how big is your christmas tree this year?

img_20151216_165328.jpgMY sitting room Christmas tree this year is quite small.

It wasn’t a deliberate choice on my part, and when we finished decorating it a couple of weeks ago and sat under the glow of its lights for a while, I started practising justifications to give to the children in case they took issue with its size.

I had planned for the tree to be much bigger, having told everybody last year how disagreeable it was for any resident of Uganda to buy plastic imported trees when we could simply chop a few branches of our local Christmas firs and fully enjoy the nostalgic tinge of warmth it brings.

At the start of the year, I put aside space in a garden upcountry to plant a few trees of my own so that in November I’d have a small harvest to sell to like-minded persons keen on decreasing on our imports of finished goods and maintaining our childhood traditions.

After that, it took me three months to give up on that approach and instead turn to a gardener at a roadside nursery and seedlings centre in Kampala. After many discussions he finally understood my needs, though it took another two months for him to actually act on them even though I had paid for the seedlings.

This not being my day job, I could not spend enough time on the ground supervising the growth of trees. Even if it wouldn’t have helped the objective of the project, the gardener contracted to do the job did not share my horror and disappointment, one day not too long ago, at finding that the seedlings had grown to just a couple more feet than when I had last seen them months before.

When he eventually absorbed the reason for my irritation, he turned the blame squarely onto his employees – two old ladies who do the actual tending of his plants. Apparently, they kept trimming the prickly branches of the trees because that made it easier for them to weed around the base.

Of course, I told him, they would do that because: a) their protective clothing consisted entirely of one torn, bedraggled lesu each and; b) they did not have sufficient information about the project and therefore should not have been left unsupervised to raise a large, luscious Christmas tree – especially since even he, the owner and manager, had not understood what type of proper Christmas tree I wanted until I had taken him through seminars.

His sheepish apologies failed to result in a voluntary offer of a refund, and I found myself ferrying the trees – two by two – out of his custody and to my home, where I spent a few weeks sprucing them up myself and working at their enhanced growth.

I even had the pots ready for them and had commenced, together with my children, with their decoration in readiness for a magnificent display that would certainly result in happy sales.

This did not happen.

Instead, I have the best of the lot standing proudly in the corner of my sitting room, adorned by decorations and lights, attracting our attention every evening as Christmas music plays in the background.

I am happy with my tree because it is not a large, massive one going right up to the ceiling and weighed down with baubles and trinkets, then surrounded by piles of gifts like one’s imagination would create.

My life is not like that.

It is modest yet a proud statement of achievement, however little, of a goal I set out on and scored in some measure. But it’s compromised size is a direct result of the frustrations we face doing ordinary business with ordinary people who don’t pay attention to small details.

More importantly, it represents a promise that next year we will have a bigger, brighter, more luscious tree, as it will continue to grow even after we take it out of the room.

Plus, it will take more gardening effort of our own – which work I am looking forward to in months to come, along with the full batch of trees.

The same will apply to many things for us – from natural beauty, to bank balances, to the size of business opportunities and even basic knowledge as my children are still in school.

Actually, even if the children don’t take issue and ask me, I’m going to give them the more lengthy version of the justification for how small our Christmas Tree is this year – explaining how much bigger it will be next year and the year after that.

wishing you all tolerance, toleration & tolerability in 2015

I’M making one small amendment in my season’s greetings this year, and wishing you all Tolerance, Toleration and Tolerability in the New Year ahead.

Tolerance not in the sense that allows for the compromise that is to blame for so much of the mediocrity that some of us suffer in our part of the world, but in the real sense of the word in everything we do or are involved in – from discussing politics to manoeuvring through traffic or busy shopping centres.

This is not to be confused with beating around the bush and being generally lackadaisical, ineffective and ineffectual, as some former Mayor (who shall remain unnamed) took the word itself to mean when he said something like, “I am straight to the point. I don’t go ‘tolerating’ around when I want something…” in response to an interview question about his amazing success with members of the opposite sex.

Unlike the toleration I am wishing upon the entire country, okwetoloola, in Luganda, is to go round and round or chase one’s tail the way an idle dog tends to do when lacking useful entertainment or application, is a big problem – both in private and public offices. This is evidenced by the number of gripes and complaints you and I have about our various service providers or crucial government officers in charge of the desk we approach for assistance

The former Mayor who confused toleration with toloolation actually hit on a serious problem that needs addressing, but that’s not the one I am focussing on in my season’s greetings.

Tolerance, Toleration & Tolerability.

Tolerance, we should have; Toleration, we should generally exhibit; Tolerability (not really a proper word), we should provide.

This last week in particular gave us some tolerance training by presenting short-fuse situations such as massive traffic jams even within four-car parking lots, angry shoppers scrambling to scoop up last remaining singular items before setting off for the village, and irascible shopping attendants whose usual irritability was being stampeded by these hordes of early-salary-must-leave-town-soon shoppers.

All of us had the opportunity to put our tolerance to the test in these situations, as people behind us in the stationary traffic hooted inexplicably even though hundreds of cars in front of you were as immobile as yourself, and those polite enough to join the supermarket queue rather than jump it kept muttering, “Msstw…” as a form of verbal hooting to make you move along faster.

Heading out of town for the Christmas break, we were provided with even more chances to test our tolerance levels as we sped down the narrow highways with just inches of space between cars; or even watching those cars in front of us continually drop empty plastic bottles and snack remnants out of the window onto the road as they trundled along to litter the village.

Even at the privacy of our computers, the word privacy being mocked here since the first thing most of us do is log on to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we have had more and more practice for tolerance, toleration and tolerability.

Especially in recent days when politics loomed large as a topic for discussion, which discussions escalate quite quickly into angry shouting matches decorated by lively insults like shopping mall Christmas trees carry baubles and tinsel.

Considering that next year we will be going deeper into the heart of politics with electioneering, I fear that without tolerance, toleration and tolerability there will be cases of computers being physically thrown at people during online political discussions, and maybe worse.

So as we use this week of holidaying to spend time away from traffic jams, from the office, from ineffective service providers, from having to fill out forms with little hope of resultant action, may 2015 bring with it Tolerance, Toleration and Tolerability.

everyone: to the Uganda Museum, this weekend!

Come one, come all <— we grew up reading this phrase on every single damn poster for every single damn event. Where did it go? Why did we stop using it? I liked it. It had authority and gravitas.

It invited you, and then on second thoughts instructed you to bring a friend.


Come One, Come All!

This weekend, for the following reasons (before or after reading the details in the picture-poster below):

1. To get an up-close look at some really beautiful flower and plant arrangements put together by passionate enthusiasts who actually know what they are doing.

2. To buy said beautiful flower and plant arrangements for your own home.

3. To buy said beautiful flower and plant arrangements as Christmas gifts for loved ones – which they will appreciate greatly unless you promised them a car, a busuuti or an Xbox-something.

4. To meet people who will be useful in helping you transform your home and make it amazing in 2015 – and THIS is the time to do this, since we are in the rainy season (one of them, for Uganda) and anything you plant roundabout now will certainly thrive!

5. To support something positive, if you are not going for the #PimpAkiba event sponsored by @40days_40smiles people today (Saturday). This #PimpAkiba event, by the way, is the painting of the Cancer Children’s Home that these young people have supported the whole year through with a dedication that would put most Parliamentarians and big corporates to shame for being so massively impactful yet pushed by gestures so little.

6. To take photos of these amazing beauties that Uganda has plenty of – the flowers and plants on display, that is. Your photos could easily be submitted for some global awards and prizes…

7. To take the business cards and contact details of people who will be useful to you when you are finally building that dream house, or renovating the one you are in, or organising your wedding, or just seeking cut flowers to decorate your ka-flat…

8. Visit the Uganda Museum, generally. Have you taken your children to learn about their own history? When were YOU last there? Here’s an opportunity, and one you come away from with a souvenir that you will never forget and that beautifies your home.

9. Very many other reasons that make absolute sense, whichever way you consider them.  And if I were vain or of the name-dropping variety, I’d list people you are likely to meet there, besides myself 😉 .

So now, the picture-poster:

Come One, Come All
Come One, Come All

the holidays are here, it’s time to work

FOLLOWING on the lead by the government last week, I’m off on my retreat right now and will be practising what I preach by holding some strategic sessions with key members of my own little Cabinet.

No, wait! The analogy of family and government ends there. You see, that path is fraught with ankle-twisting gnarls over what the wife’s position would be to your Presidency, or whether the children are Cabinet members or expectant citizens saying “Tusaba gavumenti etuyambe.”

I am going to be presenting some performance accountability to my people this week, and setting up goals for 2014 in a process that will, as threatened recently, certainly involve the aspirations of the common folk in my little republic.

We are seriously going to discuss our goals and targets, and agree measures of performance. We are also going to assess deeply what went wrong this year, what went well, and what lessons we learnt.

It’s going to be an entertaining process because of the average age of our group – which is about twenty (20), but that is deceptive because we range from the ages of four (4) to forty (40) and we are only five (5) in number.

Our interests, goals and aspirations are therefore wide-ranging and diverse, but we will seek common objectives and find a way of working together through 2014 to achieve them.

We are not going to assess performance using the usual means.

Allow me to illustrate using a joke stolen from one Sandor Walusimbi (who ‘borrowed’ it from elsewhere):

A parent collected his child from school at end-term and when they had settled in their taxi, quickly read through the report and started berating the little chap over his poor performance.

After some silence, the child also piped up with, “So Daddy, talking about performance, did you see all those parents who collected their children in private cars…?”

Do not laugh – none of these are good examples for children or parents to follow, because material possessions are NOT a measure of performance for parents, and neither is the child’s position in class or grades in examinations.

Our measures of performance will focus on the long-term, character-building and integrity. I caught a good sign last week, for instance, when going over their lists to Santa Claus.

This is a television-inspired bit of culture that I have found no problem accepting since I myself grew up doing the same – the children draft lists of the things they want Santa Claus to deliver to them over Christmas, and are made to understand that provided they behave well during the year, they will be guaranteed their wishes.

Besides the toys and nice-to-haves on their lists, I was happy to find entries such as “God’s blessings” (number three on one list) and “Blessings for the family” (number four), on a list of more than fifty items! That, in my obviously biased assessment, gives the parents a good rating.

I don’t know exactly what the kids will use to assess our performance, but I sincerely hope they consider the amount of time we spend with them at home in the mornings and evenings; and the quality of that time; as well as the impact it has made on their lives.

I also hope they do look at the material gains they have made and assess them against the millions of others who have much, much less, so that they appreciate how hard we’ve worked to put them together.

Over the years, luckily, they have learnt how to gather up toys and gifts for charities such as orphanages and other vulnerable children – and the house cleaning exercise at the start of 2014 will once again lead to these charities benefitting from unused (not broken rubbish) toys and other materials. 

There’s a lot more to this, and we will be working it out as we go along – and the keyword here is ‘working’.

In fact, because of the importance of this segment of the year, our catchphrase for this period is ‘The holidays are here, it’s time to Work’. 

But that’s internal communication. 

To everybody else we say: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

collapsing coffee shops to build the economy

IN my bid to support local business I frequently drop in on small but neat-looking coffee shops in my towns here in Uganda, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

I’m not talking about the world-class cafes like Java’s, where if it were not for the occasional blip you could actually be drinking your latte in a much more developed country.

We have these little coffee shops in unlikely spots of the city that will startle you on a random day with some extremely tasty spiced African tea cooked properly with the tea leaves brewed right into the correct amount of milk mixed with hot water.

Some of them serve up a delightful meal forged by a chef who either has a personal passion for what he or she does, or is moonlighting away from a regular job at a five-star hotel.

Most, on the other hand, are a non-stop source of entertainment because they are owned and managed by people who have done more mathematics than catering; cafe owners and restauranteurs who have worked out ways of extracting business benefits out of food without bothering with the food part of the business.

Fortunately, many of these collapse after a short while, creating space that I keep hoping will be filled up by people who actually care about the important elements of food – hygiene, freshness, taste, service.

I’m not being callous – more good cafe’s and restaurants mean a much improved economy: offices run smoother with employees well fuelled by good beverages and food; tourists roll in to enjoy freshly grown, picked, roasted, brewed coffee with hot, flaky pastries and tasty organic food; and farmers find themselves digging night shifts to meet the demand.

And in months such as this one ahead, the atmosphere of vacationism that is going to descend on most employed Kampala dwellers should translate into supernormal profits for serious cafes and restaurants.

Only serious ones.

Unlike the one I stopped over at on Wednesday morning in the mall in Ntinda near my next meeting. It was the only one open and its neatness made me assume it was brimming with the promise of good coffee and hot, flaky pastries.

The fellow I found wiping surfaces clean flashed me a nice, welcoming smile that made me ignore the empty food warmer display unit for a few seconds, and he even motioned me to a seat.

“Do you have any pastries?” I asked, after failing to detect any aroma of food being cooked up, and pointing to the empty food warmer.

“Yes,” he replied, “we are just cleaning up and then we will bring them out.”

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my laptop to realise that the cleaning was still in progress, the food warmer empty and my breakfast non-existent.

I startled him when I called out, so quickly had he forgotten the one  single customer in the room, and he summoned a colleague to stock the food warmer as I walked over to inspect the offerings.

“Are these fresh? Were they made today?” I asked incredulously, eyeing the pastries sternly.

“Yes!” the two fellows replied in unison.

Then I noticed that the food warmer had a digital temperature gauge and it was reading 16 degrees.

“That should be much warmer!” I remarked.

“No!” one chap replied, “It is supposed to be at cold.”

I made a passionate presentation about the preferred warmth of pastries and other breakfast foods which he listened to right to the end and then replied, “But if we make it warmer then they will not last for more than one day.”

After giving it a few seconds for the irony of his statement to arrive, I tried to explain the concept of “fresh” pastries, and how the place would have a more inviting aroma if the pastries were baked that morning right there. I met with a walled blank look that said, “Place your order or just go away.”

I lost; both the discussion and my money, as I essayed a pastry and failed to enjoy it cold. Later, I struck up a conversation with another of the staff there who had overheard my pastry-warmth tete-a-tete and he confessed that the owner-manager insisted on holding pastries for days on end.

Plus, she didn’t believe in actually making the pastries in-house even though they had the equipment, and she only showed up to draw money from the till or host friends and relatives.

I will be watching keenly for when it collapses under a pile of cold pastries, so I get a restauranteur to invest in it, give us a neat-looking cafe, fresh pastries, hot coffee and an improved economy.