By Denis Jjuuko
About two years ago, while visiting a school my Rotary club supports in northern Uganda, the headteacher told me that he had reached the age of retirement and was due to retire in about three months. He was looking forward to retirement.
I was surprised that there are Ugandan civil servants who look forward to life outside their comfortable offices. He told me that he had actually rejected an extension to his term of office. He simply wanted to go. I was keen to listen. This isn’t the Uganda I know. In Uganda, we swear affidavits to change our age so we can stay in office. Why would a headteacher in a rural school so desperate to retire?
“Some time back, I started preparing for my retirement, so I bought land and started farming,” he told me. “So you have rejected a contract to stay in this job so you can do farming,” I asked. “Yes. I have done my part; my farming is already doing well. I want to give it more attention,” he said confidently.
I might be wrong but I think meals in northern Uganda aren’t complete without a variety of vegetables. As we later had lunch that the headteacher had prepared for us, there were all types of vegetables. “These I prepared for you from my garden,” he said, pointing to a dish of steamed cabbages. “My land has a stream of water, and the vegetables are doing very well,” he told me.
“I am sorry, Mr Headteacher, but I don’t understand and please forgive me for being so naïve but who buys vegetables in a place so rural like this,” I asked. He smiled and ate some more malakwang – a common vegetable-based sauce in northern Uganda. I was eager for an answer but at the same time wondering why I was so stupid to ask such an embarrassing question.
“Currently, I cannot satisfy the market,” he said. I was relieved! “Most of the vegetables you will eat on your trip come from Mbale,” he added smilingly. “Where is Mbale?” I was quick to ask expressing my naivety for the second time in less than five minutes. “Mbale town, in eastern Uganda. Don’t you know Mbale?” he asked. “The Mbale I know is the big town between Soroti and Tororo,” I answered. “Yes, that is where vegetables come from,” he added.
Mbale and the school’s incomplete staffroom where we were having lunch is about 300km apart. It was strange to me that an area real deep couldn’t grow its vegetables and relied on supplies from a town 300km away. I understood why the headteacher was keen to retire. By selling at the same price as the vegetables from Mbale, he would make so much money given that he would incur fewer transport costs. His veggies would be fresh too.
I was in the north again recently and I met a young boy whose mother never returned home after she had taken another trip to Mbale to look for vegetables to sell in a nearby trading centre, but that is a story for another day. However, this story reminded me of the interaction with the headteacher about two years ago.
When I returned to the hotel, I offered the manager a cup of coffee so I could confirm whether indeed the town was relying on vegetables from a distance as far as Mbale. “I saw your colleague with a cluster of yellow bananas,” the hotel manager started. I wanted to apologize for bringing yellow bananas into his hotel but since he saw and didn’t complain, I guess that was fine. I was lucky he completed his sentence before I could say anything. “Those bananas are from Mbale too so is the Matooke you have ordered for dinner. Though some come from central Uganda,” he said.
I didn’t want more stuff about vegetables and now green and yellow bananas. So we had our coffee talked about the weather and other stuff. It was raining heavily every afternoon.
As we drove back to Kampala, I saw some banana trees but not many. They looked very green but I think nobody had planted them given the bushy environment in which they were blossoming. I spoke to my colleague about where the Matooke and vegetables that we ate came from. Our driver kept quiet like he had heard nothing. Half an hour later, he alerted me to a truck offloading Matooke in a trading centre. He said “if I pay attention, I will see many such lorries and they are all coming from Mbale and Buganda. Some might be heading to South Sudan.”
So if you are looking for a business to do, what about starting a Matooke and vegetable farm in Gulu? Gulu is centrally located and you can, therefore, serve northern Uganda, West Nile, and beyond. Gulu and some shores of Lake Victoria are the wettest areas in Uganda where rainfall reaches 1,500mm a year.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org
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