East Africa’s Perception of Quality

Preparing the equipment for the tour I’m helping to manage was something I decided to take particular responsibility over. The other tasks, like finding corporate sponsorship or wooing venues into hosting the band involve too much persuasion and infuriating negotiation for my liking. Finding sound equipment, on the other hand… how hard can it be?

Some time ago, the band nailed down a list of gear which they would be needing. We had already cut out a number of the band’s requirements by finding or borrowing drums, speakers, and a bunch of other stuff, and what remains to be found is a guitar amplifier, a bass amplifier, and a keyboard of some kind.

My sorties into town with my list of gear are blind and dumb, as with most of my missions. I began by simply going into town and asking around for sound equipment shops, my bicycle providing me with free and sturdy transport. Aimless, I connect the dots through Kampala as directed by whoever is standing on the street corner when I lose the trail. Having failed to actually acquire reasonable equipment, I’ve found that music supply shops in Kampala are a) poorly stocked or well stocked with junk, b) have awful service, and c) demand exorbitant prices for anything worth buying. I should have expected as much, since I had the same experience with everything I’d previously tried to price buy in Kampala.

Chinese Imports

East Africa’s small time mercantile sector is rife with Chinese garbage. Bike shops deal in great quantities of low quality replacement parts and shining bicycles which conceal their crappy construction with bright colors. Electronics and home appliances are sold to unfortunate middle class consumers who toss them out once they expire, since they simply are not worth repairing. Music shops proudly display the same breed of junkĀ  in the form of flimsy cymbals or amplifiers hidden behind labels with subtle misspellings and phony model numbers. If it’s new in Kampala, it’s Chinese.

“You want that one?” asks the merchant, seeing me shaking an amplifier emblazoned with a poorly executed YAMAHA emblem.

“Nope. It’s shit.” I’d been pawing it simply to scoff at it’s faultiness. I might have said ‘junk’, but the word is simply too weak. How is it possible that people choose to buy such crappy stuff? Well, because the cheap products are, invariably, the ones that will sell.

Second-Hand Merchandise

If it’s not new it’s used, which can be good or bad. It’s a certainty that the only hope of finding a quality piece of equipment of any kind is to find a used one in good condition. They are rare, occasionally trickling in from corners of the world where sound is taken seriously, but I’ve caught a glimpse of a really decent Peavy guitar amplifier or Roland keyboard amongst the jumbled stacks of counterfeit drumĀ  kits and dysfunctional mixers.

“One point eight million. Last price,” said one merchant when asked for an opening price on a good looking bass amp. This is more than seven hundred dollars, which is easily enough to buy the thing brand new in a better stocked nation.

Like most things sold by these middlemen, sound equipment shows up occasionally in a shipping container whose contents are fought over by six other sound equipment merchants on the same block. The quality of the used stuff is ascertained once the haul is brought in. Much of it doesn’t work, but is put on the shelf anyway, stacked higgedly-piggedly within the concrete walls of the shop, and is only assigned a price when someone is interested in it by a young woman placidly eating her beans and rice.

Not Pros

Quickly, the attendant demonstrates her ignorance with sound equipment.

“Have you got a guitar amplifier?”

“Here, here,” she said pointing at sad acoustic guitar, hanging by it’s broken strings.

“No, no. Amp-li-fi-er.” My hands mimed a big boxlike thing.

“Ehhh… no. Maybe in next load.”

I now lead my inquiries with these sound merchants by asking about their careers in the music industry. Have you ever played in a band? Are you a sound engineer? Not surprisingly, most of the handlers lack any musical background, and can’t really be expected to know anything about watts or volts or frequency. They just opened up a music shop in the music shop district because they thought it was a good idea, man. Difficulty arises then because my own experience with musical equipment is limited to drums and other instruments which don’t require a wall outlet or electrical specification and procedures. By visiting a sound gear shop, I hope to find someone who knows more about sound than I do, but around here the opposite is true.


This staggeringly low standard for quality and service is the norm across most business sectors. Contractors are notorious for not actually being experts in plumbing or electricity, and for lacking the tools of the trade. Merchants of any product are, more than likely, just re-sellers without any knowledge of their wares other than the going price, and will rarely back up their products with any kind of warranty or return policy. This is Africa, where low price trumps quality without fail, where if it looks like the real thing, it’s good enough, and where all sales are final, sucker. Where getting what you need, if it’s not bananas or fried goods or newspapers, is not trivial.

I’m looking at renting what I need from a professional events company for way too much money; it might well be the only way to get what I need. I would give anything for a Guitar Center right now.

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