By Norbert Mao
It was in September 2018 that the media broke the news of a young university student who was paying her tuition by making bricks. And don’t think that by making bricks it meant she was hiring others to make the bricks. Not for Sharon Mbabazi. She is not afraid to roll up her sleeves, spit in her hands and get to work in the mud pit at Masooli, in Wakiso District.
Why does Mbabazi’s case stand out? And why in Uganda, an underdeveloped country, where everybody should be working hard, of all places? Methinks it is because most of Uganda’s university students think certain types of work are beneath them.
As a matter of fact, Mbabazi‘s bold initiative is an exception rather than the rule. We have all heard of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair waiting tables in France while a student. In developed countries, the captains of industry all have stories of humble beginnings.
The story of the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, has always fascinated me. When the company where his father worked went bankrupt in the 1930s, Buffett must have realised the hazard of being an employee. His father was suddenly jobless but regained his balance and started a financial brokerage business with two other partners which kept the family’s financial position secure. The lessons were not lost on little Buffett.
At age six, he started his first business selling chewing gum at five cents, making a two-cent profit over what he paid for them at his grandfather’s grocery. Then he started peddling Coca-Cola door-to-door alongside delivering newspapers. At age ten, he was working at Omaha University football games selling peanuts and popcorn.
One time his father took him to New York and they visited the New York Stock Exchange. At lunchtime, one of his father’s powerful friends invited them to dine in the exclusive members’ dining room. He was wowed by the experience and vowed that he would become a millionaire by 35.
Soon thereafter, he bought three shares of a company at $35 per share. The share price went down and he panicked. Then the shares rose to $40 and seeing a clear $5 margin of profit, he sold his shares. But again after a short time, the shares soared to $202! He was deeply pained that he sold too fast and vowed never to make the same mistake.
When his father was elected to the US Congress, they moved to Washington. Buffett didn’t take this as a chance to bask in his father’s limelight. He continued delivering newspapers, earning $175 per week. At thirteen years, he filed his first tax return, claiming a deduction of $35 for the use of his bicycle and watch.
The next year, Buffett teamed up with a friend who was gifted in repairing machines. They spent $25 to buy an old pinball machine and persuaded a barbershop to allow them install the machines at the shop front in return for half of the earnings. The machine paid for itself and soon they would install six machines in various barbershops in the neighbourhood. By the time Buffett completed high school, he had saved $5000. That is worth more that ten times the same amount today.
Back to Mbabazi, we were recently overjoyed to see her graduation pictures. Her struggles have not been in vain. She now has a journalism degree. And true to the principle that nothing succeeds like success, good Samaritans promptly offered her a scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies. Now that is what we call a hand-up, not a handout.
We need more of hand-ups and less of handouts. People like Mbabazi will help our country overcome the handout culture that our current leaders have ingrained in our society. As we face the current tough social challenges of youth unemployment, I call for a mind-shift.
The focus of education should move away from the current paper chase to pursuit of real skills. As the saying goes, the world will always make a beaten path to the home of a man who can make a better mousetrap.
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