Conned. I’ve been living on and off in Uganda for nearly two years, and I absolutely love it, but sometimes I think I still get cheated on a daily basis. I still remember the first time someone robbed or cheated me, but it was in New York. In secondary school, I rarely had cash on me, but I had come back from my first trip abroad and had about $40 in my wallet after visiting a forex the day before. During physics class, I checked my wallet to see if I had money for lunch, and then went to the bathroom. When I returned to class, my wallet had vanished, rumored to have been snatched by a girl with a drug problem in the year before me. Now that I am living in Kampala, I’m less worried about getting my wallet snatched, but more concerned of being bankrupted in less obvious ways.
The first time I went to Uganda, my father warned me about conmen as we drove to the airport. As most young adults are, I was arrogant. I reassured him of my gut ability to discern conmen and protect myself from them, but really I was clueless. Now that I am earning shillings in Uganda as a journalist, and trying to figure out how I will pay back the loans I took out in dollars for my education, I try to protect myself by staying conscious of the different ways visitors, tourists, and foreigners get ripped off in Uganda.
1. Boda boda inflation. Although there is no sensation like sitting on a motorbike, flying down an open road on a beautiful day, doing so can come at a serious cost to your wallet, especially if you’re a foreigner. After living in Uganda and knowing the prices for many potential boda-boda trips (home to work, for instance), it never ceases to amaze me how much boda-boda drivers gouge prices. One time, I was leaving Kanyanya, a suburb of Kampala, and needed to get to town quickly. I was already at the stage on Gayaza Road, and asked a boda-boda driver who was already heading that way to take me. He slowed down, and offered his price. “Ten thousand shillings,” he said. My mouth dropped. I had been planning to offer him sh1500. “Two thousand,” I said, furious. The look of horror he gave me sealed our mutual aversion to each other. “Someone should arrest you for asking sh10,000 to go to town,” I said. “I’ll do it for sh8,000,” he replied. “Ugh!” I said, and yelled at him for trying to cheat me as he drove off down the horrifyingly dusty and chaotic Gayaza Road. The best way to figure out how much a trip on a boda actually costs? Take what they offer and divide by two, three, or four, depending on what you judge to be their potential threshold for deception.
2. Conductor, my balance? As a foreigner, always beware getting your balance. Whenever possible, use exact change, and don’t get out of the taxi until you get your balance, unless you want the conductor to drive off with your note. Although taxi drivers don’t have the same opportunity to rip you off as their more rapacious boda-boda counterparts, they will still attempt to take at least sh100 or sh200 from you. Your best defense is to argue while standing with one foot on the ground, one foot inside the taxi. Make sure you don’t fall, of course. Recently, I was in a taxi with another mzungu. The sight of us together on the weekend was more than the conductor could bear. Even though it is only sh500 to go from Kitintale to New Vision on the weekends, the conductor wanted a lukumi from each of us. We each gave him 500 exactly, and the conductor became furious. He took my 500 coin and threw it in the dirt. “1, 000,” he yelled at me, even though I had just boarded. I should have just walked away, but I picked up the coin from the ground and gave it to him. “You’re so dishonest,” I said, and handed him another sh500. Granted, if I had to sit in a taxi all day yelling out the name of the destination, I would probably try to spike the fares too. But I take taxis several times a day, and each transaction is stressful, sometimes leaving a bad feeling in my chest. It’s just sh500, I tried to remind myself. Get over it. But I was mad. Sh500 adds up over time!
3. Transport. This is not so much a way of being conned as a way of being separated from your money. Sometimes, acquaintances will take a boda-boda to New Vision and request not only money from me for their transport home, but also to pay the boda who brought them there for their loan request. “I didn’t have transport to come and ask you for money, so I took a boda-boda to your office,” one person said. “Please pay the boda and give me money to go home.” Your blood pressure immediately begins to rise as they begin asking you for a larger loan, remembering other things they want money for, while still sitting on the boda ride they took on your credit expense. The same acquaintance, I recall, once contacted a Ugandan friend of mine when I had gone back to the States, and asked for a loan, saying that I had promised to wire money to pay my back friend. Luckily, my friend e-mailed me to confirm before lending to her, which saved both of us from being scammed.
4. Do You Want a Friend or an ATM? Sometimes, people will befriend you just for the sake of asking for a loan. This is a major reason why I got an mp3 player and try to listen to it when I am alone on a taxi, or walking through town. When I first started going to Uganda, I was very outgoing. I was happy to chat with anyone. After quite a few bad experiences, you’ll find me now sitting quietly on the taxi, headphones tightly in my ears. “Mzungu, I want to be your friend, give me your number,” passengers complain. “Give me your number, I want money. You have too much money. Give me your number.” Of course, such individuals are quite obvious. Others are much more insidious. They might hang out with you two, three, four times before they reveal that they are not interested in your friendship at all. Unaware of your small checking account, they imagine you have tens of thousands of dollars at your disposal willing to lift them, their extended family, and all of their friends out of poverty. When they find out that you won’t cough up a shilling, they lose all interest in you, and move onto their next get rich scheme.