By Dr. Ian Clarke
This is the tale of the two Bobs, and in case you think it is a fairy tale, or I am making it up, I will say at the outset that this tale is one hundred percent true.
I have known Big Bob (which is his real name) for well over a decade, and Little Bob for about five years. There is a BBC children’s TV series called ‘Bob the Builder’, and it so happens that both these Bobs are builders. Big Bob worked for me for years in various building projects, and was the kind of person who just got on with the job, but stayed rather anonymous, apart from his bone crushing handshake and broad smile. Small Bob did not stand out either, except for his interesting fashion sense in headgear, usually woolen caps with pompoms and ear muffs, the kind that have a string that ties under your chin, and are usually worn by babies.
A couple of years ago I was running down on work for masons, but a friend of mine had a farm and needed some builders, so I recommended the two Bobs. At first they built some staff housing, and when the building work was finished the farm owner needed someone to supervise bush clearing and tree planting, so he allocated them this work. He put Big Bob in charge, since he was more of a boss man than small Bob, but what he didn’t realize was that Big Bob was essentially illiterate, and needed Small Bob to write. So Big Bob allocated work and supervised the workers, while Small Bob did the reporting, made the requisitions, did the shopping, handled the money, and generally carried out any administrative functions.
Neither of them could exist without the other, but each of them accepted the other’s position. When any visitors arrived on the farm and asked who was the boss, Big Bob would step forward, and Small Bob would then identify himself as his assistant. They cleared bush and planted eucalyptus seedlings, but initially the seedlings were attacked by termites, which the Bobs took personally. So they made it their mission to destroy all the termites on the farm, which involved digging out the termite mounds, poisoning the ants and nurturing their seedlings with tender loving care. Several months later the trees were thriving, which was not surprising, since the Bobs treated them like their own children.
When the Bobs were paid, Little Bob got his money, distributed what was needed to his family, and used the rest for petty trading. Big Bob didn’t even bother to have his salary sent to him, and directed his boss to send it all to his wife. Neither of them drank or womanized.
I tell you this story, because we hear so much about lazy dishonest Ugandan workers who are unproductive and full of vices. Big Bob and Small Bob are two average Ugandan workers, who are actually stars, but are among the type of Ugandans who are seldom recognized. I know many other such ‘normal’ workers who have the same character. I am not really in the construction business anymore, but I find myself trying to create work for such people. The other interesting feature about the two Bobs is how they complement each other.
I didn’t even realize that Big Bob was functionally illiterate, and there would have been no point in putting him in a position in which he had to make requisitions and keep records so when he found himself in such a position he turned to someone he believed was better at this- small Bob. He just likes to be out there, doing a good job in whatever he is doing; taking pride in his work, and getting a little bit of recognition from the boss for a job well done. Small Bob is happy to do the paperwork, but sometimes one needs to read between the lines to understand what he is communicating, since he apparently didn’t go far in English.
I have noticed the same thing with many Ugandans who speak English, but are not good at any kind of written reporting. Such people are very valuable, especially when they have a heart for the job, but don’t put them in a situation where they are expected to write things down or fill in reports. It is to such amazing people that I dedicate this column