Resolute woman makes a decent living as a taxi tout

Monday May 17 2010

Naluhuka, a capable lady conductor who goes

Naluhuka, a capable lady conductor who goes about her duties like any other tout, came to Kampala determined to make a difference in the lives of her siblings after they lost both parents at a tender age. PHOTOS BY ISAAC KASAMANI 

By Robert Kalumba

When life rears its ugly head at you, in order to survive, you either swim or sink. Naluhuka chose to swim and she is a happy taxi conductor, writes Robert Kalumba

Its 6.30a.m. and my phone let’s off a remainder alert; I have to call a one Esther it reminds me. Hurriedly I place a call to her, wanting to re-confirm whether she still remembers our interview. “Yes I do remember but you will have to call me later, in an hour because right now I’m too busy. I can’t really talk. I’m already working.’’

And with that, her phone goes dead. Now who at 6.30a.m. on a Friday can already be that busy? A Friday that has kicked off with a steady drizzle threatening to turn into a full blown shower.

For Naluhuka however, 6.30a.m. is already peak time. The kind of job she has entails; a very early rise, a late finish and endless doses of machoism. Naluhuka is a female taxi conductor who plies the Naalya to the old taxi park route seven times a day, six days a week.

So the interview takes place in her “office”. A moving taxi. After catching up with her at around 9a.m. at the Ntinda stage, I quickly realise that this is going to be different. “Like any other passenger you will have to pay for your seat interview or not,’’ she tells me with a stern command to her voice.

You see, this is a woman in the jungle that is the Old Taxi Park. “This job quickly taught me to be tough. If you are a sissy then this is not a profession for you whether you are a man or woman,” she states as she opens the taxi door to let out a passenger at Quality Super Market at Ntinda, then loudly calls out for more, ‘’Aba genda e Kampala lukumi lukumi (Shs1,000 for those going to Kampala).’’

Looking at the way she carries her duties you could forget that Naluhuka is a woman. She barks at passengers who feign ignorance of the right fares. When the taxi is full, she half-stands in it with her behind right in the faces of people! Her attire mirrors her kind of job. Dirty tight jeans and a dirty sweater complete with a hat. Naluhuka’s story begins 28 years ago in Rukungiri. ‘’Our mother gave birth to 10 children.

I was the eighth born,’’ she says. Life was good and all the children were attending school. However tragedy knocked on their door with such cruelty taking both their parents. ‘’First it was my father that passed away in 1998. A year later our mother followed him,’’ she calmly says. When pressed about the cause of their death, a silence ensues. It’s only broken when the taxi creaks to a stop and she’s back to shouting for passengers, head popping out of the window.
Taking that as a sign I have trespassed into forbidden territory, I back off the subject.

“So what did you and your family do next I ask?”
“Our relatives couldn’t pay for our fees, so we all dropped out of school and resorted to digging. We dug mainly food for the household like beans and maize but at times we sold some just to get some money for up-keep.’’

This kind of cycle took its toll mentally on the young Naluhuka. “I couldn’t see myself staying like that for the rest of my life. I was determined to better myself and the family,” she says. When life rears its ugly head at you, in order to survive, you either swim or sink. Naluhuka chose to swim. In 2003, four years after her mother had passed on, she decided to make the trip to Kampala to try her luck.

“I did this for me and my siblings. I had to take my chances or else we were destined to suffer and that thought tormented me,’’ she says. It’s the only time during our interview that I see her in a pensive mood. That decision, going by her pensiveness, to this day seems to have meant a lot to her.

However its one thing coming to Kampala with determination that moves mountains, and another succeeding. Naluhuka learnt the hard way. “I had a relative in Namasuba who offered to take me on as a house girl. Having come from digging, I found the chores of being a house help easy. But it was the money that I found disturbing,’’ she says as she flings open the taxi door at the Kamwokya stage with such intensity.

“Abagedelawo Kampala…Abagedelawo Kampala,’’ she screams competing with touts and other taxi conductors for passengers. It’s at this point that I sneak a quick chat with her co-worker, the taxi driver. His name is Frank Kanaba.
“What is it like having a female conductor?” I ask?

“It’s mainly perception that is a big problem. Some touts who help us call passengers, on seeing a female conductor, decline to help saying they cannot waste their breath helping a woman. This is mainly done at the Ntinda stage.’’

But that doesn’t deter the tag team. “If they don’t help us, we do it ourselves. And that is the one thing I like about her; she gets in there like the rest of the taxi conductors and calls the passengers with no help from the touts. This behaviour has earned her respect in the park as fellow taxi conductors and even the drivers see no difference between this woman and them.’’ Now how about that for a job assessment by your boss?

The taxi rolls on to Kampala and we are back to the interview. “Yes the money was painfully little. It was Shs20,000 per month. With that I had to take care of myself and my sibling in the village whom I sent sugar, soap and some little pocket money. I worked there for a year and left to look for greener pastures,’’ she says. “In 2004 I decided to become a trader.

Using the money I had saved from my first job, I rented myself a room in Ntinda and decided to venture into the tomato business. I used to get the tomatoes cheaply at Kalerewe and sell them handsomely at Kamwokya.’’ She did the tomato stint for two years averaging weekly profits of Shs40,000, a far cry from the Shs20,000 she earned as a house girl. “Yes it was and I even increased my help for my siblings in the village. I visited them at least thrice a year.”

But after a few years, it seemed it was not enough and she once again ventured into something new. This time it was dealing in clothing. “In 2007, I decided to deal in clothes. It was mainly children’s clothes. I got the clothes from Kikubo cheaply and sold them again at Kamwokya.’’ This time her take home pay on a good day was Shs50,000. But she wanted more.

This next thing was dealing in shoes. When I ask why she kept on changing jobs, she says, “I have many people I take care of and that means that I’m always on the lookout for anything better,” she reasons. The shoe business was started in 2008. “This was actually good business. I was earning between Shs7,000 to Shs15,000 a day,” she smiles.

I ask why she didn’t think of settling down and perhaps meeting someone.
“That topic is forbidden,” she says as she opens the taxi doors around KPC for more customers.

“Kampala men taught me lessons that at the moment I’m off men completely,’’ she says with a finality that is unsettling. I prod and she gets angry threatening to throw me out of the taxi.

I apologise and we resume the interview. “After the shoe business which I did for two years, I became a conductor. Why I went into this business is that unlike my previous ventures, this one didn’t need me to have any starting capital. Besides, all my previous businesses had started getting a lot of competitors and the profit margin was decreasing by the day.’’

But why a taxi conductor? “Do you think I’m the first woman to do this? Life is about what you make it whether you are seated in a fancy office like yours or in an “office” like mine.

At the end of the day its money and I go where the money is promising. Who knows, tomorrow you could see me with another job!” she said as we came to our final stop in the park. Indeed, life is what you make it and what a whirlwind of a life Esther is moulding for herself.