the makings of the idea of making an umbrella


FOR most of you guys who’ll read this, the worst direct effect of the heavy rains is the floods, traffic jams, and delayed or cancelled meetings.

It’s highly irritating and annoying stuff, no doubt, but compare those to my problem as communicated by the guy at my ‘farm’ yesterday.

Two weeks ago a hailstorm hit parts of Kampala and Wakiso districts. It was a heavy storm and in Kampala where I was I gathered the children and frolicked a little bit with packs of ice gathered up from the grass at Lugala, in Rubaga division.

It was fun.

And then the guy at the farm called to say that the hailstones in Wakiso had fallen so heavy that even the ground was not ready for it. First of all, the hail stones fell fast and heavy, chopping up leaves and some matooke suckers into a threshed mess.

Then, he continued, the ice sat there for two days, during which time it froze some of the young seedlings we had just planted, and melted to wash away a couple of others.

I am not entirely foolish, so I did hold some reservations about his report and in coming weeks will be checking the neighbourhood for evidence of freshly-planted mango tree seedlings in a number commensurate with the ones the hailstorm destroyed.

Is hail a result of El Nino?

Apparently, yes (see http://earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/3239, for instance) – you can google other articles on your own, but basically El Nino results in extreme weather patterns including heavy rains and hailstorms.

Now, I’m happy that some government departments responsible issued notifications and advisories around El Nino, but I was dismayed that there are still things that will surprise us about this weather.

My guys at the farm, meanwhile, have no idea of El Nino and that’s my fault. I will be appraising them this coming Saturday and hope they take it seriously.

I, myself, should take El Nino more seriously: I should read the weather forecasts with a more scientific mind and stock up on umbrellas and warm clothing.

This weather has put me between a flooded pothole and a thick downpour in many respects.

For instance, right now I don’t have a car so I must walk around a lot more – which is hard to do with confidence when it rains so heavily. Yet again, if I were hostage to driving around I would be caught in life-sapping traffic jams that my patience is not configured to withstand.

I have a pair of gumboots in the boot of the car, for instance, but I can’t use them when I am operating on foot – yet I would need to wear the gum boots when walking through certain parts of town… #kwegamba.

Then I keep losing umbrellas – because every time I stop somewhere I furl them up, prop them in the corner and the rest is a blur that leads me to three days later buying a new umbrella.

So why am I not making umbrellas, you ask, and selling them to all these people out there who are like me and keep buying them? What materials do I need? What type of engineering or design graduate or student should I hire?

According to the internet, umbrellas have existed for 4,000 years. I am not clear on whether anyone in Uganda is making any but I have checked in many supermarkets this week and found ZERO made in Uganda.

My imagination tells me that there are many buveera somewhere in Uganda wondering what to do with themselves after the kaveera ban, and there are many jobless youth out there who know (or can be taught) how to manipulate a sewing machine, and there is a lot of cloth all over the city, and there are many kids who know how to make wire cars.

Put all those factors together on one side, then put all of us umbrella-buying-and-losing-frequently people on the other side, add heavy rain into the mix, and the solution should be clear.

Am I the entrepreneur who is going to make this happen? Are you that entrepreneur? Or shall we continue to drown under showers whose very existence is foretold on every platform available to us?

By coincidence, as I typed this out I noticed right next to me a good example of this being a possibility – a bag lined with kaveera and Made in Uganda:

Photograph by Simon Kaheru; product available at Endiro Coffee in Kisementi

the headaches caused by bad Ugandans


Today I came close to shedding tears.

I also experienced what I feared was a migraine.

All because of a concentrated set of bad Ugandans.

And I yearn for a day when I meet ONLY good Ugandans.

We come in many varieties, and I have trained myself to differentiate between good and bad Ugandans because I believe that both types exist. I used to say I had faith but there’s this Sunday School song that’s still in my head which makes “faith” the wrong word for my belief that good Ugandans exist: (sing with me)

“Faith is believing,

In what I cannot see.” 

I see good Ugandans on many an occasion, but today isn’t about them.

First, the Mechanic:

Go with me over my day, starting by driving out in the heavy downpour at 0645hrs and two minutes later fumbling mid-drive to whip off my jacket and drape it quickly and widely over my dashboard.

My car is a Land Rover Discovery 2 (2001) with about 87,000km on the clock and has been to the garage a number of times, no thanks to some quack mechanic called George Nigo who almost killed it as he has done many a Land Rover. He is a classic bad Ugandan, and still owes me Ushs3million for a fictitious gear box job, two months of my life and lots of trust in other Ugandan mechanics. He is located in Kigowa, Ntinda, so avoid him like a trader’s riot when you need a mechanic.

Anyway, this car now goes to Khalifani, on Sixth Street, and he has frequently done a good job with it…until last week when I sent it in again over a month-long problem and in passing asked that his chaps fix the unresponsive sunroof switch.

I got the car back on Friday morning and three hours later, after it had rained a little bit, unhappily discovered that the sun-roof area had developed a leak. But the switch was working again, so perhaps they believed they had fixed that.

When Khalifani responded over the phone with, “Ooooh-oooh. Nkitegedde.” (‘Aaaaah, I get it!’) I was a bit disturbed that he wasn’t surprised/astonished/shocked/horrified/alarmed <—any of these would have mollified me a little bit, and I realise now that I only wanted a bit of sympathy or an apology to start with before he fixed the problem.

I didn’t believe his offer of fixing the problem within ten minutes, having gone a couple of months with him spending hours and days at a time to fix stuff from brakes to gear box adjustments, and put it off till I had the time to spare.

Today, I found that I was driving a Bwaise house. I needed to open an umbrella inside my car. I should have left home in swimming trunks. My sun roof was imitating a sieve (akasengejja).

This is when the headache began – at about 0648hrs.

After a meeting, at about 1000hrs, I took the car to Khalifani’s garage and he apologetically took it after explaining that the fellow who had ‘fixed’ the sunroof switch had actually been outsourced. How long would the job take?

“One hour,” his mechanic, Wasswa, said.

“That means two hours,” I responded, trying for sarcasm, “I know you guys. Let’s make it two hours, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Wasswa responded without a hint that he had gotten the sentiments behind my reckoning, which intensified my headache.

Twenty minutes later, a niggling feeling that had been with me from the time I had come awake turned into a solid realisation that made me sit up so fast that my partner was a bit startled.

Enter the Plumber:

When I moved into this house, a self-build, money and scheduling were both tight and I argued eloquently that being in upmarket Kampala meant that we shouldn’t have to install massive water tanks to store water. We even have National Water reservoir tanks or something just above our house on the hill, so water supply really shouldn’t be a worry, I said forcefully. This is called, in Luganda, lugezi-gezi; which in English is known as being a smart-alec, which nobody likes and many times makes them set you up for some pain so that they can employ phrases such as “I told you so!”.

My contractor was fed up of my using logic and reasoning over such matters and left me to my devices, installing the 1,000 litre water tank I budgeted for in order to stretch our meagre resources enough to make the house speedily habitable.

Our suffering has been documented even here, and has been frequent because there is no shortage of dimwits forgetting to turn taps off while washing cars or clothes and so on and so forth.

Anyway, a year ago I got my then-new and efficient plumber, Sula, to calculate the costs of increasing my water storage capacity and I saved up money and kept the plans and estimates till I had him refresh them a month ago in readiness for work to commence. On Tuesday this week (the day before yesterday), I gave him the 50% deposit to enable him to buy up the essential materials and mobilise himself, and we agreed that we’d be meeting Wednesday morning (yesterday) at 0900hrs.

The timing was crucial: a) his work needed to be complete early enough for the tank to fill up and restore the water supply to the house, b) the satellite TV dishes (two) are nearby and needed to be moved and restored after the work, which is a ‘specialised’ process that involves one TV guy standing at the dish and moving it to and fro while another guy stands at the window in the sitting room shouting out how good the signal is, and c) the internet radio ‘dishes’ or whatever they are called, also had to be moved.

This needed coordination, and he claimed he understood the importance of this, so we agreed a time table:

0900hrs – Sula arrives and commences work, taking down the dishes and existing water tank stand

1300hrs – Sula’s almost-complete work can now accommodate the re-installation of the TV and Internet equipment

1500hrs – all is finalised and the tanks begin filling up, while the TV and internet guys re-install the equipment

1800hrs – water tanks to main house full of water or filled up sufficiently for normal operations to resume; and both satellite TV and internet access are restored

We agreed – Sula and I – after discussing the processes. Again, this was on Tuesday at 1530hrs when I paid him the deposit, and later that evening by phone.

On Wednesday morning it rained. Yeah – Sula didn’t show up. He did, however, call me at about 1300hrs to say that our plan wasn’t going to materialise. At that point, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to arrive four hours earlier etcetera etcetera. I took it all with good grace, since a University-degree Accountant with whom I had agreed a meeting for 0900hrs at the office had emailed me at 1045hrs to say that it wasn’t going to happen because of the rain, and Sula could hardly be expected to do better.

(I emailed the Accountant back telling him to buy an umbrella, and have since decided that I might buy him one instead and then deduct it from his fees).

We agreed, Sula and I, that he would instead be on site today at 0900hrs to do yesterday’s work that we began planning a year ago. That’s why at about 1030hrs I sat up quickly and startled my partner.

Today was crucial for the completion of this work: a) the kids begin their holidays Friday, and since they don’t watch TV during school, it is only fair that they get to watch a bit of it during their holidays b) tomorrow is Friday and if I didn’t have the internet guys begin trying to fix things early enough on Thursday, it would be Saturday and Sunday both without internet access c) I can’t stand another weekend night without water flowing in the taps, and I know for sure that Saturday evening will be without, as has happened for two years since we moved in.

And there was the delicate matter of timing my phone calls to the internet and TV dish installation guys; call them too early and they will be strangely efficient and then leave because you are not ready – afterwhich they will be justified in being inefficient because “the other time we came and you were not ready!”  

Sula apologised for the rain and swore that he would show up and do the work.

What about the timing for the TV and internet guys?

In Luganda, he confidently told me that he would take down the equipment without a problem and the guys would be free to come and put it back on Friday morning.

I would essentially be fine.

You can imagine my angry response, and he readily agreed with me and changed timelines so that we were now only two hours off. 

Then there was the TV Guy: 

Quickly, I called up the TV guy, Emma, who confirmed that he would be there at 1500hrs to re-install the TV dishes and confirmed that the kids would be watching TV uninterrupted, no problem, in the evening. I didn’t think it necessary to remind him of the last time he had done work till 2200hrs, and the demeanour of the entire household by the time he was done.

The Mechanics again:

My headache got worse at 1330hrs when I looked up to realise that the two hours I had estimated for the car to get back to me had now become three-and-a-half hours and the mechanics weren’t calling me. If I had believed their ten-minute promise to fix this same problem a week ago, how agitated would I have been then?

When he eventually called me at 1620hrs to deliver the car, I couldn’t help but admire the confidence with which Wasswa handed me the car keys – very much the same amount that Sula had used to tell me that the TV and internet dishes would be re-installed the next day, and Emma had said that we would be watching TV this evening.

Back to the Plumber:

Speaking of Sula, as I got into the car I wondered why nobody had called me to confirm that there was progress on the water tank, TV and internet fronts, and drove home meekly hoping to find everything either finished and in order or untouched and in order.

Of course none of these hopes was met. Sula and his team were welding a metallic tank stand together under the shade of the disconnected 1,000-litre tank, and greeted me heartily. There was no TV guy in sight, and when I enquired after him was told that he hadn’t shown up at all.

“But,” I asked, in between flashes of welding light, “should he still be coming over now, since you are still welding the new Stand and the old one is still up there…?”

“Yeah,” Sula said, “We’re almost finished with this one.”

And that’s when I studied the situation a little closer and noticed that the water tank stand they were welding together was quite the same size as the water tank stand already in place holding up the 1,000-litre tank.

Eyesight can be tricky sometimes, so I was polite.

“Sula,” I asked, “how is this going to work?”

“What?” he asked.

“The water tanks – how are you going to connect them?”

“Using the pipes.”

The conversation was in Luganda, and very level. He didn’t seem to be doing sarcasm or snarky.

“Okay,” I said, since this was technically correct, though also too obvious to have warranted discussion, and tried another approach:

“So are both Stands going to go up there or…what? How is this going to work?”

He looked up at the existing stand and together we contemplated the issue. My 1,000-litre tank is on a metallic water tank stand that sits on a cement slab built over the small guest house building. Most of the other space is occupied by the satellite dishes.

Without question, there was only space for one water tank stand at a time, unless one stacked another on top of it – which didn’t seem to be Sula’s plan as both Stands were basically the same size.

“This Stand,” he said, a little slowly as I was having difficulty absorbing the science of it, “is going to go up there.” And he pointed where the old one was.

“And where will that one go?” I asked, also slowly and pointing at the old one.

“The Stand?”

“And the water tank.”

“We will remove it.”

Again, technically correct and quite obvious.

“Sula,” I asked, a little louder, “what size is the new water tank…and where is it anyway?”

“Five metres.”

“Metres?”

“Yes, round…”

“I mean the capacity! How big is the water tank? How much water does it hold compared to this one of 1,000 litres?!”

“It is 2,500-litres.”

“Good. Where is it?”

“It is not here.” The trend of technically correct and obvious responses was exacerbating my headache.

“So where are you going to put it and how is this going to work?”

“We are going to put it up there.”

“And the old one? That one. The 1,000 litre one – where will it go?”

“We will remove it.” 

I looked away a little bit to release some pressure off the brain, and noticed that all work had ceased and his assistants were watching this conversation as if we were Agnesssss Nandutu with Anne Kansiime in Agataliiko Nfuufu.

“You guys, please continue welding and finish your work,” I pleaded, and asked Sula to outline his full plan.

In brief, he was replacing my 1,000 litre tank with a 2,500 litre one – not adding an extra 2,500 litres to my pathetic 1,000 litres. And he had no idea what I wanted to do with the old tank.

Eh! He had an idea, actually.

“Connect it to the Boy’s Quarter block.” Yeah, so that the maid or two have a 1,000-litre tank for themselves sitting on the ground, while the rest of the household uses a 2,500-litre tank elevated on the Stand.

I took my dismay off with me and called Emma, the TV guy, to explain that his lateness in arrival was going to hamper my other plans.

“I will be there at eight o’clock,” he said, after I had pressured him into giving me a specific hour of arrival.

“Please come tomorrow morning instead,” I begged.

“But I am already on my way!” he protested – clearly a set-up for tomorrow’s “I was going to be there on time (mbu) but you told me not to come…”

Sula, meanwhile, set off to take down the satellite dishes, internet equipment and the old tank, in order to clear the area and work out how to solve the problem of installing both water tanks.

I quickly and loudly explained the life-threatening folly of him approaching the problem in this manner, which successfully discouraged him.

The Askari:

By the time Sula had reconnected my old, 1,000-litre water tank and left to rest ahead of tomorrow’s tasks, my arrangements for a comfort food arrangement with the family on a night out were done, and we drove off an hour later for me to forget Sula and Emma and Khalifani.

At the mall we were going to, my headache was just beginning to dissipate when I noticed that the truck right in front of me at the entrance was half-full of gas canisters. I would have expected for that kind of cargo to be going in through a service entrance of sorts, but the askari had no such expectation.

The hapless fellow opened the passenger door, shone a torch into the glove box, muttered something to the truck driver, walked round the truck while shining the torch in about a couple of the gas canisters and then waved the truck through. 

Yes – you’re right about the possibility of the chap in the truck parking it there and setting it alight to cause a ripping, loud explosion. But the askari had checked the glove box and maybe because there was no matchbox, we would be fine.

And yes – I did think of the glee it would have given me to bundle Sula with the mechanic and the TV guy onto that truck and set it off. But the thought only lasted briefly.

I am now sitting up, awake, believing that I will have a solution to this headache in the morning – and that tomorrow will present more good Ugandans than bad ones so that this headache goes down for at least one day.

pain is the defiance of a three-year old in stormy weather at night


Those in Kampala will read the time at which this is coming in and will surely sympathise; the defiance of a three-year-old in THIS weather at THIS time can only lead to kiboko or a VERY MAJOR lesson in patience.

Over time, my three-year old has developed a system for summoning us to her bedside in the night, which involves pestering her eleven-year old sister awake by calling out to her gently but continuously until she responds firmly as proof that she is awake, then instructing her to call either one of us.

The eleven-year old, once awakened, is always desperate to go back to sleep and applies herself to her three-year old sister’s assignment with energy fuelled by this desperation. Since we are always asleep when her frantic shout comes through, our response is always quick, frantic, panicked and, again, quick and frantic. It is always only after we have completed the sprint and hurdles across to their room that we remember that this is normally a summons by the three-year old to entertain any one of her middle-of-the-night needs.

Things proceed calmly after that, most nights, but it is painful.

On this night, in this weather, it is even more painful; first of all, I have developed a system of not waking up fully when this happens, in order to fall back into sleep in the style of the military command ‘As You Were!’ – I’m sure you all have this. The human body is an amazing thing for having this auto-setting where you can memorise slumber and lock it in, go to the loo or fridge or frisky kid for a few minutes, then Return To Unit or Return-To-Sleep.

When the weather is like this one right now, raining cats, dogs and other larger animals, the body has ways of absorbing sleep so completely that you begin having dreams of candles melting and merging with their holders like your body onto the mattress under the blanket. Even in your sleep, you find that position that you are somehow aware is the perfect one without moving even a toe to one side or another; and the sound of the rain in that slumber penetrates all sleep and even enhances rather than  interrupts it.

In THIS weather, Return-To-Sleep is automatically engaged, but when I got to the three-year old’s bed and heard the first words come out of her mouth I became immediately alert to how awake she was and fear set in.

“Daddy,” she said, to test whether I was surely, properly awake and to prepare me for a long discourse ahead, “I am seeing light and I want to bathe because I think it is morning.”

She is now at that age where she comes up with such statements of reason for things that make you first work out how she did it before you can address her argument – which puts you on the back foot when she follows it up with another argument.

Imagine this position at THIS hour of the night in THIS weather when your body is locked into Return-To-Sleep mode.

I wasn’t entering into a conversation.

The poor eleven-year old was also awake but unlike me, her return-to-sleep is faster and more assured so she got up to use the loo. I decided that I had to change the three-year old’s nighties, children being children, and immediately dispatched her to go with her big sister to the loo while I picked out her change of nighties and waited for them to return, only to hear a bit of commotion a few minutes later.

Shuffling over to the rescue, I found two white ants fluttering about, the eleven-year old sleepily watching their feeble drama, and the three-year old pointing at them with commands for someone to put them out of commission.

She hadn’t used the loo yet.

I crushed them underfoot – the white ants, not the girls – on my way to picking her up and placing her on the loo.

Disappointed at how quickly this had been resolved, the three-year old then declared, “I am going to pupu.”

This is her threat whenever I take her to the loo and appear to be in a hurry, and in polite adult english language would be phrased as, “If you think this is going to be quick, you have another think coming!”, while in Luganda it would be, “T’ompapya! Ndi wa ddembe!”

The eleven-year old gave me a sympathetic diplomatic fifteen seconds of company then left.

I didn’t even acknowledge the threat and after two minutes held out the nighties with, “Have you finished?”

I breathed a sigh of relief when she disembarked from the loo, but then she headed to her room and roused the eleven-year-old to help her with finding another set of nighties – her preferred set of nighties, for this occasion.

I watched in disbelief as they browsed the clothes cabinet, the three-year old with a running commentary of her clothing preferences and wearing history of some of the outfits, and the eleven-year-old showing a little commitment that ended when she realised I had arrived.

After trying on two sets of nighties and rejecting them, I begged her to go to sleep and she responded in the voice and tone of my Aunt Robinah, the most big-headed of my beloved aunts (which is why God gave her Edgar for a son): “But I don’t want to sleep.”

She didn’t shout it, or whine, or anything child-like; she stated it as if to say, “Seriously, why do you think I am all up in these clothes right now?” or “Beera mu kilaasi”.

The eleven-year-old, always focussed and now in the comfort of her bed, gently asked me to tuck in her net tightly and bade me a good night, then promptly dropped off. This is when I remembered how it was only a couple of years ago that her and her nine-year old brother began appreciating the opportunity for sleep that rain provides. The nine-year-old, meanwhile, cannot be anywhere in this story as he has a strict sleep policy when it rains, which reads in full as follows: “Sleep.”

He even prays for it to rain at night so that he can sleep. The nine-year old so keenly looks out for rain at night that if he hears the signs early in the evening he will be off to bed well ahead of the rest, to lie in wait for the rain to fall.

Not so the three-year-old, and tonight I could see that my seminar on the subject had flopped.

So, ordering her to enter her bed with a sternness I hoped she would not ignore, we faced off for a few seconds and she gave in.

I was overjoyed!

Tucking her in with instructions to close her eyes and just go to sleep, I left.

But my Return-To-Sleep setting had worn off.

And as I tried to regain it, seeking my perfect sleeping position and listening intently to the sound of the rain beating down, I heard instead: “DAAAADDDDYYYY!”

She was now thirsty. The rest is insomniac history.