Sunday, June 05, 2011

Selling Snake Oil in Uganda

I took the Swift Safari bus back on Monday from Kampala to Mbarara- a 5 hour journey with capable driving. My friend's driver dropped me off at the bus park early in the morning when the bus was almost fully loaded so I only had to wait about 15 minutes for the bus to be full.

The gals in the seats beside me were negotiating for jean jackets out the window. Several jackets were passed back and forth through the open window as the bus edged closer to the bus park gate. They haggled with the vendor until the deal was concluded. The imminent departure of the bus just seemed to add spice to the bargaining as they tried each jacket on until they both had the jacket and the price they wanted at 15000 UgS., about $6. Nice looking jean jackets too and they fit.

A woman was moving back and forth in the aisle as we headed out of the bus park selling cold drinks and snacks, oblivious to concerns she might end up in the next town. Outside people were buying maize and other edibles. I had brought water and a few guavas with me so was content.

As we headed out of Kampala, a man standing in the aisle opened a briefcase stored in the rack in the middle of the bus and began loudly hawking items throughout the bus. He worked the bus for about 10 minutes, then he got off the bus at a bus stop. Quiet reigned in the bus with his departure. Some dozed. Some talked quietly. Some read newspapers. Long distance buses have been improved significantly so now you don't have to share your seat with one or two others.

About the half way point of our trip after a short pit stop in Masaka, a young fellow boarded, and as all the seats were full, he stool in the middle of the bus. After five minutes he too proceeded to open a briefcase that was strategically located in the middle of the bus. He introduced himself in a loud voice, that was heard throughout the bus, using the vernacular interspersed with English.

He began by flogging herbal soap that could treat syphilis, impotence and sadness. He kept up a continuous chatter and had people laughing and asking questions. Distributing bars of blue soap, he invited people to smell it, continuing to extol its virtues. He followed up with blue, scented candles said to reveal the secrets under your bed.

"What don't you know that you should know about?” he asked.

Of course we could all think of many things and again the laughter and chatter broke out. Candles were passed over the tops of seats for people to hold and soon bills were coming back to him. After a surprising large number of people had purchased these blue, tell-all-the secrets, candles, he moved on to a very special cream to get rid of hookworm.

"Just rub it on your belly," he invited everyone. People clamoured for them. Transactions were made. He was clearly entertaining. He also hollered the whole time and spent much of the time right beside me.

As the only mzungu, (white person) on board, I felt I had to keep quiet but I wanted desperately to challenge him and even to throw him off.

But for pure entertainment, I hadn't seen such a show since as a kid I had attended the local circus and heard the carney's spiel about the bearded woman and 3-headed calf. It certainly takes you back.

Photos: Views from the Window: Selecting the best roasted maize; Crested Crane Pair grazing.



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