Life in Uganda


Part 3. Arrival of the containers

In no time we had reached the end of June and already repair works were in full swing at the campus. Three halls of residence were cleaned, and water and electricity checked and repaired. There is no need to tell you the condition in which we found this infrastructure but our plumber was not a man afraid of dirtying his hands. So by the end of August we found ourselves in possession of some decent places to accommodate the first students. Two blocks for classrooms were cleaned up and painted, one of them becoming the first library. My colleague from Ireland would take on the responsibility of helping the newly-appointed librarian. So we had the physical space for our first academic year; now we had to furnish all this so that we could operate in a more or less reasonable fashion.
As we were cleaning up a hall of residence I received information, somewhere in mid-July, that the two containers were on their way to Kampala and would arrive the next day. Could I arrange to be in Kampala to receive them and move them to Nkozi. Now this was naïve on my part to take this for granted, but I did. Had I forgotten my past experiences? How could a container arrive and in one day have customs’ clearance and all necessary paperwork completed! Anyhow I went to Kampala with my packing lists and a promise from President Museveni who had given us a full tax exemption to import all goods for the university. It was on this basis that I naively thought things would be easy but Murphy was on duty big time!
The office of the forwarding company was visited and I was informed that the containers were on their way but that they were in no position to tell me when they would arrive. “It may take from one week up to three weeks” Oops! First piece of bad news! “Come back in a week and maybe the containers will be here and we can then clear them!” “How will I know they are here?” “Just phone us!” Yes but we had no phone in Nkozi and mobile phones did not exist! So back I went to Nkozi in the hope that after a week I would have good news. We arranged a special trip to Kampala for some shopping and I popped into the office of the forwarding company. “Good news, the containers have arrived! We will do the needful and then they can be moved to Nkozi!” How long will that take? “No idea! That depends on the customs officers and all the needed paperwork”. “But I have a tax exemption, so it should be fast” “Yes but papers are needed and they have to be fully stamped. Come back in three days and things should be fine.” Second piece of bad news! And so it was back to Nkozi without anything, apart from some goods for us at home and for the university.
After three days I ventured back to Kampala and to the office where I hoped to have good news. “Well, customs cannot clear anything yet as the papers from the President’s office have not arrived yet!” Oops, again! “Maybe you could contact them and ask for the papers?” “Yes, but I do not know anybody there and then what!” But just then I had a stroke of good luck when I bumped into the commissioner of customs whom I had known in Mbarara. I explained my case and he took it upon himself to arrange things. He phoned to State House and within a few minutes instructions were passed on to customs to release the two containers. Hourrah for this! I asked when the containers would be released and he answered me “Well give us a few days to complete the paperwork!” Third act of said Murphy! “But do not get upset; things will work out for you and the university will have everything it needs when the containers are released.” Well this I knew as I had done all the shopping myself. “Come back tomorrow morning and maybe things will be completed.”
Could I believe this or was it just a tactic to calm my nerves and impatience? Ok, the next morning I was at the customs’ office and proudly the commissioner handed over all documents to me. You can go to the clearing office and they will release the two lorries with the containers. At 10.30 am that same morning we were on the way to Nkozi, me sitting in front in the first lorry together with a customs officer and a guy form the forwarding company and an insurance guy plus two armed policemen, just in case! It took us some three hours to reach Nkozi but we got there and proud as anything we drove up the road to campus, welcomed by the few staff and big smiles.
“Where do we offload these two boxes?” I was asked by the company man. Let us reverse down to my house where there is ample space to put everything. Moreover, one container was mine and could be used as storage. So we moved to the designated place and the customs officer broke the seals of the first container. If ever you had a shock in your life, this was it. Stations four, five, six and seven of the Way of the Cross in one go! Opening the door of the container, a big black void! What happened and where are the goods? I climbed into the container and found my academic gown crumpled on the floor with a few books and two big wooden crates but nothing else. Where were the boxes with computers, printers etc. Nothing to be seen. The guy from the company flatly told us that maybe the things had been stolen on the way! “Yes but the seals were on the container!” “That does not mean anything! Anyone can remove them and put them back.” So what next? The company man, after agreeing with the customs’ officer, then said “let us empty the two containers and tomorrow we make an inventory with the insurance guy.” “Yes but can the driver not give an explanation?” He insisted vigorously that nothing had happened on the way and he was not aware of any theft. It took us another hour to get my container off the lorry because some bright spark had welded it on the lorry! The second container was almost complete with my car at the back. It was emptied except for the car. “Why?” “Oh, this has to be cleared by customs!” I could not believe what I heard. Oops another blow! So the lorry drove back to Kampala with my car which was placed in customs’ bond until all papers were cleared. In the meantime we filled in insurance papers and the guy from Lloyds was good enough to compile a full report which was sent to the headquarters of the insurance company. Lucky me that I had taken a full insurance before leaving Belgium and this against the advice of the forwarding company. “We never have any problems with lost goods!” Aha!
It took a few more days to have my car cleared and this should have been very fast as it was more than a year old and thus tax exempted. Again my friend the commissioner intervened and got it cleared immediately, but not before a customs officer had spent, I do no know how long, filling in unnecessary papers. But my car I got and drove it back to Nkozi myself.
Now what was the damage done by all this saga. Some 36 computers lost and 36 printers. They were intended to set up a (then) state-of-the-art computer classroom. Pallets with all personal goods for my Irish colleague, most crates with my library and household goods. The books for the university as well as the goods of my Irish colleague and of the students returning to Uganda after completion of their studies in Belgium. I visited the manager of the forwarding company in Kampala and explained the story. He just looked at me and baffled me when he said “I cannot do anything as I am sure the goods were stolen in Kenya and I am responsible for Uganda only!” “But all was CIF Nkozi!” “No Sir, this is not my problem”. My answer was prompt and sharp “You will hear from me soon, I am flying to Belgium and will go straight to the HQ of your company!” Hear from me he did and within a week he was dismissed from his job. I am sure he never forgave me for that! I had a long talk with the company lawyer who discussed with the insurance people. I got a fair amount back but as for all insurance policies it is never what you would like to have. This enabled me to go on a shopping spree in Belgium and fill up some crates with goods to replace the lost ones. In the meantime I had met another Belgian in Kampala who was director of another forwarding company. I had explained my misfortunes and generously he offered to bring all the goods I would purchase into Uganda by air at no cost. This would be his company’s contribution to the university. All this had brought me to the end of my Way of the Cross and to the Resurrection. We could now start putting everything in place and by the time the first students arrived in October 1993 we had a small library with the books we had salvaged and a container of books received from World Vision. A computer classroom was installed and offices equipped so that work could start. We were proud to have reached that point! Students were welcome! But at a huge personal cost!

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