At the dentist

Tom Mutyabule may or may not be a brilliant dentist, that’s not the kind of call I could make, but he is certainly a charming one and an accomplished salesman.

Within minutes of our arriving at the Pan-Dental Surgery he has persuaded us that what Tian Tian needs is not, as we had supposed, a 50,000 shilling filling. No, no, that would only last a couple of years, five at best; then decay would set in, she’d almost certainly need a root canal, might even lose the tooth. (And then what would happen to her planned screen career?) No, what she needs is to have a great wodge of tooth drilled away and replaced with a ceramic inlay, at an all-in cost of 1.3 million shillings (USD 500), with a 20 year guarantee.

They put a videocam in her mouth; a young man clicks at a computer screen, modelling the excavated tooth, and then transmits the data to a precision, double-bit drilling machine, about the size of a desktop printer, which spends 17.2 minutes cutting the inlay from a tiny cube of ceramic. “German technology, I’m afraid” winks the debonair Dr. Tom, a sure mark of his social genius: he expects us, being British, to feel at least somewhat rueful about the superiority of German engineering. I dare say he’s drilled a lot of diplomatic teeth.

There are toys and a fish tank in a reception area brimming with customers, mostly Ugandan. CNN alternates with BBC on a screen that is not turned up too loud. The walls sport dentistry certificates from three continents and bunches of green and yellow balloons pinned, with ribbons, at regular intervals. Did someone get married recently? No, a receptionist tells us; the balloons mark the 15th anniversary of the evidently thriving practice that Dr. Tom has built up, and they’ll hang for the whole of August.

A yard at the back, where two grey parrots live in a cage, separates the reception from Dr. Tom’s surgery. On another side of the yard, two shipping containers, stacked neatly one on the other and painted white, have been turned into dental workshops (denture moulds lined up on desktops), offices and stores. It’s the best container conversion I have seen: neat windows cut in the steel and even supplied with tin awnings, in a vaguely ‘colonial’ style, to keep out the rain, which is beginning to fall. From the corner of the salvage-edifice a bran-new security camera sweeps the yard.

Behind the surgery is a construction site, where the ribs of a nine-storey building stick out, waiting for their skin. There’s quite a lot of building in the city now but, after China, its pace generally strikes us a glacial. Squatting down by Dr. Tom’s parrots, I catch a glimpse of why.

They’re hoisting reinforcing rods up to the top of this new structure, where perhaps another storey is planned. A couple of men stand at the bottom and haul at a rod from the pile until its hooked end can be grasped by a guy sitting on the open ledge of the first storey, who heaves it up to a chain of workmates sitting or standing on the layers above. Vertical, the rods span three storeys, three pairs of hands hoisting each one. They must be getting slippery by now, with rain and mud. The seventh storey link, as far as I can make out, is an unyoung woman, wearing a skirt just below the knee, and she has chosen to stand. Most of the labourers are wearing gloves, but she is not. No helmet, harness, much less a crane or elevator. No wonder these buildings take so long to go up. And how strange is the proximity of such primitive labour to the digital dentistry going on just below.

Kampala, August 21, 2010