WALKING into the washrooms at the Dubai International Airport late in the night a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to be greeted by a fellow wearing a wide smile above his uniform and declaring, “Nice to see you again, sir!”
I was taken in for a few seconds and marvelled slightly at how he could remember one person among the millions that go through that airport. Was it my t-shirt with the Ugandan flag? The way I smile engagingly and project an electric personality when I am under pressure?
As I was calculating it, he stretched his hand out and pointed me to a specific toilet cubicle at the end. Since achieving adulthood, being chaperoned to the toilet has not been an option open to me, so I went to a nearby cubicle that I could see was available and clean.
“No!” the fellow shouted, “Here! Here!” and he gestured majestically with his entire arm held straight, pointing me to a specific one at the far end, lighting it up with his wide toothy smile.
Intimidated and unclear on the etiquette, I complied hesitantly, and the fellow actually went in before me and cleaned the clean toilet once again before exiting and, once again, presenting the cubicle grandly for me to use with another grand hand gesture.
It was like having my own toilet butler, and the anxiety that followed was intense to a point that I won’t go into details over, but suffice to say that my most urgent need became the need to tip the obsequious fellow, rather than biology. I succeeded at neither till much, much later.
I did spend my time in the cubicle well, though, working out that his politeness and claim that he had seen me before was all an act. His well-practiced performance was designed to keep tourism and hospitality flowing smoothly in Dubai. There was no way this guy could have recognised me so many, many months since I was last at that airport terminal – however prolific my attendance to toilet matters might have been then.
He was simply performing a duty that would keep customers (visitors, tourists, travellers) happy to be in any corner of the Dubai airport. Even in his lowly position of toilet cleaner, he was doing his utmost best to service everyone that he came into contact with so that even their toilet experience was rated five-star.
I sat unsuccessfully on that toilet seat thinking and waiting for him to stop being available for that disappointing moment when I shrugged to indicate that I hadn’t carried my wallet with me to give him a tip.
During that time, I remembered a porter at the Cape Town airport last year who insisted on pushing my trolley even after I told him I wasn’t in much need of the help.
“It’s okay, braah! I do this for free, don’t worry,” he replied, taking up a trolley, testing it for firmness, then lugging my bags onto it and leading me through the tax refund process.
This porter engaged me in conversation and told me how his role was to keep as many people as possible happy so that the three million tourists going through the Cape Town airport would double or even triple.
“Then we get more money as a country and things will be better!” he declared.
In his lowly position, he understood this quite well, and he knew that at the end of this process I would certainly give him a tip even if he had declared he didn’t want one. I did.
That Cape Town porter and the Dubai toilet guy are key players in the tourism sectors of both cities raking in five million (5million) and fifteen million (15million) overnight tourists respectively last year.
Those are the people that make the experience of a tourist or investor worth remembering; along with the clerks and secretaries who do the paperwork that determine how long it takes to go through a business process; and the waiters and waitresses who smile and speak politely and serve efficiently; and a whole range of other low cadre employees that we never really celebrate in this country.
Might our economic numbers improve if we focus more on this tier of employees in our service industry? Should we make efforts to professionalise this cadre of staff so that our tourists and investors flock to Uganda for more and more of what we have to offer?
Over to the people in charge – both public and private sector.