challenging Ugandan tourism to a game of dool


If you haven’t heard of the game ‘Mah Jong’, this is your opportunity to Google it, as we consider the potential of a local Ugandan game called Dool.

Mah Jong is a simple tile or card game, and has led to many others being created as a result – across Continents. The history of the game goes back to the 18th Century in China and the earliest surviving Mah Jong tile is said (according to Wikipedia) to date back to 1870.

That’s about the time the first White Men came to Uganda and stopped over in Buganda for a while.

White men are central to the discussion here, as the thoughts below came to me because of two tours of white men who visited Uganda briefly on business last week and took the opportunity to tour one of the oldest traditional Kingdoms in the world – the Buganda Kingdom.

I became Tour Guide for a while, for www.shiyaya.travel, taking them round various installations in Buganda, around Kampala, explaining the history of the Kingdom. I had with me a good collection of my history – personal and academic – and an official guide from the Buganda Kingdom who did a good job of keeping them engaged.

They certainly enjoyed the tour and confessed that they had learnt facts about Uganda and Buganda that they did not imagine even existed. One of them was amazed that we had so much happening here before the first White Man set foot on this soil – which is not surprising since many Ugandans, by virtue of our education, are in the same boat and yet we live here every day driving and walking past a lot of evidence of an admirable civilization that has existed for centuries.

This is not a history lesson – that will come elsewhere.

I was disturbed, at the end of the tours, that besides photographs the tourists had no mementos to carry off with them back to their homelands to remind them of what they had heard, seen and experienced.

The best option would have been for them to spend a little bit of money on items from the Kingdom cultural centers, therefore putting cash into the hands of local artisans, the Kingdom, and maybe even the Uganda Revenue Authority.

That didn’t happen – mostly because there were few opportunities to do so. The few points that offered items on sale were inside little, cramped, walled rooms where not much effort was made to entice my tourists to spend anything.

But besides that, there was zero effort at making them walk off with a small piece of Buganda – even free of charge.

Until, on the last tour, I hit on an idea. The story about the Kabak’anjagala tree (Candlenut tree – Aleurites moluccanus) being planted on both sides of the King’s Mile from the Bulange to the Lubiri always caught their interest. There are 52 trees, one for each of the Clans of Buganda, lined up on either side of that Precious Mile.

As we were leaving the Lubiri, I went off to find a fruit of the Kabak’anjagala (which, in English, means ‘the King loves me’) and, as always, found some kernels (seeds) lying around. I gathered them up and presented them, dusty and all, to my tourist.

IMG_0113
Photo: Simon Kaheru (using the other hand)

Before he could take them up though, I offered to demonstrate what they were for and challenged Tom Kyembe, my Buganda Guide, to a game of Dool.

I can confidently state here that in my much younger days I was a local champion at the game of Dool. This is a game once described by a prefect in my school as “a manipulation of the fingers to project small, hard stones into the distance…”

It is much more entertaining than that, and even though Tom and I squatted to play without digging up a peal (the hole) and didn’t declare whether it was a ’nothings game’ or not, and also didn’t shout out ’Teach!’ and ‘Changes!’ at points, we almost got carried away but didn’t get to the point of asking each other, “Dool?”

Our tourist was fascinated that we had had marbles played here for hundreds of years. The last time I played the game was some months ago as I taught the children how fascinating it was, as opposed to the PS2/Xbox. That effort was dismal, but the tourist last weekend was impressed.

I hope he actually took the dools home with him.

And herein lies that very simple, low-cost but high value opportunity: If that Buganda Kingdom tour can incorporate the game of Dool and have some young people on ground (literally squatting, as that is how it is played) playing that game as a demonstration, tourists will be agog.

Not only that, they will buy up kernels of kabak’anjagala to take home with them and teach their children how to play ‘African Marbles’. The possibilities are endless: Sets of 52 kabak’anjagalas – one from each of the Clan trees; books with instructions of how to play Dool; autographed photographs of dignitaries playing dool; highly decorated kabak’anjagala pieces; kabak’anjagala that the Kabaka himself (or the Katikiro or the Kiweewa) once played Dool with…

Even before all that we (or the Kingdom) could organize clan-based Dool tournaments pitting each of the 52 clans against the other, where players originate and represent only their own clans. Dools from each of the 52 trees could be marketed and sold as such, branded for each clan totem and akabbiro. Every day, each clan Dool representative could collect the dools that drop from their tree, polish them, and then put them in the Dool store for sale to visitors and tourists.

A whole crafts industry could be made to germinate from one kabak’anjagala seed if we are imaginative, raking in millions in serious currencies.

Not only that, the game of marbles is world famous across all the continents. Our own version exists in Kenya as ‘bano’ and in India as ‘kancha’; I found a photograph on the internet of boys in Mexico playing marbles some time between 1862 and 1877, and another photograph depicting American President Teddy Roosevelt with other fellow soldiers (at the time) playing a game of marbles.

We could have those nationalities streaming in to marvel at the similarities as well as run tournaments. There IS a World Marbles Federation that runs World Marbles Championships, mostly in the Czech Republic. If we got these guys to discover that we have been playing Dool going back over 700 years, then maybe we will have them coming over as curious tourists and staging tournaments here…

The possibilities are myriad, all from this simple, ubiquitous tree that grows wild, thick and fruitful – but these are only possibilities if we gather our marbles together.

Dool?

 

we need more heroes doing some self-sacrifice to save other people’s lives in Uganda


 

UCI Building
Photo from http://socialjusticeblog.kweeta.com/

OVER the last couple of weeks Uganda has talked a lot about the deaths of two celebrities, and the sensationalism around their passing.

Over coffee with the BBCs Alan Kasujja and Kinetic’s Cedric Ndilima this week, they pointed at the front page of Daily Monitor that day and their lead story about the death of Simon Ekongo (22).

My eyes were first drawn to the part of the caption that read, “Simon died at the weekend…” which caused me some mild anxiety for obvious reasons. 

Then I imagined the acute anxiety of the people who are actually related to Simon, and changed perspective because of the reality they were facing.

I have said a prayer for Simon Ekongo, and hope his soul Rests In Peace, and that his family finds solace at this trying time.

The comment about Simon Ekongo that caught me was: “See how this story is going to end here. Not like (those ‘celebrities’ earlier alluded to)…”

I was angry at that realisation because of how true it is, and reserved the newspaper story till later in the day so I could read it in private and grieve silently.

That grief is painful – even for me who didn’t know Simon Ekongo in life

Simon Ekongo was diagnosed with leukaemia (a malignant progressive disease in which the bone marrow and other blood-forming organs produce increased numbers of immature or abnormal leukocytes. These suppress the production of normal blood cells, leading to anemia and other symptoms.) and was referred from Soroti Regional Hospital to Mulago Hospital, which is under renovation and so takes patients to Kiruddu Hospital in Munyonyo. 

He was taken to Kiruddu where, the story says, “…they tested the blood and confirmed that it was acute leukaemia…” so he was sent to the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) which is BACK at Mulago, in Kampala.

The meaning of the word “acute” in the English language should have made everybody involved a lot more sensitive to Simon Ekongo’s situation. 

But, the story continues, he was transported by an ambulance manned only by a driver. There were no medical professionals in the ambulance to tend to Simon Ekongo, and he eventually got dropped off at a patient’s tent at the Cancer Institute on Friday.

A patient’s tent is a tent pitched on the grounds in which patients – in this case people who are suffering from Cancer and its related pains and symptoms – are admitted and kept for a while.

Because it was a public holiday, the story says, Simon Ekongo had to wait till Monday for admission to be done – with his acute leukaemia. 

He died in the tent, in the UCI compound, on Sunday at 2:00am. 

The story can be told and refuted and corrected but it still hurts to think about. Nobody is going to name a ward or even a patch of the garden at the Cancer Institute after Simon Ekongo, to remind all the medical workers of their responsibilities and duty of care.

For years to come we will hear lots of references to money being thrown into coffins and headteachers fiddling with young girls, but how often will we remember Simon Ekongo and how he reportedly died? 

Or, more importantly, how often will we hear ways in which we can save the life of the next Simon Ekongo, or provide a decent way to exit this earth?

There is no saying he would have lived or was destined to die anyway, but the manner in which he did cannot (should not) be ignored.

I am guilty of not having visited the Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) of recent, but reading that there is a tent for patients in the compound made me ask uncomfortable questions. 

Why is there a tent for patients in the compound of a sizeable, new building such as that of the Uganda Cancer Institute? How many of the rooms in that building are being used as offices and kitchens and pantries storing brooms, mops and other sundries?

Might there be any merit in assessing the facility and how it is being put to use so that patients with acute ailments don’t die in the cold at 2:00am under a tent canopy while the shiny building stays locked and the people with the keys are off on their public holiday activities?

What happens in the ‘Patient’s Tent’ during the times when we go through heavy rains such as those we have seen in recent months?

How do Cancer patients get protection from the elements during the very hot days such as the ones we will be facing soon? Will there be electric fans and air conditioning units installed in the ‘Patient’s tent’ for them?

I’ve seen (physically, with my own eyes) a large Mercedes Benz Sports Utility Vehicle that is reported to have been purchased at somewhere between Ushs428million and Ushs763million for a Minister in the Health Ministry, under whose tenure Simon Ekongo died in that tent.

I refuse to believe that story to be true because nobody can be that callous in this economy where I am running around with my bankers over late mortgage payments and also my landlady over late rent payments, and so on and so forth…

Expensive Car
Photo from https://thespearnews.com

Perhaps that Ushs428million-763million Mercedes Benz was a more urgently required purchase than the erection of a small, comfortable building in the compound of the Uganda Cancer Institute for Cancer Patients like Simon Ekongo to die in with some more care and dignity.

Could the Minister, perhaps, sell off the old vehicle that the Minister was using and use the proceeds to put up a small building for patients at the Uganda Cancer Institute so that people like Simon Ekongo don’t die under a tent at 2:00am (0200hrs) every other Sunday?

Or should we be focusing, as a country, on the people who lock up already existing buildings and leave Simon Ekongo and others out in the cold with acute illnesses, while they go to celebrate public holidays?

The public holiday in question, by the way, was Heroes Day.

The official theme of the day was announced as, “SELF SACRIFICE IS THE SINGULAR HEROIC PILLAR IN NATION BUILDING.”

Self-sacrifice – ‘the giving up of one’s own interests or wishes in order to help others or to advance a cause.’

It would be unfair to ask the Ministers and other senior officials to sacrifice their rights to shiny new cars and offices just so people like Simon Ekongo stop dying in tents in the compound. Let’s not do that. It might be considered self-sacrifice on the part of those officials but, hey – we need new four-wheel drive cars to drive over to attend Public Holiday activities…

As we pray for the soul of Simon Ekongo, departed from a ‘Patient’s tent’ in the compound of the Uganda Cancer Institute, let’s hope that the people who should have done a better job with him and others like him adjust the way they ‘work’, because we need more Heroes and more Self-Sacrifice in this country.

focus on the lower tier employees in the tourism, hospitality and investment sectors


Toilet Paper
Photo from: http://cache.emirates247.com/

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.

and this is how my weight loss almost changed my immigration status last week


The most unexpected side effects of this weight loss and lifestyle change programme keep cropping up at awkward points.

This last one came at the end of a couple of lengthy but comfortable flights and quite a lot of anxiety beating traffic, security checks and immigration people across three countries.

On arriving at the Immigration counter in Beijing I engaged my reliable tactic of being bright, chirpy and polite all rolled into one. Most other people at this point are in a bad mood, tired, hungry, dying to use a toilet, or hungover.

Some immigration officers have been known to be exactly the same. So when the two meet, sparks either fly and rejection stamps are slammed down or a series of sullen questions ensues, causing heavier amounts of anxiety.

My bright, chirpy but polite approach is mostly a refreshing punctuation to an otherwise dull career choice on the part of the average Immigration Officer (outside of Uganda – ours are the very best Immigration Personnel the world over. Absolute Saints and the Royalty of Border Control customer care. May they all live long and their enemies prosper down the generations. <—surely, that should secure me an easier life of travelling in future.)

At the desk in Beijing, the Immigration Police officer greeted back less chirpily than I had kicked off, and took my papers pronto. With my smile illuminating his desktop, he did his job right up to the point where he had to scrutinise my passport page against my face.

Normally they take a look at the photo, glance at me, stamp and then we go. He looked at the photo, glanced at me, looked at the photo again, then looked at me properly.

He kind of signalled for me to turn to the left a bit, so I gave him the right hand side profile. He then signalled to the right and I gave him my left.

He looked back at the photo and wasn’t satisfied.

“You from Uganda?” he said.

This was obviously a delaying tactic, since the Passport in his hand stated so, my yellow Uganda Cranes t-shirt said so, and my black Ugandan face with that smile all Ugandans wear must have given him a further clue, if he read that article about Uganda being the most friendly country in the world.

Besides that, I had just been listening to Bobi Wine & Nubian Li’s “Ndi MunaUganda” (but had moved to Mose & Weasel’s “Omukisa Mpewo“). He didn’t know any of this and it would have confused him further if I went into it, so I kept it brief.

At that point in my life, I didn’t need a sudden huddle amongst Chinese Immigration Officers over this. So I resisted the smart-ass type of response that would have been totally appropriate but only exists in the more liberal comedies: “Yes. Me flom Uganda.”

Instead, I offered the brief and to-the-point: “Yes. Uganda.” while nodding with eyes wide open.

He looked to and fro again, then shook his head. It took me a minute to figure out what the problem was. Many people on the street also do this at times – look, look again, shake head a bit, then either confront or move on.

“But…” the Immigration Police chap said, halting.

I held up my hand to stop him short, and whipped out my phone.

Luckily, I have sent a couple of people my Before and After photographs before, and know how to readily pick them out of my gallery.

Within seconds I had the phone held up to his face and as he screwed up his eyes I was worried for a second that he couldn’t actually see anything, then remembered that was probably a racist thought.

Before And After.001

A few seconds later, he smiled in understanding.

Giving me the thumbs up, he turned to his pals and said something in the language that his people use (I keep saying it’s not Chinese, but I don’t find them committal on this Mandarin-Cantonese thing).

They all burst into hearty laughter and my passport was stamped for me to go through.

“Welcome. Uganda!” Not the entire country, mind you, just me.

Had I been stopped, the people at The Wellness Project (www.thewellness-project.com) would certainly have heard from me on all their platforms (The Wellness Project Africa on Facebook, @twpafrica on Twitter and thewellness.project on Instagram). If they had stopped me because of my actual face looking much less chunky than the photograph in my passport, I would have blown up Lucy Ocitti’s phone (+256 753 471 034) narrating how drastically successful the programme had been.

Because of that Wellness Project, and Lucy in particular, I also suffered various instances of trepidation every time I had to unfasten my belt at the security checkpoints.

See, it’s not easy to adjust one’s mindset from a Size 42 trouser waist fitting to a Size 36 within a matter of months, and costs money as well. So instead of doing the regular thing and changing my entire wardrobe, I have been taking loose risks with decorum every time the security people tell me to put my belt through the scanner.

Luckily, I have mastered the art of bunching up the trouser waistbands in one fist as I shuffle through the sentinel, and have a technique for letting go for just long enough to raise my hands suspect-style so I can twaddle through to the other side without flashing underclothing.

A few days later, as “Uganda” was leaving China, I had my phone on the ready for the immigration officer. I suspected that he was the very same one but then, again, that could have been a racist suspicion so I acted cool and oblivious, and handed over my passport.

The guy, again, was puzzled by the disparity between the photograph in there and my physical appearance. I was ready with the photograph and held it up on my phone, resisting the temptation of saying, “Don’t you remember me showing you this as I was coming in?”

He smiled and said something to his mates, to which they all laughed. I graciously avoided insulting them in Runyoro, which my travel mate would certainly have found entertaining, and made my merry way back home.

thanking one eva for representing Uganda so well in China – and calling on all Ugandans to wear that flag well


IMG_6470
The Selfie with one Yang in Beijing 

I APPLAUD a young Ugandan lady called Eva, whose second name I do not know and whose face I have never seen. All I know is that she is female, a Ugandan, and once lived in Beijing while studying something.

She now lives and works in Uganda at a location I will not reveal because I am not absolutely certain of it and have not secured her permission to do so – because I do not have her contact details.

Because she was a good Ugandan during her time in China, she saved me quite some difficulty last week by way of happenstance.

I normally go about on my travels wearing t-shirts boldly emblazoned with the Uganda flag for a number of reasons; top on the list is that this gives me an opportunity to start up a conversation about Uganda in which I get to stress the many good bits of my country.

It never fails, and during five days of travel last week I enjoyed many opportunities ranging from the hilarious to the deeply earnest.

There was the morning I was walking out of the breakfast room and a New Zealander pointed at me and shouted, “Hey! Uganda!”

He had me in a tight embrace before I could overcome my alarm, and standing together arm over shoulder he explained his excitement at seeing my tshirt with the Uganda flag right across the front.

“I am the Honorary Consul of Uganda to New Zealand!”

The odds were not high. He doesn’t spend all his time in Beijing so the opportunity to discuss Uganda with a Ugandan on a random morning in a country that was not New Zealand could not be allowed to go by.

Basil J. Morrison had many good things to say, of course, and asked about a few of his friends back home. Later in the day, atop the Great Wall of China, I bumped into Basil J. Morrison again – and with the same excitement as at breakfast, he spotted me easily in the crowd because of that t-shirt and his affinity for the Ugandan flag.

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The Selfie with Basil J. Morrison

The one involving Eva, however, was the most surprisingly pleasant.

On our way back out of the country we got a one-hour window between official events to swing by a shopping plaza. Just one hour, mind, and nothing more – including the time it took to disembark, get a meal, dislodge from the group and fight off the eager shop attendants all saying, “I give-o you good price-o, my brother! Come-o here!” The Chinese people seeking to give me merchandise in exchange for currency were ready to have me as their sibling, such is the pull of commerce in Beijing.

In the melee, one of my colleagues went off with my phone power bank. My phone being down to 2% meant I would be marooned if plans changed and nobody could reach me by phone to re-direct me to a different rendezvous point – a contingency we had agreed had to be avoided at all costs, and against which we had prepared by securing Chinese-registered SIMs.

It was on the top floor of the Plaza, at the food court, that I came across Eva’s name. Opting to pick up a quick meal to walk and eat with back to the rendezvous, I went to the food court and placed an order with the fellow there.

After taking my order, he pointed at the flag on my t-shirt and said quite confidently: “Uganda!”

I was surprised.

Some minutes before that another fellow had pointed at the very same flag and said, “Ethiopia?” I shook my head and told him, “No. Try again?”

And he went, “Ummmm…” so I said, “Read this!” pointing at the word under the flag that said ‘UGANDA’.

“Ghana?” he went, till I made him actually read it properly (vehemence without violence) and then found myself in a farcical conversation in which a Chinese man claimed all Africans looked the same and a Ugandan man informed him that all Asians looked the same, and so on and so forth till he succumbed.

Back to the food court, I later learnt the young man who so clearly identified the flag was called Yang and is from Mongolia. When I asked how he knew the Ugandan flag so well he said, “I have friend in Uganda.”

Impressed but short on time, I sent him off to complete my food purchase and picked up the conversation when he returned. His friend was Eva – and he proved it by showing me his WhatsApp conversation with her (‘Eva@Uganda’). The conversation was recent (I did NOT read the messages though!).

Sensing a window of opportunity, I asked him if he could charge my phone and he very readily said, “Yes! iPhone? I have.”

When the food arrived, I stuck around a little bit to give the phone time to charge up a bit, and eventually he joined me clearly seeking more Ugandan contact.

I asked him if Eva had been his girlfriend and he unabashedly said she wasn’t, just a good friend. They met when she was in Beijing and she was kind, helpful and generally a good friend.

“Ugandans are good people,” Yang said, and sat down with me for part of my meal, disrupting my novel-reading window somewhat and even learning a new english word (“ludicrous”) out of the first page of my Bill Bryson.

The 20% battery charge Yang gave me, because of the kindness of Eva’s gentle Ugandan heart in Beijing, went a long way in ensuring the rest of my journey went according to plan. Eva’s being a good Ugandan also made me proud to be a Ugandan wearing the Ugandan flag out in public thousands of miles away from home, and for that, I applaud her and all people like her!

See, in the early days of this t-shirt policy the first response I received was, “Idi Amin!” proclaimed proudly by people emulating half-wits recovering from a decade-long coma and doing a form of cognitive stimulation test where they had to respond to pictures. Later, the responses always followed a political path that somehow still led back to Idi Amin.

Last week, thanks to people like Eva and other good Ugandans out there, I spent five days going through Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and in Beijing, China, and back, and not once was Idi Amin mentioned.

Even the people who couldn’t sustain a conversation in English had a way about it – like the fellow who pointed and proclaimed, “Uganda!” and responded to my, “Yeah! Beautiful country. Have you visited?” with “Kampala.”

“Er…so have you visited?” I asked, hoping this was a lead into a conversation as the lift doors opened.

It wasn’t. He pointed at himself, in his indeterminate but well-stitched suit and tie, and said, “Algeria!”

I smiled widely, knowing he didn’t have the English for this, and said, “Yeah, but we have better climate, better hospitality, and much better t-shirts! Come and visit Uganda!”

I hope when the Algerian googles the phrases he finds the last bit stands out: “Come and visit Uganda!”

Thank you, Eva!