Tilapia Culture and my Service Industry Baptism

The Tilapia

“I really don’t like that one,” She said, looking sour and pointing at me. She was an old Dutch hack talking quietly to a friend I’d just made named Rodriguez, a Burundian fellow I’d been practicing my French with for the past two hours. At least Rodriquez didn’t feel the same way she did. How could he? He’d just bought me a beer. It was my first night, a Thursday, at my new job, and I was learning the basics of bartending from my colleagues, a Welshman and a pair of Rastafarians. The lack of live music or other attractants kept the crowd small, so it became a good training night.

My boss, David, had me come to Tilapia Culture Centre earlier that day and begin working. His briefing was brief, even by briefing standards, and he split for Kenya after a vague explanation as to my responsibilities. Chief among these was my being made an assistant tour manager for a Norwegian band called the Frank Znort Quartet who would be visiting Kampala for a nine-day tour in October. This wasn’t mentioned to me on our previous discussions, and it is work I was totally unfamiliar with, but sounded like a hell of a fun time, so I took it on.

I hung around until late that night, seizing the opportunity to learn the finer points of bottle opening and cash drawer tending. The sour Dutchwoman (“I’m a Ugandan! I’ve been here for twenty years!”) mocked me for my… well I’m not really sure. She surely wasn’t impressed by my nationality, nor my ‘American lies’, nor the comparatively insignificant amount of time I’d spent in Africa. She was so repulsive that I soon found it easy to filter her blather, hearing only more drink orders.

I’d always avoided service jobs. Shunning ugly personalities is something I’ve become expert at, but it’s impossible when you’re meant to serve them. Kill them with kindness, my mother would say. I smiled as I served her more beers, and found relief in chatting to the Burundian crowd.

Those first days, I had no shift, no schedule, no boss. Wages in Uganda are not set on an hourly basis, so shift schedules become unnecessary. Furthermore, it becomes effective to keep the bar open until the last customer has finished spending; often four or five in the morning, even on weekdays. Live shows and private parties came and went. On Movie Monday we showed back to back British comedies from the sixties. For the first week, I poked around the lounge on busy nights picking up empties and wiping tables, leaving the chaos at the bar to the pros. I’d eventually doze off, leaning on the refrigerator, and be sent home.

During the day, in the laze before an evening crowd appears, I draft proposals and emails with regards to the Norwegian band, whose music I’d begun to listen to and enjoy. In fact, all of the music I’ve heard live or over the stereo at Tilapia has been enjoyable, if only because of the variety on hand. I relish browsing the cashier computer for unfamiliar music, or something to fit the mood.

“Is that Elvis?” a customer asked one stormy afternoon. Runoff from the thatched canopies in the courtyard pounded the paver stones, and a pair of customers dozed on a big cushioned bench outside, their empty beer bottles being sprinkled with ricocheted droplets.

“Nope. Frank Sinatra. Close.”

“Good rain music,” said another.


Now that I’m settled in, I’m taking on more technical tasks. Tilapia’s old website has expired, and was unsatisfactory anyway, so I’m in charge of whipping up a new one and splicing it with the bar’s Facebook page, which needs work too. With tasks to wade through, I’ve come up with my own schedule of arriving sometime shortly before noon to settle in with my laptop around the only power outlet in the lounge, and work in and around Tilapia until it seems unnecessary to stick around.

It is both hectic and laid back, the work here. Nothing happens all day, and evenings are a toss-up: either shameful shenanigans or the quiet of non-event. But the place is fun, the other employees are relaxed and responsible, the customers are pleasant for the most part, and music runs thick through the air at all times. I’m paid like a local (which is to say I receive survival money and little more), but I get complementary food and drinks. At least for now I’ve stopped losing money.

I’m enjoying myself, and I think my cohorts can all say the same, no matter what crabby foreign braggart walks through the door.

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