Way back during my college days in Kampala, I encountered a situation which proved to me that even the poor were a notch better than the poorest folks. It was this picture that attracted my attention. The picture was hanging on the wall. The painting was quite simple: a man, apparently, escaping from death by climbing up a tree which he had been killing by hacking away at it with an axe. The wild dog chasing the man, was also, in fact, escaping from a vicious lion just behind it. Really interesting, I thought.
On the picture were the words that had stayed there so long that I had to strain my eyes harder. Yes I got it at last “eyeesize mukama amuwanguza ebizibu” (He who trusts the lord overcomes his burdens). Fine.
I was the only one staring at this picture in this small noisy “hotel” situated in the outskirts of the Nakawa slum. This was a famous hotel for residents of Nakawa including the students of the college and their lecturers. It was a two-roomed house. One for the customers and the other for the cooking. There was no need for a door or a gate for the curtains covered up the problems. When I talk of curtains, I don’t mean those nylon clothes. I mean tens of strings, beads and rope-like pieces of cloth in various attractive colours that brought the place a lovely fresh air.
The furniture was beautiful. About five long tables covered by the type of mats you would find displayed at the Nyabugogo Market. The chairs were metallic, smooth and painted blue. No nails to hook the bottom of your trousers here. An old fashioned fridge stood in a corner. It looked a bit bored, all alone in a place that had never known electricity. On its top was a huge radio cassette with its volume at the maximum and blinking red and yellow lights. The music was South African.
As I waited for my order to arrive, I drifted away from the picture to give the room a brief inspection. Nothing much was interesting, may be apart from a few more pictures of the Pope blessing a handful of children. It took me a good half hour to get my cup of tea and chapatti. The chapatti was very good but not hot. The tea was too sweet for my liking and besides, the waitress had decided to put in too much of our local “cocoa” namely – entangawuzi. I didn’t like it and I was burning hot with the long waited boom from the college. So I quickly ordered for a soda.
The waitress casually strolled out of the room to the shops and began the hunt for a soda. When I asked the owner of the hotel, a stout dark skinned man, why they didn’t keep the sodas in the fridge, he answered saying “zakagwamu” (they have just got finished). A neighbor grinned with a hidden knowledge. It was coming to noon and the place was being flooded by the daily customers. This particular day, however, was not their day. One side of the room was being renovated. A man who didn’t do us any good by showing us his hind through the windows of his trousers was busy putting cement on the wall. A heap of it covered the floor so that sitting space was limited. The customers came in, cursed and went out again.
A customer, who felt it was wise to ask, dared so. He thought, he had smelt a whiff of alcohol from either the kitchen or from one of the yawning customers. Yes, he was answered by the owner of the place; “we add lira lira in the cement to make it stick better on the walls. Simple science”. What was “lira lira?” I asked. People around me laughed; “a special kind of waragi” was the answer. I was amazed. My soda arrived late and I gave it a gulp. Then someone came in and ordered for black tea and fried cassava. God! Could was this possibly his lunch? And to my surprise, the man whose tea was nearing boiling point gave it two mouthfuls and he was dome with it! He swallowed his two pieces of cassava, paid and out he went. He looked happy.
And in came another one. He called the waitress and whispered to her. Unusual, I thought. The girl was frowning a bit. Stealing a glance at the boss – then I heard her explaining how dangerous it could be. I was becoming interested so I paid full attention. The man seemed as if he would cry when he was asking the girl to imagine a whole man like him sitting in a hotel, and then walks out without treating himself before all these eyes. It finally clicked. He was bargaining for credit! In the end, he was sipping on a cup of black tea and nothing else.
Sad to think of it even at the low of life there were inequalities. Here I was drinking a soda, another one happily on black tea and fried cassava, another one on credit and another one, since morning feeding on the vapor from the “lira lira”. As I walked out of this place, I glanced back at the picture of the escaping man on a falling tree, followed by a dog, being chased by a lion. All of a sudden, it made sense to me…