Back when I was a barefoot wee lad growing up in Biizi—a sleepy village outside of the even sleepier town of Masindi, Uganda—my friends and I never ran out of creative ways to entertain ourselves. Between the after-school street football pickup games, to running
Our cheapest, favorite and most abundant source of supplies was the trunk of the banana tree. The girls used the peeled fibrous bark to create dolls while the boys dug deeper and carved the stem into intricately detailed cars. If we ran across unused wires, we were in heaven. That meant we could create entire exoskeletons for cars, trucks, and bicycles – scarvanging “wheels” from the banana stem.
I was seeping with nostalgia during my conversation with Abbey Lubega at UNAA. Abbey, is a shy, sole proprietor of an auto repair shop in Winnipeg, Canada. I caught up with him, his wife Nettie, and one rambunctiously energetic son, Edris. We reminisced on our mutual village childhood creativity and ingenuity that fed into his current occupation.
Below are excerpts from our impromptu Q&A session. Abbey also shared his experiences on remittances and disappointments with trying to do business in Uganda all the way from the frozen tundras of Canada.
TMS Ruge: How long have you had your mechanics business?
Abbey: Right now I am going for six years.
TMS Ruge: What led you in the [auto] mechanics business?
Abbey: I was interested since I was young… I was always interested in doing things like that….
TMS Ruge: Were you one those Ugandan kids that made toys out of the banana stalks?
Abbey: (Laughs) Yes!
TMS Ruge: Did you have the wireframe cars?
Abbey: I had wire frames, I had those, you know the jackfruit thing? I used to cut that, and put stick and start driving that…
TMS Ruge: So your African village creative mentality really led you to work with real cars in Canada?
Abbey: (Still laughing) That’s right!
TMS Ruge: Do you have any family members still in Uganda?
Abbey: I do have. I have cousins, I have sisters over there and I have brothers.
TMS Ruge: Do you send any funds for their assistance?
Abbey: (He looks at his wife, Nettie) Every month. Ask her, she knows. I am always on Moneygram, or Western Union.
TMS Ruge: So you are a regular there?
Abbey: Yeah, oh yeah.
Nettie (His wife): He’s a very regular! Very!
TMS Ruge: As far as remittances are concerned, how much do you, as a family remit back home?
Nettie: Back home, oh let’s see. It’s about $100 to $200 (Canadian), every two weeks. I think this year alone, we’ve sent about $2,500 Canadian.
TMS Ruge: And for how many years have you been doing this?
Abbey: For a long period of time.
Nettie: Yeah, we were sending one of his nieces to school there. We were paying $300, $350 Canadian every three months. You know, we did that for about three years. We’ve been doing that for at least 8-10 years now.
TMS Ruge: So obviously, it’s something you believe in. Have you seen the evidence of this money improving the lives of those on the ground?
Nettie: Oh yeah. We helped one of his brothers open a little kiosk in the taxi park in Kampala. So we’ve seen how that has helped.
Abbey and Nettie also shared their experiences in what is the most common downside to being a member of the African Diaspora. It is often difficult to get much accomplished unless you work with someone on the ground, someone you can trust. But trust, even among family members, is not as common as it’s counterpart, mistrust, in African business culture. And there’s good reasons for the lack of trust. Many-a-ventures have ended in disappointment, broken partnerships and even broken families. And if one does not micromanage his or her investments, you could end up losing more than your shirt. Abbey not only suffered a financial blow, but a heart wrenching loss of trust after finding out the individuals entrusted with a land purchase actually ended up selling the land in his absence.
“We really thought we could trust them,” Nettie said, disappointed. “We had been dealing with them for six to eight years, so we felt like we had established that trust.”
Surprisingly, and despite the financial hit, Abbey and Nettie stubbonly refused to give up on their dreams of owning a piece of Uganda, “… oh, yeah, I will do it again,” Abbey said. “That is not gonna stop me, I have to do it. Maybe I use a different way, but I’ll buy it.”
Nettie also shares in his resolve because of their son, saying “we are very determined to have our own property there, our own home, because we really want to raise him in Uganda.”
With his mother occupied, Edris took to pushing his own stroller around the floor. “Canada is a nice, safe place to live and everything else,” Nettie continued, “but when it comes down to it, I want him to be raised in his father’s culture.”
According to his father, it remains to be seen if little Edris’ curiosity will follow in his father’s foot steps in forging his own career path. “I want to him to see the two sides. I want him to know the hardship [of growing up in Uganda] so that when he comes back here, he can think twice about everything he does. Whatever he chooses to become, I am OK with it.”
If you ask me, Uganda’s transportation sector could benefit from the talents of a well-trained mechanic.
We’ve added the audio of Abbie and Nettie’s interview below.
DAW: Abbey and Nettie Lubega (mp3)