Saturday, November 22, 2008

Welcoming our new tailors from Bobi and Unyama

What a great way to usher in the holiday season --

This week Lucy and Prisca held celebrations in Bobi and Unyama IDP camps to welcome our new tailors. After three months of training, they brought their products with pride - so that Lucy could review their work. These women can now look forward to earn an income making products for One Mango Tree - they'll start out with headbands, table mats and aprons. Check out the photos below, taken by Julie Carney - during the celebrations.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Training begins

by Julie Carney
Photos by Glenna Gordon
Our progress so far has been tangible, in the form of sewing machines and liner fabric, thread and hand needles. But the less measurable progress has been more meaningful, and that is the training.

I’ll attempt to explain this progress. It is arriving at our training space at Bobi camp, Prisca reading over the lesson plans she wrote up at home the night before. This is her first time teaching but she is a natural—a quiet, and patient instructor. It is the group of women, many of them coming to the training from miles away, sitting patiently at the door to the training center and scolding us for being a few minutes late. It is one young woman, quiet and focused as she peers at her stitches while Lucy watches closely, providing gentle feedback. It is the occasional laughter that erupts, as the women show each other their mistakes. It is the way they call Lucy and Prisca “teacher”. And it is Lucy and Prisca collecting all the women’s work at the end of the day so they can take it home and grade it.

During the trainings, I sit on the side, just watching and documenting; this is entirely Lucy, Prisca, and the women’s initiative. Being useless has never felt so good.

Selecting the trainees proved more difficult than we’d imagined, as many of the women who were initially selected by GWED-G were too old to learn tailoring, a trying profession that makes severe demands on your back, your wrists and your eyes. But all the initial women were desperate to participate, even if they weren’t strong enough physically. But we had to favor “business” over pity; if they were not going to succeed at the trainings, then it would be a waste of everyone’s time. The wrangling for a seat at the training demonstrated both the desperation of life in the camps and how NGOs can sometimes unintentionally create conflict by privileging some over others in their programs. This is why we asked them to bring their daughters or a female relative with whom they “share a pot.” Everything is usually shared among families, so they would presumably be benefiting if they bring their daughters or daughters-in-law. With some time, and speeches from Lucy, they’ve done so, some more reluctantly than others. Now—at both camps—we have two groups of young, eager and committed women.

While there is a certain divide between Lucy, Prisca—as women from town—and the women in the camps, many of the women have been opening up to Lucy gradually, and over time, she says she looks forward to building their trust. Some of them are now approaching her and discussing their family situations, their children, and in some cases, their HIV-positive status. She explained to me that they tell her they are happy to be participating in the training because it is not as back-breaking as ‘digging’ in their own gardens at home. I am happy that the women are opening up to Lucy, and that Lucy is beginning to counsel them in her own way. Perhaps because Lucy has suffered so much herself, her empathy is genuine.

Lucy has not read the books I have on ‘gender-based development’ or ‘empowering women’. She’s lived these theories. And she makes me believe in the power of good leadership and charisma. I had a very old professor, with decades of experience in development, who ended seminar one day with the comment that so much of development is based on charisma. I think we initially dismissed him as senile, but I think I understand his comment a little bit better in the context of seeing Lucy in action.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bestowing of Bikes, or Christmas in August

by Julie Carney
Thanks to the ingenuity and generosity of Clif Hayward (One Mango Tree's marketing advisor) and his friends, Lucy and her tailors have shiny new transport. Admittedly, I did not realize the full value that bicycles would bring to the One Mango Tree tailors until I arrived in Gulu, visited some of their homes, and ‘put myself in their shoes,’ so to speak. All of the tailors live outside of town, and walking to and from work takes up much of their time, especially when they each have family to take care of in the morning and night. Bicycles are an excellent business investment, as they cut the time the tailors spend on the road, which means more time at work and more time at home.

It did take some days of negotiation to get the bikes. Lucy, Prisca, Monica, Kevin, Sarah and Frances were intent on making sure they got the right bikes, the bikes that would not break easily. Much time was spent analyzing carefully the bikes of their neighbors and the bikes they passed in town. And we were happy to let them choose the bikes for themselves. They chose well.

It was a Monday, late afternoon, when the bikes were finally ready. They were so excited. We followed Lucy to the bike shop, where there were six shiny new bikes, just in from Kenya, out of their plastic wrap and serviced. Kevin, Sarah, Monica and Prisca were beaming. Each new bike has a sturdy basket at the front, a lock with a key, a reflector, and a sticker that says “Smart Lady.” In Uganda, the word “smart” signifies good-looking and well put together. And these were the smartest bikes I’ve seen in Gulu Town to date. Each tailor picked out their bike, five silver ones and a pink one for Lucy, and walked them down the street toward Holy Rosary Church, where Lucy had arranged to get the bicycles blessed from her parish priest. We made quite a parade of “smart ladies.”

We gathered outside in the church courtyard with Lucy’s priest, and surrounded the bikes, as the priest said words of appreciation and caution. The tailors were laughing, the sun was out, and the priest’s words were inspiring. At one point, he asked the women to be conscious of other passengers on the road – contrary to NGO vehicles’ modus operandi of inconsideration. “These NGOs are supposed to help us, but they drive fast and splash mud on people,” he said. “That is not respect.”

After the blessing, we walked the bikes back to Bora Bora Hotel, where we held a small celebration. We ate cake and drank mango juice and relaxed. Then, as the sun was setting over Gulu Town, the tailors hopped on their new rides, and road home, into the sunset.

On a side note, a few days after our bicycle celebration, I walked past the District Council Office, where UNDP was holding a celebration, doling out a few hundred “Peace Bikes” for some village women. And I am happy to note that the One Mango Tree bikes are much “smarter.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Growth of One Mango Tree in just one year

by Julie Carney

The streets of Gulu are wide and well-mapped, and it’s easy to make your way to the market. Follow the loud music, and once inside, pick your path amidst the organized chaos of trinkets from China, second-hand clothing (you’re bound to find a shirt from your hometown or state), clicking sewing machines, roasted peanuts.

If you get lost, just ask for Lucy. Along tailoring row, Lucy is famous. And you will know you’ve arrived when you hear, in that soothing sing-song voice, “You are welcome. Apwoyo Bino!” Almost exactly a year ago, when Halle visited Lucy’s stall, Lucy was working practically alone, with no fabrics hanging up on the wall, and only one sewing machine. Lucy couldn’t afford to eat lunch, and young women she would recruit to work at her stall would eventually leave because of lack of business. She could barely afford to pay her rent, and was soon going to be evicted.

But today, Lucy’s stall is overflowing with colorful fabrics, market totes in the making, yoga bag straps hanging in the doorway—a new order for One Mango Tree being finished—as well as other work Lucy and her tailors have gathered. Lucy now has six sewing machines, and has taken on six tailors-in-training. The stall is too small and Lucy and the tailors are constantly behind on orders. It’s an incredible business transformation and a happy, chaotic workspace. Now, other tailors in the market have attempted to mimic One Mango Tree designs, but none quite match the same quality.

As for Lucy herself, she is pleasantly plumper, and she and the rest of the tailors in her stall can afford to eat breakfast and lunch together. Her life is not without its continued hardships and burdens—the stress of caring for her sick mother who is half-paralyzed from a stroke, and the stresses of school fees for her children, but Lucy now says that she has hope for the future.

When we stop work for a drink of mango juice, Lucy loves to talk about how her business can grow. Her eyes grow wide, as she talks of finding land for a center where she can train more women and have more space. “I want this thing to grow. I need this thing to grow so that I can escape my poverty.” Lucy often prefaces her thoughts by mentioning the fact that she is not well-educated. She is wary of being on the wrong side of business deals because she has been cheated in the past. But she is keener than she thinks. I brought her a calculator, but she is much quicker with calculations in her head. She is saving money in her account and she hopes to learn how to use the computer in order to email her customers in the United States.

I am reluctant to frame this narrative as how One Mango Tree has helped Lucy over the past year, because it is her business and her skills that have helped make the returns so great, but she is a positive example of what targeted, effective investments and strong market connections can accomplish.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Giving a hand-up, where the expectation is a hand-out

by Julie Carney
Photo by Glenna GordonA few years ago, the head of UN Humanitarian Affairs declared the protracted conflict in northern Uganda one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises. There’s tenuous peace today, but two decades of displacement and insecurity have left instability, poverty, psychological turmoil, and destroyed infrastructure in their wake. Admittedly, much has changed in the region over the past few years because of greater global attention and advocacy efforts: in Gulu the sheer number of signs for NGOs and groups of well-intentioned ‘muzungus’ (or ‘munos’ in Acholi)—researchers, humanitarian workers, missionaries—suggest anything but neglect. White SUVS smattered with the logos of NGOs or UN Agencies roar through the streets, and women selling roasted corn wear t-shirts that shout “I am poverty alleviation” or “Stop the conflict” (t-shirts which probably outlast the programs and projects they advertise.) If only NGOs could bring as many sustainable developments as boxes of t-shirts.

With more security, most families in the 120 IDP camps are going back to their land, but many are staying, are still relying on food-aid handouts, are still sans reliable incomes. The increasing international presence has perhaps exacerbated this dependency syndrome—on food aid, on paid school fees. Begging in Gulu town is institutionalized, a Ugandan friend told me, explaining that, on Tuesdays and Fridays, beggars take to the streets. “There is no begging in the history of the Acholi people, but the war made us beggars. And the NGOs help us continue to be beggars.”

Everyone whom I meet in town and in my homestay community - a congested group of Acholi huts just outside town, inhabited by a curious mix of displaced families and young Ugandan NGO workers - asked me what charity I am working for. They are surprised when I reply: a business. No foreigners, besides some Indian ex-pats, come to Gulu to do business. To do business, you go to Kampala. Profit in Gulu is to be found in “humanitarian non-profits”: the most highly sought jobs for locals are international NGO jobs, and the most popular course of study in Gulu University is “Development Studies.”

But there is arguably nothing more “humanitarian” than bringing business to northern Uganda. The women in Bobi and Unyama camps don’t need another NGO to bring them second-hand clothes and they don’t want another NGO to come and speak to them about ending domestic violence: they need jobs and their own income for meaningful change. Some organizations have already brought training in tailoring to IDP camps. Indeed, the idea of tailoring training is nothing new, and there are vocational programs already established in the area. But many graduates leave such training unable to survive as tailors, without sewing machines, without fabric, and without a market connection. The market connection is where One Mango Tree comes in.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Back in our nation's capitol

Yes, I'm back in DC, and readjusting to the pace of life here. The One Mango Tree trip, originally planned for two-and-a-half weeks, lasted two months. Now that I am back stateside, the focus is going to be on getting all of this fabulous new merchandise out to you all - as quickly as possible.

One Mango Tree is going viral - that is, through social marketing. We are pulling out all the stops to make our site and our business as interactive as possible, bringing our customers closer than ever to the women who make their products. We'll be doing that in a number of ways, but first and foremost, we want to connect you all to the story - hence the creation of this blog, which is a combination of our news section, field notes, and entries from Locus Amoenus, my personal blog.

Please take some time and browse the entries, I promise you'll emerge an hour later thinking that you teleported to Gulu. In the coming weeks we'll be thoroughly updating our website, linking you directly to the women who make specific products, so that you can read about their individual story. There will also be some new ways to support our work, via donations of critical things like bicycles (our tailors walk miles to the market each day), school fees, etc.

We want your feedback too (that's why it's interactive), so if you have ideas for how One Mango Tree can better connect you with our artisans, please let us know!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Eastern Market!

Halle will be selling at historic Eastern Market on Mother's Day - Sunday, May 11 - rain or shine! Please come out, say hi, and see all the awesome new stuff!

Never been? Eastern Market is in Washington DC, located on Capitol Hill. Click here for more information and directions.

See you at the market!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Forever and for always

I slept in on Wednesday, waking up only to the sound of Paul's text message at 5:36 am - he was waiting for me with the car outside Kabira Country Club. I stumbled out of bed and realized that I hadn't packed a single thing the night before, blew threw the hotel room throwing things into bags and twenty minutes later we were on the road, with my bad breath and knotty hair. I slept all the way to Kafu and woke up to Paul buying goat muchomo and roasted bananas at a trading center. Ah---breakfast! He only brought one CD, and this time it was a varied playlist: It Must Have Been Love (Roxette), Do Me (PSquare ), Forever and For Always (Shania Twain), Another Day in Paradise (Phil Collins), etc. etc. mixed with local reggae. We made it to Gulu in record time - 5.5 hours. I think he flew over the Luwero bumps (see photo) while I was passed out and drooling in the passenger the diversion at Nakasangola is finally cleared, cutting a half hour detour out of the trip.

Despite Paul's requests for me to rest after checking into Bomah, after dumping out my several bags o' crap, I took a quick shower and hit the ground running. The 36 hours in Gulu were a complete blur - smiling Ugandan faces in smart interview suits, meetings with local organizations, briefing by the UN Security Officer for northern Uganda, shopping for office space. My good friend Howard came to see me on Thursday morning, taking a bus in from Lira. After having lunch at Bambu (waiting 1.5 hours for banana fritters that weren't THAT good), we set off on a ridiculous office space hunt through the wilds of Gulu's outskirts. On a tip from the finance manager at Refugee Law Project, we set off looking for Obia Road - a four bedroom house on a plot adjacent to ACDI/VOCA's food security compound. "It needs renovation, but can be made ready with a fence in two months." After trying unsuccessfully to walk there in the scorching mid-day heat (I'd already taken off my button down shirt and felt lost in the desert, tripping around in my tank top and sweat pouring down my face, hand shielding the sun from my eyes and gazing into the heat waves rising from the earth, hoping to spot a suitable piece of real estate. Just kidding, it wasn't that hot.)...Howard and I found ourselves in front of what had to be the place. I dialed up my contact and listened to the description - just needs some renovation and a fence, four bedrooms...while I stood in front of a never-finished or once-burnt shell of a house with no roof and a full-fledged mini-forest taking root in the living space (see photo). But he was right that there was no fence. After another half hour of searching the country-side for the correct property, we finally found the place, tucked away behind a bamboo fence. If only house-hunting in the US were this adventurous, I might actually be up for buying a home!

The trip to Gulu was a success, including a stop off Thursday evening at the sign shop - a local sign-maker (yes he's the one making the millions of NGO signs littering the streets of Gulu, pointing to-and-fro) painted a One Mango Tree sign for Lucy. It's still being finished, but I managed to snap a couple pictures of the artist and his masterpiece (photos coming soon). Paul and I met Lucy by candlelight in the market to pick up the latest order, and she had everything packed neatly into the red plastic bags - one with London Bridge and the other with African wildlife - with an envelope on top that read "Halle's Mummy and Dad. U.K." - a letter to my parents from Lucy, which tugged at my heart and curiousity, but it's still unopened in my bag for the trip home to Ohio.

After a loooong day of running around, I finally passed out at Bomah and woke up on time, even packing my bags before falling asleep (AND taking a hot shower before bed!). Paul and I got on the road at 6 am, with the Gululian red-fire sunrise blazing on the eastern horizon out my window, palm trees blackened in silhouette. I promptly passed out and drooled. In true road trip style, Paul woke me up at our food stop. We were too early for the lady with the yummy roasted bananas (she was just arriving with the brown bananas in a green plastic tub perched upon her head, and waved a greeting when she saw us), but we spotted a guy making chapattis and both lit up at the thought of a roll-ex for the road. Chapattis are like a greasier version of naan, and a roll-ex is a chapatti rolled with fried egg. We also bought an avocado, sliced and salted, and for the next hour I sat with a smile on my face, mushy green avocado in my left hand, and salty delicious and hot roll-ex in my right, as we sang through full mouths to Shania Twain:

And there ain't no way

I'm lettin' you go now
And there ain't no way
And there ain't no how
I'll never see that day...

'Cause I'm keeping you
Forever and for always
We will be together all of our days
Wanna wake up every
Morning to your sweet face--always

Life is good.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Elusive peace and a visit to St. Mauritz

It's Sunday morning, and I'm fueling (and recovering from a visit from Mr. Honourable) with a mocha and an egg and tomato sandwich at Cafe Pap. Another silent Sunday in Kampala, preceding what promises to be a completely crazy week (and following one that was equally nuts). I returned from Gulu on Friday, to a louder, meaner version of Kampala. Paul [driver] and I were listening to the news as we approached town, and heard the broadcast about riots occuring on the streets of the city. Last week, police in Kampala set up road blocks and started ticketing, arresting and impounding vehicles and drivers that were not up to code (boda drivers without helmets, taxis without seatbelts, etc.). The crackdown created a slow swell of anger from the city's thousands of drivers, which erupted Friday in a city-wide taxi strike. Drivers took to the streets burning tires and breaking windscreens of matatus and buses that weren't striking. The boda drivers joined in, throwing stones at any bodas that were transporting passengers. Kawempe, on the north side of Kampala, was one of the worst spots, and Paul and I were pulling up to the area when we saw a crowd of people throwing bricks at a bus that was passing by - there was glass from broken windows all over the road. A truck filled with police in riot gear pulled up and we eventually passed without a problem, but as we drove into the city, the only other traffic was the stream of empty taxis driving in the opposite direction. Smoldering remains of tires littered the road.

As if a premonition, Friday's violence was quickly followed by headlines that Kony had failed to sign the peace accord. My initial reaction was disappointment and fear, partially invoked by the Daily Monitor's reportage - that the signing of the peace agreement was "put off indefinitely" and that with the Cessation of Hostilities Act due to expire on Tuesday and the government showing no intention to extend it, "war could easily resume." My week in Gulu had been filled with optimism from all sides - stories of people returning to their villages (Lucy returned to her family's land in Awac for the first time just last week) and discussions on the way forward and new economic opportunities. The absence of conflict in Uganda has helped raise hopes, but as one man described to me - "the people of northern Uganda have one foot in transition camps and one foot in their villages, with a hand cupping their ear to the north, waiting to hear the news from Juba." The importance of Kony's signature on that final document in this process cannot be overestimated and neither can the disappointment and frustration that everyone in northern Uganda is feeling.

After a week of running all over Gulu to meetings and scanning hundreds of Ugandan CVs to look for quality job candidates, I had an opportunity to visit Lucy's home. She's asked me to go before, but this was the first time that the trip actually worked out - and I had an evening free [and Paul offered to drive] to make the 2-mile trip to St. Mauritz parish, where Lucy lives with her aging parents, 12 orphaned nieces and nephews, and her own two daughters. She is a single woman supporting 16 people - 14 of whom need their school fees paid. As soon as we arrived, Lucy bounced out of the car with a smile and led us through the compound - an impeccably swept dirt yard with a clipped circle of turf, surrounded by tukuls - the round clay huts with grass rooftops - resembling the ones seen in IDP camps, but with much more space between them - the way Acholi families lived before the war. Lucy's family was somewhat lucky in that her brother had purchased this plot of land outside of Gulu just as the conflict was worsening. Instead of moving into a camp like so many others, Lucy and her family moved to this land, and were able to maintain (to some extent) a bit of the life they had in the village. The first tukul belongs to Lucy's father, a very tall and thin man whose face broke into a million wrinkles as he gave us a welcoming smile and leaned on one of his crutches to shake our hands and greet us in Luo.

The next tukul is Lucy's own, which she shares with the four nephews who are in primary school nearby and Catherine, one of her brother's eldest daughter. The inside is spotless and cool, with plastic chairs surrounding a small table with a lace table cloth and pictures of Jesus (several versions), Lucy sewing, a photo from a European friend, and a framed photo of one of the two brothers she lost during the war (one to a rebel attack, the other to AIDS). Her father came inside and spoke to us in his soft and scratchy Luo, as Catherine translated stories of his life, his land, and the war that ravaged his family. He spoke with resignation, a man who prayed that peace would come for his grandchildren, as he admitted that he'd never see his family land in the village again - due to his failing health he couldn't make the journey. Such is the consequence of a conflict lasting as long as this one.

Lucy opened up to us in her home and told stories about moving from the village and hiding from rebel attacks in Gulu. Catherine poured cold water over hands and served us beef stew, rice, cabbage, and bananas. Shortly after our arrival, the sky opened up and poured one of those heavy opaque rains for half an hour, chilling the air. Lucy insisted it was a blessing. After the meal we followed her to the kitchen tukul, where her mother has been staying since her stroke two years ago. She spends her days on a mattress, a small white cat by her side, the walls and grass roof smelling of cooked food and streaked with oily black soot, tendrils of smoke still wafting up the clay-black walls from our recently eaten beef stew. She can see out a small window cut into the wall of the tukul, with a little shutter. I looked out briefly and saw the grave of one of Lucy's brothers, with a small neighbor girl perched atop it biting into half an orange, the pulp and juice dripping down the front of her gray school uniform. She saw me watching and smiled and darted away, scattering some chickens clucking in her wake.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Fountain [again] and Lucy comes to Kla

It’s gray again, like Easter. I went to sleep last night to the sound of Ugandan-lilted accents arguing over a game of Scrabble – late night customers at La Fontaine. Sometime in the middle of the night, the curtains that one of the staff had closed over the front window billowed out into the room, and I awoke to claps of thunder and a constant, gushing sound of rain. The world outside was being churned into a thick slop of red mud. On Easter, when we went to La Fontaine for brunch, Richard arrived in his Bob Marley t-shirt again, shivering, squealing and hopping about, avoiding the drops and behaving as though a massive cold front had blown through – winter in Uganda. He eventually opened La Fontaine to the public at 2 pm, but no matter, because according to Richard, his fellow countrymen stay in bed when the weather is so terribly cold. Remembering this, I felt a little more Ugandan today, seeing the white-gray sky out the window and snuggling up a little longer under the mosquito net and comforter.

I temporarily moved off of Kate’s couch in Kasubi on Tuesday, bringing a small bag of things over to La Fontaine to crash in Steve’s room while he’s climbing Kili. It smelled like boy when I got here, and I’m either used to it now (and I probably smell like boy) or open windows and my coconut lotion have done the job of airing out the boy smell. My days since returning from Gulu have been a mishmash of busy-ness and same-ness. Daily life in Kampala. This was the week I was supposed to be in Zanzibar, relaxing on the beaches and reading. Instead, I’m hopping bodas from hotspot to hotspot (Café Pap, Crocodile Café, Kabira Country Club), attempting to complete enough AIR work to prove my worth. I get up and work for a few hours in the morning, try and get to the pool to swim and read and relax during the hot hours of the afternoon, and then work again late into the evening. In lieu of a social life, it’s not bad way to live.

Lucy rode the bus down to Kampala on Monday, arriving in Bombo to stay with her sister for the night. After a couple hours of confusion Tuesday morning – getting lost at Mukwano Arcade, and sweating bullets in the punishing mid-day sun – Kate and I trudged up from Mukwano, through the taxi park, and arrived at Kiwempe, where Lucy and her foster son, Cyprian, were waiting for us. Lucy is an active and fervent member of the picturesque Catholic Church in Gulu (recall: her participation in a “Crusade” during Easter Week). A few years ago, Cyprian left Kampala to study at seminary in Gulu. The Church tasked Lucy with being his “mom” while he was in Gulu – he lived with her for three years while completing his courses. In return, Lucy called on him to meet her in Old Kampala to help her purchase the materials she needed to complete our order. Since the post-election violence in Kenya, Gulu’s markets have been sparse, and the cost of transport greatly increased. Things are cheaper and readily available in Kampala. Cyprian also speaks Luganda – the major Bantu language spoken by Ugandans in the south. Lucy speaks Luo – a Nilotic language from northern Uganda. Even though she speaks quite a bit of English, most market transactions are completed in Luganda, leaving her to feel like a foreigner in her own country. After an exchange of a big stack of shillings in a shadowy corner in the market, Kate and I helped Lucy and Cyprian to lug 3 foot long cylinders of sponge, stiff fabric, and rolls of Velcro through the winding, hot and crowded market streets, into the chaos of the bus park.

The bus park is essentially a medium-sized parking lot, flanked on both sides by balconied buildings and one-man vending shows – selling chapattis, matooke, roasted corn, roasted bananas to travelers, who line up on small benches to have lunch as they wait for the buses to fill up. As you enter through the gates, throngs of informal bus guides descend upon you shouting “Arua? Kitgum? Gulu?” and then grabbing whatever luggage you’re carrying (this is totally scary until you realize that 9.99 times out of 10, they are actually putting your things into the proper bus, and not robbing you blind), millions of palms and elbows pushing you through the crowd to board the bus – a human funnel to Gulu. No one seemed to understand that we were merely accompanying Lucy and her things, not actually riding to Gulu with her. I’m surprised the mass of people didn’t lift us up and crowd surf us right through the bus windows. After a few well-wishes and quick hugs, Kate and I darted back out of the gates and spent the next half an hour elbowing our way uphill and out of Old Kampala, onto bodas, and out of the madness.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A good Friday

Lucy asked for a sign for her stall on Friday. I love her smile. Good Friday in Gulu. I felt a slowness enter my bones when I woke up. Breakfast was slow. I walked slowly. We got to Lucy’s stall and I sat down and watched her work. She was starting to cut fabric for the reversible bag my mom bought as a sample at Wal-Mart. She was teaching Kevin how to cut oven mitts, watching with a discerning eye over her shoulder, remarking quietly in Luo while she held the pattern (pineapple explosion) and cut oven mitts into the large swath of blue guinea fowl. I wanted to sit there all day on the reed mat and just exist as a fly on the wall –

to try and understand/feel what a day is like there. Eventually the three of us (Lucy, Kate and I) left the stall behind and went to Pamela’s office to talk about the grant. Lucy walked us through Oweno’s food market, passing by row after row of smoked fish from Lake Albert – stinking and dry and covered in flies. Lucy patted backs and exchanged greetings throughout the market until we emerged on the other side, adjacent to Pamela’s office.At our last meeting, I’d asked Pamela to explain our project and the grant to Lucy in Luo so that nothing would be lost in translation. I was worried that she wouldn’t want to go out to the camps. We sat there in Pamela’s office, listening to the Luo conversation between two women, unable to glean anything from their tone or dialogue, until Lucy smiled her big smile and Pamela explained that Lucy was really excited about the project. She asked for a sign for her stall to show that she, too, is One Mango Tree.

After the meeting and a round of fabric shopping, I sat again on the reed mat, propping myself up against the rough wooden post holding up the porch roof. Lucy sat next to me as she finished cutting the pieces for ten reversible bags in cherry blossom print. Holding and cutting and eyeing and cutting and pausing and cutting. Every now and then an Acholi would stop by and greet her, occasionally pulling up the small wooden bench I’d been resting my elbow on and having a conversation while Lucy continued to cut.

A church mother came by and taunted the girls about their singing in choir, urging them to be prompt at practice that evening. From inside the stall I heard one of them singing.

Prisca moved her sewing machine onto the porch and hunched over it, sewing aprons and apron strings.

I sat partially in the setting sun, as it filtered in between the small break in the rooftops, shining gold on the red dirt and reed mat. Threads and scraps of fabric covered everything. Whirring sewing machines, Lucy’s quick and quiet Luo. The sound of Kevin’s scissors on the kitchen fabrics. Francis sewing on Lucy’s machine, assembling the remaining lunch bags. Cutting sponge for the oven mitts. A couple of hours passed without my even realizing it, and I gathered the completed items and said goodnight and a Happy Easter, with the huge blue plastic London bag thrown over my shoulder.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Behold, a novel awaits...

The Gulu tape worm reared its fugly head. Or maybe I shouldn't have eaten pepper steak and honey pancakes last night for dinner. Eh.
I really love taking you on this circular journey of my days, so thanks for reading these missives. It's truly a cathartic exercise for me – an outlet for the tumult of emotion that goes along with these trips – the constant up-and-down and up-and-down (sea-sick and slap-happy).
Speaking of circular, we are back to Thursday. I woke up feeling fugly (see above) and tried my best to shake it off. Kate and I had a 10 am meeting with IYEP (Information for Youth Empowerment Program). After stuffing my face with Patrick's lovely banana muffin x2, Kate and I hopped on bodas and headed out to the new IYEP office (see photo below) – adjacent to the GUSCO Resource Center.

In the split second it took to pass by GUSCO (Gulu Support the Children Organization), I couldn't help but think back to that day in June 2006, when something small came unhinged inside of me, triggering the landslide that has been my constant involvement with Northern Uganda. It goes back to an 11-year-old boy that had just arrived at GUSCO, which is a child soldier rehabilitation center – the first stop on a painful journey towards regaining his place in society. I'd made eye contact with the boy earlier as the Director explained their programs, noticing a vacancy in his eyes. As we sat together in silence, one of the nurses casually explained that he had escaped captivity the day before I arrived. Instead of words, we exchanged brief glances. I drew Bert the Jolly Mail-Bee and smiling flowers and suns. Gave him a pack of gum. Reached out, rubbed his back, and saw a smile sneak onto his face. A nice, wide smile, and a small glitter where all that emptiness had been. And so it goes. I offered him nothing, and I knew it. His smile set loose a tremor in my mind that would grow and torment me into returning and returning, trying to understand why I keep coming back to Uganda.

We paid our boda drivers and Moses stepped into the road to meet us, wearing metal-tipped cowboy boots. Big, huge hugs all around. It's not without meaning that we are working with IYEP and that its new office is adjacent to GUSCO. Moses is a formerly-abducted child soldier that, with a group of others in similar situations, started an organization targeted at restoring Acholi culture and breaking down the stigmas that the formerly-abducted and child mothers face upon returning to their communities. Kate and I sat down with the group in their office and explained our ideas for partnership.

IYEP is playing an increasingly large role in restoring peace and stability in the region, and they've expanded their reach to groups that have returned to their villages. These returnees (as they're called here in dev-talk) face a host of challenges as they leave the squalor of IDP camps and try to reclaim the rural lives they'd lived prior to this conflict. IYEP is easing the transition by providing agricultural assistance to returnees – namely livestock, pigs, goats and chickens.

So, in addition to buying recycled paper beads from IYEP's child mother groups and working with them to develop a line of Peace on Earth holiday cards, we'll be running a unique holiday campaign, similar to Heifer International and with the guarantee that every single penny gets to the ground – you'll be able to directly support returnees in Northern Uganda by purchasing the animals they need to jump-start their livelihoods. That's right, give a goat for Christmas this year…coming soon. Dear Santa….

Following our uplifting meeting with IYEP (and round three of group photos, which we do every time I visit their office), Kate and I headed to the market to see Lucy and take her to open a bank account at Barclay's. We've grown increasingly nervous about her moving about town when we pay her the large sums for each order, so the logical solution is to legitimize things a bit and open an account. Unlike many people in the north, Lucy does have a photo ID. We stopped off at the photo shop (specializing in passport photos, light bulbs, PVC tubing, and cell phone gadgets) and perpetually smiling Lucy put on her best solemn stare for the photographer. With one more step of getting the LC5's signature for a letter of recommendation, Lucy will have a bank account.

We parted ways in town and Kate and I headed to see Angwech Pamela at GWED-G (Gulu Women's Economic Development & Globalization) – our NGO partner for the Davis Project for Peace. We were both admittedly exhausted from the morning's activities, but seeing Pamela (more giant HUGS!) took our happiness to new heights. Pamela, like us, was beyond thrilled to hear about the grant, and immediately told us her plan for mobilizing GWED-G in the camps to get things started. We set up a meeting to introduce her to Lucy and align all of the important pieces. Pamela, after an amazing monologue about our partnership (and ever the teacher), sent Kate and I packing with the instructions to draft a study design – we're going to conduct research in line with the peace project this summer, surveying households before and after the project to better understand the grassroots impact of One Mango Tree's work.

A few hours later I ate some Chicken a la Cream Sauce and chips at Bomah and enjoyed an hour-long massage, a milky twilight-y sky, and a cup of African tea – and you, my friends, are now up-to-date.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

P.S. Gulu loves you

Indeed, Gulu seems to love me very much (except for the tendency for digestive disorders that I pick up here - malakwang, ground nut paste…cabbage). Today closed with one of those milky, quiet evenings, the sky fading from blue to lavender and then to darkness filled with invisible crickets. Staving off a much-needed nap and realizing we'd only eaten Maq Foods banana muffins all day, Kate and I headed to Bomah for an early dinner and some reflection. (read: I'm fresh from enjoying my favorite Gulu massage - oily, relaxed and clean, and drinking a cup of African tea.)

Things instantly improved following the rainy bus ride from Kampala. The clouds cleared and I moved up in the world, dreaming anti-malarial dreams on a twin bed at Hotel Kakanyero instead of Kate's pygmy African couch.

Immediately following breakfast on Wednesday morning, we walked the short distance to Lucy's market stall. After lots of uncontrollable laughter, smiles and hugs, Lucy and the girls cleared out a seat for us on a bench in the stall, which now seems unbelievably crowded. The stall itself is part of a larger, permanent structure – a sort of mini-shopping center with 10 ft. by 10 ft. stalls. It has two huge metal doors that open up onto a small concrete pad and a bit of a porch constructed with wood, woven mats and corrugated metal sheets. The path into the market and between the stalls also serves as a sort of drainage ditch – an uneven red riverbed winding through the market and collecting cast off fabric scraps, remnants of lunch and dirty dishwater.

Inside Lucy's stall, tons of un-labeled lunch bags hang in bunches from the ceiling. The walls are covered with fabrics for sale and stock posters of traditional African clothing. There are so many sewing machines that we can barely move around. Every surface is covered with fabrics, scissors, scraps, thread and scraps of paper with designs and measurements.

We sat down and met the new girls working with Lucy (there are two, Sarah and Monica), and unpacked our bag of samples and goodies: bananas (during a bus window transaction, we accidentally bought two full bunches instead of two single bananas), several One Mango Tree t-shirts (photos all around – thanks Mom!), and lots of samples for new products (an over-sized tote, a reversible sling shoulder bag, a headband, a mini-tissue holder, and tiny stuffed animals). After making orders with the fabrics I purchased at Mukwano Arcade in Kampala, Kate and I ventured out into the market to see what Gulu's tailors had to offer (no details here, you'll have to wait to see the new patterns – except I will say that there are Swahili Virgin Mary aprons and oven mitts coming your way).

After another hour of haggling and buying rainbows (and miles) of liner fabric from Mr. A. O. Latigo, Textiles, I headed to the internet café to catch the wave of morning emails from the other side of the Earth.My gmail loaded like a sea slug…basic HTML version? Yes…and then there it was – the announcement that "Growing One Mango Tree in Northern Uganda" had won the Davis Project for Peace grant. And that kind of day is why I am convinced that Gulu loves me (and man do I love the sh** out of Gulu).


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