HENRY MUTEBE: Palliative Economics And Marketable Mediocrity: Understanding The Ordinary Ugandan Business
Lately, I have been visiting hospitals a lot and as a writer, I move with my eye and writing mind. I observe events, people, time, and space with intent to write about them. Recently, I had a patient who was in their final days. The doctor told me that this patient had about two weeks […] The post HENRY MUTEBE: Palliative Economics And Marketable Mediocrity: Understanding The Ordinary Ugandan Business appeared first on Watchdog Uganda.
Lately, I have been visiting hospitals a lot and as a writer, I move with my eye and writing mind. I observe events, people, time, and space with intent to write about them.
Recently, I had a patient who was in their final days. The doctor told me that this patient had about two weeks to live. He advised that that it would be a good idea to take this patient home so that she spends her last days with her loved ones.
He however added that it was just advice and that it’s up to us to make a decision on whether to remain in hospital or retire home and wait for our loved one to pass.
Before leaving the hospital however, I asked the Doctor what the care plan was for our patient in those final days. He said that not much was going to be done except to provide ‘palliative care’.
As a writer, I care to understand what these medical terms mean. He said palliative care is the care they give to those who are terminally ill or with complex medical conditions as a way of reducing pain or suffering. Basically, just minimizing suffering but they won’t take away the illness.
We followed his advice, took the patient home and provided the palliative care as advised. He was right. The patient passed away exactly 10 days after leaving the hospital.
But the word ‘Palliative’ did not leave my mind. It seemed to be operating outside the medical environment. It seemed to be alive in Uganda’s economics as well- palliative economics.
When you observe many Ugandan businesses, they seem to be operating palliative economics. People set up businesses in a terminally ill business environment. The only difference is that in economics, sometimes the illness is the lack of understanding of the market by the businessmen and women…but also sometimes, it’s the limited disposal income available to consumers to keep the businesses thriving.
As such, most business never celebrate their first birthday. Six months down the road- once the first regime of rent expires, the businesses also expire. Many that continue are operating palliative economics- Keep going…keep going until you finally sink, fall in debt and get finished, completely.
When you go down town, in all those mushrooming arcades, there are people who sit in their shops for days, weeks or even months without getting a customer. But the Ugandan mindset is ‘you must have something’. We have been cultured this way. You are in your mid-20s, you have nothing? Really? Do something. So everyone is a rush to do something. Its the way of life here.
Its worse if you are in your 30s like me. You are expected to ‘have something’. So, people do everything to ‘start something’. Along the way, they discover that it doesn’t work…but because it is immoral, irresponsible, unmanly, un-Kampala-like, to have nothing, people operative on palliative economics. Keep the business running, pretend that its going, at least show that you have something. And for good measure, it is done in good faith…with hope- which is the fuel that every entrepreneur must have. BUT it is palliative economics. Just do something and appear to be doing something.
I recently visited one of my friends who recently started his ‘hustle’ down town. He had set up about two months ago. His business sits on the second floor of the newly completed arcade- another addition to the skyline of Kampala.
When I walked into his fashionably lit boutique, I was very happy for him. Looking at the shop, you simply admired the young man. The ladies’ dresses were well displayed on the mannequins. The beautiful imported shirts from Turkey lit by the warn and neon lights in the shop made the place look like a duty-free shop in Brussels. Mehn! You just admired him- until you sat with him for some hours.
I sat there for four hours and we shuffled topics. It was if I had gone with bad luck. Not a single person turned up or bought a single piece of the units he was selling. With smiling faces, we kept waiting for people to come in and at least ask or look at the clothes and shoes my boy is selling. His begging eyes kept preying on every person passing by. I could see the frustration is his eyes. Down town, you have to have a toughened skin.
To deal with the boredom, I kept bringing one topic after another. We laughed. We talked. And then, we became silent. He looked at me and said, ‘Mutebe this is how most days go. You can spend a day without a single person walking in here. But you need money for transport to town, lunch, and also leave something for the people at home.’ I looked at him and simply pressed my teeth on my lower lip. You could see it. You could feel the hustle. You could touch his pain. It was hard to imagine!
I then asked him, so how do you manage to pay for rent and keep going when business is not forthcoming. He said,’ Mutebe, what do we do? You have to keep going with hope that things will be better. You just keep going. Borrow, sometimes, but keep going!’ I felt his pain.
His story mirrors the story of so many Ugandans who simply have to keep going…or just set up something because there is no alternative…or you simply can’t set sights on what exactly to do to keep going. Do you sit at home? Do you give up on life…or try something even if you are not sure of the market? All options are hard.
A few days later, I visited a friend who opened a bar. I visited the bar on a Wednesday when there is live band. I saw so many people…and felt so happy for him. He told me to visit him on other days when he is less busy and to bring more friends.
I frequently visited him on other days and was shocked to find the place a shadow of its Wednesday vibe. It was, for the most part, empty. On occasion, a few people walked in, sunk a beer or two…sat there for hours and then left. Meanwhile he has to pay for the utilities, labour and rent for the place. He literally has one or two days in a week on which it can be said that he makes business. When I asked him the same question, he said, he has nothing to do, but to keep going.
Ugandan businesses, akin to my patient- who later passed away, seem to be on palliative care. You simply just decide to reduce on the social stigma of not having something. You would also rather be in business which does not make business and avoid the vulnerability of falling into depression of feeling a failure. That said, there are many businesses that are doing great.
In all the chats with my friends, there would be times when the silence breaks out and we all turn to social media to escape the boredom. There, you meet another interesting phenomenon- marketable mediocrity.
In Uganda, it’s not the professor of neural surgery who makes news or catches the admiration of the nation. No! It is nonsense and social violence that sells and makes people rich and famous.
One would have thought that professor or aeronautics at Makerere University, or the best surgeon at Mulago Hospital would be an internet session. One would have thought that journalists would be following up on which professor is working on which project…how such a project is a first…or how someone is working on a satellite or something grand! But No! These are too ‘intellectual’ for us.
There is something that people love to consume and there is a whole tribe of young people on internet, whose job is to produce marketable mediocrity and they are reaping big from it. You can make a living, in Uganda, by abusing others. You can make a living by simply marketing mediocrity and social violence. You can earn big from it.
Nonsense is a whole industry in Uganda. It pays. It pays big. I think when people are poor, stressed and failing cope, social strife becomes a site of tourism and material for comedy. You would not believe how much content goes on line and attracts advertisers
because it’s what is being consumed by our young people.
Recently, a senior musician in Africa Band voiced his concern about the quality of music that young people are producing today, which ironically seems to be selling more than their good music. He wondered why people don’t appreciate him and his group enough yet they offer quality timeless music. He is shocked at the ‘meaningless’ songs that are being produced and played in places of entertainment. He is not aware about the concept of marketable mediocrity. In this country, mediocrity sells.
I have always said, that in heaven, Uganda will have a special tent. Most things operate upside down. When people say Ki Uganda kinyuma…this is what they mean…that there is a way society operates that is not normal. You can break a traffic law and get away with it for 5k. You can go to a music club or bar and dance till morning during lockdown and the ‘police is not around’. You can get a deal and get rich in one day!! You only to know a few people here and there. You can literally do anything that would not be normal or work in another country.
BUT the sad part is that most businesses are on palliative economics. They are pain killers. People have to just keep going…because to stay home is not an option. You can literally go mad…because society would find it unacceptable to do ‘nothing’. So, you do something- even if it doesn’t make any sense at all.