Perhaps more can be learned about the culture of a place through short vignettes than long commentaries. My previous post began a series of short observations that delve into the cultural mindset of Uganda simply by observing what the people are doing. Here are two more of the same.

Just Over There

Ugandans are fond of expressing distance to a place with the phrase “Just over there.” I have shared about the usage of this expression in a previous post (https://meadeinternational.org/2014/11/19/just-there-only-a-little-way/). This trip we ran into a variation that is very common. We had a two day church-planting conference in Bugiri (maybe pronounced Boo-geery, or maybe Boo-jeery, depending on the speaker, all of whom seem to have a strong opinion about it when you ask how to say it). We picked up the leader in the town at the junction of the paved highway and the rough and broken dirt road that would take us to the site of the conference. As we bounced along over the deeply rutted road, our first question was, “Pastor, how far is it to the church?”

He very confidently replied, “2 kilometers.” This is about one and a quarter miles, which was good news because this particular road could be used to interrogate captured enemies. I , myself, felt like spilling my guts after only a few hundred yards – “No more, please, I’ll tell you everything!”

At 4 km Alfred looked at me knowingly and asked our passenger, sitting in the back with his wife and child, “Pastor, how far did you say it was?”

“Just 2 kilometers.”

Alfred asked him with a grin, “Pastor, are these Ugandan kilometers or Western kilometers?” No response.

I wiggled my eyebrows at Alfred to let him know I knew what was going on. The pastor wanted to encourage us, so he held staunchly to his 2 kilometers.

At 6 km Alfred asked him again, “Pastor, we are at 6 km. How much farther is it?”

“It’s just 2 kilometers. Just up there.” Mmm-hmm, and there it is.

We finally turned off the road and wended our way between some buildings, down a narrow track, and finally to the church building set back about 200 yards from the road. Our odometer reading? 10.5 km.

The Ins and Outs of Vehicle Rentals

So we are back to renting vehicles when I come to Uganda, and we have had some difficulties, which just go with the “game” here. Our first rental man agreed to a certain favorable rental rate, but by the time we returned from Buvuma Island after ten days and needed to pay for the second ten days, the price had risen – “Things changed,” we were told, apparently meaning our agreement, but “It’s okay. No problem,” which is this man’s apparent marketing litany. So we hired from a different vender and in 7 days, broke down on the side of the road 3 times.

After the second breakdown, the owner of the vehicle (or the agent who rents it – I can’t figure out which) unexpectedly showed up early the next morning with the vehicle saying he had repaired it. As we were loading our equipment into the car, he informed me that he would be going along with us to fix any little problems we might have. This was the same man who during the negotiations, when I asked him how he would handle breakdowns along the road if we should have one, told me no less than five times that there was no possibility of a breakdown along the road – it simply never happened. I believe he must have learned this negotiating technique from the Donald Trump School of Negotiation Tactics. So as he stood there, telling me he was going to accompany us all day in the car, I didn’t say it aloud, but I was thinking, “If you are confident enough to rent out the vehicle, why would you have to travel with us to fix any little problems?”

Now, I have never been offered a ride-along mechanic with any rental car in the US. Even considering the extreme type of customer care he was offering, I told him, no, he would not be traveling with us since I had a full load and was expecting to pick up several students along the road to take them to the conference. We did not have the extra room for such a thing. All the time, I was thinking, you want to rent us your car, but you have to go with us? Really?!!

This man has quite good English and he nodded and said okay when I said this wouldn’t work for me, but then he promptly went to Alfred and told him that I had agreed and that he would be driving. When the time came to disembark, and the man climbed into the driver’s seat, Alfred started to climb into the passenger seat. I asked him, “Why is this man in the driver’s seat?” Alfred gave me the confused look that told me he realized he had just been “had.” I gently suggested to the man that he was mistakenly sitting in Alfred’s seat which would make it difficult for Alfred to drive.

Finally, we drove away minus the agent spending his entire day with us to “fix any little thing.” I really think he did not believe the musungu would notice the arrangement with him driving. Very curious, indeed.