The story of Nelson Wamala, alias Nelly, is one rich with the traits of a hustler. The pages that read into his story unfold with a young man at the shores of Lake Victoria at far cast Kiyindi village in present day Buikwe District.
Born in a family of seven, Nelly is the third born of Francis Wamala and Joyce Nakizza.
His childhood largely revolved around life at the shores; fishing, a hard-knock life and strong thirst for money, desires that kept Nelly soldiering on.
In his story, the first pages tell how Nelly always thronged around his mother’s salon business.
He always rushed back from Makonge Primary School because as he says, he longed to know how his mother glued such a clientele to her grip. Nakizza had many queuing up and yet they had tens of options in their reach.
“Her style and approach drove me into liking salon business and I later promised myself that I would one day become a barber,” Nelly says.
Since he always wanted to help his family settle the financial demands at home, Nelly looked to friends in barbershops for ‘tutorials’ as he juggled school. He was in Senior Three at Buikwe Secondary School.
Nelly, like many school-going children adapted to business the hard way, got in sync with fishing and soon he was in the trade.
“Salons brought in very little and yet we needed money back at home so I opted to trade in fish, which we would load and take to Lugazi and Jinja District,” Nelly says.
However, this did not yield the envisaged dividends and just after a month Nelly quit and went back to the salon, mainly because it had fewer risks and attracted lesser hurdles than the fish trade.
“So I went back to the village, and returned to the salon business. To keep me close with my family and also carry on with school without skipping,” Nelly says.
Since his O-Level, fees had been hard to source, so Nelly was tasked to find means from which he would squeeze a coin to fuel his A-Level education at Buikwe Secondary School.
When chance to host David Sifayo, alias Mr Parrot, and other budding artistes for a local concert in Lugazi presented itself in late early 2014, Nelly jumped onto the organising committee. “It was easy for me to join them because I had previously tried doing Dee Jay stints,” Nelly says.
Back to fishing
The committee managed to hype the event and attract numbers but on D-day, key performer, Master Parrot didn’t appear. “I remember many people hunting us down claiming we had conned them of their money,” he says. “Many thought it was a ploy we had mooted to rob them of their money yet the artiste (Master Parrot) just didn’t show up. People branded us as bandits, way-laid and beat us up for that.”
This pushed him back to the fish trade, not only because of the money but as a way of keeping away from the angry fans.
“The need to keep away from irate people dragged me back to fishing and the trade saw me gone for close to three months, I would simply wait for trucks of fish and vend it off,” he says, adding that he would sneak in the night to check on his family and leave in early hours.
Life takes a turn
Bruised to the core, battered to pieces, a dismayed Nelly pondered on ideas but none made meaning and as a result, he opted to face the horrors of life.
He was broke and walked the larger part of his journey to Mukono from Buikwe.
Nelly had a simple shirt, bed sheet and only Shs2,000 on him when he got to Wasite car bond, adjacent to the present-day Labamba bar on the Mukono-Kampala highway.
“I reached at about midnight and begged the security guard at the Wasite car bond for shelter but he declined and directed me to the Nalubaale lodges, which I could not afford,” Nelly narrates.
He also recalls pleading with a security guard in the wee hours to get shelter in one of the taxis he kept watch over.
“He later accepted after realising I was out of options since I was visibly trembling after a long trek and heavy thrashing by the rain,” Nelly narrates.
The guard only offered him refugee on condition that he would wash the taxis before dawn. “He asked me to wash the taxis to finance my lodging fees and also make an extra buck. I earned Shs7,000 and that was the first money I got in Mukono,” Nelly recounts. For days, Nelly slept in taxis at night and rose early to wash them.
“I used part of the Shs7,000 for feeding as I kept searching for a job,” Nelly narrates. Weeks went by before he landed a gig at a salon owned by a one Fred Tebigatulwa located on the building adjacent to the current Centenary Bank, on the Mukono-Kampala Highway.
“I had to mop and frequently sweep the salon to earn Shs1,500 a day and lunch. It meant coming in early. Which was easy since I woke up early to wash cars and then head straight to the salon,” Nelly says.
The gig came with shelter. While plying his day’s duty at Tebigatulwa’s salon, a long-time friend, Tom Musoke, from back home in Kiyindi Village suddenly met him at the entrance to the salon. “He asked how I was surviving and I narrated to him and pleaded with him to take me up, something he eventually agreed to do. And that is how I escaped the cold in taxis and joined him at his home in Kitete, a suburb on the eastern side of Mukono Town,” Nelly says.
That was, however, short lived. Just a fortnight after Nelly had moved in with him, Musoke was thrown out of the house for failure to meet his rent arrears.
“The landlord threw the both of us out. Musoke left but since I had nowhere to go, I pleaded with the landlord for a chance. He, after hearing my story, offered me chance to stay only if I agreed to stay with another man I knew nothing about,” Nelly said.
“I had to work harder to get more money. So I went back to washing cars through the night alongside my salon job to finance my accommodation,” Nelly narrates. This stripped him of any chance to save or have decent sleep.
The big break
One morning, the salon the proprietor, made an impromptu stop for a haircut. After about an hour without any of the household barbers showing up, Nelly dared to trim his hair. But Tebigatulwa doubted him, but eventually staked Shs70,000 if Nelly did it well.
“It was after a prolonged debate that he agreed and promised to give me Shs70,000 if I did the haircut well,” Nelly says. “I managed to pull it off and he pulled out the Shs70,000 as he promised before confessing that he never had a decent haircut like the one I had offered. He even gave me an extra Shs10,000 for the barber service before he left for Kampala.”
Tebigatulwa later that day on return from Kampala, came with a new barberchair, shaving machine and an apron specifically for Nelly. And just like that his story changed.
Months later, for every client that he worked on, Nelly vowed to do his best to have them return, a trait he copied from his mother.
“I would make sure every client I worked on recommends another to tag along. And that has been my trick since,” he says.
“From the countless clients I handled was the husband of Farida Asio, a clientwho had previously come for pedicure and manicure services just to observe my style of work, without my knowledge. Asio later offered me a position at her new salon and promised to double my pay, to which I agreed,” Nelly recounts.
In early 2015, Nelly moved to the Oceans Beauty Parlour in Mukono. Asio, whose salon business idea was premised on her experience amassed during her stay in the United Arab Emirates, tutored Nelly on ways of growing and maintaining a commendable clientele. “She particularly sat me down and run through the art of attracting, growing and keeping clients,” Nelly recounts. At this stage, he felt the desire to grow and work in a bigger salon and that is how he dared approach Sparkles Salon in Kampala for a job.
“I went to Sparkles for a chance but I was not able to come through. However looking back, I realise I was short of experience then,” Nelly says.
“In an effort to better myself, I always observed how others did their work and later tried them out. That’s how after noticing that I eagerly wanted to better myself, Martin Lukoya, a friend, advised me to buy daily a night shift data bundle. Shs5,000 every night was always a big sacrifice but I once tried it and it made the difference,” Nelly says. It is this that later made him a deft hand at trimming.
The big stage
“Since I treasured every client I worked on, with permission from my clients, I took photos of their haircuts and posted on my Facebook page and WhatsApp as my profile pictures,” Nelly says before revealing that it was this that rocketed him to the big stage. “I think it was after seeing my works on social media that my current employers drew interest in me. It is because of that and my success interviews that I got here,” Nelly says in reference to Sparkles salon.
His craft and big stage offered by Sparkles salon have earned him chance to work on Uganda’s big names, which he declines to reveal because of his work ethic.
He has also handled high-profile continental names, the latest being Nigerian actor cum politician Desmond Elliot, who was in Uganda to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC), convened in Kampala in September.
“Desmond was referred to me by his friend. He called, fixed an appointment for the haircut and I worked on him before he attended the conference,” Nelly said.
Nelly has achieved alot being a barber. He vows that none of his siblings will go through the same. Today, Nelly earns at least Shs8m per month. He pays fees for his brother who is attending aviation school in Kenya.
“Because of this job, I have made money that can keep my siblings at school,” says Nelly. He also finances his brother, Pius Wamala to get through Light College Mukono where he pays Shs550,000 per term.
He has secured a plot of land. He has earned a chance to inspire friends and encourage them to better themselves through tutoring on what they want to do to excel in the same venture. He is currently running a private business whose particulars he refuses to disclose.