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The Russian Ugandan at Kampala's Café Pap


Ali Bashinski Ssemakula sported a nubby orange wool sweater in the warm Kampala sunshine. He didn't look Russian, but the sweater did.

"Nyabo," he asked the waitress. "That yellow cloth on your waist, does it stay clean all day while the table stays dirty?" Her towel hung dry at her hip.

I sat with Ali, a stranger to me, at our dirty Café Pap table because it had the only open spot at a smoking table at the crowded cafe. Pap, which sits just below Kampala's Parliament and just above the main thoroughfare, is Uganda's version of Starbucks, only with even more mediocre food and an even more stratified social milieu. Mbu, this is Uganda, where the average family lives on less than a dollar a day, and a cappuccino at Café Pap costs two days' income. There are 28 million people in Uganda, 1.2 million in Kampala, and about 20 people at Café Pap at any given lunch hour.

Today, like most days, it bustled with a laptop-donning crowd of elite Ugandans and wazungu. (Wazungu is the plural of mzungu, or white person, directly translated, means one who walks in circles or one who takes up space. I'm called mzungu so many times a day that I actually turn my head and respond some of the time, but on a daily basis it's hard to take in the true definition of the word.)

Ali and his friend ordered coffees and cakes and soups and sodas. The many dishes came mpola mpola, slowly by slowly. Café Pap was more famous for its WiFi than its service.

"We ordered the soda at the same time as the cake," Ali demanded. "Why is it not here?" She didn't really respond, just demurred and went to fetch it.

His next complaint was about his iced coffee drink. It came in a plastic cup. "Is this for take away? Tell me, am I going some where or am I sitting here?"

"We always serve this drink in this cup," she said. A frequenter of Café Pap, for the internet and the smoking tables, I knew this to be true.

"No, you bring me a proper cup, a glass cup, a ceramic cup. Nyabo?"

Once again, she demurred, and took his drink with her.

I knew the waitress, she was nice, worked hard, always brought me plenty of internet codes to allow me to access the café's network, and I'd had enough of this.

"You don't have to be rude, you know," I said, briefly looking up from my laptop.

"Have I raised my voice?" said Ali. "I have not raised my voice. I'm not being rude, I'm being demanding."

"Fine, demanding."

"I'm Russian, that's how we are."

"You don't look Russian." He didn't look Russian, except for the sweater, but he explained that his Ugandan father went to St. Petersburg and married a Russian national.

He paused. "Listen, I can afford to come here once a year, and I want what I want."

Once a year, he explained, he could afford to come to this Café. And he'd been coming here once a year since the place opened. He waxed about the Café and Kampala in years past.

I didn't mind when the service was bad. I came often enough that bad service sometimes didn't bother me since it wasn't a special occasion for me. It was the place I went to get some work done, not my annual outing.

"You see this envelope? It's from the bank. I've just come from the bank so I can afford this meal." The brown envelope with an orange Bank of Baroda insignia contained a few dozen 500 shilling coins. They stacked them into neat piles of four like casino chips, just adding up to their 23,000 tab.

But still, the towers collapsed and rolled all over the floor.

They didn't leave the waitress a tip.