KAMPALA, UGANDA Hurry up and wait. Why isn’t this Uganda’s national motto? No, really. Can’t someone get it on the flag, on official documents and on television?
You know it is true. Hurry and get to that wedding introduction, and wait; to that business meeting, and wait; to that mattatu and wait. Just hurry up now-now. And wait. My latest experience at the US Embassy was so laughable one could almost cry.
Lamentable, as a Canadian, I normally have access to the US. As a youth, near my Ontario home, I once walked across the Rainbow Bridge that joins the two friendly nations at the famous Niagara Falls. But now needing to get into the US (for some post-graduate studies) from another country – Uganda in this case – I needed a visa.
So I showed up at the US Embassy on Gaba Road in good time for my 9:40am so-called appointment. And this very bungled day began. I guess I soon became an irritant. “You’ll have to excuse me, I am from Canada where we do thing efficiently” is what I said to Jessica, the Ugandan clerk handling things.
“Oh, we do thing efficiently here too,” she assured me while everyone laughed.
An hour passed. We all waited. Two hours. Three. Barely an interview. Tick-tick-tick. People got glassy-eyed. Our stomachs grumbled. “I feel your pain” Jessica assured us.
Past midday, she reluncantly allowed me to violate policy and leave the waiting area briefly. I had to phone and cancel an appointment elsewhere. “But don’t leave the compound,” she said. So I ran for it; hopped on a boda-boda and bought some food and flowers to brighten the mood.
back at the embassy, just outside the compound, I gave Jessica the flowers easy enough. But it took two attempts to get the sandwiches past security. (I hid them in my bag, underneath my day’s reading material.)
And so I distributed these contraband ham and cheese and salami on white. Professors from Makerere and Mbarara universities, an agriculture specialist, a UN security adviser all laughed and thanked me sincerely while eating the evidence.
“The irony is that the website ‘Don’t be late or we won’t serve you'” said the Un security advisor, waiting since 8:30am.
“I can’t believe nobody has ever complained or written about this in the papers” said Shama Nantumbwe, a diabetic housewife needing a visa to visit Chicago.
“Are you kidding me?” I said, giving her my card as a freelance journalist.
After finallt getting my interview at 4:00pm, I was assured my papers were fine and my visa would be issued the next day. I celebrated with a cold refreshment down the road.
Then I got a call saying I needed to return immediately and fill out another form, which another Ugandan clerk could neither explain nor produce, and pay $200(sh400,000) on top of the already $150(sh300,000) I had already paid.
Two days later, I had my visa. And a somewhat humurous column. But really, is there not a better way? Might this also relate to issues in Uganda?
Apparently this embassy was short-staffed this particular day. Someone was sick. “Whatm you can’t hire extra staff to cover?” I asked Jessica. “Obama does not give you enough money?”
“Well, it is more than just money,” she told me.
Indeed it is. And isn’t this the real challenge in this otherwise beautiful part of Africa? And so, to Uganda’s broader development, we are all left saying: “Hurry up now. And wait.” Don’t Ugandans deserve better?