Owino Market (St Balikuddembe) and the surrounding markets in downtown Kampala have more clothes than I’ve ever seen in my life. Imagine London’s Oxford Street, Petticoat Lane, the biggest Marks and Spencer you can find and Primark: take everything off the shelves, pile it high in neatly folded layers or mountainous heaps; remove the roof, take away the flooring and replace it with a fractured and muddy uneven mess; run some sewers through it. Condense this into some dark passageways where it is almost impossible for one person to pass – let alone for one person to pass, one to sell and another one to try on jeans – turn off the lights, fill it with more people carrying suitcases of goods on their heads; and then perhaps you can start imagining Owino. How our friend Alan came shopping here with three young girls quite amazes me!
So, well over her luggage allowance and having already purchased one excess bag for her flight home, Nat had talked herself into needing even more clothes to return to the UK with.
I needed some new clothes; I’ve put on far too much weight to fit into most of the clothes I brought with me two years ago. As someone said to me before I arrived in Uganda: “women go to Africa and put on weight. Men lose it.” And some!
There are serious bargains to be had at Owino if you’re prepared for the constant calls of “muzungu-how-are-you?” and the haggling. It’s persistent but mostly fair and a firm “No” is usually enough before you get sidetracked by the next sellers. The occasional “Sagala” (I don’t want it) from me generally stops people in their tracks, unaccustomed to hearing Luganda from a muzungu. You should hear the howls of laughter!
Nat caused quite a stir in her own right: every third or fourth man was trying to call out to her or touch her arm as we went past… “Is she your daughter?” They asked me. Humph.
Two hours of incident-free shopping behind us, we emerged into a sunlit area of the market to buy ice cold water and I spotted a ruddy faced lady selling sheets stacked high above our heads. One of the luxury items I brought back to Uganda was a duvet. My English friends back home scoffed at the idea – but they haven’t experienced a cool Ugandan night.
The lady didn’t seem to speak any English and wasn’t at all personable (unlike most of the other people in the market) but we agreed a reasonable 18,000 shillings (£6) for a duvet cover, a fraction of the 65,000 an earlier seller had asked for one. As I handed over the 50,000 note, I sensed something wasn’t right.
Wary of being pick pocketed, I’d carefully stashed notes in various pockets of the handbag that I always have strapped to me. I knew exactly where the 50,000 note was – few ever pass through this volunteer’s hands! – and I can picture its distinct brown colour as the lady briefly disappeared behind the tower of sheets to get ‘the balance.’
“Where’s the other 10,000?” I asked without hesitation as she offered me change of a 20,000 note.
I wasn’t having any of it. She was trying to say something to me but I was adamant. I’d given her 50,000 shillings and I wanted 32,000 balance.
Her (apparent) lack of English meant other people quickly took over the argument, all taking her side and questioning my memory and my knowledge of the local currency. Within minutes ten men were arguing with me, insisting I’d made a mistake. I kept my calm, I didn’t accuse anybody but I was completely sure I’d passed over a 50,000 shilling note, so was Nat.
“All I’m saying is someone’s made a mistake” I insisted.
Ugandans love to argue and they love to stand around and watch, for hours on end so we were soon in the middle of a blazing row, watched from all sides, everyone keen to have their say. “We’re not getting anywhere here” Nat said after about ten minutes. I muttered something about contacting the police, hoping that somebody might back down but it didn’t seem to make a difference.
“So what are you going to do?” Someone asked as we prepared to walk off.
“What can I do? I am one person and you are 30.” I fumed.
I handed back the duvet cover and the lady gave me the bright red 20,000 shilling note that she insisted I’d given her.
A hundred metre walk away, lo and behold we stumbled upon the police station! Nat and I exchanged looks and before we knew it we were inside the station filing a complaint. What were we getting into now though? And how much of the day were we about to lose? What would VSO say? Was I doing the right thing or about to cause a load more trouble for myself? Would this spiral out of control and end up in court or a plea for school fees that would exceed the amount that I was out of pocket?
With all these questions going through my head, we were quickly ushered in to make our complaint and within five minutes we were making our way back through the market, accompanied by three armed policeman. O god, no backing out now!
The ruddy faced lady was still there. The main protagonist in the argument looked surprised to see us again. Ha! But nothing changed. We had the same arguments all over again as the police listened to both sides. The market sellers’ rep chimed in too this time. I was 100% sure that I was right but I was careful not to call anyone a thief; I hoped I was offering them a way out.
Another ten fruitless minutes passed. The crowd grew, arms folded, all staring (you become immune to it).
Back at the tiny two room police station, I was surprised to be led straight to the chief, a senior policeman in his 50s. I greeted him in Luganda and he smiled from behind his big desk. He was very charming and held court over the assembled group of ten people seated either side of him on narrow wooden benches.
I wondered what the chief was thinking as he asked how long I’d been in Uganda and what I’m doing here. The questioning carried on around me in Luganda and I just had to trust that justice would be done.
Mid-questioning, someone walked past and unlocked the metal gate to the cell five feet to my left.
I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that this was all going terribly wrong. Who was being thrown in the cell – me or the lady I was trying so hard not to accuse?
“We have never seen this lady in here before” he said “and since you both insist you’re not mistaken, perhaps you’d consider a compromise?” (This kind of situation must happen all the time).
With the negotiations over, and an agreement to buy the duvet cover which (perhaps surprisingly) I did still want, ‘the balance’ was down to me. (OK OK it still riles me but at least I didn’t get a bill for school fees!)
I handed the boss a 20,000 shilling note. As he passed it through the bars of the window to a boy in the street to get balance, I cried out in mock horror “Oh no! It’s starting all over again!”
There was a pause before one person laughed and the others quickly reassured me “No, no, it’s ok we know him.”
“I was joking,” I said, relieved to be on my way.