On my second day in Uganda, I found myself being driven for no apparent reason to the same place I had left just an hour earlier, as if caught in some weird time-warp, only this time with a crowd of Ugandans along for the ride. I wondered, “Am I in  a TV sitcom?” But, really, you can’t make this stuff up.

It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t worked in a non-Western culture just what life here is like. Uganda is not unique in having many cultural behaviors which seem incomprehensible to a westerner – the same could be said for the Middle East, Asia, South and Central America, and Eastern Europe. Much of the dynamic is driven by poverty and survival needs a westerner just will never “get.”

When I arrived in Uganda on Thursday, it was necessary to rent a vehicle. So after driving from the airport, we arrived late in the day in Jinja, the second largest city in Uganda and my usual center of operations. The first thing we had to do was meet with the rental agent to finalize what would be a forty day rental. This gentleman was the “chairman,” which meant he was the head of a partnership that owns and rents out vehicles. This suggested to me that we might not be working with Hertz. We switched the luggage from our one day rental that picked me up from the airport to the vehicle we would be using for the rest of the trip.

When it came time for the paperwork, I realized that I had arrived too late to make it to the bank, so I did not have the funds in the local currency to pay for the rental. This became a sticking point for the chairman even though I explained about needing to exchange my American funds at the bank which would not be open until the next day. Credit cards, of course, are not usable in these situations in Uganda.

Finally, I offered to give him a crisp $100 bill to hold until I returned with the right amount of Ugandan shillings the next day. We dickered a bit, and I explained the exchange rate and the value of the bill, which exceeded the amount needed to rent the vehicle. Finally, he acceded and we drove off to the guesthouse where I crashed hard and early.

Now a westerner would think that this arrangement was straightforward – he holds the bill in his possession until I bring the correct currency, he returns the bill to me, I pay him the shillings to rent the vehicle, we drive off into the sunset, and everyone is happy. And all this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, just like the efficient car rentals we are used to in the west. With these totally fallacious assumptions in my mind, we arrived at the appointed hour the next day to meet with the chairman, whose favorite phrase , by the way, is, “It’s fine. There’s no problem.” Tire looks wonky – “It’s fine. There’s no problem.” The rear door won’t open – “It’s fine. There’s no problem.” You get the idea.

We filled out the paperwork and the moment for the exchange arrived. No $100 bill. Excuse me? “It’s fine. There’s no problem.” He apparently gave the bill to his partner to hold instead of just holding it himself. “So where is your partner,” I asked innocently, like a lamb being led to slaughter. Oh, here he is now, and another Ugandan walked up and shook hands all around. The $100 bill? “Oh,no, I don’t have it. I gave it to my daughter to hold.” ????!!!?? Say what?

“So where is your daughter?”

“She’s at the university. Her class gets out at 11:00 and then she’ll come here with the money.” It’s now 10:55. A lot of Lusoga (the local dialect) started flying back and forth between Pastor Waisana, who had come with me, Alfred, my assistant and driver, the partner, and the chairman.

Then, suddenly, we were all packed back into the vehicle and heading to the University. I was sitting there, completely befuddled: Why did the chairman give the money to his partner to hold? Why does the daughter have the $100? Am I on Candid Camera? The only thing I was understanding at that moment was the frequently repeated, “It’s fine. There’s no problem.”

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