Solar Energy for Africa’s headquarters and flagship store in central Kampala couldn’t feel further away from the glassy skyscrapers in the City of London. A lone bulb casts a dingy light over the office exposing an array of fading advertising material and a battered wooden counter. Set back from the traffic crawling down Bombo road, the space is quiet save for the whirring of a rusty electric fan and a news program blaring from an antique TV in the corner.
Whilst the environment might seem unfamiliar, the haphazard office space should not take long to get used to. Armed with a laptop, notebook and pen, any Challenges Worldwide Volunteer won’t find it too much of a challenge to set to work. Yet the different working culture in Uganda perhaps requires a greater adjustment. Here are a few things one might expect to encounter:
Roughly equitable to ‘on time’ plus 30 minutes to an hour. This is likely to cause immense frustration to newly arrived volunteers. Having set an early alarm and left extra time to allow for any disruptions during the rush hour commute, to be left waiting for hours on end for a meeting to start can easily make blood boil. As soon as you take a look outside, the tardiness isn’t surprising. The infamous ‘Kampala Jam’ can disrupt even the city’s most punctual without warning. A journey that often takes 20 minutes can be transformed into a sweaty 2-hour ordeal, cramped in the back of a fully packed taxi. If the heavens open, flooded streets cause maximum disruption. This combined with large scale road improvements, erratic driving and police traffic controls is a recipe for a timekeeping disaster.
Yet the attitude towards lateness is more interesting to consider. Whereas in the UK it feels that every second of the working day must be converted into maximum productivity, in Uganda work is a little more laid back. This is not to say tasks aren’t completed eventually, they just get done when the time is right and deadlines become a little more flexible. With European stress and anxiety levels at an all time high, a more relaxed working culture is perhaps something we should aspire to.
Ugandans don’t like missing phone calls
Even when sat in front of the managing director, a slight pocket vibration (or in some cases a more embarrassing Rihanna ringtone) is a perfectly good excuse to pause even the most important meeting. With everyone active on Whatsapp, phones are likely to be on display and messages sent mid conversation. Mobile credit, known as ‘airtime’ is a highly prized commodity. Having to use it up to return a call is most undesirable.
God is always present
Meetings, however, small or insignificant, must start with a prayer. This may be a few quick words followed by a mumbled ‘Amen’ or a lengthier affair in which blessings are granted for all participants, the future of every stakeholder in the firm… the list could go on. In some firms with employees of different faiths, this procedure can be repeated to ensure all attendants are satisfied. Although this might appear a timely process, the sense of harmony and togetherness that pervades the room afterward can often make the meeting more effective. If prayers are ever not said, a backup is usually provided in the form of a Bible quote or religious teaching hung on the wall. It’s important to sit down to work with inspirational material readily available.
Expecting a superfast Wifi connection and a shiny kitchen space kitted with a machine offering 50 varieties of flavourless coffee? Forget it. With power cuts a regular occurrence, work can be halted without warning for hours at a time. If you’re lucky, the office may be backed up by a generator or even better solar power but don’t hold your breath. You can usually expect a ‘water dispenser’ (cooler might be an exaggeration) and a kettle but on the whole, furnishings are kept to a bare minimum.
A bustling office canteen or coffee shop is out of the question. The Ugandans can do better – warm lunch delivered straight to your desk. Orders are placed with the chosen ‘restaurant’ half an hour in advance and before long a steaming bowl of matoke and rice accompanied by a meat or vegetarian sauce of your choice is delivered directly to your workstation. The food may not always be piping hot but for less UGX 4000 (about £1) what could be better valued? The break can be a lengthy two-hour affair; giving you more than enough time to discuss yesterday’s Premier League results and enjoy the meal at your leisure. The only drawback: a rather slow afternoon whilst you digest the carbohydrate overload.