I think that sometimes you have to be somewhat mad to do what we did in Kampala all those years ago. During the Amin years – and a special blog post will follow about that – everyone knew that things became scarce and difficult to get. In parishes, social centres, health places, schools, and other places, essentials were getting really hard to get, and something had to be done. Well, imagination is certainly not something lacking with young people, and one Max Gmürr, a Swiss White Father, had the idea to set up a centre to collect essentials needed in difficult times. This centre was intended to serve the whole of Uganda. It started with simple things such as soap, sugar, flour and so on; if Government could not provide these, why not do it ourselves? Soon the success of the operation received the backing of the bishops, they even took ownership of it (maybe they saw a fat milk cow!), and things got moving and prompted our friends of the Church of Uganda and the Muslim Community to set up similar services. But I do not think they achieved what Max realized in a short period of time.
The whole idea was to purchase goods in bulk, store them in a central place and open the doors to those engaged in missionary work of any type, to come and purchase, at cost price plus 5% for service charges, all the goods they wanted. Soon the operation became big and received the name “Interservice”. It was located at Nsambya Catholic Secretariat and was housed in containers – all very practical and efficient. But Max died unexpectedly at a young age and his successor was my friend Peter, who I mentioned in my third blog. Over the years he would bring Interservice to the level of a huge enterprise. One of the many things we could obtain through Interservice were cars. In fact, over the years he served the organisation, Peter imported some 1500 cars, all destined for hospitals, mission posts, schools, and other social agencies. The question was then “How do we get the vehicles from the Kenyan port to Kampala?” So Peter, with all his imagination, asked some friends, myself included, if we would accept to go to Mombasa and drive a vehicle back to Uganda for Interservice. Why not? It was an occasion to have a few days off at the cost of Interservice! I recall one occasion where we were five of us travelling to Mombasa, where we stayed in a Swiss owned hotel in the city centre and Peter was there to welcome us and ensure that all paperwork for the travel back was in order. So one morning round 8am we set off in caravan with six vehicles, two VW minibuses and four pick-up vehicles. One night stop in Nairobi and the next day off to Kampala via Malaba border post. Arriving there, it was Peter’s job to ensure all paperwork was cleared so that we could move on. Disaster! Getting into the customs office at the border, Peter realised he had forgotten the logbooks of the VW vehicles. There was no way to get them across the border. What shall we do? Simple, he said. You all get into the cars that are cleared and drive to Kampala, and I’ll go back to Mombasa for the papers needed at customs, and will arrange to get some of you back at Malaba in a few days to collect the two cars. Imagination and creativity were certainly not lacking with those guys! I went back to Malaba a few days later and there was Peter all smiles waiting for me to drive back to Kampala.
But these journeys were not without hazards. We were, after all, in the Amin years and one never knew what was in store with the guys of security. We had never had any trouble but who knows what could come next! On this return journey all went well until we reached the dam bridge in Jinja. There was an army road block checking all vehicles. The line was about a mile long and we sat there in the heat waiting for our turn. After half an hour and not seeing any movement, we decided to turn back and go for a coffee in a nearby petrol station. Bad move on our part! One of the army guys had seen us turning around and in no time a military car caught up on us. Insults and threats flew around: “you are not allowed to turn back. We will arrest you and maybe you will be shot!” Not so pleasant prospects! That was the first time in my life I had an AK 47 gun on my tummy, and I can assure you that it doesn’t feel good! Peter negotiated and after some talk and a “word” of thanks for not harming us nor the vehicles, we were allowed to have our coffee – which was horrendous – and then proceed to the back of the queue en route for Kampala. An experience for sure but we vowed never to see it repeated.
All in all, Interservice was great: I got our water pump for Mushanga Parish and two motorcycles for the catechists. It was a marvellous service for all those working in Uganda. Interservice continued operating well into the early nineties and the Brother Francis took over as in charge of supplies. Peter was recalled as general treasurer of the White Fathers and moved to Rome. I am sure he would have preferred to stay in Uganda and in fact after his years of service in Rome and later in Belgium, he returned to Africa, this time to South Africa, to become the treasurer of one of the South African dioceses. Great man who did help many with a smile and heaps of kindness!
When I came back to Uganda in 1993 to start work at Uganda Martyrs University, we were short of essential supplies and Interservice came in very handy for us all. One day in Kampala I decided to go to their office and ask if we could get some basic things such as tinned food and other items. Francis took me around the stores and told me to pick what I needed. There were some boxes of Canadian tinned beef and he gave me two; soap, cooking oil, and other basic items were also at our disposal. God bless them for this magnificent assistance. With my Canadian tins and other supplies, I got back to Nkozi and proudly we opened one for our supper. My God what was this? Tasteless, full of oil and tomato sauce, meat was an absent item in the tin! We just could not eat it. I tried to give some to the dog who reluctantly put his tongue to it and ate it with very far away teeth. Well, generosity in service sometimes has negatives and we had to live with it! Nonetheless, we very very grateful, even for the tinned beef that the dog eventually finished!
Next time I will tell you about the banking services in Uganda over the past years. I can promise you an interesting read!