Fear of Living in Poverty Drove Me to Success – Wekesa [interview]

Amos Wekesa is one Ugandan who has taken seriously the fact that Uganda is blessed by nature and that there is plenty to profit from our natural resources.

He launched Great Lakes Safaris, a tour company that has succeeded tremendously in getting tourists from different parts of the world to know, visit, love and bring money to Uganda. However, Wekesa did not grow up with a silver spoon is his mouth. As he told Simon Kasyate on Capital radio’s Desert Island Discs programme, his has been a journey of sacrifice.

Who is Amos wekesa?

I am a Ugandan patriot. I believe in Uganda because it is where I am meant to be and it is where God put me to be. I was born on the border of Uganda and Kenya during Idi Amin’s time, to a smuggling family. We smuggled sugar, bread, and tea leaves in 1973. I personally got involved in smuggling at the age of seven, as it was the only way to survive. We did it as a family.

What were you smuggling at the age of seven?

I smuggled sugar, bread, Colgate [toothpaste], sodas, tea leaves things that were scarce in Uganda. We went to places like Kitale in Kenya and took it to Magale in Uganda where the market had people from Kampala, Mbale, etc.

At the age of seven, kids are going to school yet you were smuggling. Does that mean you didn’t go to school?

We lived in complete abject poverty. Smugglers – like fishermen – don’t necessarily save they don’t ever build a house they don’t take their children to school. They believe that when you get money, you have to spend it and most times just drink it. I only got a chance to study when I was 10 years [old].

Between seven and 10, you made some money as a smuggler. Where did you put this money?

All the money went to the parents. They believed our payback was the food, shelter, and so the [direct] benefits were never enjoyed by the children.

When you joined school, what kind of schools did you go to?

Let me take you back and tell you how I left the village. People from an NGO, Salvation Army, based in Tororo came to our village looking for the top two homes with abject poverty and lucky enough mine was among them. We were so poor I never used to wear shoes. What my mum wore as a gomesi is what we covered ourselves with in the night.

We made mats of our own using fibre, papyrus reeds, stayed in a grass-thatched house and the portion of the children’s part was not thatched. We looked at the stars and when it rained, it would rain on us. We are six children, with five girls. I was then removed from that village because of abject poverty and taken to Tororo where we lived in dormitories.We were over 45 boys from different parts of the country.

We majorly spoke Swahili and a bit of English since my guardian at the time was Scottish. We also spoke some Luganda, Japadhola, and Lugisu. In 1983, at age 10, I was taken to a nursery school, and then taken for an interview for primary one at Oguttu primary school, Tororo in 1984.

The headmaster took me to primary two even though the interviews I did were for primary one, because I was old. I was extremely brilliant in class because of age. I was doing well all through primary I was hardly number two.

At this time point, living in the Salvation Army establishment and being paid for in Tororo away from your family, did you ever get homesick?

I often missed home like every human being, like the company of my sisters, my family. But I knew that there was a future ahead of me because there were a lot of things for me to compare with since the whole village was very poor and there was nothing to inspire you.

Among the Bagisu, after the age of 16 or 14, [after] you are circumcised, you were married off. But like you know, when you are young you can easily adapt to things. So, some of [the other Salvation Army beneficiaries] were like my brothers, I began to feel at home and that is how we lived.

Upon completion of primary seven, where does life take you?

They took me to a school in Jinja called [MM College,] Wairaka, which was a mixed school. I did very well in senior one. However, after senior one I didn’t like education anymore. It was a very difficult stage for me trying to [discover] myself. Teachers never understood me.

While in secondary school, I scored 23 [points] for my O-levels, then went to Kachonga secondary school for A-level. Just before the first term ended, the senior fours burnt the school. Then I was transferred to St Peter’s College Tororo. I joined in second term of senior five.

This is the term where prefects are campaigning and reaching there, I wanted to be a head boy but since I was new, I reconsidered. Later, I became the tennis captain, [and] school drama chairman. In A-level, I did mathematics, economics and geography but of all, I only loved Geography [paper] 3 which was about Uganda. I made sure I always passed this paper as either the best or the second best.

All this time you were an interesting guy in school but not succumbing to the dictates of adolescence, which would force you into indulging in drinking and smoking. Did you ever try those?

A lot of my friends always went dancing, drinking but that wasn’t my thing. I knew my boundaries and I had my own fears. I had a fear for my God, and also for what the repercussions would be if they sent me back to the Salvation Army and then back to my village, Lwakhakha, whose memories that I had were not good.

At St Peter’s College Tororo, how did you pass mathematics, economics and geography as well as all the other caps you held with you?

When they shared the Jab [Joint Admissions Board] forms to fill before going to university, I knew I would not go to the university. There was no miracle [going to happen] I was going to fail since I hadn’t put a lot of time into reading. I got six points at my A-levels, with two principal passes.

After I had failed, a Canadian doctor who was working at Tororo hospital came and told my Scottish guardian, “This guy should go and do a tourism course. I am sure he is going to be very, very successful.”

In 1996, I was put on a bus to come to the city for the second time. This time I was coming to stay. The first time I had come to visit in 1993 in my senior four. I came to Kampala, [and] was tasked to look for a good tourism school. I found and joined Airways Tour and Travelling School then, where I did a nine months’ certificate in tourism. The school was run by Kenyans. I remember I loved the tourism aspect of the whole course and did well.

When I came to Kampala, I needed to adapt to [city] life so, I looked for a Christian centre. I joined Baptist Christian centre, Wandegeya. We used to have TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday), where we used to go and clean up chairs, make popcorn, play table tennis, [and] make tea for university students since I loved volunteering.

So, the course is complete in nine months, do you have an idea what you want to be in life?

I had seen gaps and been observant of what was happening in Kampala. [That was] nearly the time when my guardian nearly passed on. So, I had to choose to either go back to the village or stay in Kampala. I walked from office to office looking for my first job.

I worked at Belex at the Sheraton hotel as an office messenger, where I earned about Shs 20,000 a month. I used to sweep outside their offices, clean, [and] run their errands.

You’re [a guy with] a Christian background. Did you ever get the temptation to run and shake a little bit at Club Silk and get to meet some of these hot Kampala girls?

I don’t think any girl would have any interest in me at that time. I never even used a taxi. I used to walk all the time, always sweaty. Life was extremely difficult and miserable.

I have known that the moment you took on a girlfriend or a wife, it would cost a lot of money.

Yet I always wanted to save. My cost of survival for a week was Shs 1,000. There was a woman who used to make for me cassava and beans for Shs 100. I ate some, drunk a lot of water and kept a portion for breakfast the next day and that is how I survived.

Tell us how your life changes from a desolate messenger into a… ..

[In] 1997, I looked again for my second job, an office messenger [but] now in a better place at Nile Safari, where I was paid Shs 40,000 a month but still I lived within my means.

I am the kind of person that always lives within my means from the time I started working.

I always know the difference between an asset and a liability very clearly. I made sure rent is paid on time, I bought beans and posho in bulk, bought a shoe that I knew would withstand all conditions same applies to the clothes.

Fourteen years ago, you were pounding the streets of this wonderful town as an office messenger, perhaps with not so much hope that he would be anything else for those who saw him. How did you discover and break the chains of bondage that kept you in poverty and catapulted you to a comfortable life?

After Nile Safaris, I looked for my third job. I then worked for a company called Gorilla Tours as a trainee tour guide, earning $1 a day, approximately Shs 2,000 a day at average of 15 days a month. I enjoyed that job because I was dealing with tourists who came in from different parts of the world, and I remember very well on my third trip, one of the tourists told me, “Amos, you are so good at what you do, one day you will be in a place that you will not believe yourself .”

When you’re in a place of total poverty and someone tells you these things you will not understand until a possibility happens… .

… One day my Dutch boss was telling me that what I earn, I cannot earn it elsewhere. He would tell tourists all Ugandans are beggars and he cannot do any better. I remember leaving him [because] I was tired of his stories. Clients would ask me at the end of the trip, “why haven’t you begged?”And I would reply,”Who told you I am supposed to beg?” and they would say, “Your boss told us.”

That was very humiliating because I am one guy who is very confident. I am not a guy who will go to other people and ask. I will go to my God and ask but I will wake up in the morning if it means sweeping, I will sweep and that’s how I take my life.

I think there is an extent to which we are our own makers of our destiny. You may need something but you have to work hard towards it, nobody, not even the government will give it to you on a silver platter.

So, with that kind of resolve, you leave your job and what happens next?

I went for my last employment at Afrique Voyage for a lady called Annette Kironde and was being paid Shs 150,000 a month, which was really nice. I improved my rent to a room of Shs 20,000. I worked there for a year and I told my boss it was time for me to move on… . I had saved up my $200 and I wanted to move because my dream was tourism, taking tourists around.

You worked for one year and after saving 200 dollars, you thought you should move on and start your own business? That takes the courage of a saint.

If you know what you want to do, you must always read your environment. At that time there were so many weddings so, I could position myself as someone who can provide the best cars for the weddings. I used to walk out to people with a Mercedes Benz and I would ask them if I could hire it out for the weekend and some people allowed and others abused me.

I would then attend wedding meetings where I am not invited and when they talk about transport, I would tell them I have cars and at that time they were for the rich then I would ask for Shs 100,000 for the owners of the cars and would not drive in those cars because I would be in trouble if anything happened to them. Every Saturday at 5am, I would go to KPC washing bay, wash all of them and then would hand them over to the guys going to wed by 8am.

I earned Shs 50,000 from each of the cars and paid all the people. Therefore, no one in Uganda can say Amos cheated me. I gave Caesar what belonged to Caesar and Amos what belonged to Amos.

I opened up my first office at Rainbow arcade under the staircase. I shared the place with someone else so, we were two companies. We paid Shs 75,000 a month each of us paid Shs 37,500. I then hired my first employee. I remember I got my first mobile number [phone] by the end of 2001. By this time I was paying someone Shs 100,000 a month, had a phone bill to pay, I paid rent.

I worked hard and made sure everyone got their pay on time. By January 2002, I had saved up money to do my first trip to Holland to go and get to clients to come to Uganda.

You were in car rental business for brides and other extravagant people, and then you stepped over into proper tour guiding?

Car rental business was just a stepping stone. During that time, I used to go to parliament and hire MPs’ cars… and return it with Shs 100,000 and most times they would give them to me with a driver so I wouldn’t have direct dealings with the individual cars at the time.

Through that I saved up to Shs 7,000,000 and by the end of 2001, I deposited for a mini bus at Al Malik, which cost Shs 13,000,000. Since I was ready for business, I travelled. While I was in Holland in January, a friend of mine borrowed the car and smashed it [beyond repair]. Upon my arrival everyone was telling me about it, and how they knew I would fail.

So I come back and I am Shs 6 million below zero, so I talked to the [Al Malik] guy and told him he has two options either to put me in jail and he we will never get the money or give me some time and I make sure I pay off the money.

That January I had a recommendation a client from Washington came and looked for me. She wanted me to do a safari for her. I organised for her a car, a driver. They went to Queen Elizabeth national park and little did I know she worked for a bank. She finished her trip and said it was the best trip she had done in her life so she went back to the US and promised to recommend me.

In May, I got another call and email from the US saying they were coming to Uganda and wanted me to organise a trip. I organised for them a three-day trip, so I gave them a young guy who knew about 600 different species of birds and they went to Queen Elizabeth national park.

For every client I took for safari, I gave them dinner, told them about me, where I have been, where I want to be to make them a part of my life and that always made a very big difference. Meanwhile, I deposited Shs 1 million at Al Malik for the car. By June, I had finished paying my debt but life became extremely difficult.

At that time you were looking for someone to settle with. You are not [talking] about that side of your life…

I was still suffering and mentally I was not ready as a person. My dream and aspirations were, ‘I was only going to marry only if I had enough money to take care of her and the children’ and that is what I always thought as a human being. Even when I was tempted, I always held back.

Tell us more about your story…

So June, I had paid my debt but July, August I contemplated closing the business. Life was hard. I had to pay my rent, tourists were not coming as expected. But being a Christian something always told me to hang in there, until 22nd of November when I got a phone call from the US from a friend called Tom Kutter telling me he was an editor and had written a story about his experience in Uganda and had put my address, and he was hoping I don’t mind.

After it was published, the first group came in looking for Amos, the second group, third and fourth group and for each group, I bought a four-wheel drive so I had a number of cars though my place hadn’t changed and I am living the same lifestyle. I never had a personal car and I was investing back to my business.

At this time there was a lady who had come in to do missionary work who I was eyeing. We had become friends and I knew she would become my wife. So, I buy a number of cars and realised cars were just cars so I started buying properties in phase 3 in Entebbe, around and outside the city. I went and lived in Nsambya estate until two years ago. I bought a house in Makindye near American recreation [centre], built an office for Great Lakes Safaris. My children were going to Rainbow [International School] and it was nearer.

Back to your Christian side, you meet that lady who happens to be your friend. Tell us more about her…

She is an American lady called Susan Wekesa. We got married in 2003 now 11 years [in marriage]. We have two wonderful sons and one pretty girl. We got married on 27th of September, 2003. I proposed to her while I had gone skiing in France. So I called her and told her after asking a few friends.

What makes it unique is, during our wedding, the mother and father who had only two daughters were very hesitant. The mother brings a blank card out and says my daughter drew a map of Africa at the age of 14 and put an equator to it.

Her favourite time was 9:27am in the morning her favourite cookies were the famous Amos in US. I still have that card and when we are upset, I still pull out that card and I know my wife was meant to be.

Source : The Observer

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