Africa / Creative Writing

An African proverb: You Have Watches, We Have Time

These stories were told at Uganda’s Ndere Cultural Centre, in a leafy district of Kampala. I went to a cultural evening there after having lived in the country for six weeks, and the stories summed up my experiences – of making friends, working, travelling, my daily Ugandan life – rather beautifully. They were told by the centre’s wonderful host, Steven, who deserves all the credit for this post. It was this night, at the end of my stay, that finally tipped me over the edge and made me fall in love with Uganda.

________________________________________

Steven opened his story with the announcement that Uganda has no external debt, and received a cheer from the audience sat around the stage on a cool East African evening.
“Do you know why?” he asked, and proceeded, at a leisurely pace, and with an enormous smile, to tell us this tale…

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Uganda was drowning in foreign debt, and a representative of the World Bank was dispatched to Kampala to see what was to be done.
He met with Ugandan officials and explained the problem.
“Your country is seriously in debt, and we must find a way for you to pay it back. I wish to investigate all the possible means you have to generate income.”
The officials nodded, unconvinced.
“So,” said the representative, “what is trade like here? Can you tell me about the Ugandan market?”
“Ah yes,” exclaimed the official, suddenly springing to life, “we have a big market here. A very big market. It’s called Owino.”
The representative brightened – here was the first step to debt recovery. He headed to the centre of the capital, and found his way to Owino. It was a big market indeed – one of the largest in East Africa, in fact, with over 500,000 vendors crammed under tattered tarpaulin sheeting, selling their wares – second-hand clothes; scuffed shoes newly polished; Congolese batiks and baskets piled high with vivid dyes and spices that made the representative sneeze.
He frowned: this was not exactly what he had in mind, but surely something could be done.

Food stall in Owino market, Kampala, Uganda. Scotch bonnet peppers, chilli, baskets, Africa

Food stall in Kampala’s Owino market, Uganda

Chaos in Owino market, Kampala, Uganda. Clothes stalls in Africa.

Chaos in Uganda’s Owino market, in downtown Kampala

He found a young woman sat on the floor, a huge branch of delicious-looking small bananas on either side of her.
“Excuse me Madame, could you tell me how much a bunch of bananas is?”
The woman noticed his pale mzungu skin and calculated accordingly.
“That will be 9,000 shillings, Ssebo” she replied.
Gosh, what a bargain, thought the representative.
“Splendid!” he beamed. “I’ll take two!”
The woman looked confused.
“No, Ssebo, they are 9,000 each.”
“Yes, and I would like to buy them both!”
The woman’s mounting concern began to show upon her face.
Ssebo, you do not understand. I can only sell you one bunch.”
“But Madame, why?”
“Because if I sell you both bunches today, what will I sell here tomorrow?

Matooke - green plantain - in Kihihi market, Uganda, Africa.

Traders sell the ubiquitous matooke – green plantain – in a Ugandan market

———————————————————————————————
Flustered and confused  by his experience in Owino, the representative headed to the tranquil shores of Lake Victoria, to see what kind of business was taking place there. On the grassy shore, he saw a young fisherman, lying on his back beside his little wooden boat, gazing at the cloudless equatorial sky.
The representative strode boldly towards him.

A fisherman casts his net in Lake Victoria, Uganda, Africa

A fisherman casts his net in Lake Victoria, Uganda

“Excuse me sir, I see you are a fisherman.”
“Good afternoon! I am indeed, Ssebo.”
“In which case, may I inquire as to why you are not out fishing on such a fine day?”
“Well, Ssebo, the truth is that I went out fishing yesterday, and I caught three fish!”
The representative gazed down at him, uncomprehending.
“I gave one to my neighbour, and another to my wife, who turned into a delicious supper,” the fisherman continued.
“But you are not fishing today?”
“No Ssebo – I caught three! We have another fish for our supper tonight!”
But things still did not add up for the representative.
“I am afraid I do not understand. Don’t you want to catch more fish?”
“I have all the fish I need for today – whatever would I do with more?”
“Sir, you would sell them, of course.”
“But – why would I want to do that?”
Now the fisherman was uncomprehending.
The representative let out an exasperated sigh.
“To earn money, of course!”
From his reclined position on the grass, the fisherman looked up at the representative.
“But Ssebo – and then?”
“Then… you could buy a bigger boat to fish in!”
“…and then?”
“Then you could catch many more fish!”
“…and then?”
“Then you could sell them to make more money.”
“…and then?”
“Then you could employ more fisherman to come out with you, and start your own fishing business.”
“…and then?”
“And then you would be rich!”
A pause.
“…and then?”
“And then… you could relax!”
A longer pause.
“But, Ssebo, that is what I am doing now.”
The representative went to respond, but instead turned on his heels walked briskly away.
———————————————————————————————
The representative of the World Bank held the telephone to his ear, and cleared his throat.
“And so, sir, that is why we should cancel Uganda’s debt. They will never, ever, ever pay it back.”

MORE INFORMATION

  • The Ndere Centre is a cultural centre whose vision is to promote and sustain traditional Ugandan culture. The Ndere troop is composed of dancers, musicians and singers from across Uganda, and their performances are an incredible way to familiarise yourself with the different regions of the country.
  • The Centre has open air buffets and barbecues every evening, and the troop performs each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday in the courtyard. The cultural evening costs US $15 for non-Ugandan adults, and the show lasts around three hours.
  • The Ndere Centre also has a cafe, craft shop and space for children to run around, play games, paint and try playing traditional Ugandan instruments.
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