while studying in Senior One. And just because he could, he also tutored his classmates so that they would do better as well.
And he scored a Grade 11 in his second round of Primary Seven – while passing Senior One well enough to go on with school. The story gets garbled but it involves more military training, the cadre identification programme that got him trained and deployed as a technician even though he did various other pieces like a Marine course in Yugoslavia, he says.
His stories of army life piece together somewhat, and it is clear he has some interesting heroes even though he doesn’t say so himself.
“Like Sekandi? Vice President Sekandi? People think that man is just there a civilian, but they don’t know what he has done in his life. That man was a fugitive here in Kampala, and the government was looking for him because of being a rebel! For six months he was hiding at our home in Ndejje, in the boys’ quarters! I was there, and I saw him for all those six months,” he says.
Sekandi, it turns out, is his maternal uncle – brother of his mother – the same one that got him the place in Lubiri.
“People don’t understand why Museveni cannot let Sekandi go but that man is very loyal. When he says he is going to do something he does it. He is serious. He was with Museveni in Sekandi – you ask him what he was doing there. People don’t know Sekandi!”
I certainly didn’t. I looked away a little, and focused my eyes on the lapel pin of the Uganda flags that he had on his jacket, so I didn’t have to share my views or get my eyes read.
Eventually, as I tried to wind up the ‘coffee’ having agreed that a book needed to be written about his life, we talked about seriousness or the lack of it and he mentioned how ridiculous it was for a man such as himself to display so much seriousness and then get turned down at the last minute over minor details.
I had to probe, in passing, what he meant.
“For these last Presidential campaigns I collected signatures in 77 (seventy seven) districts of Uganda. Do you know how serious you have to be to do that?”
I did, and I considered that if I knew a little about the last campaign I certainly would know if this gentleman had been behind initiatives to gather nomination signatures in 77 (seventy seven) districts since that is more than half the country.
“Really? Who did you work under?” I asked, mentally running a checklist of what I may have missed.
We looked at each other for a few seconds.
“And the Electoral Commission turned me down at the last minute because of a cheque. Silly excuse, just!”
Forget pennies and shillings, the entire bank vault dropped.
THIS was Charles Bbale Lwanga, Presidential-Hopeful-2016-turned-Uber-Driver-cum-Verkstallande Director!
I know. This story has to end, but his actual story just won’t.
“Were you serious?” I asked, solemnly.
“Of course!” he said, even more solemnly, “We were groomed to be leaders! I was a cadre of the NRM and we were prepared and trained to take over leadership of this country. And I have not given up!”
His Party still exists, apparently, the Ecological Party of Uganda, backed by the Swedish Green Party which also set up the African Green Federation of which he (Lwanga) was Treasurer until some scandal in 2013 that had him removed without grace.
“Back in 2006 I joined up with Samson Mande and other Ugandans to change policy towards Uganda and other African countries, and we even got the Swedish government of the Social Democrats changed in 2006,” he claims, with a long story that I refuse to reproduce here.
“I am now Party President of the Ecological Party of Uganda and we are grooming our next generation!”
I had to google him and even found myself on the same page as him, with an alarming theme that gave me two minutes of worry back then. Just two minutes.
Ours is a small world, after all.
Also, I must confess that it is pleasing to see political cadres (he says he was among the first 1,000 people to register the NRM as well) engaging in ‘normal business life’ in a manner that makes them stand out the way he does, and that we can point at a presidential hopeful – would that he had made it to ‘Candidate’ status – finding his place in the business world in Uganda.
He handed me his feasibility plan for the Cable Transport System in Mbale, which he says should kick off next year. It makes for sensible reading and can certainly be implemented in Mbale, Sironko and Kapchorwa as it says the feasibility study proves.
But for now, his story took up so much of my world that I had to first be satisfied that we have some good Uber drivers out there with cars that make us happy and will make any tourist happy. I DID consider how much more lively Uber would be if they recruited more of our former politicians or politicians-in-waiting – and the rest of us would drive around much easier than walking to work…
If Uber has any billboards or any Above The Line advertising planned, then here’s their first outstanding real-life candidate – Charles Lwanga Bbale Emmanuel ‘Speed’, and they can choose any pun to go with that nickname as well as catchphrases like, “If you can’t be President, you can still drive an Uber…”