The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Ssebaggala's 35 Years of Fixing Your Time

Glued to a wooden chair in his small jewellery shop at the Uganda Commercial bank (UCB) building, Fred Ssebaggala Muguluma, could fix any watch.

With magnifying glasses, a blistering fluorescent lamp and sophisticated screw drivers, Ssebaggala would dismantle any watch. Then with utter care, he examined its smallest components and when he was finished reassembling it, the watch would work perfectly.

That was in 1993 but the images are etched in Julius Mayambala Buganda's mind, Ssebaggala's first son, who loved watching his father work. Whenever he left school at Nakasero primary school, he would rush to his father's office - just to watch him fix people's time pieces. Little Mayambala probably fancied himself a horologist like his father.

Twenty years later, Ssebaggala is still on his chair, and Mayambala is a professional teacher.

"I loved his job as a child - both what he did and how he did it. As I played in his office, he would not rest until the customer's watch was finished," Mayambala says of his father.

For the last 35 years, a smart and enthusiastic Ssebaggala has entered the city every morning to fix people's time pieces. And over time, he became a father and leader too.

"He is a gentleman. I have seen that man for over 10 years who has always come to his workshop dressed very smartly," says a one Jackson at Uganda House.

Indeed, he is smart because during this interview, Ssebaggala is wearing a black suit, a red tie and white shirt, and a Rado watch that he bought at Shs 1.5m, a decade ago. He is also wearing a smile.

Ssebaggala zone:

In Kansanga, fellow residents know Ssebaggala more for his contribution to their well-being than fixing watches. He is credited for having been pivotal in changing Kansanga from Uganda's 'Beirut' to 'half London'.

"In the 80s and 90s, Kansanga was a slum area. We used to be invaded by thieves from nearby Makindye," he says.

As a responsible citizen and local defence secretary, Ssebaggala spent nights patrolling the area and managed to catch some thieves and scared away others.

"I later got military assistance from Gen Sujusa who was then army commander at Lubiri and we got rid of any bad elements in the area," he adds.

For his commitment, people rewarded him by naming this area after him: Ssebaggala Zone and Muguluma road.

"He is my mentor and I have never seen such a person who works for the good of the community," says Joseph Kasasira, the chairman of Ssebaggala zone.

Today, Ssebaggala is proud that Kansanga has developed to the point of attracting two universities. He also serves as the LC II chairman of Kansanga-Muyenga.

Industrious:

Born in Sseeta, Mukono, Ssebaggala's inventiveness started at Jinja Secondary School in the early 1970s when he used to fix people's small radios. He was spotted by Inland Servicing Company after he joined Bishop's Senior School Mukono. The company then sponsored his training at Isiri Bambuli Servicing School in Kenya.

"I received training in servicing of wrist watches, wall clocks, clocking watches, fuel pumps, small electronics, washing machines, air conditioners," says the 54-year-old father of ten.

On his return from Kenya, after 18 months, Ssebaggala became one of the few Ugandans skilled in simple mechanics. He took part in fitting clocking watches at Bank of Uganda, UCB, Coffee Marketing Board, and Nile Hotel, among other top corporations at the time.

The businessman:

But his dream was to be his own boss and he would soon actualize it.

"I started Rolens Watch Services in 1980," he says. "I started at a very tiny cubicle in Diamond Trust building in someone's shop with a few accessories," recalls Ssebaggala.

For being trustworthy and effective, Ssebaggala moved to Uganda House where he rented a shop, Paris Boutique, together with a Frenchman. To date, he boasts of being the only horologist in Uganda who (would give and still) gives a year's guarantee to his customers. Mayambala remembers his father then as a man always on the move.

"Business was good. Besides repairs, I started going directly to Italy to import some expensive watches and their accessories," Ssebaggala explains.

Badru Zziwa, a director at The Observer, remembers meeting Ssebaggala in the early 80s as a calm and smart Sports Club Villa supporter who could fix any kind of watch.

"I had a watch sent to me by my sister in Canada. It was malfunctioning and all repairers had failed to fix it," Zziwa says. "But when I took it to Ssebaggala, it worked."

For people like Zziwa, trustworthiness is one of Ssebaggala's best assets. His philosophy of being honest and straight endears him to many because Ssebaggala believes there is no reason to try to attempt something that he actually knows will not work. At his workshop, people keep entering and leaving their apparently expensive watches.

The slump:

With a nice shop and regular customers, everything was working perfect for Ssebaggala in the 80s. He was importing watches, fixing them and ably providing for his extended family. He had even cut a deal with some friends from South Korea who wanted to establish a big watch-assembling plant in Kampala.

Then things fell apart. Due to political unrest at the time, Ssebaggala's shop was wiped clean by looters in 1985.

"I had just returned with new watches from Italy. They sent me back to zero," he sadly says.

The only thing Ssebagala saved was his skill, and as a young man, this setback did not discourage him.

"The years that followed were harsh. The money was devalued by the new government," he recalls.

Without enough starting capital, he decided to utilize his other skills. He started moving around people's homes fixing their clocks, washing machines, fans and air conditioners. By 1990, Ssebaggala was back on his feet and settled again at Uganda House, where he still is.

Foot off the pedal:

Since 2006, Ssebaggala's work-rate has reduced. Though weak, he makes it to work every day to keep customer-confidence.

"I have high blood pressure and I got a bad stroke in 2006 which affected my sight," he says. Ssebaggala then started wearing glasses to work properly which, to him, "wastes time".

To save time, he trained his nephew, Tom Ssekamatte, to fix watches.

"I have groomed him since 1997 and he reminds me of myself," Ssebaggala says. Today, most of the work is done by Ssekamatte.

In the next six years, Ssebaggala wants to wind up activities in Kampala to develop his farm in Mukono. When he was in Kenya, he was inspired by some farmers who utilized small pieces of land to grow a variety of crops and fruit trees.

"I want to grow everything and even rear bees," he says of his retirement.

Thanking God:

"At this stage, there is nothing more I can ask from God, I just thank Him," he says with a smile.

Ssebaggala, whose customers comprise rich men, military officials and diplomats, says he has met every person he dreamt of.

"They come looking for me in my small cubicle," he boasts.

He is also grateful to God that his five children are degree holders while the other five are in good schools.

"It is through that job that we have never wanted for anything," Mayambala interjects.

Disciplinarian:

Ssebaggala knew that he had to bring up hard-working and disciplined children. He, therefore, developed a "do-it-yourself" approach that his children have found resourceful.

"He is an excellent father but he does not pamper," says Mayambala. "He was tough on us but never left our side whenever we messed."

Ssekamatte, his nephew, describes Ssebaggala as a strict fatherly figure, who wants the best for everyone, achieved through trust and patience.

Failed attempt:

After meeting people complaining of unscrupulous watch mechanics, Ssebaggala tried to professionalize the watch repairing business but was failed by technocrats. He contacted Kyambogo University, asking it to form a course to certify all watch repairers.

"Lecturers at Kyambogo took me to the then minister of Planning, Jehoash Mayanja Nkangi, who blatantly told me that the country had 'better priorities' than fixing watches and calculators," he recalls.

As fate would have it, a few years later, Nkangi came running to Ssebaggala with an expensive watch for fixing and admitted that he (Nkangi) had made a mistake.

Ssebaggala is now happy with the implementation of the Skilling Uganda initiative and the informal education system, where people can get some self-sustaining skills.

Mixed memories:

Ssebaggala can fix any watch - Rado, Casio, Rolex, Quartz or any ordinary watch. But the most expensive watch he has ever repaired was a golden IWC for a certain man from Jinja.

"He had a golden watch worth $40,000 (roughly Shs 100m)," he says. "The man died in a car accident and the watch was stolen."

Ssebaggala has also had his share of bad experiences. Besides the looting in the 80s, he was conned of watches worth Shs 20m by Congolese traders. In the early 2000s, another group of Italians came knocking at his door with what they said was mercury, worth Shs 4m.

"I thought white people were trustworthy. I gave them Shs 1m only to learn that the minerals were fake," he says.

Simple man:

Ssebaggala is not a man of luxuries and has never tasted beer or cigarettes in his life. When he was rushed to Mulago hospital with a stroke, he was the only survivor of the eight that were admitted that week.

"I survived because I did not have Aids and was not a drunkard," he says as he tinkers with a customer's watch.

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