Abby One and Abby Two

Our office in Kampala-Uganda had many drivers. Two of them come to my mind: Abby One and Abby Two. First there was only ‘Abby’. A thirtysomething short guy, who did not really stick out of the driver-crowd. Our team used him a lot, as we could rely on him. That was the main challenge with the drivers: we would often see them as unreliable. They would say ‘it was not their fault’. It was not their fault they could not come over and pick us up at 7 am to drive us to the airport, as it was the fault of their neighbour’s wife’s niece. Hoping for at least a spicy story to justify why we missed our flight, we would ask for more details. The story would often go something like this: They could not come over to pick us up at 7 am,because for that, they would have to wake up at 6 am. Unfortunately, they had not woken up, because their alarm had not gone of, reason being because their neighbour’s wife had invited her niece at home to iron her hair, to get the curls out. Apparently there was something wrong with the iron. It had made a short and the fuses blew. Not the fuses in their homes – they did not have any – but the fuses from the mains where all the neighbours illegally tapped electricity from. So the whole neighbourhood fell without of electricity yesterday. So the alarm clock did not go off. Totally reasonable: we were not picked up because of the neighbour’s wife’s niece.. If maybe I could talk to her so it does not happen again..? Anyways, we’re drifting away from the subject.. The point was: ‘Abby was not like that’.. And I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact that maybe he did not have a neighbour’s wife’s niece or maybe he did not have electricity at home. He took honour in his work.

One day, a Ugandan lady walks into our office, and comes to me, introducing herself as ‘Abby Two’. Abby Two was a rather corpulent woman, but all smiles and happiness. You know the kind of people that, when they laugh, they not only pull up the corners of their mouth, no, they radiate happiness, eyes twinkle, the laugh comes from deep inside the belly, they clap their hands like you just told them the best joke ever. And they do that every ten minutes. One big happy person. “Why do they call you ‘Abby Two’?”, we asked. She explained that there was already one Abby. And rather than adding the family names, they had agreed amongst themselves to make it easy: go by number. She came last, so she would be number two. She used to be a police woman, but changed jobs as we paid more. Abby Two was the only female driver we had in the Kampala office, but as months went by, she stood her ground, and we got to know her as the funniest and most pragmatic of all drivers.

One day we heard her call over the radio. Abby Two had some problems. During peak traffic time, she was driving to the airport, passing the ‘Clock Tower roundabout’. That roundabout was known for huge traffic jams, as it was one of the main exit roads from Kampala. It was also located near the end of the Nairobi – Kampala railroad, and near a very busy matatu – a local taxi - station. When the Clocktower Roundabout got jammed, it would really get jammed. I am convinced the concept of gridlock-ing was not only invented in Kampala around that time, but was refined to an art. It was unheard off that in a traffic jam, one would not stand still in the middle of an intersection. If you stood clear of an intersection, all hell would break loose behind you, and the cars from the other side would hurriedly take the open space you left. Only to stand still in the middle of the intersection to make sure you could not pass neither. Kampala traffic jams were a mixture of cars, matatus with people hanging on the side and trucks dangerously leaning over, with their loads stacked as high as they could. Everybody and everything was hooting, with drivers and passengers shouting and laughing, and music playing as loud as possible. Actually, most of the time, the music did not matter, it was the noise level which was important. There was an honour in being the loudest. It was a status symbol. People would look at you and think ‘he must be someone important, as he is the loudest’. In between the vehicles, dare devils on motorbikes and bicycles would maneuver. At times bikes were chain-handed lifting them over cars, so one could just move. Any holes left in what would look like a wild whirling stream of vehicles, would be filled up with people on foot maneuvering in between all vehicles. People in suits and in rags alike. Mamas with kids tied in a cloth on their back, and a massive load on their head, beggars, hawkers carrying large cardboards with fake jewelry, umbrellas and snacks pinned on them. The rules of the road were very simple: vehicles always had priority. The oldest and largest of them first. Pedestrians had no rights, and often I would have the impression they were seen as targets rather than human beings.

Anyway, amidst this chaos, Abby Two got into trouble. Someone had, through a half open window, unlocked the passenger door, and grabbed her purse and walkie-talkie. She used the radio in the car to notify the security radio room of the incident and of the fact she would go ‘in pursuit’. It was rather difficult to imagine Abby Two, with her volume, to maneuver within the massive traffic whirlpool, but apparently she did it. Her massive presence and thundering voice had helped in getting the bystanders to catch the thief. He had been screaming wildly, she explained afterwards. I thought that it would be in the foresight of a couple of months in prison – the prisons in Uganda were not reputed to be very customer friendly, but Abby Two explained she had to keep the guy under control awaiting the arrival of the police. ‘So just to make sure he could not run away, I sat on him’, she said smiling…

Abby One was two heads shorter than Abby Two, and about four heads thinner also. When driving one of the big Landcruisers, we would always tease him he needed to put two cushions on the seat, so he could look over the steering wheel. He was a well humoured guy also. Always ready for a joke and a prank. One day we needed to transport two dozen computers from Kampala to Kigali. Normally one would do that in a truck, but in Kampala, all trucks had their top open. Precious cargo like computers would be stolen before the truck had left Kampala, even if it would not have stopped along the way. The ingenuity of the thugs would not come close to those in Luanda – where they found a way of siphoning out fuel as you were waiting in traffic – but still theft was not only a reality, it was a given fact. Abby One suggested we would take the seats out of the large bus we had, and fill the space with computers. The bus had only one entrance, and the windows were too small to snatch anything through. We agreed, and filled up the bus with computer boxes. We took a picture of him, sitting behind the big steering wheel of the loaded bus, just as he was about to leave for Kigali. He gave the biggest smile into the camera. Proud as a peacock as he was entrusted this mission. Not knowing this was going to be his last trip ever. As we waved him out, we did not know this would be the last time we saw him. On the way back from Kigali, he had a head-on collision with a truck. The truck driver was drunk. Abby One did not survive the crash.

Abby Two kept the ‘Two’. She hung a printout of Abby One’s last picture in the office, and wrote on it ‘May my brother rest in peace’.

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