Business speak

Sunday 14th August

Business – speak is one of the unfortunate habits that Ugandans have picked up from the West. And almost built it in to a new language. When coupled with the fact that Ugandans will always try to be friendly and tell you what they think will please you, having a meaningful dialogue becomes quite a challenge. For example:

Me: “Can you supply these items in a better quality?”

Answer: “We are anticipating a fully holistic approach to your requirements to maximise quality outcomes at all levels”

Me: “When can you deliver?”

Answer: “We will take every opportunity to ensure rapid minimum delivery periods”

When translated, these answers are “Probably not, but we will get the best we can” and “We don’t know – it depends in the wholesaler” But this evasiveness is understandable in a country where nothing can be depended on (in material terms) and bad news is best wrapped up in friendly and positive business-like statements.

We are now near the airport waiting for the arrival of our second team. On the way here we passed what looked like a very untidy street. It was a linear rubbish tip along the roadside about 200 metres long. My first thought was “how untidy – the council should clean that up”. But the tip served a purpose. Several cows were grazing it (if licking out food containers counts as grazing) and people were picking over it.

It was not food they were looking for but re-usable materials. So waste was thrown out by shops and restaurants, cleaned by cows and sorted by people for re-use. Cows are fed and materials re-used. I should leave my western prejudices at home.

Sometimes the closeness of business signs is amusing. I recently saw “Pork Joint” (meaning butchers) next to “Joint Care Centre” (meaning physiotherapists).

So today, after collecting the team from Entebbe Airport, we cross Kampala again. Crawl through the dense smoking traffic trying to take as shallow breaths as possible with our eyes smarting in the pale brown atmosphere of semi-combusted hydrocarbons.

If the Government passed a law to say that by 1st January 2017 all vehicles must have new air and fuel filters fitted to their engines the air quality would be significantly improved. Engines here are only serviced when they go wrong. If they are still going then they don’t need servicing despite what is obviously coming out of the exhaust pipe. The reality is, though, that most people could not afford to buy new filters for their engines and my clean air plan would fail.

I will sign off now for a few days as we will be pretty busy running the programme. All is well and I am beginning to think of returning home at the end of the month. In the meantime, and as it is Sunday, here is a picture of some chickens in church (part of a child blessing ceremony):child blessing with chickens.JPG

Motor bikes and moonlight

Saturday 13th August

Since I first came to Uganda, 18 months ago, I have been amazed at what people can carry on motorbikes. Mostly, the bikes are small and a 250 cc machine would be considered very big and flashy. They are driven fairly slowly and have very efficient silencers. (Pity the lorries don’t as well)

It is common to see the family out on their motorbike; Dad driving, Mum at the back, and between them sometimes three or four children.  When the kids grow to the point of Mum being at risk of falling off the back, the older ones are discouraged from riding any more.

What is unusual, to western eyes, are the goods that carried on motorbikes. It is common to see several boxes strapped down; sometimes several 20 litre jerry cans full of water, a pile of pineapples, clothing, wood, charcoal etc., all tied down in a variety of ways.

But these are my top six most unlikely things I have seen on motorbikes.

6. Chickens. Sometimes quite a lot. They are alive and have their legs tied. Sometimes they are arranged so that three of four heads are dangling off each side of the bike. They do not seem at all distressed by this. There is no flapping or squawking. Apparently, the common “village chicken” is docile when it is held captive. It knows when to keep still and not make a fuss.

5. Pigs. Never more than one at a time and always riding side-saddle. Again, their legs are tied and again they are quite docile and well behaved. I have seen one put on a motorbike, though, and there was a lot of complaint in the process.

4. A full size metal door. This was held on by the passenger. He held it an angle which made it similar to an aircraft wing and I wondered what the take-off speed was likely to be and if he would be alone in this aerial adventure or whether he would take the driver with him.

3. Fridges and a full sized freezer. Also carried across the back of the bike. To get the balance right, one end of the fridge or freezer extends out further than the other. The tradition is to stick the longer end out into the approaching traffic.

2. Five metre long concrete reinforcing rods. These are carried six at a time and draped across the back of the bike, forming into a U shape behind the bike and scraping along the ground on both sides behind you. If travelling on dirt roads, they raise an interesting dust cloud. If they are on tarmac, they give off sparks (spectacular at night) and arrive a bit shorter than when they set off.

1. But my number one choice is …..Goats. Goats are intelligent creatures and not amused by motor bikes. They will certainly have a nibble at bike wiring and plastic bits but are not keen on riding one. They are familiar with them because goats regularly graze roadside verges and learn to keep out of the way of motorbikes. However goats trust humans (odd because they kill and eat them, but there you are). So the trick is to attach the goat to the rider and not to the bike.

The goat is wrapped like a belt round the rider’s waist so that the head and neck are at the front and the legs are tied at the back. This has the added advantage of being able to fondle the goat’s ears as you are riding. Again, the goat does not seem distressed by this treatment and remains docile.

We have just returned from supper by Lake Victoria. We sat at a small table ten feet from waves sploshing on the shore. A bright moon directly overhead reflected in every wavelet as it broke at our feet. This is the largest lake in Africa and the second largest in the World (after Lake Superior in Canada). For all practical purposes, it is a sea. Egrets and kingfishers sat on a tree a little out in the water, making the occasional dive into the blackness beneath.

Across the water, way below the horizon, is Kenya. Nearby small fishing boats netted shoals of small sparkling tilapia in front of us. Along the beach, a competing café employed local musicians pounding drums. The sun set within 30 minutes, as we are close to the Equator, and the stars came out rapidly all over us. It was all rather magical.

By popular request, there are no funny names today, but here are a few interesting things seen on the road (apart from the motorbikes):

Lady construction workers wearing hard hats, high visibility jackets and sparkly flip flops.

A matatu (mini-bus taxi) where one passenger was carrying a metal rod so long it was outside the bus held by his hand through the window. The rod was held vertically and the top was just lower than overhead electricity lines.

A breakdown truck owned by a firm called “Master of Disaster”

A government pick-up truck with the name “Residual Indoor Spraying Unit” on the door. I could not even guess what this branch of the civil service does (although a number of amusing possibilities occurred to me) but when I Googled it, it turns about to about spraying the inside of houses to kill malaria carrying mosquitos.

More soon. Meanwhile here is a picture of the sunrise over Wanale Cliffs at Mbale, near the border with Kenya.IMGP6269

Things that work

Tuesday 9th August

I am about midway in my trip. With Team 1 gone and Team 2 expected on Sunday we are doing all those planning things that are necessary. Drinking water requirements, programme, menus, transport, rooms, and bookings at venues, bookings for our hosts to meet our volunteers etc.

I have also been buying paint and sorting out the store room so I can find things when needed.

Last night we visited our favourite café for dinner. It is about one minutes’ walk from the hotel and three people can have a good meal for £1.50. It has no name over the door so we call it “No-name” café. The choice of food is basic : beans, rice, goat, fish, greens etc and you have to bring your own water to drink. It also has no electricity but they do supply candles to supplement our torches.

We pondered on putting it on the programme as a “candlelight supper” but that does imply rather more than is on offer. But the room is clean, the food is prompt and healthy and the service rapid. (Rapid service anywhere in Uganda is rare – even the most expensive hotel in Kumi takes an hour to produce a meal)

As it is my midway point, I am having two nights off in Mbale, the largest town to the east of Kumi. I have a spacious twin bedded room, en suite, with a balcony for a third of what you would pay in the UK. The balcony has a fine view of the Wanale Cliffs, part of the Mount Elgon mountain range.

Although good, the hotel is still Ugandan. It has Wi-Fi (it doesn’t work), phone system (ditto), room safes (ditto) but I have a fully functioning bathroom with taps that turn on and off – amazing.  At present I have two sources of music – a call to prayer from the mosque opposite and pounding music from the gym below me during an aerobics session – I will not be joining them- I get in a sweat just carrying my bag upstairs.

Recent signs to ponder – “Minimum Restaurant” (this was a large café on the roadside and I cannot understand what is minimum about it). “Living positively” (this is a sign on HIV centre) and on the backs of buses we have “New Stone Age” “What Went Wrong” and “When he says yes”.  I cannot grasp what was in the minds of the owners of these vehicles when they put these signs on them. Any ideas from my readers would be appreciated please!

More nonsense soon but in the meantime here is a picture showing how far our new classrooms have got.IMGP6263

Two Weeks Later

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. 16 volunteers arrived at Entebbe on 24th July and since then we have been their leaders, guides, advisors, hosts, managers, etc. for everything. Not that it was a challenge – they were delightful to have and very hard working and useful.

They did all the things we asked them to do, and more. They were generous with their time and their money and several things are happening which we, as leaders, did not think were going to be possible. Such as the replacing of a missing school roof and the construction of some new school toilets.

Sometimes I think I have been in Africa too long. It is only when people come from the UK and point out that the water doesn’t run in the shower, or runs too much, or the toilet doesn’t work, or the fan is broken does it come home to me that my expectations of comfort in Africa are almost nil. It is easier that way, for me. But for those of us who are used to things working properly it can come as a big shock. I try to get things going as much as I can but some things I cannot change.

Complaints by me to the hotel management are always met with a friendly polite assurances that the matter will be dealt with immediately. In reality this means:

          Someone will be asked to phone a plumber/ electrician / builder (as required)

          That person doesn’t know the number and forgets about it.

          When reminded, he/she finds the number but it is engaged, or out of range.

          After various attempts the builder answers and says he is hundreds of kilometres away but will deal with it on his return (or not, as the case may be)

          Time passes and people forget / are too busy / just hope that the annoying Englishman (me) will convince his friends that living without a working toilet / shower / washbasin is the usual thing in Uganda and we just ought to get used to the idea. And mostly we do.

When work was done we took the team to the Murchison Falls National Park and we had some of the closest encounters with wildlife I have experienced in Uganda. These included our bus being checked out by a bull elephant at close range.


IMGP6258He flapped his ears a bit (a warning sign), thought about overturning our bus with a quick flick of his large tusks but decided that we were non- threatening and wandered off). And then a series of crocodiles peering at us from the bank of the Nile culminated in this one:


It was about five metres along and weighed in at over a tonne. Fortunately it was sleepy. Appropriately found on the river Nile, this is the Nile crocodile which is the world’s second most dangerous crocodile, second only to the salt water crocs of Australia. Our volunteers pleaded with the boat driver to back away but he seemed to enjoy getting close. What we did not know until later was he could not back away as the route was barred by a large hippo, also a regular killer. The saying is “hippos kill more people in Africa than wars” is probably untrue but we get the message.

That night I was woken by munching and heavy breathing. It was not Alex our driver with whom I was sharing a room. It was a hippo grazing outside by window. They come out of the water at night and graze regular routes they know. This one’s route was along our back wall, and then along our side wall, and then round the front of our building. Of course, I dashed outside with my camera and got the most amazing close up shot ever of a hippo. No, actually I lay very still in bed until the munching and breathing disappeared into the night.

This morning, being Sunday, we went to church. The same little village one we attended two weeks ago. Attendance was down – about half as many children as last time and only two dogs. The community chicken didn’t even put in an appearance.

With no reports on funny names for two weeks, I am sure you expect me to come up with some good ones; so here goes:

“Number Nine Old lady Good Food Shop”

“Titanic Guest House”

“Ted Green – his academy” – (this was a smartly painted shed by the roadside).

“Rich Rich Property Agents”

“Hotel Passions”

“Stormchild Car Wash”

“Taxi Drivers and Blockers’ Office” (No, I have no idea what a blocker is – perhaps someone who puts blocks under the wheels of parked taxis to stop them running away when their handbrakes fail. I wonder why he needs an office?)

“Half Road Closed”

And this week’s most appropriate sign was on a lorry. We went round a corner to find the road almost entirely blocked by a parked lorry. The name of the business on the front of the lorry was “Zero Distance” This was true, so far as the space left for us to drive through. This is marketing in action.

The best philosophical sign on a vehicle which caught my eye was “More money – more problems.” If this is followed by society in general it explains why most people don’t seem to think that have a problem in the world. They have no money so no problems either.

Tomorrow, we leave Entebbe behind us and return to Kumi. It will be good to get back to the peace of the countryside. Keep smiling – I am.

War and Warthogs

Saturday 23rd July

We have been on the move again. Leaving Kumi for the eight hour road trip up to Murchison Falls National Park, to check health & safety issues for the team visits. The closer we got to the park the more we became aware of the civil war in South Sudan, our neighbouring country to the north.
Not that we saw any troop movements; just lots of United Nations and charity vehicles. UNHCR and War Child vehicles mostly and they brought home to us the cost of war to non-combatants. Also driving along with us were dozens of petrol tankers to fuel the civilian population and also the government and rebel troops.
Many of the tankers cross Uganda with petrol and diesel from Kenya and some of them do not return. They get caught in the cross fire in South Sudan or are captured by one side or the other and have their loads stolen. Many drivers are killed. Despite the high risks, these drivers still continue with the work as they are paid very generously.
On our journey we passed a sign “Caution elephants crossing” and shortly afterwards met these. I am pretty sure that they are not elephants:giraffes

The Park recce trip was successful, we avoided any fierce animals and had more trouble with mosquitos than the Big Five. We slept under canvas despite hippos grazing between the tents at night. Fortunately, they only eat grass and are harmless unless you annoy them. Warthogs hang around the camp – they seem to like being near people and are usually found dozing near the dining room.
We went to buy some bananas today. The price quoted was the equivalent of 50p each. And this in a country where they grow wild everywhere. Alex, our Ugandan driver then went and bought the same bananas for 10p each. Having a white skin has a price attached to it.
We have had a number of entries into the funny signs competition in the last couple of days; my particular favourites are “Elderly Ox Tractor Project” (old cows used to plough fields – (this is actually true)), “Plan C Guesthouse” (I suppose Plans A&B didn’t work out) and “Mosquito Net Village” Guesthouse (would you want to stay there?) (Actually you would because the other guesthouses don’t always have them)
In the religious category we have “God First Intercontinental Trading” and “God’s Gift Main Depot.” The banner across the front of a taxi read “Try Jesus Andse” was, I think, meant to be “Try Jesus and See” but I was rather worried by “Girl Child Foundation Supermarket” (exactly what are they selling?)
An erratically driven minibus had “No-one is perfect” on the back and a poster advertising a foreign money exchange described it as “Forex Bureau next to 4 Turkeys.” I assume 4 turkeys is a café and not the real things.
Sometimes I wonder if I am unfair to Ugandans making fun of their signage but I know that if they came to the UK they would find much to laugh at, such is their nature, and always in a good-humoured way. I hope mine is likewise.
Our first team is now win the air on its way here. Are we ready ? We hope so. Blog entries for the next few days might be scarce as we work 15 hour days when teams are with us.
Keep smiling – we are !

Wood, Wash and Wills

Thursday 20th July

How to buy a piece of wood:

Drive one hour to the nearest large town. Find a parking space next to an abandoned lorry. Take an interesting tour on foot. Traffic is everywhere and from all directions so cross any road at your peril (avoiding open drains, large holes in the road, spilt oil, itinerant street welders who shower everything and anyone  in sparks) and visit three builders’ merchants.

Each builders’ merchant looks almost identical: the same reinforcing rods all over the floor, the same rolls of wire to step over, the same bits of steel to avoid as they stick out of piles trying hard to snag you as you pass by and finally you find one where the pleasant female assistant says yes they have what I want.

Agree the price (no easy thing and much friendly misunderstanding involved). Offer the lady the money who declines saying “pay her over there.”  Cross over the shop (over the same reinforcing rods, rolls of wire and bits of steel getting in the way) and pay that lady over there. Ask for a receipt and be told “see the other lady” – cross back (avoiding the rods, rolls and bits as before) where the first lady gives you a receipt and then, with a rubber stamp marks “goods taken.”  Fail to understand as I have not taken any goods yet.

Pleasant first lady just smiles at you. Ask where the wood is. She says go to the warehouse. Ask where the warehouse is. To avoid a long story it turns out to be five miles away on an industrial estate “the third door off the roundabout” Drive in the generally correct direction and having wrongly investigated two roundabouts find one with a row of seemingly abandoned corrugated iron buildings none of which show the names of any owners, least of all the one we want.

Turn into a sheet metal works where someone waves at us – we are expected! Get out of the van, find the foreman; he says follow me. Walk back out on to the road, past three other warehouses and in through a tiny gate across a yard (with more metal cutting, welding and sparking in progress) to a small desk. He sits and looks at my receipt. Get ready to argue that I haven’t taken any goods yet. But he is happy. He signs the receipt, gives it back to me, and gets me to sign in his book. “Follow me” and off we ago, back past the cutters, welders and sparkers, down the road to yet another abandoned warehouse and across an empty yard with no-one to be seen. (Am I in danger here?)

He unlocks a huge door and reveals a massive crane on six wheels.   This is becoming a farce. Have I bought some sheet steel or some construction equipment by mistake? Perhaps I have accidentally paid a deposit on a hugely expensive machine and am legally bound to complete the deal immediately on pain of summary imprisonment. But at the moment when I am about to ask what on earth is going on, my piece of wood is proudly carried out of the crane shed by two workers.

Whatever else Brittain left in Uganda on independence in 1962, the legacy of complicated and inefficient procedures lingers on.

All that was yesterday. Today, among other things, I sat under a mango tree for an hour in a village, miles out in the countryside talking to a road accident victim. (Unsurprisingly, she was not wearing her seatbelt at the time). The only sound to be heard was the occasional bleat of a goat and cluck of a chicken. Three day old chicks investigated my shoes. The breeze gently moved the leaves above me. It was pleasantly cool in the heat of the day. I was the only white person for about ten miles in any direction. All I could see everywhere were small fields of crops and slowly waving fruit trees. I felt immensely privileged to be there. It is a moment I shall treasure.

Three days from now the first team of 16 volunteers arrives. We think we are nearly ready and tomorrow we are off to Murchison Falls National Park to check out the health & safety implications.

Seen recently on the back of a bus “one love beach” – none of us has any clue what it might mean but we can have a lot of guesses.

And finally we passed a hotel called “Wash & Wills” in the town of Mbale. It has a first class expensive look about it. A local person told us that it is called this because it was built on the site of a car wash and the owner’s name in William. It is the equivalent of me building a five star hotel in Buxton and calling it “Stone quarry Rog”

Back soon but here is a picture of the new footings at our main project, Akubui School. Two new classrooms have begun to rise from the Kumi plain.


Eventful days

Monday 18th July

It has been an eventful couple of days.  On Sunday we arrived at a large corrugated iron building at 8.00 am. There was music, singing, dancing and much happiness among the 300 people present. The music was provided by a five piece band of guitars, keyboards and an electric drum kit; singing along was despite the projectionist who was usually a few bars (or even verses) behind the people and the sound level was so high that my ears were vibrating. It was, of course, an African church service.

 We were not quite sure of the way there but decided to follow a woman in a startling blue dress. “Sunday best” is almost a fashion show when everyone gets out their most colourful items. But it was officially “men’s day” so a few ties were to be seen (not on me) and one young man wore a bright pink bow tie. Afterwards we were treated to tea and bread. You dip one into the other.

Today I have bought supplies; cans of paint, metres of sandpaper, plastic sheeting and some ladies underwear,  (perhaps I should explain that they were in a job lot of old clothing bought as cleaning cloths from the market and I didn’t actually chose them). Tonight I broke down a door whilst being watched by a night-watchman carrying a Kalashnikov. I should also explain that the door was one of our own hotel’s doors (fitted with the usual African cheapo locks that always jams in a locked positon) and the hotel night-watchman did not object. I did suggest he shot off the broken lock with his gun but he just laughed. It probably wasn’t loaded.

So, tomorrow I will be door mending. One just wouldn’t expect to have to do this type of thing at a Premier Inn at home but, out here, it all feels rather natural. No one stresses about it, it’s all OK with the Ugandans so long as you can laugh about it. Not just afterwards, but also before and during. At home you would buy a new door; here you patch the old one (again and again). But do it with a laugh and “that will be OK” –my favourite local saying.

The time is getting closer for us to host our first team. They arrive next Sunday, so we are sorting out rooms, catering and transport for them. This includes repairing hotel toilets, replacing lightbulbs etc. but “that will be OK” too.

I met the community representative again (see under April 13th above). She was in the same offices and was clucking quite happily at a filing cabinet. It is curious how she is attracted to offices. A little like a church mouse but on a larger scale.

I am looking at a batch of receipts from today. The shop owners were Vruddhi & Jaymadi (Asian names) and the locally owned shops were Deep Impex Ltd and Ojobira Enterprises. These local names give the impression of significant businesses thrusting Uganda into the global retail market. Actually they are one-woman shops in backstreets each measuring about 10 feet square. The proprietors are always very helpful.

It rained tonight. Loudly and heavily for two hours. My bedroom floor was flooded as usual (I have built raised platforms for my things) but now, two hours later, the floor is completely dry. The warm dry air is more efficient than newspaper for soaking up water.

Finally, here is a local resident – a chameleon – trying not to let me take his picture by going green.IMGP5998.JPG