let’s make Entebbe great again!


1-EntebbeAirport.jpg
Photo from: entebbe-airport.com

HEARING the lamentations of travelers to Uganda these past few weeks as they come through Entebbe International Airport is disheartening.

Especially in light of the talk we engage in about how Tourism will be Uganda’s economic savior the way it has worked for South Africa, Dubai and all those other markets with sensible tourism-fueled budgets, strategies and plans.

My first memory of the airport at Entebbe goes back to 1983 when, walking through the crowded terminal with piles of suitcases, we kept getting stopped by an ugly breed of armed men. I took serious issue with one of them when he depressed a button on the belly of my little sister’s doll that made it recite phrases designed to amuse infants her age.

The fellow was startled and turned his rifle up, then demanded that a full inspection be conducted by half the armed Company present. It was scary but we went through the steps safely and were let through while absorbing many unpleasant smells and a rancid atmosphere.

We have come a long way since then – but we haven’t gone far enough. It is difficult to explain why we should be so desperately lousy at something so obviously simple.

I honestly believe that the most basic Customer Care and Marketing people could swing the airport experience around to the advantage of the entire country within hours if given the opportunity.

If the Civil Aviation Authority people unleashed some young students in these disciplines and gave them three hours to change Entebbe for the better, I am certain they would do a better job of it than we currently endure.

At some point last year I found myself there a few hours before my scheduled flight, as usual, and ran my device batteries down. As I was way too early for access to the check-in counters, I was sequestered in the cafe on the departures level.

I was already in a bad mood because of the ridiculous prices that string of cafes charge for their annoyingly small cups of hot drinks and pitifully limited range of weakly-imagined snacks.

Again, what kind of ‘Tourism’ are we selling to the world if our airport snacks cannot spell and say and communicate ‘Uganda’? Sausage rolls and meat pies? We sometimes appear to be in need of intellectual support to deal with some of these matters.

That day, walking around the hall with my plugs in hand flabbergasted me when I failed to find a functional socket across the floor. It was strange – especially in 2016. I took the issue up with people right up to somebody educated and was told the sockets had been removed because “people were charging mobile phones here” and it was a security concern.

I was flummoxed because in this information age the availability of sockets for electricity to power gadgets that get you online is sometimes more valuable than the availability of food (even food as bad as the one in the Cafe’s there).

What kind of terrorists are we dealing with that can walk in with their mobile phones and chargers and power banks but would be deterred by the lack of sockets?

It was angering, but then eventually I got to the more difficult aspect of travel through the airport – the final gate of the departure lounge. For some reason, after going through all the belt dropping and shoe removals, at Entebbe you enter into a mini-sauna without air conditioning or sufficient air flow.

Why is that room is so hot and stuffy?

I have never had the opportunity to properly fight that battle, but here is a new one introduced in the last two weeks:

A furore has arisen over an annoying process change at the Entebbe International Airport Arrivals hall that is described in detail by many people, but best of all by Amos Wekesa, Tourism Prince.

His recount of the process makes one’s blood boil even more than the departure gate upstairs.

Early this week he returned and found he and his fellow passengers had to take their bags up and lift them onto the luggage scanner, then lift them off again after going through the security check point. The queue is very, very, very long because everybody has to take each and every one of their bags through this process. Amos was miffed this week to see elderly ladies, tourists visiting Uganda, struggling to lug her bags up and down.

He jumped in and offered to help her and a number of others, and during the process got thanked profusely by one of the Section Managers, who was tired of being abused by angry travelers.

To his credit, this manager told Amos that one of the measures they had decided to take was to stop any government official from trying to skip to the front of the queue claiming that they were “VIPs”.

“These travelers suffering here are paying money to come to Uganda to enjoy themselves, and they are being made to line up and carry suitcases after flying long hours. Then some government people who are using our money to travel try to jump the queue?!” the fellow said, livid.

I applauded.

And I also regretted not having been there to suggest that we could do small things in that uncomfortable hall to ease the pain that travelers are facing as they enter into Uganda. For instance, how about distributing some free bottles of water or banana juice? Or installing some nice fans to keep the air cool? Or playing some nice Ugandan music in the background to keep the soul calm?

Surely there are very many things we could have running in that space to keep tempers calm and the spirits uplifted as people come into the country?

I certainly don’t know everything but I know first hand how difficult running a public institution can be. Nevertheless, my sympathies are limited over the lack of these small actions and over exaggeration of others (such as the need to search every corner of every bag) that rub everyone the wrong way.

these kids are unfor-ghetto-ble! the triplets ghetto kids from uganda raised our flag high while we slept…


Unforgettable

THE Ghetto is normally defined as “a part of a city, especially a slum, occupied by (a) minority group(s).”

The people who live in the Ghetto are normally downtrodden, poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged.

In the days when we started switching things round, turning paradigms on their heads, and rebellions started being considered heroic, the ghetto became the ashes from which the Phoenix rose.

It was the pile of waste from which arose the dazzling bird flying in the distant skies into the brilliant sunshine.

You’ve probably guessed what’s causing my gushiness right now. It’s those fantastic Triplets Ghetto Kids and what they have done for you, Uganda, for the last so many years.

Most probably like you, I first noticed them because of Eddie Kenzo’s ‘Sitya Loss’ – which I saw on stage being inappropriately presented at a ceremony, but fell for in a big way and joined about 30million other viewers who have watched them dance it on YouTube.

Eventually, that song garnered the 30million YouTube hits purely because of the way those children were dancing.

Two years ago, at a friend’s wedding party deep in South Africa, I noticed that the DeeJay there elected to play ‘Sitya Loss’ at a high point of the evening and the locals knew the dance! I wasn’t taking the challenge sitting down and showed them where I was from, to their utter amazement as I didn’t look as agile as the children did in their video.

That night I mentioned to my wife how those little children and their jolly, frolic dance steps were ultimate Ambassadors for the Republic of Uganda, because just by twisting about like them I identified my true origins to the South Africans and was pleasantly accepted.

At the heart of my comment then was the memory of their main benefactor in Uganda trying hard to find a sponsor for the children’s group. A few years before that they had fallen on difficult times, living in conditions none of us would wish for our own children, and being hired out to entertain at pitiful rates.

I couldn’t help much, besides raving about them at Event Planning meetings so they could get hired more often.

Then some months ago my own children started talking about international musicians being in Kampala at two different occasions. The names were people I had never paid attention to, and when I investigated further I found them to be massive in music stature – but amongst the youth rather than my own age group.

The man behind that video explained later that he “stumbled upon” the Ghetto Kids on YouTube and just because of that he made the decision to come to Uganda to find them: http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/7752560/french-montana-uganda-unforgettable-video-twitter-interview.

This week, that big name, French Montana (who has 2.74MILLIION followers on Twitter and was worth US$8million by April this year), was bursting with pride on social media – international social media, not just a casual WhatsApp group here in Kampala – about having taken these Ghetto Kids to Hollywood to perform for the first time ever at the world famous BET Awards ceremony.

French Montana actually spent WEEKS in Kampala shooting the video for that song ‘Unforgettable’, which has so far logged about 120million plays on YouTube alone. The song featured Swae Lee (whose partnership with his brother has a net worth of US$6million and on his own has 314,000 Twitter followers).

Did any promoter of Uganda make use of him or acknowledge him while he was here? Was he offered any freebies in national parks or eating Rolexes or touring cultural sites or hitting nightclubs or drinking Coconut Waragi? Somebody, share photographs, please? Did we go out of our way to get them to spend a bit of their millions on this economy?

The Ghetto Kids’ performance with French Montana and Swae Lee at the BET Awards was unquestionably the highlight of the night! Every Twitter feed on the internet lit up with bright, enthusiastic, teary, adoring, loving, exciting comments about the Ghetto Kids. This isn’t the first time they have performed in the United States, mind you, and one of their past performances where they are dressed in the Uganda flag is approaching 1million YouTube views from less than a year ago. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7Gd0ekTTyQ).

And, a short while later, an equally ecstatic French Montana took up his phone and Re-Tweeted – in the middle of the world’s biggest music event – most every tweet about the Ghetto Kids. He paid to take them there – using his own money to promote Uganda, on top of using his 120million view video (except for the last seconds of it).

People like DJ Khaled took photo opportunities with the Ghetto Kids. This guy, who is worth US$20million and has 3.42MILLION Twitter followers, stopped his life to take a photograph with the Ghetto Kids. In that photograph, and almost significant, was Chance The Rapper (who has 4.49MILLION Twitter followers), a highly popular Hip Hop start and BET nominee this year – also squeezing into the photograph.

DJ Khaled Ghetto Kids

And now we are hearing reports that DJ Khaled PAID US$10,000 to take that photograph with the Ghetto Kids! #Dammit! Why do we sleep so much and laud the WRONG people in this country?!

DJ Khaled is known as the KING of snapchat – a more popularly used social media platform than Twitter, and gets more than two million (2,000,000) views PER SNAP/STORY he posts!

When the Media Centre lauded the Ghetto Kids on Twitter this week and used #UgandaTourism, I couldn’t help asking how much “we” are promoting these kids.

See, I wasn’t just talking about the government and the Uganda Tourism Board, because how many times have I personally hired them to do an event?

Of course the uppercut aimed at the Tourism marketing people will not end here. A promoter of Uganda, on realizing how many YouTube hits those Ghetto Kids have collected over the years, would have snapped them up long ago!

After visiting Uganda and falling in love with the Pearl of Africa, this French Montana launched a campaign that gave US$100,000 to the Mama Hope Initiative, and Ssuubi Health Centre in Budondo, Uganda. More than that, he rallied various other global celebrity musicians to get involved and they did so. One of them, The Weeknd, donated his own US$100,000 to the Suubi Health Centre.

Among the other celebrities who have joined in on the #UnforgettableDanceChallenge and now know where Uganda is because of the Triplets Ghetto Kids are Travis Scott, Drake, Juelz Santana, Chris Brown and P. Diddy.

French Montana as an individual is so amazing that the stories being told about him and his time in Uganda sound like fantasy. One tale has it that he bought dinner after one of the video shoots for about 500 people who had shown up to participate and watch the filming. Most celebrities of his stature DEMAND that they are feted, rather than spend their own money on the people around them!

Actually the whole country should stop and think. If we had given those children the equivalent of what one “big person” in politics gets when they travel abroad…

….how much more these Triplets Ghetto Kids from Uganda would be ‘Unforgettable’! May God bless them abundantly, and wake the rest of us up out of our annoying ignorance!

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.