uganda: let’s delete the word ‘potential’ from our national dictionary

ON Wednesday morning I jumped out of bed as a rainstorm raged on outside trying to make it difficult for the lazy-minded to leave their beds.
I could have done with a few extra minutes of sleep that morning but the night before I had said something on a radio talk show about how unjustified it was for most of us to sleep at all, given the amount of work we needed to do to develop Uganda.
The thought that someone could call me out for spending longer in bed than I had publicly said was necessary drove me to my desk, so I was watching the storm through the window over the top of my computer as I made my day’s plan, thinking how happy the farming community must be about this weather change.
Only three people these past two weeks have spoken to me about the rains having started: My primary farming advisor (who is also my loving mother) , reminding me to make the necessary adjustments; my regular supplier of tree seedlings (@GreeningUganda), making a pitch for increased sales as per our standing arrangements; and the third, a friend’s highly energetic domestic employee, in a conversation.
This robust domestic employee, at a lunch party over the weekend, had me helping him move garden furniture because it was threatening to rain. “But are you sure it’s going to rain?” I asked him, to which he responded with a vigorously confident, “The rainy season has started. It will rain.”
The confidence with which he spoke stayed on my mind all through the sumptuous luncheon, and I thought to myself that this domestic worker must have had an agricultural background – like many of us do.
The neat, sprawling gardens in which we lunched were beautiful and vivid in colour and variety, and seeing this domestic employee flit about to and fro in the foreground of the floral compound made me wonder whether, with his knowledge of agriculture and vast amounts of energy, he would be using the rainy season to grow any crops, herbs, or spices for future luncheons to be had.
The potential of it all, I thought to myself, was massive!
Immediately, I mentally slapped myself round the back of my head. ‘Potential’. I am a little fed up of that word, in our context.
It means, my dictionary says, “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future; and latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.
An hour or so later, I read an article that underscored why I dislike that word so much these days.
Uganda has potential to feed 200 million people – US envoy’, read the headline, followed by: “Uganda’s fertile agricultural land produces a wide range of food products and has the potential to feed 200 million people in the region and beyond,” said (Deborah) Malac.
This figure of 200 million was published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations in August this year, and we have had tens of thousands other declarations of ‘Potential’ around Uganda.
We need to delete the word Potential from our national dictionary as soon as possible. If we don’t then we’re going to stay stuck at this Potentiality forever and ever.
Why does it irritate me?
Because we never seem to leave the Potential box and keep making headlines out of it instead of, ‘Uganda land deal boost for Centum’, as reported this week about Kenyan investors Centum buying up 14,000 acres of land in Uganda to grow maize and soya beans.
Those Kenyans are not dealing with just ‘Potential’ any more. Back in February 2011, a Centum official talked to a Ugandan newspaper about the Potential in Uganda, and today they are putting money onto the ground.
On the same day the newspapers were talking about that ‘Potential’ to feed 200 million people, I saw a news snippet about food relief being taken to the Kigezi region (for people affected by floods, not hunger) and sighed.
At that point, certain we won’t delete the word ‘Potential’ from our vocabularies soon, I stopped fretting over its existence.
Instead, I picked up my phone and contacted the friend who had hosted me to lunch over the weekend, to advise him to get his energetic domestic fellow to take advantage of the rainy season and plant some food-related things somewhere in the massive space surrounding his beautiful house now that the rains have started.

introducing…and BANISHING ‘Corplatitudes’ henceforth, due to reasons beyond our control

A GROUP of us have agreed to coin the term Corplatitudes to combine two elements of life in Uganda today that people such as myself have in recent years become irritatingly mired in.
‘Corplatitudes’ is made up of two words – ‘Corporate’ and ‘Platitudes’, but inside it there is a clever insertion of the word ‘Attitude’, which is a central issue here.
‘Corporate’ in the sense that we use it in Uganda, referring to seemingly well-employed individuals whose employment makes them dress, speak, and presumably think differently from people such as employees of the government, NGOs, small and medium enterprises, and other such places. The expected promise presented by ‘Corporates’ is one of seriousness, excellence, high business value, quality work delivery, and so on and so forth.
‘Platitudes’ are just that – those statements that have been used so often that they begin to mean absolutely nothing to both the speaker and listener.
Corplatitudes, therefore, should be obvious to all of us since we hear them all the time – especially those of us who deal with so-called ‘Corporates’ – which term encompasses almost anyone in any form of formal employment these days – from a customer or management perspective.
There are phrases such as ‘We apologise for the inconvenience caused’ and ‘Your call is being attended to’, which could fall in this category but don’t. An apology is an apology however insincere, and the fact that your call has been answered, albeit by a machine, could be interpreted as attention.
But Corplatitudes are mostly proferred in response to demands for work accountability. I hear them most when I ask a question such as, “What are you doing?”
And as of this week, I will not be accepting Nobody Got TimeCorplatitudes from anyone anymore.
The ones I am classifying as Corplatitudes and rejecting outright are those such as, “I am/ We are handling it (your issue).” I can’t explain how we began accepting this statement within our offices, but as I have told my colleagues in various places, “handling” doesn’t mean anything sensible to getting actual work done.
Even literally, your “handling” of a matter could keep it in limbo for years on end while it doesn’t actually get resolved. I have been foolish to turn away when told someone is handling something, and I will be foolish no more. Instead, I will demand to know EXACTLY what the person is doing SPECIFICALLY to solve the problem or deliver the required task at hand.
Handle that.
Then there is the delivery “by close of business”, which phrase is frequently used to manage one’s expectation of delivery of things like reports or actual work, and even has the official abbreviation COB.
“Close of business” is not a universal measure of time any more, even for banks! And whose close of business would that be – yours or mine?
Plus, does that mean you will dispatch whatever that is “by close of business” or I will have it in my possession “by COB”? And if I do get it just before COB, then am I really expected to close business for the day and let that report or work task sit on ice overnight or something?
And it is in this last point that one finds the real reason for the Corplatitude “COB” – they promise that knowing that you will most likely be leaving work or business in the hope that you will actually find the report or work task on your desk the next morning. The promise of “COB”, therefore, comes with an automatic buffer that stretches it to “opening of business the next day”. Meanwhile, you can start ‘handling’ it…
With me, that nonsense has ended. We will schedule things using universally accepted timelines and in a manner that allows me also to do work within working hours.
Then there is the classic “we are doing our best to” solve your problem, finish a work task given, find the cause of the fault and so on and so forth.
You are certainly NOT doing your best if the problem is NOT solved, the work task is NOT finished, and the cause of the problem is still NOT known! You are making a mockery of the definition of the word “best”, and that is the worst thing you could do to “best”.
The next rung lower of that wobbly ladder of non-delivery is “we are trying to” do something. As Nike says, “Just Do It!” That’s supposedly why you are employed in the position you are in – because you were tested and found competent to do the work assigned to you. I think.
“Trying” to do something is to admit that you are going about your job like it is guesswork. Pilots shouldn’t just try to fly planes; surgeons shouldn’t just try to conduct operations; soldiers shouldn’t just try to defend the country. DO YOUR JOB!
All these and more, which we will continue to identify with time, represent an attitude of complacency because some people believe that work must be seen to be done without necessarily being done, unlike that saying about justice.
Underlying these Corplatitudes is an attitude of laziness, irresponsibility and, I daresay, childishness – because it’s the corporate equivalent of, “I am sorry, teacher; the dog ate my homework” – the unintelligent version of this was the Abim District Administrator who told fellow adults a few weeks ago that termites had eaten his accountability the vouchers…
From today, I am offering everyone a one-month Corplatitude flushing period during which we should all identify and get rid of the damn things. After that, business and work in general should move faster, better and more sensibly, and “we will achieve economic growth”.
(Give yourself bonus points if you correctly identify the Corplatitude hidden in plain sight there.)

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.”


“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.