Making Ends Meet

May 1995

In Uganda, most people have to struggle to make a living. Primary-school teachers can come home with less than $30 a month if they are lucky, while I put away the grand sum of $150. It takes me to save almost five months salary to book a flight to the Emerald Isle and back to The Pearl. Just putting food on the table, treating malaria and other diseases, and sending the kids to school can tax even the most inventive of entrepreneurs.

The bicycle vendors, for example, fix a large frame on the back of their push bikes and pile up all sorts of goodies like long-handled brooms, Christmas decorations, key rings, video tapes, kid’s clothing, mosquito nets and the like, and then peddle all over the place, sometimes as far as 50 kilometres away trying to sell to anyone who gives them a second glance. Recently, I saw an enterprising lad with loads of brightly-coloured second-hand bras arranged quite pleasingly on the back of his bike. Then there are the youngsters who peddle their wares at traffic lights, usually cassette tapes, “tennis rackets” that kill mossies when you swipe them through the air, and other smaller items. I now give these lads no time of day at all since one since one of them sold me two blank tapes that were supposed to have been reggae.

Others have simply given up and beg on the streets around the banks where their punters are likely to be flush. Many of these street beggars are disabled in some way, some horrifically so. Some men without legs use their arms to propel themselves like greased lightening to any stopped car and have such wheedling ways that you generally give in. Then you have the young girls with babies who hang around the traffic lights, shopping places, and markets with constantly open hands and sad faces. There too, you can’t not give something (“for the baby, Mlssus”). Then there are the shop scouts. These are energetic lads who roam the streets looking for people wanting to buy particular items. Once you’ve told them what you need, they take you on a sometimes lengthy walk through the back streets until you reach a shop that stocks the item you are looking for. They get a small commission, of course, but you have to be prepared for some heavy bargaining if you don’t want to pay mzungu price and cover their commission twice over. But I have to say that I’ve bought some really needful things this way.

Then there are the cases of those who sell sex in order to make ends meet. In Kampala, the going rate can be just five thousand shillings for a quickie ($2.50). From time to time, the cops cop on, as it were, and round up all the luscious ladies of the night and take them to Central Police Station for a chastening night in the cells. But they get out the next day and go straight back to their turf to get their lunch money. The hookers who sell sex in more comfortable surroundings can take up to thirty thousand shillings from each punter. In Kampala hotels and night clubs, these hookers are easy to spot because, well, they look just exactly like hookers should look. There is a part of town called Half London and if you want a bit of human comfort, that’s the place to hang out.

But the saddest cases of all are the young girls in the villages who sell sex for as little as 500 shillings, that’s a bit less than 50 cents in US currency. One of the towns near us, which is situated on the great African highway that stretches between the costal town of Mombasa and Kigali is now a ghost town. It used to be a thriving place that catered for passing trade, especially long distance lorry drivers who used to park there for a night’s rest. The spread of HIV/AIDS quickly killed a whole generation, and many grandmothers now have families of up to twenty orphans to look after, feed, and send to school. As a result, many youngsters don’t ever see the inside of a classroom and are destined to find their own ways of making a living. Girls as young as twelve are in the sex game because older men think they will be HIV negative. Often they are not because they have no bargaining power in terms of condom use even if they could afford to buy them. Like most men the world over, Ugandan men have a problem with wearing a johnny, and I’ve heard that some of those in the villages who do, often wash them after use and then hang them out to dry for the next time. And so HIV/AIDS continues taking lives that should not be taken, and leaving kids as young as ten or eleven looking after their younger siblings if granny has passed away. In these kinds of situations, it is little wonder that people try to make ends meet as best they can.

But not all the cases are sad: the oddest I encountered was so hilarious that it deserves a mention here. Just before we moved into the new house last year, I was minding my own business stomping on the weekly wash of a Saturday morning when the puppy yip-yip (that is fast growing into a big snake-frightening bark) went into overdrive. An anxious me jumped out of the bath, put my nice clean crinkly feet into my flip flops, and went outside to investigate with images of little banana belly disappearing into the empty belly of a python filling the hard drive. Outside, I found an old man and a young boy dancing around to avoid the nips of an exuberant Lady greeting the unusual visitors. Old Man had a wildly bulging sack clutched in his weather-beaten hand and Young Boy (curiously, because his legs were fine) had a rather large walking stick. This incident is best recounted in Norn Iron, the language that is spoken in many places north of the border with the Republic of Ireland, and it goes as follows. Original translation from Luganda to English by Stick Boy.

Me: “Hiya. Doin’ well?”
Old Man: “Can’t complain, missus, can’t complain. Yerself?”
Me: “Och, gettin’ by. Can I do ya anythin’ fur ya?”
OM: “Nat really. I was just wonnerin’ like, if ya wanna buy a wee bird”.
Mystified Me: “A bird? What kinna bird?”
OM: “A white one, missus”.
MM: “A white one? What wud I want wi a white bird?”
OM: “Well, like, ya cud keep it as a pet, missus”.
Very MM: “I don’t think so, but giv’us a luk anyway”.
OM: “That cud be tricky, missus”.
Slightly Irritated Me: “Mister, if I’m gonna buy sumpin’, I wanna luk first”.
Getting Exasperated OM: “I tol’ ya, missus, ya can’t have a luk”.
Exasperated Me: “Ok. Ok! What kinna bird is it? A chicken? What? Giv’us a feel”.
OM: “Naw, missus, it’s not a chicken [thank God for small mercies], it’s one of them there wee white birds that lives on cows and ates their ticks”.
Incredulous Me: “WHAT? What wud I do wi a bird like that? Ya cuddin keep that sorta bird as a pet. The dog’id ate it for breakfast”.
Seriously Curious OM: “Do ya not feed your dog, missus?”
More IM: “Of course I bloody feed the dog! It’s a turn of phrase”.
OM: “A turna what, missus?”
MIM: “Och, forget it. What were ya luking for it anyway?”
Slightly Happier OM: “Five thousan’ shillin’s, missus.
Getting Tired Me: “And I can’t take a luk?”
Slightly Despondent OM: “Na Missus, if y’open that bag, the bloody bird’ll fly away”.

Can I leave it there? The conversation continued along the same sort of lines for another five minutes or so until I finally said NO, and asked OM with Bulging Bag and Stick Boy translator politely, but firmly, to leave. Pea Brain barked them all the way to the gate and after they had gone, I almost made myself sick laughing. I still chuckle when I think about the serious offer the Old Man had made me and how on earth he thought I was going to fall for it. I may be a bit like a Jacana, I may be a bit naieve, and I may be a mzungu, but I certainly didn’t come up the Lagan in a bubble! Had he asked me outright for a few bob, I would have given it to him and he could have sold his bird to another more gullible mzungu.

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