Politicians have repeatedly told my colleagues and me about mysterious “bags of cash” that their colleagues, business people are “hoarding” in their bedrooms. There was the famous story of the civil servant who accused his wife of making off with 900 million shillings he was keeping in sacks in their marital home. The other is about the clueless house girl who working for a famous general started removing stacks of money from his home. She got caught after she started flashing her newfound wealth by buying new creams and partying.Uganda is a very interesting place these days. After an academic said that the government was a chapter of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” these tall tales of the political and business class keeping their share of the loot like a medieval band of bandits cast a rather sinister cloud on the “economic crisis” the intelligentsia are debating. Several times on the Hot Seat (933 KFM) guests have claimed that printed money was floating around in kitchens, sinks and mattresses of people they know. No media have really investigated this claim and perhaps we should. I want to retell the following story told to me by the Chairman of KACITA, Everest Kayondo, when we hosted him last week about the painter who became an importer and therefore launched himself into a career of trading.
According to him, the painter (let’s call him Mukasa) was one of the hapless poor, an ordinary Joe who was lucky to have a painting job remodeling the house of some Big Man. As he stood on ladders applying paint he chanced upon some strange bags in the ceiling above. The curious mind that possessed him to explore this further maybe why he is a trader today. “ He opened one of the bags in the ceiling and found stacks of cash. In the course of three days he filled his painters suit with cash every time he left the house. At the end he counted 114 million shillings. He abandoned painting and is now an importer” the Everest said laughing. I have no reason to disbelieve him. After all he knew Mukasa. He also told another story of the Ali Baba variety. Apparently an unnamed man had inquired in his circles what a kilo of 100-dollar bills weighs.
“ He wanted to know so he could weigh all his cash to establish how much he had” (no kidding). The overarching story here is not about the honor among thieves. It’s really about how Ugandan society is being ravaged by inequities of all sorts. The cash tales may be fables of a society of unequals yes but if true there show the extremes in the society. On the street the anger is palpable. As the political and business class whiz past in their 4WD’s they glance nervously at the cart pushing and walking masses that have been left behind by the successes of recent years. And as the world burns with soul searching everywhere about how that success as been conceptualized, explained and sold, the economy is testing the patience of the have-nots about this orthodoxy of rags to riches. In Uganda stories will be told about these years for a long time.