I think back to yesterday. We had left Naggalama at 6 am to make sure we reached Nakaseke in time for our meeting with the staff at 9:30 am. Having sought out the opinions of some of the staff at Naggalama the day before as to how how much time we needed to reach Nakaseke, I got vague and variable estimates, so I turned to the trusted map app on my phone to plot the route. And being the savvy traveler that I prided myself in being, I added 50% to the time estimate, doubting that a software coder in Silicon Valley had ever considered the Ugandan deep rutted mud roads in their algorithms.
When we got in the pickup truck that cool dawn morning in Naggalama, I took the front passenger seat and proudly showed Brian, our familiar driver, my iPhone and the mapped route on its screen. He looked at the phone, stared out the dusty windshield, and put the pickup into gear. As we started to roll, he said to the road, “This is OK”.
I plugged in my charger to the car lighter, hit start on the route app, and delighted in watching our progress down the asphalt covered road on which the hospital sits. “In 3.4 kilometers, we turn right”, I held the phone up to show him the map. No comment. Siri (or whomever was this app’s voice) announced, “In one and a half kilometers, turn right.” I looked at the driver to see if he had heard her. Brian showed no reaction. I looked at our progress on the phone. Perhaps he didn’t understand the phone’s accent, so I updated, “Ok, 700 meters and we’ll turn.” Brian stared straight ahead. Trying again to get a reaction I said, “Get ready to turn.” We whizzed by a dirt path that I was certain corresponded to the turn. I groaned as Siri disappointingly chimed, “Recalculating”.
Trying again, “Ok. In 500 meters.” “Ok, right up here” I pointed out the windshield at another dirt path. We drove past. “No problem, we’ll get the next one”, I said to no one.
Brian stared ahead and said, “Gayaza. We’ll turn at Gayaza. That is a good road.”
“Sure, sounds good” as I flipped off Siri’s voice on my phone.
I continued to look at the phone every few minutes, making sure we were heading toward our destination. Pinching the screen, I could see our whole route to Nakaseke. It was due north until the very end. A little over two and a half hours was the phone’s estimate.
Soon the asphalt ended, the roads got narrower, muddier, ruttier as the trip progressed. Soon we were driving very slowly, Brian doing his best not to maroon the truck in a ditch or hit a goat.
Two and a half hours into the trip, our estimated time of arrival kept being pushed later and later. I blamed the road conditions, worse than I had estimated and certainly nothing Ugandan Siri had dealt with, even with her infinite algorithmic wisdom.
Then Brian spoke. “We must ask for directions now.”
“Why?” I held up my phone. “The phone says we need to just stay on this road for another 83 minutes.”
He pulled the truck up to a barefoot, nearly toothless man of indeterminate age walking up the road toward us. He nodded as Brian rolled down the window. After a flurry of Luganda back and forth, Brian looked at me, “He says we need to turn around. The turn for Nakaseke is back there.”
“Really?”, I protested. I held up the phone and tapping the glass said, “No, it is straight ahead. “See? Here,” I pinched the map to show him the whole route with Nakaseke marked clearly due north and the glowing blue dot of our location. I wondered, was it possible that he was going to believe a nearly toothless man with a walking stick over Google?
Brian put the truck in gear and began to turn it around to head back down on the very narrow, rutted road from where we had just driven. I closed and re-opened the app. I retyped Nakaseke. Again, Google proclaimed that Nakaseke was straight ahead of us, not behind us as the barefooted GPS had suggested.
I persisted. “Unless there are 2 Nakasekes, this says we have to continue the same direction we have been goin.” “There is only one Nakaseke”, said Brian with quiet certainty. He stopped the truck 4 points into his 7-point turn to turn around, now straddling the truck fully crosswise in the road, he turned to face me and said, “Tell me what I should do.” I paused, weighing the two choices. “Let’s keep going” and pointed to the phone as if to show that it was two against one.
He pointed the vehicle back to the direction we had been headed and resumed the jostling down the path. As we drove on, I saw the cell signal drop from 3 bars, to two, and then one. I stared at the blue dot as it traveled toward Nakaseke. Finally, “No Signal” the phone declared, but no matter. It wasn’t complicated, the directions had been simple, straight until Ngombe, then turn right, and a few kilometers we will have reached our destination.
An hour and a half later, an actual sign, not a common occurrence, stood on the side of the road. “Ngombe”. And, with two bars marking our cell signal. I tapped on the Maps app and re-entered Nakaseke. I stared at the phone. “94 minutes” to Nakaseke . . . Behind us!
What?! How could that be? “Stop the truck!”
I rebooted the app. Siri stood her ground. Nakaseke was now an hour and a half behind us. And ahead of us. Both. I pinched and unpinched the screen. There were now two Nakasekes on the map. And we were due at one of them in 17 minutes. Brian remained quiet, seeing the panic on my face.
I looked through my emails and found the name of one of the hospital administrators with which we had been in touch.
Hello, Richard? Um, we need some directions to your hospital. I think we’re close. Where? Um, Ngombe.
Richard said, “You are very far, maybe an hour and half. (pause) Why are you in Ngombe?”
“I’m going to let you talk to our driver.”
Brian took the phone. “Ae. . . Ae. . . Aaaaaaae. . . Kali.” (Yes, Yes, Yes, Fine.) He handed me the phone. In silence he turned the truck around.
After driving a ways, I stammered, “Brian, I’m so sorry. I was wrong. The man on the side of road. . . you were right.”
He smiled sweetly. “It is okay.”
By the time we arrived at Nakaseke Hospital, an hour and a half late, I had learned yet again a lesson I have learned many times during my visits to Uganda. Technology is only useful if the environment in which it is used, can support it. How often have I seen the uselessness of advanced technology in under-resourced settings. Whether it is having an EKG machine sitting unused because of a single broken lead that could be easily replaced in the US but not in Uganda, or an expensive blood analyzer that gives a test result that changes nothing because there is no treatment for the underlying disease, or donations of 3 months of a medication that will run out long before the patient’s benefit is realized. And now, add to the list, phone apps that have been developed for engineer designed roads and not the terrain dictated winding paths of an impoverished nation.
Sometimes a barefoot man with a walking stick understands the needs of his community better than any programmer sitting in a glass and concrete building 10,000 miles away.
As he put the truck into Park, Brian said softly, “I miss the fuel.”
“Huh?” I asked.
“So much fuel we used. I miss the fuel.”
For a Ugandan, it wasn’t the waste of time. It was the waste. For a country where everything, so limited, is precious, waste is the crime.
19 Apr 2018