Menus as microcosm

This story is from my time in Mbale, Uganda. The characters are a Ugandan entrepreneur and a well-meaning American NGO volunteer. Their tale presents a microcosm of the international development industry, and it will end exactly the way you expect.

The local entrepreneur’s name is Esther. She runs Cozy Point, a restaurant in the Indian Quarters neighborhood of Mbale. The American volunteer will remain nameless, as will the NGO where he worked. Suffice it to say that he had all the best intentions.

Our American protagonist saw an opportunity to improve Esther’s business: menus. Like many Mbale restaurants, Cozy Point didn’t bother with them. Diners would ask what was available that day and make a selection based on it. Cozy Point serves good, hearty Ugandan food: an over-flowing plate with meat, cassava, matoke, rice, beans, chapati and g-nut sauce would cost less than $3. Prices varied slightly depending on the meat you ordered (chicken was more expensive, goat was the cheapest), and Cozy Point also served a selection of beers, sodas, tea, and other beverages.

So our friend the American offered to provide the menus that would improve the customer’s experience at Cozy Point. He found a website where he could raise money from small donors who wanted to help this local entrepreneur grow her business. The profile he posted about Esther and Cozy Point managed to raise $20. He used that money to design, print, and laminate menus. The whole process took several weeks, and the final product was delivered to Esther shortly before the volunteer was set to return home.

This is when I entered the story, as merely an observer. I was still in Mbale for about a month after Esther received her menus and the American volunteer left the country. Cozy Point became my primary spot for watching World Cup matches. Service was pretty slow, so if you ordered dinner at the beginning of the match, you’d probably eat midway through the second half.

In the dozen or so times I ate at Cozy Point, I never once saw the restaurant use the menus. I’ll let you draw your own metaphors.