During my travel in Uganda last week, I did not have to look too hard to see signs of the tough economic times.
At my favourite shoe-shine opposite the NSSF building just below the Speke Hotel, there were fewer customers than last July stopping to shine their shoes.
When the young shoe-shine asked me for a thousand shillings to shine my dirty hiking boots, I easily bargained down to half the asking amount. Of course, after he completed the job, I paid him five times the amount he originally asked. He positively beamed.
The taxi driver who picked me from Wandegeya seemed eager enough, but as soon as we started driving to my destination, his white Toyota Corona sputtered and â€˜diedâ€™.
He had run out of fuel. I asked him why he put so little petrol in the first place, and his reply was simple: â€œIf I put too much and donâ€™t do business, I lose.â€ Well, he lost anyway, because I transferred to another taxi.
Meanwhile, the young boda-boda motorcyclist who took me on various errands in the city, including a run to Aristoc, Uganda Bookstore, Uchumi supermarket and Serena was an Aâ€™level graduate.
He could not afford the private sponsorship fees for university education and started working in order to survive. He still dreams of doing a university degree, but does not see how he can study and work at the same time.
Even the roadside vendors are feeling the global economic crunch.
On the bus from Kampala to Gulu on Saturday, I noticed that fewer passengers purchased the ready-to-eat roadside foods at Kafu, Bweyale, Karuma Falls and at Corner Kamdini.
Mind you, my bus was especially delayed due to Police action that I initiated (that story is coming soon) around Nakasongola, and people were likely angry because of the time spent on the road.
Still, no amount of coaxing from the vendors encouraged customers to reach into their pockets or purses.
Everyone sat glumly, not moving a muscle. A fellow bought a couple of live chicken at Kamdini, which he dumped at my feet, but that was about it.
In Gulu, I came across numerous instances of people working to survive, to earn whatever money they could.
The peddlers have increased on the streets, as well as young teenage boys washing cars. There are equally many young people simply whiling time away playing cards, with nothing to do.
This has not really changed from the situation over the past several years as the town like many parts of the Acholi sub-region was emerging from a long destructive war.
Now, though, with the security improving, the problem is more noticeable, visible and magnified by the poor economy.
The young people who spoke to me seemed particularly worried about the future. Jobs are harder to come by, and one must know someone somewhere to gain access to the job market.
It is much more common for university graduates doing petty work as photocopying attendants, supermarket cashiers, stockroom workers, and parking lot attendants.
Many kept asking what I thought of the global economy especially in â€œAmerica where you come fromâ€. Of course, I tried not to be an alarmist.
Things were bad yes, but the world major industrialised countries were doing their best to make things better, make the economy work.
True, many had and continue to lose jobs in the manufacturing sectors especially in the automobile business, but with time many would likely bounce back into the workplace. But even I knew that the news was not good.
The headlines say as much. â€œStress increases as economy worsensâ€, â€œMore jobs go as economy worsensâ€, and so forth. There is no end in sight.
I discovered a truism that jolted me awake.
Whatever I think of the Uganda shilling, it has become harder to come by. Though it has weakened against the dollar, there are many more Ugandans who do not have it. More precisely, there are many people who do not have jobs to earn that money. And when they do have the jobs, they work so hard to earn the shilling.
At my favourite barbershop in Kampala, I was gently reminded on how hard people will work to earn the shilling.
Robert gave me a generous cut which took years off my face, then one of the girls spent a good 10 minutes washing my head, massaging it, drying it, and finally applying a cream on it. After this first rate treatment, I asked what I owed and the answer was â€œfive thousand shillingsâ€. Goodness, I thought, thatâ€™s about $2.5.
At Jane and Finch, just north of Toronto, where I cut my hair, a simple cut with none of the extras I got in Kampala would set me back at least $15. Still, I have faith that Ugandans are resilient when things get hard.
The older generation will still remember Aminâ€™s economic war and the havoc it created. In the north, children born during the war are now having children and would not know anything differentâ€”good times and bad times look the same.
But Ugandans are tough and will come through this economic downturn.
The only question is how much the Government is doing in order to improve the welfare of all citizens. Really, what is the Government doing about the tough times?
What is the govt doing to address economic strife?