She woke up that Monday morning with a to-do list for the week. It was the last Monday of February 2019. She planned to buy more merchandize for her retail shop which is at Najjera market. Sugar, maize and millet flour and rice were running out of stock. She had sold half the sack of beans. From the last stocktake, she still had tubes of toothpaste and most of the home care supplies that her customers asked for. Cooking oil, salt, tealeaves. She had those ones. She had planned to restock the previous weekend but she didn’t. You know how weekends are sometimes. There was an important wedding which she needed to attend. She went for it, ululated her lungs out and made merry.
It’s important to attend weddings when you’re invited and if you’re in position to be there. I’ve attended one wedding this year, four in total if I stretch it over the turn of this decade. Vincent’s, Santa’s, Sharon’s and Marion’s. At all these weddings, I made it on time to witness the exchange of vows. I believe this is the most important part of any wedding. The couple needs witnesses. I find it a big honour to be there to see man and woman committing to each other.
Anyway, our main character today had katogo and chai mukalu for breakfast that morning. She set off to open her retail shop at the market. That was one way through which she paid her bills and put bread, bushera, enturire, matooke and ghee on her table. She got to the market and checked her handbag. It was a handbag with a flap that had a silver buckle for a lock. It had two large pockets with a soft interior. She slid her hand in without looking but she didn’t feel the cold touch of keys on the skin of her fingers. She dipped her hand in the other pocket. There was nothing. She looked into the bag, pulled out the mirror and comb and a sanitary towel. She thought the keys were probably hiding under the towel. Nothing. The shop keys weren’t there. She forgot them home.
Her shoulders dropped and she shook her head. It was the first time this had ever happened since she started trading in the market. Was she getting amnesia? This year’s February sun was unusually scorching. The temperatures were above what was usually recorded in Kampala. Man, this climate change thing is real. Our meteorologists probably have no clue on what’s exactly going on. Was the heat playing snooker on her head? Was something else bothering her but she hadn’t yet figured it out? Was the universe telling her something? She returned home and there, on her living room table were the keys sitting, cross-legged. She face-palmed herself.
She picked her keys and decided to go to Owino market to buy the stock she planned to get. This was the last week of the month so she knew many women would come shopping for home supplies and food.
She’s in town now, negotiating with her wholesale supplier. She’s bargaining for a better deal. The wholesale guy says business is dry. Money isn’t flowing in as much as it previously did. There was a drought in people’s pockets. The pinch of the hard economy was slapping everyone in the face. He says he’s unable to lower his asking price further down the stairs. She’s still contemplating whether or not to pay for the stock when her phone vibrates in her bag. She lifts her first finger up indicating to the trader to give her a minute.
It’s a short call. It lasts about 10 seconds. Her head drops. Clouds that form tears collect in her eyes. She asks for a seat from the trader. She rests her backside on the four-legged stool she’d been given and a well of tears collects in her eyes.
“Najjera market has been razed down by a fire,” she told Mr. Wholesaler, “and there’s nothing left for me there.” She pieced herself together, gathered her thoughts and jumped on a boda boda to Najjera.
Her shop wasn’t spared. It was a massive blaze that went wild and brought down everything in its path. Angry streams of dark smoke shot up into the sky they looked like thick nimbus clouds. The fire brigade was too late to save anything.
“So yeah, that’s the background to how I became an Uber driver,” she tells me.
I’m at my main workplace on Lumumba Avenue when I needed to go to the project office on Katonga Road. I tap my Uber App icon and order for a ride. The one who accepts my request is a woman. I stare at her photo for a lot longer. She looks to be in her mid-40’s.
“What’s the story behind this woman driving Uber?” I ask myself.
My GPS shows her car driving from Ternan Avenue. That’s not far but she’s going further away from Lumumba Avenue onto Nakasero Road, towards the gate to President Museveni’s residence. Then she stops. She calls me up and apologises for taking the wrong route. She says if I’m okay with it, she’ll go round Nakasero Road, past Sir Apollo Kaggwa Primary School. She’ll find her way to Lumumba Avenue and she’ll pick me up from where I am at Rwenzori House.
That call and her politeness win her a big favour from me. I tell her it is okay. I’ll find her where she’s parked. I walk from Rwenzori House to the parking lot of Rwenzori Towers where she is. She is only the second female Uber driver I’m taking.
She is pleasant and motherly and warm and chatty and collected and lively.
“After your retail store had burned down, at what point did you decide to do this?”
“Good question,” she says, breaking into a chuckle. “I hoped I’d get back to trading sooner but things took longer than I’d thought. My young brother introduced me Uber when I was still trading. I’d bought a car which I’d hired someone else to drive. So I was complementing the money I made from the shop with a weekly pay from my Uber driver.”
That driver became a menace. He was carelessly driving her car. She didn’t like it. Plus, she wasn’t selling at the shop anymore. She didn’t have as much daily cash coming in like it previously did. Her Uber driver got another offer. He dropped her and left for tastier beef. She didn’t have any more money coming in. This was two months after that fire.
She decides she’ll drive the car herself. She goes through all the formalities that Uber requires. She gets the green light. Her brother buys the first full tank of fuel for her to start this journey.
“The first week was neck-breaking. I didn’t know locations. I wasn’t sure how this GPS thing worked. I would go round and round places, getting lost. I’d always text my riders to inform them where I was. If I needed to call to find out their exact location, I’d do so.”
That full tank gave her a good starting point. She was getting the cash in again.
“Which route should we use to Katonga road?” she asks.
I point her towards Shimoni road. The road is clear. There are no hooligans on it. She is sailing with ease.
“How long have you done this?”
“One month. This is my second month driving Uber.”
“I guess you’ve learned a few things over the last few weeks, uh?”
“I know more places. I can drive around Kampala with so much ease. And my clients are always surprised by me.”
She stops to give way to a car from Kagera road.
“There have been people who’ve called me to pick them up off the Uber App. I have a few loyal customers now. Young women feel safe with me. Some of them seek advice from me. I like it.”
The green arrow on the dashboard indicates a turn to Katonga Road.
“By the way, do I look old?” she asks.
That’s a trick question. Gentlemen, when a lady asks you if they look old, please don’t answer it. Your answer could dent their confidence. It could tear their spirit apart and wake some insecurities up. Find a way around it. Massage it. Drag it if you have to. Avoid it if you must. Change the topic at the earliest opportunity.
“Here, right here. This is my destination,” I tell her.
It’s a card trip so I don’t fidget with cash. I hop out of the car, say a gracious thank you to her and I wave, wishing her the best of the rest of her afternoon.