Not the job for me?

Both men and women in Uganda are venturing into professions that were formerly taboo

It used to be easy to define jobs in Uganda along gender lines. Secretaries were women, for instance, while men were
drivers or lawyers.

The winds of change have been quietly sweeping through our streets. Women ventured into the army and police forces. Men started making and selling women’s clothes. Women are graduating as land surveyors. Men are now not ashamed to be professional dancers.

All of a sudden, it would have to be an extreme situation to see an eyebrow raised and hear someone ask, “Hold on, isn’t that a job for the opposite sex?”

That extreme would be something like seeing a woman conducting a taxi, for instance. Except, I’ve even seen that with my own eyes. I was recently guided to an Ntinda-bound taxi stage along Kampala Road and advised to wait. Not for long.

It is easy to understand why Sylvia Nalubega can handle the stressful job. Her aggressive body language and loud voice leave no room for argument. With her big body build and her hair cut short, it is easy to mistake her for one of those men. One who just happens to have breasts.

After tavelling in the taxi, other passenger – both male and female – and I were firmly decided in favour of all conductors being women. While aggressive, Sylvia is polite and as far as public transportation goes, practices the epitome of customer care. She always said thank you to a disembarking passenger.

“Although it is difficult, I try not to engage in quarrels with passengers like my male counterparts,” she said. “The problem is with idle and disorderly men making funny comments and laughing at me to my face.”

Sylvia dropped out of school after primary two due to lack of school fees and went to work with her mother, a hawker of items like chewing gum and cigarettes, which is where she learned to work with money. She was encouraged to try being a conductor by her brother who told her she had the qualities to work as well as any man.

“My mother wanted to kill both of us, she really did,” laughed Sylvia. “But my brother was insistent. He assured my mother that in today’s Uganda, there is no room for appearances. The money you take home is the only order of the day.”

This same money business, according to Sylvia, is the hardest part about being a conductor.

“I do not mind the continuous shouting for customers and the jokes by men as much as I mind keeping track of the money,” she confessed. “I wish passengers knew how difficult it is to remember every face that comes in and the balance they should get back. For me, it is the most difficult part of the business.”

Good luck Sylvia, as you get the hang of it. Who knows, in five years, you may be managing a bank?

Let us now turn to another extreme: men who work in the beauty industry.

Enter Prince Emmanuel Golooba, who is a bridal attendant at Da Hair Zone in Nalubega Complex, along Bombo Road.

When I first met Prince, he was working on the hair of a friend of mine who was getting married the same day. (God works in mysterious ways. A front row ticket to a topic I’m supposed to be writing about!)

He did something with her hair. I cannot recall exactly what. Lots of twisting and twirling, beads and pearls. By the time he was finished, I was a little worried that my friend’s fiancé would fail to recognize her after lifting her veil. She looked sensational.

“It’s ironic that as a young man, I had no interest in hair whatsoever,” Prince chuckled. “I only went to beauty school in Kenya because my family had no money. It was a vocational choice.”

That vocational choice enabled Prince to be comfortable working with makeup and teaching women to model. But he decided he wanted to settle down and work around weddings.

“I used to own a salon called Sparrows, which I started up with some friends,” Prince recalled. “We broke up because they lost interest in the profession.”

In 2008, after 16 years in the beauty industry, Prince opened up Da Hair Zone with a friend. He only deals with the brides, and she manages the other clients.

“I’ve enjoyed my work. Because I am good at it, it is a comfortable job with no stress,” Prince said. “But I am now restless. It’s been too long. I feel like it’s time to start another career.”

While Prince bids adieu to hair, how about wrapping your mind around the idea of two women who only a year ago said hello to money lending?

Further introspection should reveal that this is not something to marvel at. Everyone knows that while the father is the head of the household, it is the mother who runs it.

Irene and Mary (not real names, for obvious reasons) are two sisters who run a loan shark business in Energy Plaza next to the old taxi park. I was not allowed to disclose its name for ‘security purposes.’

When I entered their premises, I initially assumed that it was a shop ostensibly selling electronic gadgets at rather cheap prices. Then I saw the furniture in the corner of the room and realized that this was the property of loan defaulters. A modern day pawn shop.

I was led to an office discreetly located in the back where the two sisters sit. Christian music was playing from a stereo and I had to ask why. These are loan sharks. Surely rock and roll and heavy metal (very heavy metal) would be more appropriate.

I was informed by the young women that they are born-again Christians. I was astounded. How do they manage to run this business that calls for a good deal of ruthlessness? How do they turn the other cheek and forgive their neighbour?

“Our faith keeps us focused and patient,” revealed a soft-spoken Irene. “Also, we will never lend money until we have the security safely tucked away with us.”

Yes, but what happens when someone defaults?

“I am the one who calls them to remind them,” Mary spoke up. “We give our borrowers an extension of two weeks. After that, we add interest which they have to pay back with the loan.”

Yes, but…what happens if someone defaults?

After a heavy pause, Irene answered delicately, “We have people we call to handle the situation.”

It may be a good idea to keep your wits about you when borrowing money from a woman. Hell hath no fury and all that.

But I was still confused. If someone has left you with security worth the amount of the loan, why does the situation need handling?

At this point, the two sisters were staring at me stonily and I decided it was time to be afraid, and leave.

I guess the generosity and kindness of Christianity can only be maintained for so long.

Let us end with another man who works in the beauty industry. Male manicurists are a common sight in salons. No one ever questions why.

Mark works with Flavia’s Beauty Salon, also in Nalubega Complex. He has his own ideas as to why men make better manicurists than women. He lowered his voice before telling me why.

“People are deceived in thinking that nails are a principal interest for women,” he sneered. And I mean, really sneered.

Mark is always shocked at the poor state of hygiene in which women keep their nails.

“My clients think I do a good job in order for them to keep coming back, but that is not true,” he said scornfully. “I do it so that I can maintain their nails in a first-class state. I am an artist. It pains me to deal with cracked heels and cuticles competing in length with nails!”

Mark dropped out of school after senior six, and joined the manicuring business with a friend.

“At first, it felt odd to me, to hold women’s feet. It was also unpleasant,” he said. “But after a while, I became obsessed with holding this disaster of a foot in my hand, and ensuring that when it leaves my salon, it is ‘Mwa!” He blew a kiss in the air to emphasize his point.
At this point, I was starting to suspect that Mark’s clients were not really interested in his handiwork. He was probably a stage comedian in his former life. He had a very interesting way of expressing himself.

“It’s not just feet, it’s also hands,” he sighed. “Please ask your female readers to buy hand lotion. You can get a good one anywhere for Shs 5,000.”

My laughter was cut short when he offered me a free manicure and pedicure. I counted my blessings that I was wearing closed shoes and politely declined. My feet would have given him a heart attack.

 By Lindsey Kukunda