Charles Kalyango: Interview with an Intercultural Manager

If there’s anything the Gorilla Highlands region doesn’t have enough of, it is events. Special reasons to come back, to have fun, to celebrate. This Friday evening, BirdNest Resort – Lake Bunyonyi is doing something about it: there is going to be Corporate Dinner, 30/6/2017 from 7pm and at 40,000 shillings only.

If there’s anything many of our hotel managers are lacking, it’s proactivity. You know, actually doing something, bringing business and life to their places of work. But not Charles Kalyango! He has been at BirdNest for four years, and is not even remotely bored. Because every day is different and change is constant.

Charles, Corporate Dinner is your brain child. Why bother?

The motivation is derived from my deeply felt need to bring people together, to spend some time in serene environment, to deliberate on issues or just enjoy a relaxing time. Often we all tend to be busy and therefore have less quality hours to socialise or have discussions about life and business with others. If time is created, it’s either night hours – meeting in wrong forums like bars where meaning may not be the best topic – or weekends when it’s family time for most people.

Are people your reason to work in hospitality?

The most interesting part of my job is interacting and engaging with different people daily. So this makes it a new job every day because you meet people from different backgrounds, different races and those with different points of views which makes my job exciting.

Who is the most interesting person you have encountered?

Honestly for me it wasn’t a celebrity, it was the CEO of Stanbic Bank because our conversations revolved around management which really resonated with me. Sharing experiences with other people is always interesting.

Can’t clients also be the most terrible part of the job?

Of course everyone expects that things have to go a certain way, in most cases their way but this is never the reality. There are particular ways things have to move at BirdNest, so my way or their preferences cease to matter or make sense.

In you role as manager here, how many people have you fired?

Our staff turnover is pretty small, we keep our personnel. Most of the people we started with are still here. So in my entire four years, I think I have fired two to three people and even for those cases, it was over things we couldn’t avoid or overlook. In my position you have to learn to be patient with people or you’ll keep hiring every other day – and we all know it’s not easy to get good staff.

How did you end up at BirdNest?

I have always had interest in tourism, it is part of me. Of course when you are in a space you are interested in, opportunities open up. I saw this opportunity on the “Expats in Uganda” Facebook page, BirdNest looking for a manager, and I said to myself: “Why not give it a shot?!” I applied and here I am. BirdNest is the first lodge I have ever worked as manager at.

Really? No tourism experience?

I did many things before joining BirdNest. One of them was business planning with an NGO called Tecno Serve and our work was creating business proposals for female entrepreneurs. I did that for about a year and a half. But before then, I worked with a tour company on a voluntary basis.

What do you think convinced the Belgian owners to give you the job?

I think a combination of factors played a role: my academic background and the fact that I am intercultural. They needed someone who understood different cultures and I happened to be the person.

Intercultural… What do you mean?

I was born in Masaka, went to primary school there, then did both my secondary school levels (Makerere High School) and university (Business Administration at Makerere) in Kampala. I lost my parents when I was still in primary school. Two American volunteers, Jamie and Jeremy Phillips, found me in Masaka and took me to the city. They became my parents, I lived with them. They are now back to the States but I’m in touch with them every day.

Growing up in my foster parents’ house gave me a huge understanding of culture, a chance to see things from different perspectives. I know what a Mzungu likes and I know what a local expects. It gives you an edge over someone who may not know this.

As an orphan I also had to figure out life on my own, this meant working hard at the opportunities presented to me.

What do you appreciate about your working environment?

The staff here are a great team to work with. I have learnt that when you take care of your staff, they also take care of your business and you never lose.

What special things do you do as a manager to motivate them?

It’s really not about that I do as a manager. It is the way the whole system has been set up. For example, we pay our staff on time, more than anyone that I know of, and what is even more important, we pay really reasonably well.

How are you able to handle the huge work load?

Generally I’m a calm person and this helps. Even when the work is overwhelming, you may not see me bothered or tense. I do serious things at a smooth pace..

Four years at BirdNest… How often do you manage to escape from this place?

I don’t really escape. There are months we are not busy and these allow me to move when I need to; I go to Kampala to see my wife and son of nine months. I don’t have days off because I work Monday to Sunday. Tourism is my life, something I have always wanted to do and am doing now.

interview by Miha Logar and Lisa Stern; transcription by Enock Luyonza; photos from the BirdNest archives

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