The Employment Revolution: How BBOXX’s Rural Shops are Fighting Youth Unemployment in Africa

(A version of this post appeared previously in two parts on BBOXX’s blog)

Byangabo Shop Manager

Jacqueline Nyinawumuntu, Shop Manager, Byangabo

Jacqueline Nyinawumuntu is Shop Manager of BBOXX’s Byangabo shop in northern Rwanda. A n­­ew mother, her salary from BBOXX makes the task of caring for her young family a bit more predictable: unlike the uncertain income most young Africans rely on–informal jobs and petty businesses and small agricultural holdings–Jacqueline knows exactly how much money to expect each month, and it always arrives on time.

Jacqueline is one of the lucky ones. Youth in Sub-Saharan Africa face an unemployment crisis that makes the Great Depression look like the ‘90s tech boom. Youth unemployment in Rwanda is an estimated 42%. In Uganda it is even worse, with estimates ranging from 63% to 80%: the highest in the world. For a foreigner, it’s hard to walk down the street without being asked by a young person for a job.

“What job do you want to do?” I ask.


Any job. Sweeping the floor. Working as the ‘boy’ in an uncle’s shop for $40 a month. Pushing bicycles laden with multiple 90kg sacks of grain up hills. Every day two dozen young men sit idly atop concrete walls outside a hotel in Kasese, Uganda, one of 3 towns in East Africa where BBOXX has established a ‘Hub’. But they’re not loitering: they’re waiting for trucks to arrive, offering the chance for a few of them to work that day offloading it for a dollar or two. Uncertain jobs like this are the only jobs available to most young Africans today.

It’s not for a lack of education.  In Uganda, for example, 40,000 students graduate from universities each year, but only an estimated 8,000 will find jobs in the formal sector: that’s an 80% unemployment rate among university grads. I once met a boda boda driver who had graduated from Makerere, Uganda’s flagship university—but finding no work in Kampala, had been forced to move back to his village to ferry people and produce around for small sums. Youth in much of Africa are being educated for a future that does not exist.


That’s all changing, with companies like BBOXX creating jobs for youth in rural areas. So far we have 120 full time employees across Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya; most are under 30, and more than 30% are women. That’s still a small number, but with enough investment we should triple that number by the end of next year, and will employ more than 2,000 people in Africa by 2020.

Uganda Country Technician

Patricien Tsangya, Country Technician for Uganda, repairing a PCB

While most off-grid solar companies sell through existing distributors and retailers, BBOXX is opening our own shops in rural areas of Africa. Not only does this improve quality and service standards, it also creates good, local jobs. Each shop BBOXX opens employs a Shop Manager and a Technician, usually recruited from the same rural areas where BBOXX works. Each group of ~10 shops are managed by a central “hub” employing another eight middle management staff.

Opening Bwera Uganda

Simon Bigabwenkya, Shop Manager, and Masika Annet, Pay Plan Officer, opening a shop in Bwera, Uganda

Besides full time staff, BBOXX recruits commission based agents to reach the deep villages and tall mountaintops that we ourselves can’t possibly cover. The best agents can earn a lot of money.  Our top agent in East Africa, Munyemana Leopold of Kidaho, Rwanda, earned 8-times his country’s average monthly income per capita when he sold 59 solar systems in October.

Another star agent, Kafude William of mountainous Kyondo Subcounty, Kasese, sold 44 systems in his second month of business. He told me that when he saw how much money had been transferred into his bank account at the end of that month, he called the bank thinking it was a mistake. When they told him it was correct, he had them print out the bank transfer document and slept with it under his pillow, then took his wife for a long-awaited honeymoon.

“I’ve never seen that much money before,” he told me. “Ok, I have for my NGO, EPAFO, but that was for projects. This was mine.” As a token of his gratitude, he presented us with a chicken.

Kidaho agent and technician

Jean Claude, Technician for Kidaho (left) and Leopold, Agent for Kidaho (right)

It’s not just income.  Many of the skills we require don’t exist in the places we work.  Staff must keep meticulous records of every transaction, use computers, manage cash and stock in line with proper accounting methods, and deliver excellent customer service—all in a part of the world where people are not used to doing business this way.

To cultivate these skills, we are developing a BBOXX Academy based on international best practice research from CEB (my former employer).  This Academy takes a long-term approach to staff development, focusing on coaching employees and measuring their actual performance on the job.  Entry-level Shop Managers and Technicians are assessed every two weeks after training to ensure they are improving—and they almost invariably are.  After they’ve demonstrated proficiency at their new skills in the field, BBOXX will certify them, and they can proceed to intermediate and advanced trainings.

CRM System

Learning to use BBOXX’s CRM system

Training Exercise

Training Exercise


Gauthier, Sales & Marketing Manager for Musanze, leading a training of new Agents

Agent Training

New Agents at training: most are youth and women from rural areas

The impact is palpable.  Shop Managers who started out having never touched a computer are now confidently using Microsoft Excel to track hundreds of customer accounts.  They feel proud to be part of an international company.  Unlike a typical entrepreneurship training that leaves graduates to fend for themselves, BBOXX employees have time to learn and grow while stably employed with a company.  When they are ready to leave BBOXX, the skills they’ve learned and relationships they’ve made will position them to found and lead enterprises in their countries for years to come.


The Employment Revolution: BBOXX Hub and Shop staff in Musanze District, Rwanda

The Price of Liberty is 45 Cents of MTN Airtime

It’s often said that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”  Usually people mean vigilance against the government.  But after more than 3 years in the nation with perhaps the world’s highest level of personal liberty, I’ve learned that it can just as well mean vigilance against your fellow citizens: people and companies can infringe on your liberties just as well as any government.

A few days before leaving for Christmas break, I’d bought a 50 MB internet bundle on my phone for UGX 1,200 (about $0.45).  Less than 5 minutes later the internet stopped working.  I requested a balance inquiry by SMS and, incredibly, was told that I had used up my entire bundle.  Impossible! I thought.  I hadn’t been syncing documents, watching Youtube, or downloading big files.  My phone data logs suggested that I had used less than 50 MB in that period.  And indeed, with internet speeds of around 100 kb/second, it is practically impossible to have used 50 MB in 5 minutes—the most I could have used would have been 30 MB.

The next day I suffered a similar outrage, when my pre-paid call and text bundle stopped working for no reason, resulting in me getting charged for calls and texts I had already paid for.  MTN never refunded me; that money was just “eaten.”  Like the police who every year before holidays suddenly start working extra hard to “enforce” traffic violations, it seems MTN was also “looking for Christmas.”

I’m not the only one with such experiences.  Whether Ugandan or foreigner, anyone I tell about disappearing data nods their head in agreement.  Airtime seems not to last as long as it used to—or worse, seems inconsistent.  Sometimes 50 MB lasts you a day, and sometimes just a few minutes.

Now I’m not saying MTN (the network operator) is deliberately cheating its customers.  Perhaps they have imperfect systems that don’t always measure data usage accurately.  Or perhaps it’s consumers like me who underestimate our data usage, and blame the company for the results of our flawed mental calculations.  But in the former case, MTN should still refund me for their mistake.  And the latter would indicate that MTN has not done a good job of winning consumers’ trust.

So what’s a vigilant citizen to do?

For a libertarian it’s easy: trust the market, and competition for customers will eventually force such practices to stop.  If a company is artificially inflating customers’ data usage, another more savvy company is bound to enter the market, advertise and execute on fairer and more transparent data charges, and win market share, forcing the dishonest company to adapt.

A follower of Ayn Rand may be even blunter: it is a company’s right to cheat its customers.  Greed is good, and if companies can get away with artificially siphoning off their customers’ airtime, it’s customers’ fault for letting them.  Take time to measure your data usage.  Go to the company and complain.  But if you get cheated, that’s your fault.

But let’s actually think about these arguments for a second.  First, is it really my job to hold a half-billion dollar a year company accountable?  If I want to complain about the UGX 1,200 I lost, it will cost me 10 times that amount (UGX 10,000-14,000) to get a boda to and from the service center, not to mention 2 hours getting there, waiting in line, and getting back—time I could have spent doing something else, like working.  And when I get there, there’s no guarantee they will even refund my money.

In other words, it’s just not worth it economically to complain: I’ll spend more time and money solving the problem than the problem actually costs me.  For UGX 1,200, it’s easier just to suck it up and buy another bundle.

Economists call this “distributed costs and concentrated benefits”: one party gains a lot by inflicting small bits of damage on many.  When you add up the damages to everyone who’s been hurt, the cost to society outweighs the benefits.  But on an individual level, the cost of addressing the damages is more than the cost of the damages themselves, so no one takes action.  In this case, a phone company that arbitrarily deducts $0.45 in airtime from each of its 7 million customers once a month will make close to $40 million a year out of thin air, while each of those 7 million customers finds it cheaper to tolerate the abuse than to stop it.

This is why we have consumer protection agencies and class action lawsuits.  It’s not worth it for one individual to spend $5 complaining about $0.45, but it is worth it for society as a whole to pool $50,000 together complaining about 7 million individuals losing $0.45: establish a consumer watchdog for $50,000 a year, and save a net $39.5 million in losses to society.  Lawsuits work a similar way: a trial lawyer can make a fortune spotting such distributed costs and bringing a class action.  The lawyer gets rich, customers get their money back, and the punitive damages make the company think twice about doing it again.

Even if libertarian approaches did work, do we really want to live in a society that requires such vigilance all the time?  Contrary to the libertarian’s expectation, fewer laws and regulations don’t reduce surveillance and control—it merely shifts the burden of vigilance from the government onto everyone: everyone watches everyone else.

This is what you have in developing countries with low rule of law: you’re constantly on guard, every moment a decision.  Is the phone company cheating me out of data?  Is the fruit lady overcharging me for these tomatoes?  Is the boda I’m about to get on drunk… or a rapist?  If I cross the street when the light is red, will the car heading toward me actually stop?

In the absence of trust brought about by institutions and the rule of law, everyone suffers.  Businesses don’t do deals because they have no way of making sure the other side will hold up its end of the bargain.  People learn to accept small abuses and injustices because it’s just not worth it to complain about.  And injured parties resort to mob justice because there’s no other way to settle disputes.

Laws and regulations don’t necessarily reduce liberty: they can also make us more free by allowing us to focus on doing things we want instead of constantly watching other people and businesses to make sure they’re not cheating, abusing, or otherwise harming us.  We can either spend all our time vigilantly looking over our shoulder, or we can outsource some of that vigilance to institutions that can do it better and more cheaply, allowing ourselves to relax and focus on other things.

Regulations exist so that we don’t have to spend $5 and two hours fighting over 45 cents of airtime.

State of the Union: How Would People in Africa View Inequality in America?

I sometimes have trouble explaining the American definition of poverty to people in Africa. In 2011 when I’d first moved to Uganda I was riding in the car with two coworkers who made UGX 300,000 per month (about $115) – which is more than double their country’s per capita income.

Chatting to each other, one remarked, “did you know that in the USA they have a minimum wage?”

“Wait, you mean there’s a minimum amount that everyone has to get paid?” the other asked incredulously.

“Yes. And guess what: the minimum is $8… per hour!

The other one did some mental calculations. “That’s… $15,000 per year!  How much is that in shillings?” He pulled out his phone calculator, punched in the numbers, and then just shook his head.  “That person is rich!”

Inequality is a hot topic. It was a focus in President Obama’s state of the union address, during which he also mentioned a figure of $15,000: “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

That’s America.  But from a global perspective, just how rich is someone who makes $15,000 a year? Here are some stats to put it in perspective:

How an American minimum wage earner stacks up against the rest of the world

How an American minimum wage earner stacks up against the rest of the world

And in addition to being safely within the top 10-15% of income earners globally, American minimum wage earners receive a host of other benefits that even the middle class in developing countries don’t have: free public education, government provided health insurance, welfare benefits, and access to good roads and public infrastructure.  This is not to say that life for poor Americans is easy, but just to put some of the numbers in perspective.

So what is a just distribution of wealth?  How do we define it: I.e. is it the distribution within a country, or should we look more globally?  And what are the obligations of the rich to the poor? Should American minimum wage earners perhaps be made to give up a portion of their earnings to the poorer 90% of the worlds population in the name of equality?

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be exploring what living and working in some of the world’s poorest countries can tell those of us in the richest countries about how we should care for our own and others around the world: where inequality and wealth come from, and what we should do about it. We’ve lived so long with so much that the memory of what it’s like to live without – truly without – has been lost to most. Developing countries can help remind us the things we used not to have, and what it took to get to the point where we can take them for granted.

Culture Shock (Part 2): 20 More Culture Shocks upon Reaching Home

I started this list yesterday, but have thought of about 20 more elements of culture shock I’ve felt while visiting London and the States during the holidays.  Continued below:

  1. Service at restaurants is TOO FAST. Restaurant service in Africa can be inconceivably slow and comically inept, but in America it’s the opposite problem.  Seriously, when the main course comes out as soon as you’ve finished the appetizer, you don’t have any time to digest the previous course or have a conversation, so you leave over-stuffed and under-satisfied.  You sit down and before you’ve even opened the menu, the waiter is already there asking if you know what you want or if you need “a few more minutes.”  Um, I haven’t opened the menu yet.  Seriously waiters, give us a bit of time to ourselves to eat and enjoy!
  2. Doors being closed doesn’t mean the store is closed. It just means it’s cold or hot outside.  In Uganda, the weather is perfect all the time so there’s no space heating or cooling—and hence no need for businesses to close their doors.  If the store is open, the door is open.  In the US, I sometimes walk up to a store and, finding the door closed, start to turn away, only to remember that I need only to open it.
  3. ROADS! Smooth, wide, well-planned and well-marked, and with mostly non-crazy drivers, Western roads make it easy to drive anywhere without constant anxiety about getting run off the road by a bigger car or having to dodge a pedestrian darting into your path.  The exceptions are 5 lane superhighways with 40 mph wind gusts; while preferable to a 1-lane highway driving into oncoming traffic, it’s almost as terrifying encountering high winds while driving at 70 mph.
  4. The floor for quality in the West is so high. You can find anything in Africa, from a 5-star luxury safari lodge to a $4 a night shack with a pit latrine; there’s a long way to go from the top to the bottom.  The difference in the West isn’t so much that the ceiling for quality is massively more luxurious, but that the lowest quality you can get is still pretty good.  KFC isn’t exactly considered a luxury restaurant, but consider that any KFC in America has an enclosed environment, modern kitchen, central heating and cooling, and flush toilets.  In the West that’s the floor, but Uganda’s four KFCs are yuppie destinations.
  5. Self-reliance is overrated. When I told my granddad that a business partner in East Africa wanted to invest in a house in the US but needed a trusted person to collect the rent, I was shocked to learn that there are actual companies that do this for you in America—and you can generally even trust them with your cash!  In the West, no matter what your need, there’s probably a business or government agency willing to do that for you.  And if somebody does you wrong, there’s a legal system that can back you up; no need for mob justice.  In Africa, you’ve got to almost entirely fend for yourself in life and in business.
  6. The internet is fast, it’s cheap, and it’s everywhere. 3G coverage in Africa—at least in East Africa—is surprisingly good, but it’s still only in the main towns, and it’s still not that fast.  Moreover, data bundles are expensive and never truly unlimited, so you constantly have to think about your data usage.  Being back in America, it’s simply amazing to be able to do what you want on the internet—streaming movies, syncing files, downloading updates—without having to think about it.
  7. You can do anything on your smartphone. As a result of the above, there’s more you can do with your smartphone every time I come back Stateside.  During this current trip, I paid for Starbucks with my phone and ordered an Uber (is that what you say?) for the first time.  That said, Africa is not that far behind—smartphone use is on the rise, and there’s no telling what may be possible five years from now.
  8. Dishwashers.  You’d think they are a pure convenience, and on days the maid doesn’t come this is definitely true: doing the dishes by hand (especially when you don’t have a disposal and have to pick bits of soggy soapy food fragments out of the drain) is one of life’s small annoyances.  But on days the maid comes, having a dishwasher suddenly seems more troublesome: you’d have to rinse off the dishes and even take them out of the dishwasher yourself.  SO MUCH WORK!
  9. The lack of boda bodas. You mean I can’t just walk outside and find a moto taxi willing and ready to take me where I want to go, cutting through any amount of traffic, for $3 or less?  One of the things that’s LESS convenient in the West.
  10. Rigid schedules. Another thing that’s less convenient Stateside, I’m always shocked that I can’t call someone a few hours before arriving in town and see them the next day.  “I know you just flew 2,000 miles, but I’m booked for the next week!  Maybe next time?”  Americans just don’t have much free time on their hands these days.
  11. North Americans and Europeans are getting ripped off for everything except Apple products. GBP 1500 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment?  $5 for a Greek yogurt?  $40 for a “fair trade” basket that costs $4.50 at the craft market in Kampala?  Prices in the West are criminally high.  The only thing that seems to be really reversed, ironically enough, is Apple, where high prices in America are trumped only by the exorbitant markups n Africa: a $650 iPhone 6 in the US costs $1,200 in Kampala.
  12. Americans, especially, getting ripped off for health care. I bought a package of pills in Uganda for $4.80 that would have cost $90 in the USA.  A consultation at the “expensive” expat clinic in Kampala is $20-30, and a blood test is $15.  Insurance companies, trust me, you have a lot more room to negotiate rates with health care providers.
  13. Tip and taxes not included. It’s bad enough to suffer the sticker shock of paying $5.50 for a beer that would have cost $1.80 in Africa.  Then you face the sinking feeling of realizing you have to add in 8% tax AND another 15-20% for tip.  Tax and the waiter’s wages should just be included up front.
  14. Still, it’s nice not having to always negotiate. Sometimes though, even when the price is high, it’s just nicer to not have to spend effort bargaining over a few dollars or wondering if you are getting the “fair” price.  The price is what it is, so take it or leave it.
  15. It’s amazing.  Once on a previous trip to the States, I asked someone where I could find a particular item in town (I can no longer remember what it was).  His (somewhat incredulous) reply was, “dude, just get it on Amazon!”  In Africa, you have to know where to look for good quality at good prices.  In Kampala, for example, there’s a particular part of town you go for print shops (Nasser Road), a part of town that sells computers (a section of Kampala Road), even a part of town that sells popcorn machines (not kidding—it’s in Katwe).  In America, everything is just on Amazon—and it’s delivered to your door.
  16. Jimmy Fallon is hosting the Tonight Show. What???
  17. Credit cards. You can pay with credit card anywhere these days, even mom and pop shops.  Cards are not only convenient and safe—you don’t have to carry a wad of cash everywhere—a surprising amount of modern convenience depends on them.  Just one example: no hassle warranties.  When my Kindle stopped working, Amazon sent me another one under warranty before I’d returned the broken one.  How could they trust me that my Kindle was really faulty?  Simple: if I didn’t return the broken one, they would just charge my credit card for the one they’d sent me.
  18. Checking the weather before going outside.  Or put another way, WINTER!  In Africa you never need to check the weather, because the only variables are rain and sun.  Just go with a jacket, and you’ll be fine.  But the first step off the plane in the UK or US in December, and you know you’re in a different place.  The air is cold and brisk, and the days are short, which confuses your sense of what time it is, especially after long periods indoors.
  19. Things are just so EASY in the West. Paying without cash.  Drinking tap water.  Home delivery from Amazon.  The endless variety at the supermarket.  Contactless payments on the Tube.  The list goes on and on, and is expanding all the time.  Sometimes I get overwhelmed by just how easy it is here to do or get anything you can think of, wherever you are, whenever you want.
  20. And if we let it get destroyed, it will take centuries to rebuild. Every trip back to the States I make, there’s something new and different.  And usually that new and different thing depends on something else that came before it.  Uber couldn’t exist without the smartphone.  Amazon couldn’t exist without a system of addresses that tell drivers where to deliver packages, or without credit cards that enable remote payments—which in turn rely on a system of laws and a history of trust that reassure vendors that they will actually get paid.  And all these things are dependent on accumulated knowledge stored in books and universities and training programs, and passed down informally by older generations to be added upon by younger.  They’re dependent on accumulated capital: the stock of resources that’s reinvested to produce more.  And they’re dependent on accumulated trust between members of society: that we should all play by the same rules, and that governments despite their flaws are generally looking out for our interests.  None of these things are just here.  They’re not inevitable.  They were built and accumulated, over decades and centuries, and if we ever were to lose them, it would take decades and centuries to build them back.

What culture shocks do you have when you return home?

Culture Shock (Part 1)? Taking the Wormhole Home, and 5 Culture Shocks upon Arrival

Entebbe Road is like a wormhole linking two points in (material) development.  On one side is the African universe: tropical, poor, and carefree.  On the other is the Western universe: hurried, rich, and ordered.

The doorway to modernity opens gradually.  You get in the cab, sealing yourself from the possibility of having to take public transportation, finally able to relax and anticipate.  You start down the road, one of the smoothest in Uganda, but still narrow and dangerous, choked by the soot of old cars, flanked by noisy bars and ramshackle petty shops most of the way.  Upon reaching Entebbe, a relatively upscale town that’s home to beach resorts, a UN base, and the president’s residence, the shack bars and motley shops disappear, replaced by expanses of manicured green: the golf course, the botanical gardens, the luxury hotels.  Traffic thins and the road widens.

Then comes Entebbe Airport.  After a series of redundant security checks you are finally in: an airlock between Africa and Europe.  The airport is nothing special, really—four gates, a few duty free shops, stale and humid air.  Still, it’s a modern structure, with indoor plumbing, sit-down toilets, and 24-hour electricity.  The winged machines that roam the runways are some of the most advanced engineering feats humans have ever accomplished.  Poverty is barred at the gates: only the privileged enter here.  You’re getting closer.

And then you’re on the plane.  If you’re lucky, you don’t even have to walk outside—the jet way goes all the way to the gate.  You sit down.  The hatch closes.  Can’t believe you’ll be in London in 9 hours.

Then the plane takes off, and the banana trees and scrubby lakeshore foliage fade into the early dry season haze and are swallowed by it.  The scattering of lights marking individual businesses and abodes in the city give way to the blackness of the countryside at night.  Darkness takes over.  Above the whole continent of Africa you don’t see a single light shining from below; during the night it’s difficult to tell when you leave behind land and cross over the Mediterranean.

You enjoy the inflight meal and a cup of wine.  You fall asleep.

Continue reading

Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 6: Home At Last

What the roads used to look like

What the roads used to look like

For Part 5, Click Here

We were driving in the ambulance from Kaabong to Kampala, and the roads were dubious at best.  Fortunately we had an excellent ambulance driver.  A native Karamojong, he had worked for more than a decade in the area with NGOs, bus companies, and the government, and he knew every pothole, ridge, and rivulet in every road along the way.  Thanks to his skill, we were able to make excellent time while still driving safely, his expert hands knowing when to guide one wheel off the road when it was smoother in the grass, his eyes accurately judging the space between ridges in the road that would allow both wheels to ride atop them, straddling the rain-carved rivulet that ran between.

The scenery was beautiful.  The volcanic plugs and dramatic cliffs of Kaabong soon gave way to a vast sea of gold-green grassland that stretched to the horizon, the waving stalks bathed in golden light by the setting sun that shimmered on hidden pools where the first waters of rainy season had already begun collecting.  The road had evidently been resurfaced recently, as we encountered only a few muddy patches.  We passed the occasional Karamojong wandering aimlessly by or resting in the grass, children crying “Dodo! Dodo! Dodo!”—their call for us to throw them a plastic water bottle as they ran after the vehicle.  The pastoralist children prize the plastic bottles because their families use them to store milk, and when you respond to their clamours for “dodo,” they playfully fight over the bottle until the victor finally snatches it, emerging from the pile holding his prize aloft.

Karamoja - big sky and mountain By 6pm we were in Napak, a surprisingly developed town for such a remote region—no doubt due to the money flowing in to the town’s missionary hospital.  Napak has grid electricity, and even boasts a well-built hotel with a swimming pool.  Why not take Jolly to this hospital?  Simple: it does not have a CT scan machine.

Continue reading

Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 5: “The Ambulance Has No Tires”

For Part 4, click here

Jolly was still unconscious in the hospital.  I’d been there 6 hours at this point.  Finally at 3:30am, I went to pick up David so he could relieve my shift.  I crawled into bed in the District Health Officer’s hotel and slept for 4 hours, then woke up to return to the hospital and try to arrange an ambulance.

When I arrived, the Sister from the school was already at the hospital with tea and chapattis.  The doctor was also there.  Happily, she informed me that Kaabong had two ambulances.  (Yes, two ambulances for the entire sub-county of 400,000 people).  The ambulance ride would be free—we would just need to pay for the fuel.

Unfortunately, the ambulance that was parked in the hospital parking lot did not work, we were told.  Instead, they would have to bring the second ambulance from another town nearly two hours away.

In the meantime, David and I went to the police station to make our official statements… as well as to make arrangements for releasing the van so we could bring it back to Kampala for scrap.

After two hours, we returned to the hospital hoping to find the ambulance had arrived.  It had not.  When we reminded the doctor of our need, she called the ambulance driver, only to learn that unfortunately that ambulance would not be available after all—it had no tires.  Why it took the driver two hours to find out this crucial bit of information, and why he never called earlier to let us know, I have no idea.  So there was no CT scanner, and now there was no ambulance.

Only as it turns out, there was.  When the doctor heard the news, she shrugged and said, “well I guess we’ll just have to use the one from this hospital.”

I stared at her.  “I thought you said that one isn’t working.”

“Well, it works, but it doesn’t have any fuel.”


The medical staff had considered two options—bringing an ambulance of questionable road worthiness from a town two hours away, versus buying fuel for the ambulance that was sitting there in the parking lot—and decided the two-hours-away ambulance was the better option.

“So why don’t we just go buy fuel?” I demanded incredulously.

“You see, it does not have ANY fuel,” the doctor explained, as if this somehow satisfied my question.  “So we can’t drive it to the petrol station.”

I stared again.  “Well why don’t you give me a jerrycan and I’LL go buy fuel!  We’re the ones paying for the fuel anyway!”

The doctor considered my suggestion for a moment, and, seeing no problem with it, agreed that it would work.  She called that ambulance’s driver to come to the hospital, while I set out for the fuel station.

But David had a better idea.  After all, the Super Custom had been filled recently, which meant there was about $80 of diesel in there—and it would only be siphoned off by the police if we didn’t take it.  We certainly didn’t want to lose any MORE money.

So instead of heading to the fuel station, David and I traveled back to the police post with a hose, a jerrycan, and a plastic wash basin.  David found the release valve underneath the fuel tank, and after a few minutes of tinkering, the smelly liquid was trickling into the basin.  From there we transferred the fuel to the jerrycan, brought the jerrycan to the hospital, and poured the fuel into the ambulance, using the cut-off top half of a water bottle as a funnel.  The driver turned the key, and the ambulance rumbled to life.  Almost time to go!

But the ordeal was not over yet.  Upon entering the hospital to gather our remaining things, we encountered the owner of the hotel the installers were staying in (slightly cheaper than the one owned by the District Health Officer).  He was demanding to know the whereabouts of one of his rooms’ blankets.  We couldn’t lie, one of us had taken it to the hospital, since the hospital did not have extra blankets for patients’ caretakers.

Dutifully we produced the blanket, but the hotel owner was outraged.  “You cannot take the blanket in there!” he fumed.  “Don’t you know there are BED BUGS?  These hospitals are not clean places!  This blanket cannot be used anymore—you will have to buy me a new one.”

Conveniently, the hotel owner also owned the only shop in town that sold blankets.  And he wasn’t doing us any favors just because one of his customers was nearly dead in the hospital; he wanted the full UGX 80,000.

Now that’s only about $30, but our cash reserves were already low from having to pay the tow truck, and I still needed to set aside much of what I had left to top up on fuel once we got to Kotido (where fuel is 10% cheaper than Kaabong).  There IS one ATM in Kaabong, incredibly, but it had not worked the night before, and I wanted to take no chances with the cash I had.

But our pleading fell on deaf ears, and the hotel owner continued to refuse us the courtesy of one of his blankets.  Another vulture looking to make a buck.

Again, the Catholic sister from Komukuny Girl’s School came to our rescue.  She was well-known in town, and, critically, could speak the local language on our behalf.  She pulled the hotel owner aside and chatted with him softly for a few minutes.  Her words were magic.  Before long he had softened, and eventually he relented.  In the end, the only compensation he needed was for us to buy soap to wash the blanket; from there he would dry it in the sun and then keep it in a hot car for a few days to kill the bed bugs.  That Catholic sister helped us so much; I am not sure how we can repay her.

So now, the blanket affair was sorted out.  The ambulance had fuel.  And the driver had arrived.  FINALLY it was time to set off.

In typical African fashion, no resource is left under-utilized, and the ambulance was no different.   Today it would be carrying not only Jolly, but another patient who needed to go to a missionary hospital in Napak for leg surgery (not exactly ON the way, but only two hours OUT of it), as well as the patient’s caretaker, a nurse, two other passengers who simply needed a ride, and all our luggage.  It was 3pm at this point, and Mbale was an 8 hour drive.  It was past time to get moving.


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