JUST before Janani Luwum Day I took a short Uber to my last meeting of the day and chose not to plug in my earphones. I do that, sometimes, to listen from somebody fresh and, in this case, certainly more interesting than most people in the meeting I had just been discharged from.
Public transport operators fit in this category just as bartenders in movies do, and my chap that evening did not disappoint. I can’t recall why he got to musing over who pays for our national holidays and celebrations, but he was quite disturbed.
He wasn’t too bothered by the loss of revenue facing him because of the public holiday, he said. His concern was that somewhere, somehow, the money he spends on taxes was not being utilised properly. Every time he tuned into the news and saw government officials making speeches, he said, in front of crowds under marquees and tents, he felt he was losing money.
He reeled off a few random days in his recent past that had him thinking this, including Tarehe Sita Day.
Besides, he pondered, was he really expected to go to Church the next day to celebrate the late Archbishop Janani Luwum?
I was impressed by his thought process and pleased that I hadn’t plugged those earphones in. We had a brief discussion in which I told him he should take charge of his affairs and deal with his concerns as a good citizen should.
Voicing these concerns was a good beginning. Next, he needed to go straight to the people who determine how his taxes get spent. Luckily I didn’t need to detail for him how he and I actually fund the government; he struck me as being a university graduate with some enterprise that allowed him to also drive an Uber.
Nevertheless, like most of us he didn’t know which government office paid for all these events – but I had a clue and explained the allocation ministry by ministry for the most obvious events. Then I advised him to occasionally visit websites like www.budget.go.ug to see in real-time where the government is spending money and how.
Then, I suggested, he needed to find his Member of Parliament and tell him what he – the tax-paying citizen driving the Uber by which the government collects from fuel, airtime and corporation taxes – preferred for the money to be spent on.
This was the perfect time to engage in that exercise, I explained, as the national budget for the next financial year was in the process of being finalised. The key was to get to his MP, which detail he wasn’t sure of to start with, prompting a little more discussion of elementary civics. (This subject should be taught right from nursery school in this country.)
By then we had arrived at my destination and I feared it would be too complex for me to go into the nitty gritty of the process without losing my shirt to Uber waiting fees, so I suggested he follow the first step and establish exactly who his Member of Parliament is through www.parliament.go.ug.
I was pleasantly surprised when he emailed me a week later (for real!) to say he had discovered his MP was Paul Kato Lubwama (Independent). I was also saddened that the exercise had come to a seemingly abrupt end because the gentleman’s email address was not listed. His phone number was, though, so I hope my Uber guy invested in the airtime necessary to follow his concerns through to some end and prove that the citizen’s duty was carried out.
Even if he did stop at failing to send an email, this time round, my Uber guy had learnt something new quite at random and worked at it to make a difference to his society and his country.
I’M scared of running a restaurant, coffee shop or eatery. I’m so scared that I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.
It’s been a dream of mine for a long, long time – owning a profitable enough eatery that I can live off it doing all the other stuff that I enjoy.
Sitting on the terrace at the Taste Budz of the Capital Shoppers City Mall in Ntinda and swatting away numerous houseflies settled it for me.
Even as I chose the location I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I needed somewhere to sit and wait till my next meeting nearby. I was quite certain I wouldn’t be enjoying any food here, so I planned to drink just a pot of spiced black tea with honey (I’m also cheap like that).
So I took up position, slapped open the Macbook Pro and watched the waiting staff watching me through the grimy window. It was a public holiday, and they were mostly chilling – some seated at a table chatting and texting while one of them folded up those little thin serviettes into triangles.
Three others were behind the counter chatting and moving things about for some reason that the person who invested money in this venture might not have included in the Staff Manual or books of accounts.
This is one reason I am afraid of owning such a business. I cannot imagine paying rent, electricity bills, internet costs (there is a paper glued to the window here that says ‘Free WiFi’), food costs, staff salaries and so on and so forth, then having just one customer sit at the tables at 1100hrs on a public holiday.
(In your mind, reader, change tense now because I am doing so here)
A minute in, a chap walks up to me slowly with a worn menu card and generally mumbles something as if unsure whether I am a customer or…(I don’t know what else I could be).
“Do you have black tea? Spiced?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, toying with the menu card.
“Please give me one black tea. Spiced.”
I know that the menu is not impressive but now that there is Free WiFi I feel it would only be fair for me to appear to be spending good money here.
So I ask for it.
He must be intelligent, because he appears surprised and tries to hand it to me but I pretend to be busy with the laptop and gesture to the table so he places it there.
Nothing to report, except that I check for my hand sanitiser and find comfort that it is present before I handle the menu card.
That’s another thing I’m scared of. I cannot imagine owning a restaurant and then getting told my menu cards are fake, with their laminated plastic covering and funny spellings. Then supposing these things are so expensive that restaurant owners can only change them once every twenty years or so? These might be things that non-restaurant owners don’t know and only discover after investing in the business. Then people start talking about your entire family because the menu cards at your restaurant are so old and sticky and worn and dirty and smelly.
I am also scared of being a restaurant owner getting sued for spreading some deadly disease by way of a bacteria infested menu card that I placed in the hands of a customer.
A few minutes later, I gesture to him and ask for the Free WiFi. He puts his hands together as if to rub off some of the bacteria from the menu card he had picked up and says, “I don’t know the code.”
He seems upset by this lack of knowledge – as would I be, if I were him.
“But it says there that you offer Free WiFi.”
“They don’t allow us to know the code.”
I look at him silently for a bit so that we can both spend some time thinking about this situation rather than brainstorming or arguing.
Eventually he figures out a solution.
“Let me call someone to give it to you.”
He returns with the black tea, presumably spiced, and sugar. All in those metallic contraptions that must be the cornerstone of some empire somewhere that convinced Ugandans that this is proper etiquette.
When did we start using these damn things and when will we realise we need to destroy them all? Why do those tea pots NEVER pour out tea properly? How come we all know this but still use them? What were the manufacturers thinking when they made them? Where are they made anyway? <— Five W’s and H. Tick.
“Please give me honey instead?”
“We don’t have honey,” the fellow says, and makes to leave.
“I don’t take sugar with my tea, so please get me honey,” I say with a firmness that normally works with the children and people who expect to be paid in exchange for goods and services. He was clearly neither of the above.
He looks at me as if I am being dense and decides to explain a little further, so as to clear out any doubts and confusion on my part.
“We normally get the honey from upstairs but it is closed. Those people haven’t come yet.”
My confusion deepens because whereas I am vaguely aware that there is an upstairs section to this Mall and perhaps even to this restaurant itself, I see no reason for this detail to be shared with me.
“Then I have to cancel the tea.”
He looks at the teapot, cup and sugar arrangement briefly, then at me. Then he leaves.
He turns back.
“Seriously – please get me honey instead of sugar, or take back the tea. And don’t take long because if it cools and you bring honey I still can’t drink it.”
He leaves and returns two minutes later with a fresh, non-uniformed employee. Not likely the Manager, but clearly higher up the ladder – maybe from upstairs?
She doesn’t have honey in her hands and comes right up to me before I realise that this is the custodian of the Free WiFi code (Taste110). At this point I enter into a moral dilemma – if they don’t bring me the honey I will send back the tea; will I still be entitled to the Free WiFi?
I debate for a few seconds then take the path of the Christian. She understands me quite well, exchanges a look with the waiter, then they walk off together for a few seconds.
She returns with a small piece of paper bearing the Free WiFi code (Taste110). The waiter follows closely behind her and removes the metallic tea pot, sugar bowl, and the cup and saucer.
I am scared of running a restaurant where they do that – spend my investment while not bothering much to get a return on it. I am scared of having employees who allow a customer to sit on the chairs, use the electricity and space, and EVEN the ‘Free WiFi’ without trying too hard to get some money out of his pocket.
These things really scare me. To think that I could be the owner of this place, which is about 200 metres away from the Capital Shopper’s Supermarket that sells honey at about Ushs5,000 a jar, yet have employees withdraw tea and sugar from a paying customer…
I fear to imagine being the owner of that restaurant – what did they do with the tea that had been brewed? How do they recover the cost of heating the pot of water involved?
The fears continue to rise as I log on and start typing out this lengthy review, and somebody else walks in, taking up a seat on the verandah. Within one minute a different waiter walks over in that slow, hesitant way we tend to use when employed in such jobs. He moves faster than my waiter, and seems more awake. They talk a little bit and a menu card is placed in the customer’s hands.
Eventually, the customer asks for a soda and hands over a Ushs50,000 note right away. I can’t be the restaurant owner who doesn’t get feedback from the staff about how people keep looking at the menu but they don’t order.
Or maybe it was just a slow morning with picky, stingy customers?
I still feel a little bad about using the ‘Free WiFi’ so I call this more sprightly looking waiter and ask for a bottle. He brings me my bottle – Dasani – and places it on the table.
I probably wouldn’t have used a glass if it had been placed on the table, but I feel a little slighted that none is offered.
Ripping the kaveera off the top of the bottle makes me gag as it is DEFINITELY SMELLING OF SOMETHING UNHYGIENIC!
I push it away and take another sniff and indeed, I feel like calling up the people at NEMA…or UNBS. A friend comes over to say hi and I ask him to smell the bottle. He is aghast. The waiter appears to notice, and comes over to check (marks given for that). I ask him to smell the bottle as well – “Nothing.”
“THAT smells okay to you?!”
I am at such a low point in my life that I can’t raise a tantrum, so I smile and bid my friend farewell.
And the waiter shocks me with: “I can get you another bottle if you want.”
Courtesy. Politeness. Attentiveness to the needs of a customer. Why is this surprising? Astonishing? Downright shocking?
I would hate to be a restaurant owner where my staff’s courtesy is a surprise. It’s hard being an entrepreneur sometimes…too many times. Especially in the food business – I’ll only do it if I am the person cooking, cleaning, and serving customers. Me, myselef.
It’s annoying how much we complain……especially about our government.
I just watched a TED Talk this morning where the speaker said that the average age at which we achieve great things in the world is 35 years old. Now, I’m almost 40, and I have not yet achieved any great thing. That means that there’s someone under 30 who is going to achieve something great in his 20s for me to be able to maintain the average 35 years old. And that is assuming I achieve something great some time soon in my early 40s.
Anyhow, being almost 40, it also means that I am around the age where we are supposed to be in the thick of management of our country and driving development in our country. But instead of being one of the drivers of development, me and my generation spend a lot of time criticising government but without providing even…
A FEW months ago I was at an event in the Parliament of Uganda during which warnings were issued against participants making their way into the August House without first clothing themselves smartly in ‘official’ attire.
Official attire, according to the honourable gentleman who reminded everyone of the rules of the House, included a necktie for men. The Parliamentary Rules of Procedure, however, do not actually require us to wear neckties but people get kicked out every day over this lack of ‘smartness’.
Just to be clear, the Dress Code listed under Section 73 of Part XII of the Parliamentary Rules reads as follows:
The incident returned to me last week because of the number of people in Kampala who were unlucky enough to be robed in what we call ‘Graduation Gowns’ on the days when it didn’t actually rain or get so cold for the black robes to be worn with comfort. I suspect that besides the people who actually sold or hired the robes, the other trades that did well because of the dress code on Graduation Day are the vendors of anti-perspirants and bathing soaps.
I once had to wear a ‘Graduation Gown’ or Academic Robe myself, as a Graduand, and certainly didn’t find it comfortable at all but had to follow the ‘rules’ until I got out of the University gates sans proud parents. My gown festered thereafter in an old suitcase with my mortar until I later needed to play at something for a fancy dress party.
Even back then I couldn’t find anyone to explain to me why we dressed up this way. The explanation for the necktie is equally wanting, as most people will tell you that it makes men “look smart”.
Nelson Mandela, may his soul Rest In Peace, helped break that stereotype by going about in his colourfully styled formal shirts that we eventually picked up, and looking smarter than most besuited politicians. Many West Africans also break from this medieval European concept of smartness and instead go about in their formal robes most of us call ‘Agbada’.
Reading up on the history of the necktie is irritating. Most accounts can’t explain why we wear them but point to some Croatian mercenaries hired in the France of Louis XIII (in the 17th Century!) who wore a piece of cloth round their necks for some unclear reason. Maybe they generally had hideous Adam’s Apples and took to hiding them with this thing that King Louis XIII named ‘La Cravate’.
I have always suspected that the reason for the damn thing is to keep those men in Europe warm, along with their three-piece suits, since their climate is generally frozen or dripping wet and cold. Or, maybe, the Croatians needed to hide protruding Adams Apples.
Apart from the people in the Rwenzoris, Kabale and Kisoro, therefore, the rest of us should by now have another mode of ‘smartness’ that would be more comfortable and logical – like a nice, formal shirt or tunic like the Kanzu (provided for in the Parliamentary Rules).
We don’t. Instead, we must wear neck ties and sweat in our offices, courts of law, Parliament, and other places where we should be encouraging brains to work smartly with minimal discomfort and distraction so we can apply them to our numerous problems and development needs.
It is those same rules that had Graduands spending sums of money ranging from Ushs75,000 to even Ushs300,000, by some accounts, on ‘Graduation Gowns’. Most universities demand that Graduates attending the official ceremonies be robed, mostly because they need to be identified easily and for the ceremony to be presented in proper pomp.
I did think, during my Graduation ceremony, that the money spent on my dressing could have been better spent on renting a small abode closer to my proposed place of work (or just out of the parents’ eyes so I could continue with the life of a misguided young man), but rules were rules and I had to be ‘smart’.
Because the buildings they operated in were mostly large and unheated, one had to wear those thick robes in order to keep warm. That was smart of them.
More to that, though, was the need to separate the students from ordinary people by way of dress code – hence the term ‘Town and Gown‘. The townspeople wore their ordinary clothing, while the students wore gowns – which separation often led to clashes between the two groups as the students usually acted arrogantly over the poorly educated, lowly citizens.
Our universities actually do have ordinary Academic Gowns but students don’t always wear them – they only show up during protests and other small events, and when they do they are of the light variety.
Where ceremonies take place out in the open tropical air, therefore, the thick gowns should be found as inappropriate as they feel worn on top of heavy cotton, double-lined suits all buttoned up over neckties.
One day, hopefully, some scholars of history, fashion design, economics, and common sense might find it in themselves to get together and do a more serious thesis on this. They will present a dissertation that leads to a revolution in our institutions of higher learning so that our Academic and Graduation Gowns are more suitable to our circumstances.
The smart people that take that assignment up will probably earn immediate employment in our Private Sector Foundation, Investment Authority, Export Promotion Board, Ministries of Agriculture (for putting local cotton to use), Trade & Industry (it should be obvious why), Gender & Culture (for localising a foreign concept) and Finance (again – obvious) or in the private sector itself.
They will deserve such recognition and postings because the definition of ‘smart‘ to do with “having or showing quick-witted intelligence” is much more important than the one about “well-dressed, neat and stylish”. Or, in my humble opinion, it should be.
MONTHS ago, in response to an article I had written about books, a side-conversation began on email in which I was introduced to one Richard Sobol, about launching a book he had written on Uganda.
He already has four books about Uganda – ‘One More Elephant‘, ‘Breakfast In The Rainforest‘, ‘Abayudaya‘ and the one in question last year, ‘Delicious Peace‘.
The tone of the conversation seemed to suggest that the books were not already available or even known in Uganda even though they were about this beautiful country and its fantastic people.
I prodded a few people in our tourism sector but there was no interest whatsoever in his recent book even though books as a medium of communication are taken quite seriously in the ‘developed’ world, so much so that editors painstakingly comb through manuscripts to erase marketing-poised mentions of brands and other items that could benefit too much.
‘Breakfast In The Rainforest‘ (2010), for instance, is available on Amazon Online at US$7.99 (Ushs28,000) and piques the interest of most readers in the mountain gorilla. In fact, a couple of online reviews end with people saying they wanted to visit after reading it – even though it is classified as a children’s book.
By the way, Sobol is a photographer-writer, so his books are very visual.
‘Breakfast In The Rainforest‘ even carried an afterward by the actor Leonardo Di Caprio, to prove how popular Sobol’s work can be; and his other collaborations have been endorsed by the architect Frank Gehry, Robert F Kennedy Jr., and carried by publications like Time, The New York Times, Paris Match, Audubon, and National Geographic.
So I looked more keenly into his recent book, the one my contact, Author and Librarian Cathy Kreutter, was suggesting be promoted in Uganda.
‘Delicious Peace‘ led me straight to Namanyonyi, in Mbale, where the book is set, and I wasn’t reading it – I started at a YouTube video documentary about it that featured a 48-year old peace-loving coffee farmer in Mbale called J.J. Keki.
He is also a musician, he said, over a video shot of himself singing with his village mates playing some simple instruments behind him. He wore a skull cap that I thought was a katalabusi but got distracted at that point in the video because suddenly I was watching the September 11 plane attack on the World Trade Centre!
Then this J.J. Keki, Mbale farmer-musician, told us he was in the United States and right at the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 when the planes struck! He wanted to tour the place but it was hit and he had to flee the subway while watching the second building fall. Covered in dust, he fled along with thousands of others.
“That is when we learned that there were terrorists and these terrorists were connected with religion. When I flashed back to Uganda I said we should begin something. We have coffee, so maybe we make a co-op of Muslims, Christians, and my religion, I’m Jewish, and then we can teach the world how to work together,” he says.
Enter Peace (Mirembe) Kawomera Grower’s Society – the focus of ‘Delicious Peace’, a film about peace, harmony and coffee.
I was flabbergasted.
The rest of the story is gripping – not like the television dramas we hear about at award ceremonies, but if you respect peace, innovation, hard work and the triumphs that seemingly simple people achieve where complicated, rich, highly educated, urban-dwelling people many times fail to be useful, then you must watch that video, read the book, and read about Mirembe Kawomera.
I found that Mirembe Kawomera has been so successful as a coffee growers cooperative that they became certified as Fair Trade coffee suppliers into the United States – though not without challenges, as you will discover.
“Village guitar groups and women’s choirs sing to stress the transformative impact of Fair Trade prices and to encourage their neighbours to join the coffee cooperative. Accompanied with xylophone, drums and other traditional instruments, these farmers sing of the benefits of interfaith cooperation and, through music, teach new cooperative members how to produce great coffee,” says an album description.
And more: “J. J. Keki, the founder of the cooperative, says: ‘Use whatever you have to create peace! If you have music, use your music to create peace. For us, we have coffee. We are using coffee to bring peace to the world.”
And they are doing it in Lugweri, Luganda, Lugisu and some English.
Is he on the list of national medal recipients? I haven’t heard his name yet. Is he on the list for a Nobel Peace Prize, in this world where the whole President of the United States can see no way of bringing people with divergent religious beliefs together? Not that I have been told or can find on the internet. Is he or is the cooperative even on a list of special exporters maintained by the Uganda Exports Promotion Board and Uganda Coffee Development Authority? Ask them – their email addresses and phone numbers are online, and so are the names of most of their officials.
On what list are J.J. Keki and the people of Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace)? My list of good Ugandans doing simple things to make this country look and sound good.
I respect them highly for that, and thank them for giving me another brand of coffee to try and buy rather than any imported brand with a name that means nothing as important to me, personally, or all of us, nationally, as Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace).