Despite the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide on our doorstep, apart from the little things like boiling our drinking water (it came from the lake which was the final resting place for many victims), in Kampala we felt removed from the horrors, Despite the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide on our doorstep, apart from the little things like boiling our drinking water (it came from the lake which was the final resting place for many victims), in Kampala we felt removed from the horrors, though news seeped through every so often as our NGO friends returned, ashen-faced, from Kigali. Both of us were working full-time and we had visitors coming thick and fast, just how we liked it, which diverted our attention from the reality just over the border.
At work, Rick was gathering a fascinating selection of deals. His job was to finance small businesses, mainly high risk start ups. He was finding, however, that a handshake here didn’t have the finality of a gentleman’s back in Milton Keynes; nor did a legally binding document. The first few businessmen brazenly took his money and ran off with it into the sunset. Not the best outcome for him or the company. Rapidly, he learnt to understand the background to this behaviour: half a million Ugandans had been wiped out by the recent regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote; add to this mix the AIDS epidemic and you come up with an average life expectancy for a male of 42 years. Imagine the mentality of a 37 year old Ugandan businessman who has lived through all this: Get rich quick! Live Life! Say what you need to say. Sign what you need to sign. Do what you have to do to get the money. Consequences? Bah! I’ll be long gone.
“We have just done a deal with Rick Phillips at DFCU” translates as
“We won some foreign money”.
In Zimbabwe, if you dodge your taxes, you are shunned at the golf club and your name is blurred. Those days in Uganda, you are welcomed with open arms, bought drinks and slapped on the back:
“How did you do that, my friend?”
Corruption was an art form – something to be proud of if you did it well. It was not considered inherently bad.
This was the situation that Rick came to when he arrived as Operations Manager. So many businessman had run off with DFCU money to date, that his company couldn’t afford to pay its staff in his first month.
He found out that once a deal had been brokered between a Ugandan and a foreign investor – in whatever form: loans, shares – the local businessman had already factored in siphoning off his own cut before his business sees any money, if at all.
So, Rick learnt. He adapted. He put systems in place to make it harder to be conned. The few loans he did were secured over buildings and other assets that the businessmen owned, so that if the money was not repaid, DFCU had the legal right to move in and claim the assets. The crooked businessmen were creative though, continually upping their game. They used violence, or the threat of violence to scare away the asset collectors; they stalled on their repayments, by producing incorrect accounts, not turning up to meetings, or claiming the wrong machinery parts had been sent or that they were held up in customs. Once Rick had parted with DFCU money, he had to be as creative as they were, just to get back a fraction of what was owed.
One such business made melamine plates, posh in comparison to the usual plastic plates. The factory was basically a shed containing a plate-making machine, which Rick’s company had put money towards. This was a superb example of how a simple idea can go wrong if not managed well. A factory worker had to measure out nine-tenths pellets and one-tenth glaze into the machine and out of the mould at the other end popped a melamine plate. The trouble was that he was a bit slap dash with his measurements and the plates were all different mixes of glaze and substance. The business was failing. Rick wanted to foreclose, and sent a couple of his executives to reclaim the businessman’s block of flats, DFCU’s security. They arrived to find the block of flats surrounded by the army, blocking all the entrances. When his colleagues went away and returned with their own armed guards, the army started cocking their AK47’s. DFCU beat a hasty retreat. They did not want a gun battle, and the crooks won again.
A beautifully blatant corruption (there’s no shame remember) came in the form of a cotton jinnery. Jinja cotton had been world renowned, but since Idi Amin’s fallow years all the cotton fields had gone to seed. The farmers were keen to resurrect their cotton crops, but they had no buyers. This businessman had found a disused cotton jinnery, and needed DFCU money to restore it. Rick thought it was a brilliant business plan: the farmers were raring to go, cotton had a great market abroad and all the factory had to do was buy cotton from the farmers, bale it and export it. What could possibly go wrong? He parted with the money and sat back to reap the rewards. Oh dear, oh dear. The CEO magically acquired a fleet of BMW’s, the local community magically acquired a supply of free-flowing beer and Hey Presto! Mr Dodgy Businessman magically acquired an MP seat, thanks to all the local votes. Nothing fantastical happened to the jinnery, but Abracadabra! Rick’s money had disappeared.
And then there was the sad case of Rick’s fish farm on Lake Vic, with no marketable fish because of the effects of the Rwandan genocide on the lake. The initial concept had been good: a third of fish that the dugout fishermen brought to shore were rotten before they could get to market, so the business provided them with cooler boxes of ice, and bought their now-fresh catch. Great idea, but no-one can predict civil war. They scraped through the Rwandan crisis, and Sainsbury’s started taking orders again. So, the factory filleted the fish which they sent off to England, and cleverly sold the waste products, the heads and tails, out the back to Ugandans. It turned out that fish-head was such a delicacy that they made more profits from this than the exports, where currency exchange and airline delays caused huge loss of revenue.
This was the closest Rick ever got to a bribe. Bottom line, it was a disastrous investment from the outset. He started to foreclose, when the crafty GM appeared at Rick’s desk bearing a large box of fish to tempt him away from the decision. Rick was not impressed – in a land immersed in corruption where every man has his price, he was disappointed to find his going price was a box of dead fish.
Meanwhile, he was having a few problems closer to home. The thirty-strong team were looked after by a ‘tea boy’, Chris. Tea was taking 45 minutes to make as apparently he used cow’s milk straight from the cow which needed prolonged boiling. Rick was on a mission.
“Chris, please can you go into town and buy some UHT milk, teabags and a kettle. Oh and while you’re at it, can we have a towel and some toilet paper for the loo, please?”
The toilet paper was locked in the safe. Rick had thought this a ridiculous system and one of his first management decisions was to remove the toilet paper from the safe and place it in the cubicles. The next day it had disappeared, along with the towel. He also found their accounts declared that the same amount of money was spent on staff toilet paper every year as the head driver, Vincent’s salary. Many toilet rolls later, with no culprit in sight, the toilet-paper-in-the-safe rule was re-instated.
Rick was determined to make some things change however. One of his local executives had expressed his frustrations that staff meetings were chaotic affairs, with staff arriving in relays, and asked Rick to address this laid-back culture. After several weeks of staring sternly and pleading for punctuality in vain, he adopted the Primary School Teacher Registration Technique. He recorded arrival times, ticked them off and asked for an excuse from late-comers. Last man in was 25 minutes late. Two months later he was very happy to report in his dairy,
“My God a success at last! Thanks to my class registration technique, practically everyone was on time today! Only Jacqui was 2 minutes late. A first!”
There was a more worrying development too. Rick found, quite by chance, a letter with his signature on it, obviously forged, with paperwork and a fake ID requesting a DFCU chequebook. He checked and they had £40,000 in that account! Three policemen came along to investigate and laid a trap, but the imposter didn’t appear. A month later, the askaris found another fake DFCU ID in the foyer. This time they recognised the photo and reported that he was often seen hovering around the building. (It’s not the most intelligent move to put a photograph of yourself on the evidence, and then lose it). Another trap was laid, another no show. It was looking more and more like an inside job. Rick decided to play the waiting game. Months later, when I had flown back to England to wait out the last month of the pregnancy, Rick wrote to me saying
“During the board meeting, some excitement! The askari spotted the thief whose photo was on the fake ID. Juma chased him and they herded him back to the office at gunpoint. He admitted passing cheques. Vincent drove him to the private investigators and a suspicious car of three men pulled out and followed, but he managed to lose them. The three men came back and tried to bribe the askaris with 300,000 Uganda Shillings. Barclays fraud investigator said it was the fourth fraud of the day and that the gang would bribe him out of police custody before sundown”.
It’s a strange thing, that when you have a theme in your life, you seem to notice it all around you where before it had never really been apparent. So it was with pregnancy and all things child-bearing to me at that time. Baby Phillips was cooking nicely, and I had experienced the exhilaration of the first flutter of movement which over weeks transformed into more noticeable kicks and punches. I was blossoming; revelling in my condition and the attention it brought. I had gone through the stage of feeling nauseous, fat and dumpy, and now I had a proper pregnancy-shaped bump that I wore with pride.
At work, I suddenly had a flux of obstetric and gynaecological patients. A pregnant lady came to see me who lived way out in the sticks, so this was her first ante-natal appointment with me. She was around 20 weeks pregnant, and revealed that this had been a surprise pregnancy, that they already had three children which would have done nicely, thank you very much. Being missionaries on low salaries, she was worrying about finances too. None of this made it any easier for me, then, when I examined her to explain that her uterus was larger than a twenty week pregnancy and were there twins in the family, possibly? She went pale and very quiet. I sent her off for a scan. This gave her a little time to think and when she returned with confirmation of my findings, she was starting to get quite excited. We were at the same stage of pregnancy and a bond formed between us, that grew through her subsequent ante-natal appointments.
As a doctor I was privileged and taxed, both ends of the emotional spectrum, to be present at integral moments in my patients’ lives; moments of good news and surprises, but more often worrying or devastating times. One of the hardest things a doctor must do is to break bad news. So when it is a wonderful result I have to share, it is worth celebrating the occasion with gusto. One of these was just round the corner…
Ruby was a good friend of mine. We went swimming together and, in better days before the Rwanda crisis, we had enjoyed the mayhem of shopping for freshly caught fish at the market on Ggaba beach. She came to see me at the surgery, and I asked after her husband. She told me that he had just returned from an armed expedition to Rwanda where he had been working as part of the crisis relief team. They stood by the river on the Ugandan border and counted 6 bodies floating by in 5 minutes. He said they could smell the stench of rotting bodies in Kigali from 20 km away. This is what I had been hearing from other NGO patients. It was no wonder they all came back looking like ghosts.
Ruby was having IVF and desperate to start a family. I had seen her several times about this problem as they had been trying for a long time and her biological clock was ticking. In fact, I was feeling guilty about my own growing bump, impossible to disguise now, when I knew she would give anything to be in the same condition. It was an awkwardness we had to move through, but she was a down-to-earth type and we managed our way. She had seen a specialist in England and was dropping off some expensive injections to store in our fridge that would stimulate her ovulation when the time was right. In other words, she was planning her ovulating around her husband’s trips to Rwanda, which killed the romance, but needs must.
A month later she came to see me again. The usual chitchat was short, she seemed anxious.
“Well?” I said, “Shall we get on with it, then?”
“Kate, I think we’ve done it”
“I’m sorry. Done what?” I replied.
“I think, we’ve done it ourselves”
Hooting ensued so that the waiting room patients must have wondered what on earth was happening in my consulting room. The home pregnancy tests had been positive, but she wanted the lab test to make doubly, triply, quadruply sure. We two stood together very close in the lab while I carried out the test.
BINGO. A positive result! We hugged and jumped and jumped and hugged and screamed and cried and whooped and cried some more. Wonderful news and they HAD done it themselves, and now we were both going to have babies within a few months of each other. That was one happy day for me, but for Ruby and her husband, well, they must have been right up there in the clouds.
This was one of several momentous times in my Lab, the Lab I was now growing quite fond of. I had been so terrified in the early days of going in there, of having to perform lab tests; so out of my comfort zone. Yet with time and experience I was learning that (aside from the poo samples which really were disgusting, there was no getting away from that), out of this place I had once feared came great, extraordinary joy.