In his 1856 book, A Tour Around my Garden, Alphonse Karr dramatically depicts the perceptive difference between being an optimist and a pessimist, saying: “we can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorns have roses”.
In such characterisation, it makes more practical sense to be an optimist - the more reason Charlie Chaplin would tell us that we may never find a rainbow when we are looking down. Well, but even those who insistently look up for rainbows may never see the ditches on the ground.
While I keep my optimism where it holds, I have personally found useful life counsel in Sarah Dessen’s view that “if you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed”. If the worst happens, you expected it anyway. If the best turns out to be the case, you rejoice.
It’s with this attitude that I approach Kampala city, and perhaps many other urban parts of Uganda. It is not really to say that Uganda is devoid of good people. Indeed, many visitors have left in praise of our hospitality – a kind people that always greet you with a smile and readiness to help.
But many of us also know that as we smile back at every beaming stranger, we shouldn’t forget to hold our bags tightly. You may extend one hand to shake hands, but glue the other onto your wallet. You don’t get too excited by the hospitality as to greet with both hands.
I have seen T-shirts sold around with the words “Kampala si kibuga kya ba fala” (Kampala is not a city for the dumb); “Kampala si bizimbe” (Kampala is not just buildings) … All these are vernacular warnings on what could befall those that dare blink.
It’s not just your usual pickpocket, a form of theft that is generally on the decline. Theft has transformed into a form of art whose possessors are now known as ‘abagezi’ (the wise), and their art involves ‘okuyiiya’ (inventing/innovating) – all vocabulary built around cleverness and with the effect of euphemistically sanitising the practice!
Leaving a laptop in your car literally means giving it away. In a blink’s moment, it will be gone. A colleague found bread in a kaveera in the backseat where he had left his laptop, to go pick money from an ATM machine. Apparently, they do this to hoodwink passers-by to think that it’s the owner of the car dropping in their shopping and picking their bag.
How laptops in bags are replaced with concrete tablets in taxis, while the poor passenger is helping with tightening the door on the driver’s request, still beats my imagination. All happens in a speed that is normally impossible, and rarely with the notice of the victim!
You may just stretch a little to adjust the taxi side mirror, and the wallet in your tightly buttoned back pocket is gone! Yet, quite often, you only realise after leaving the taxi! I have always suspected that there is witchcraft involved in this, not sheer smartness of the thieves and dumbness of victims.
In the bank hall, kindness has become risky. A female student of mine was once asked by a seemingly illiterate stranger to help him fill in a withdraw slip. The next moment the student was conscious, she was at her home, with a four million withdraw slip – from her account! Going back to the bank to complain, camera recordings showed her talking to the stranger, withdrawing money (the four million), handing it over to him, and then leaving the bank together! Is this sheer dumbness?
Growing up in Masaka, where we used to trek about four kilometres daily to and from Kimaanya Blessed Sacrament primary school, it was common for us to randomly stop cars and beg for lifts. Some adults would do this too. Many motorists would stop to help. This is not something I can easily try in Kampala today, not even for children. I can’t even trust beyond appearance that they are children. And if it’s an adult, I even raise the windows.
In Kampala, when driving, your doors must be locked. Otherwise, at the sight of a bag, someone jumps into your backseat to harvest it as you scream helplessly. And, in jam, you can only touch your phone when your windows are raised. Most disturbing, at almost every scene of accident, there is a thief at hand to help himself with the victims’ belongings!
You are surrounded by a huge network of thieves from government offices to the streets. Both government and the street thief are eyeing your wallet to get away with as much as they can out of it. Now we may need warning signposts around, reading: ‘Hold your bags tightly, Government ahead’.
Government leaves you with your phone but continues to rob you through it by use of OTT; the street thief wants to take it all!
When you buy a car in Uganda, you have to label its lights, windows, side mirrors, etc. You have to apply rivets to your lights, central lock system, logos, window shades, top racks, bumpers, and lock up the wheel caps. On top of this, buy a car alarm system and tracker! Yet still, they may take the whole of the car with no trace. What the heck!
At times, even when you report such thefts to the police, the officers are also trying to see what they can rob from you through facilitation requests and fruitless tracking fees. You run to your ‘man of Gad’ to pray for the recovery of the lost items, yet he too is peeping into your pockets to see what remained to pay for his spiritual brokerage services.
Ultimately, the safest way is to assume that you are the only one not aiming to steal from you.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.