Simba's Kapchorwa by Night
"My father was called Simba," the large man standing in front of me says. "It was a nickname. And now that he's gone, you can call me Simba." He adjusts the position of his white cap and straightens his cuffs.

"Okay, I will."

Simba owns Noah's Ark Hotel in Kapchorwa, Eastern Uganda in the dramatically beautiful Mt. Elgon/Sipi Falls region near the Kenya border. I spoke with him very briefly when we first arrived, as he handed out pieces of candy to all 35 of my traveling companions who joined me on this work trip. Simba likes to hand out candy wherever he goes. He is the quintessential hail-fellow-well-met evangelist for good cheer and high times as he moves about this small, high-mountain community where he grew up, and where his 65-year-old mother is still producing 100 bags of coffee a year. He is a dynamo of jocularity and commerce; born to be an inn keeper.

The next time I encounter Simba, late afternoon the day after we arrive, he tells me he needs my advice about the position of a new fireplace. "I want your opinion, your architectural expertise. I think they put it in the wrong place. Please, come with me over to my new hotel. We'll go, have a beer, come right back. I will buy your beer. You can have one or two, no charge. How many do you want?"

"I think one will do the trick," I say. I explain that I have no architectural expertise, but Simba's not having it.

"If you change your mind and want two, you can have two."

"Okay, thanks."

The man is a funnel cloud of charm and charisma, benign manipulation and big fun. All around him are pulled into the cloud. He's his own 24-7 entertainment channel, in 3D. He cajoles, flatters, feigns hurt, all to get what he wants at the price he wants it. He's very effective. He now owns three hotels and a nightclub. But today he's going to work his magic on two women selling bunches of matooke at the roadside.

I've been here long enough to know that no one has a beer and comes right back. Ever. Especially if you are in the company of a man called Simba. But he's just not a guy you can or want to say no to. So here I am waiting in his luxury van as he first praises then scolds the matooke ladies.

The negotiation is starting to drag on and I get out to watch. One woman wants 500 hundred shillings (about 25 cents) more than Simba wants to pay. At one point he looks like he's about to start crying, then he turns on his heel and storms away, then he pivots again, huge Cheshire smile lighting up the entire hillside and all but begs her to drop the price. Finally he cocks his handsome head flirtatiously to one side and says, "Pleeeezzz" in English. The woman finds this hysterically funny and crumbles. Simba gets his matooke.

At the gate to the Noah's Ark Hotel No.2 the driver lays on the horn and two security guards open up and let us drive in. Simba sends one of them to get me a cold Club beer. "Come," he says. "Look at the fireplace."

The outside of the single story house is painted with pictures of animals, but the inside is still being finished. He's exercised about the fireplace because it's in the middle of the wall and makes the corner areas on either side of it unusable. "What do you think?" he asks solemnly. Two bricklayers are standing next to us.

"Why don't you put it in the corner?" I say.

"Great idea! Of course," he says, looking at the bricklayers with a why-didn't-you-think-of-that squint. "Now what about the chimney?"

The hole for the chimney has already been cut in the ceiling. "Well, you've got the Noah's Ark thing going, how about curving the chimney over from the corner, plaster the brick and have your artist paint a snake on it?"

"Yes, yes, yes," he says. "Take this one out," he tells the bricklayers, pointing at the nearly complete fireplace, "and make it over in the corner instead."

"A quarter round shape might look good," I say, showing the contour by sweeping my hand between the two right-angle walls.

"Quarter round shape," Simba tells the bricklayers. "Make the chimney a snake." And we leave.

"OK, we'll just drop the matooke by my other hotel, then we'll go back," Simba says.

His third and oldest hotel is also the funkiest, geared toward backpackers and locals. We pull up in front, the matooke is carried in, Simba bickers and banters with the staff, hands out candy to several guests seated in the café and we depart.

"I want you to see my sports and entertainment center," he says. "It is just two blocks away. We go, we look, and you'll be back before dinner is served."

It's a big place on Kapchorwa's main street. Simba leads me in and starts passing out candy to the 20 or so men sitting on couches watching football. He pays special attention to five men seated against the back wall, shaking each one's hand, giving each extra candy. "These ones don't hear," he says. "These are deaf."

Simba walks through a doorway to the bar and continues to the large room at the back of the building. It's dark and filled with young men standing around brightly lit pool tables. There is loud music and the steady, noisy knocking of pool balls. "Oh," he says to me, "I think we have time for a game of pool, don't we?"

"Yeah, I think so," I say. "You play, I'll take pictures."

Simba hands out more candy, grabs a pool cue out of someone's hand and steps to a table where a game is already underway. "Won't you have another Club?" he asks me. "My treat, have two."

"I'm good as is," I say.

The balls are collected and racked up and Simba makes the break. A young friend of his steps forward and sinks three balls. The kid is talented. Simba twirls on his heel and mugs as if he's terrified, then puts a ball in the side pocket. The kid raises his eyebrows.

"You know, I stopped drinking two years ago," Simba tells me, "because I was always buying people drinks, but they never bought me drinks. So I stopped. Now I just drink coffee."

"Can I buy you a coffee?" I say.

"No, I won't sleep if I drink it this late. Besides, this is my place. I don't have to buy it here. It's already my coffee."

Simba is a loud, theatrical pool player. For him, pool is as physical a sport as soccer. What he lacks in skill, he more than makes up for with a symphony of hoots, whistles, hisses, howls, lunges with the cue stick, dance steps and various other calisthenics that entertain everyone nearby, but don't win him the game. He buys the kid a beer for beating him and asks me, "Don't you think I'm the world's best pool player?"

"You're definitely the noisiest," I say. He laughs so hard at this remark he seems to stop breathing for a moment.

He recovers and we leave, Simba passing out candy as we go, stopping to give three more pieces each to the deaf men.

"How long have you owned the hotel where I'm staying?" I ask him.

"Ten years," he says. "I started it with two dollars."

"Really?" I say.

"Sure," Simba says.

--- Douglas Cruickshank
Go to another
by Douglas Cruickshank

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH