I was reminiscing over my advanced years of existence and how life has been harsh but rather interesting when you come to think of it. How come that in our generation, whenever you strove to improve your lot so as to afford something that was out of your reach, you always found that the item of your craving had shot up a hundredfold? For instance, before we went to secondary-school or university, life in these institutions was of luxury-hotel comfort. But by the time we managed to crane our necks and reach there, the conditions had become prison-bad.
This is interesting because I know individuals who have managed to beat life at its own game, coming from abject poverty to shoot to millionaire prominence. And every time I think of that, my mind shoots to a man that I got to know in secondary school, who beat all odds to become a ‘banana-mogul’ from a dirt-poor peasant. This was in Mbarara, Uganda, in the late 1960s.
Mbidde (RIP) made his wealth through brawn rather than brain, and his name defined his work. ‘Embidde’, or ‘imbihire’, is a type of banana plant that has sticky sap, which stains every cloth it drops on. He had acquired that name because, as a young boy, he had chosen to single-handedly supply bananas to Ntare School, a secondary school in Mbarara. For carrying bunches of bananas on his head all the time, his clothes were stained beyond recognition and thus, his name.
From his earnings, Mbidde was able to buy a bicycle and supply even more bananas, which multiplied his profits. These profits he used to increase the acreage of his field and also to supplement his supply by buying from his peasant neighbours. With more profits now, Mbidde was able to buy a lorry and expand his field into a large farm where he hired a few farm hands to help his wife tend the many types of crops and livestock, while he crisscrossed the region in his lorry supplying food requisites to the area’s schools. From bananas to berries, tomatoes to potatoes, meat to milk, eggs to entrails, he supplied them all.
When Mbidde felt he had earned himself a bonus, he took a bus to the Ugandan capital of Kampala to buy himself a family car, his moneybag slung over his shoulder but clutched pugnaciously in case he encountered a ‘pickpocket’. On seeing him, the Indian salesman (Wavamuno was then a small clerk in a Kabale bank) shouted to Mbidde to go away and come back on Friday (day for beggars) if he wanted alms. Mbidde ignored him and proceeded to inspect a long, army-green Mercedes Benz 280 with tinted glasses.
Satisfied, he went to the counter and poured out the contents of his bag, whereupon pandemonium broke out. The young salesman jumped over the counter to go and lock the doors while the black sales assistants and security guards ran in confused circles in an effort to guard the doors and the money at the same time. It was not until the owner of the garage himself had come to count the money that calm was slowly restored. After all the formalities of signing papers and getting change for his customer, the owner of the garage himself offered to drive Mbidde to Mbarara but the latter politely declined and took the keys of his new Mercedes to drive the 256 km to Mbarara….
So it was with a certain Kashwiga of Kajaho in the sprawling refugee camp of Nshungerezi in the early 1960s. Kashwiga was not a particularly strong visionary, but he was shrewd enough to calculate that even if the refugees’ trade did not involve fiscal exchange at the beginning, it was bound to outlive batter trade in the end and transform into a monetary economy.
And sure enough, by the late 1960s Kashwiga was laughing all the way to his pillow, every evening. “To his pillow”, because it was inside that precious sisal sack, used as his pillow, that he kept his daily earnings.
Back then you didn’t need to have carpentry skills in order to make yourself a bed. You only needed to get four hooked branches of trees and prune them well, then allow them to dry. After that you sharpened the unhooked ends and sank them into the ground in your room to form the four corners of a bed.
On these you tied a framework of pieces of wood, on which you weaved a reed bed. To completely modernize your bed, you sewed together sisal sacks and stuffed them with dry grass, or hay, to make a mattress and a pillow and get your proverbial bed of roses. In the village, that pillow could double as a safe for your hard-earned ‘dollar’, assuming no stray fire, or hungry termites (‘imiswa’), happened by.
When Kashwiga set up a small shop in Kajaho in the early 1960s, no one thought he would live through all this and end up buying himself a brand new Peugeot 403 pick-up in seven short years. So, even if conditions have changed and even if your brain and energy are not what they used to be, don’t discourage yourself from dreaming!