I am living in the gated and guarded compound of a widow, Lydia. She speaks excellent English as she spent five years working in Boston as a nurse and is a highly successful business woman in Kampala. When rented out, she receives a large chunk of money from the apartment that has previously been occupied by other foreigners like me whose organizations are willing to pay the steep price for the Western accommodations- it is 800$ a month. You are paying for the appliances that other places would not have, an electric stove, a microwave, a fridge and even a washing machine. She also offered to lend me a stationary bicycle for my spare room. But rent from the apartment hardly registers for her as a necessity as her real money maker is an impressive catering business.
Known in Kampala as ‘good sauce’, she commonly caters for weddings, funerals and events at large organizations like Oxfam (how we found the apartment). A large wedding in the states is attended by 200 people, but here that would be small and exclude key individuals like forth cousins, neighbors, long lost friends and friends of those friends. So Lydia ‘good sauce’ often cooks for 600 people.
The staple of these meals, and most meals here in Uganda, is matoke- the green bananas cut and steamed into a paste, served with meat, a thick and tasty peanut sauce, vegetables and rice. To prepare for 600 she hires about 6 people, who I have watched work from 8 am until past by bed time at 11 pm the day before. It depends on the order but for one of these events I observed two goats being killed, over 30 chickens grilled on a banana peal fire, 50 kilos of rice and a massive sack of cassava cooked to perfect. From what I could tell, the biggest task is peeling all the bananas, which amounted to over 1,200 and economically come from her own fields, land purchased outside of Kampala. Thus, rather than buying most of the input, she is able to get it from her own production.
For the morning of the event the sou-chefs are back at it by 6am as only the meat and matoke can be prepared the day before, the cooking happens at night in 4 massive broilers. Making rice, frying up final additions and getting the food warmers and dishes ready are early morning tasks, loaded into 2 square, basic vans that live in our compound. I am constantly impressed the work of the food prepares and scared to ask how much they are earning.
Lydia also cooks Western dishes for the smaller wedding party upon request. For one event making lasagna, chocolate cake, a watermelon salad, avocado salad and apple pie. I was thrilled to be invited to a feasts at home when her ‘brother’ came to visit from Colorado. She made a spectacular Ugandan meal, taking all the typical dishes and making them with non-traditional spices like basil from her garden for the the fried rice and meat, chives and curry powder in chipati bread and mint in a watermelon smoothie. Previously, I have disliked the matoke, but hers changed my opinion as a perfect balance of sweet with the richness of the peanut sauce, steamed greens and delicious chicken cooked in banana leaves to add flavor. I did not need to eat for 24 hours following.
Like anywhere in the world, with successful parents children are more likely to be a success. All of her children have been or studied abroad. Her son, who is currently living in the apartment above mine, studied engineering in the UK and worked there for many years until his father passed away. His two elementary aged children still in there with his wife. In Kampala he has a cleaning business that works at the airport and government offices- once again, with connections and the initial capital, there is big money to be made.
I have had extensive conversations with Lydia about work in Uganda- it is clear she has been very successful and she insists that anyone can do it, there is money to be made here. Like other upper class Africans I have met, all of who have at least one maid, a guard and other employees, they complain about their ‘help’ who come from the bush and do not know how to cook properly, fall asleep during their 18 hour shift or never works hard enough for their liking. She claimed one of her helpers recently ruined one of her microwaves. I defended them saying that they probably did not know how to use it, she said of course not, but they need to ask. Which is easier said then done as they are all terrified of her, tip toeing around the compound and whispering greetings to me when she is there, but smiling, shaking my hand and asking me questions when she is not present.
She claims any of these people can become successful like her. While, I certainly agree, the business potential here is massive: Land is extremely fertile, the population is growing by the minute and investment is pouring in, the connections and the initial finances are essential. She would not have the ability to cook as such if she had not been to the states. She would not get these jobs had her husband not been in government and she would not have had the funds to purchase all of the necessary equipment had it not been for her family wealth.