First, I must apologize for the cliffhanger at the end of my last post about Life in Uganda, and the radio silence which followed. I must admit that it became difficult to maintain my 30,000 foot view of what I was doing and how exactly to share it, and I decided to hold off on posting until I got time to experience it all and take account of what happened. I continued to document my journey in photographs and by writing in my journal – which to be honest I don’t really need. Most conversations, interactions and experiences are firmly imprinted in my memory, and in such vivid color and detail that I don’t think I will ever have trouble recalling them.
Alas, I’ve had this recurring image in my head of my mother yelling “what happens next?!” at her screen for the past 20 or so days; a grievance which I hope to amend in the coming paragraphs.
This post is about day to day activities working with Lugacraft Uganda.
Lugacraft Uganda is an organization that seeks to facilitate access to a better life for disadvantaged women and youth by means of teaching life-changing skills*. Run by Robert Dibya and his wife Vivian, it’s been changing the lives of scores of families in the villages around Lugazi, Uganda since 2010.
It’s both a blessing and a curse to wake up without an alarm every morning. The blessing is obvious: you awake when your body feels sufficiently rested. It’s natural. The curse side of the coin, however, is a little more obscure: I personally find that a lack of necessity to “get up and go” with a full schedule of things to do and places to be puts me in limbo of wanting to lay around and rest ‘just a little longer’ – and wanting to get up and be productive. After all, I’m here to share culture and help spread ideas, aren’t I?
Breakfast each day consists of either bread or cassava ‘chips’ (fried) and tea. Elsewhere, I’ve commented on the simplicity of the diet compared to what I call my “Western” standards, which includes a variety of foodstuffs; ranges of colors and plentiful vitamins and minerals, should we hold it in high enough priority to eat them.
After letting our food settle and begin the daily process of forced hydration (you do NOT want to let yourself get dehydrated!), we discuss the plan for the day and contact our boda boda driver Derrick. Each day, our first stop is Buyenje (boo-yen-gee), a small subsistence farming village of perhaps a few hundred residents. As the crow flies, we may be just a few hundred meters to a kilometer away, but the peak of a mountain more than 4,000 feet obstructs our path. Thus, we endeavor on a 20 minute ride full of jostles through Martian-colored dust across terrain that would be most suitable for ATVs. We arrive; and we wait.
A Note on Culture
Time slows down in Africa. Routines are always subject to change. If a member of a village passes away (which, I’m sad to report, happened twice in just two weeks), the village abstains from field work for the day to honor their passing. You need to be fluid and adaptable and not have Western expectations of being constantly busy with a full schedule. You do the work that needs to be done in the order of it’s importance: in this case, securing food for your family, cooking, and making sure clothes and living conditions remain clean. Then and only then do find ways to make money.
This is a major culture shock to someone who typically doesn’t have to worry about where today’s meals are coming from (if you’re reading this, you’re in this category). I had assumed that since we were there to “teach life changing skills” that we’d get right to it, but I was wrong in at least this assumption.
First: we farm.
I’m no stranger to manual labor or the concept of working hard. I’m used to the challenge of pushing myself towards physical limits. I’ve worked with my hands. They can take a beating. I throw my hoe over my shoulder (“African way!” as Robert says) and we walk to the field. I was made for this. I’m ready.
10:07 rolls around and I’m ready to quit. Holy sh*t this is impossible! My back is sore from bending over. My hands are getting raw from the non-ergonomic wooden handle (in a few days I would buy gloves to protect my pampered hands). Dirt is flying everywhere, including into my gum boots (I should note that all the women are barefoot, which I can’t even fathom). I wipe the sweat from my brow and look to my right and my left and these women all have ear to ear smiles as they hack away at the undergrowth; clearing it faster than you can imagine with efficient but powerful swings that would make Paul Bunyan jealous. For the majority of the first few minutes they’re having the time of their lives watching Americans do manual labor (they’re convinced that machines do all our work for us), but after this initial cacophony of jokes at my expense, we all share a final “ha-ha,” and we get down to it.
In the West, there’s a certain element of pride involved when you do something alone. We hold the concept of being independent and able to make it on your own in very high regard. That doesn’t work here. To be sure, there are plenty of people who are happier working alone, but the far more successful groups, the women from Lugacraft included, have learned to work together. Each individual brings certain talents to the group, and the summation of their abilities and ideas and are far greater than the sum of the parts alone.
After admiring what an hour of teamwork and a little bit (read: buckets) of sweat can accomplish, we return to our initial meeting point and help the women start preparing the next meal. I’ve previously written about the consistency of the diet, and about how it’s structured more on caloric density than nutrient density, and here is no different. Most days, this consists of peeling mountains of harvested cassava, peeling potatoes, stripping banana leaves that are used for steaming, and so on.
Everything is done right out in the open. There’s no counterspace. No cutting board. “Rinsing” consists of vigorously shaking whatever we’ve just peeled in water that’s ‘too alive’ to drink. When we’re done with it, it’s the color of the red earth. It’s gross. This is why all food must be cooked – to kill all the bacteria that’s left. Sanitation is, to be honest, for those who can afford it. This is just the way things are done out of necessity.
Taking this into consideration, you can start to see how basic education on hand-washing and disease prevention can go a long way. Keeping hands, tools and working areas clean and minimizing the risk of airborne bacteria can have a long and lasting effect on the health of these villages. This is where we come in.
On to Kiteza (chee-tay-zuh). Once again, a few hundred meters as the crow flies takes a lot longer when you’re descending into green valleys ripe with trellises of passionfruit and climbing back up the other side, trying not to walk under a gigantic ripe jackfruit for fear of it falling on your head. It’s a beautiful walk, but boy is it tough!
The women of Kiteza are every bit as remarkable as those of Buyenje, and artistically savvy to boot. In addition to serving as the rock that keeps their families steady, they’ve taken up bowl-making. By binding together long strands of dried banana stalks with recycled material from canvas bags, you’re left with a sturdy, beautiful hand-crafted bowl. Don’t mistake this craft project as an easy one though, for it can take up to 4 days to complete a single pattern (as mentioned, food and family come first, and this can monopolize your time when you’re the one doing it all [by hand!] for a family of 5 or more).
I returned carrying 42 bowls in my luggage, and I’m selling them stateside ($30 each) and sending the money back to the women of Kiteza. See below for 2 examples. These individuals live on around $1 per person, per day, so selling a single bowl in the US market literally means the world to all of us, them in particular.
I’ve created a PayPal account on behalf of Lugacraft – and whether you’d just like to donate to their cause or purchase a bowl, clicking here is the way to do it (type in LugacraftUG@gmail.com as your payment address). 100% of the money goes directly to these women to reward their hard work; and I’d certainly be eternally grateful for the support!
While sitting together and weaving (and trying like the devil not to mess up their beautiful work), we engage in a discussion each day on a variety of topics, including family planning, basic savings (when you visit Uganda one day and the villages are talking about “the Mzungu that taught us about the ‘Piggy Bank’,” that’s me!), and simple business practices.
Where are the men?
This is a question I still don’t really have a great answer to. My best understanding is that men are expected to go out and earn while women are expected to do the housework and cooking. The following is strictly my observation, which admittedly may be biased and also possibly incorrect based on a very small sample size, but this manifests itself as women toiling from sun up to sun down. The men? They wait for work. They congregate in groups of 10 or 15 boda bodas and sit idly until someone needs a ride. They play dice in large groups. They’re all over town – and by my observation, not sharing the work load equally. To be semi-fair to these men, the doors of opportunity aren’t wide open, but the discrepancy in workload and expectations is very real.
This is why the aim of Lugacraft Uganda is to empower women. If we can improve their lives and living conditions, and at the same time ease their burden and provide an education on keeping their families healthy and thriving, and give lessons on how the world does business, it can only create a positive snowball effect that will result in lives improving across the board. It’s something I was proud to be a part of – and something I’ll continue to be an advocate for.
Who run the world? Don’t act like you don’t know..
As far as “work” is concerned, our days are relatively short. By 2:30pm we’re finished and on our way back to Lugazi via boda. When we arrive Vivian is already preparing lunch, which generally consists of plantain or rice with eggplant and some avocado. As the days passed, Vivian learned of our love of fruit and began cutting up some pineapple to serve as dessert.
How often do you eat?
Robert and Vivian are blown away to learn that our Western diets often recommend eating smaller meals and more often. The traditional “African way” (as Robert loves to call it – which I’ve also adopted) is to eat one major meal per day, and to eat as much as possible. The portions are always mind-boggling. Robert is much smaller than I, and yet I can’t believe how fast and how much he can eat!
The remainder of the day is free for us to use as we please, and often consists of a trip to town to either explore or retrieve more water. A few times I brought my camera out and had some fun taking pictures with the kids in this section of the village.
One day, Vivian brought us to watch a group of children perform a traditional Ugandan dance – a group which Lugacraft is helping train to perform at events and also provide catering, setup and breakdown. Throughout the performance I found myself questioning how they can possibly get their little bodies to move so well, and lo and behold the next thing I knew they were trying to teach me!
Of course, they (I) failed miserably. To add insult to injury, we (they) decide to have a dance-off. If you haven’t seen the video, which I’ve tenderly entitled “White Guy at a Wedding,” you can see it here.
Dinner is usually served late by Western standards (around 10:00pm), but in an effort to have “American dinner,” Robert and Vivian moved it up closer to 8:00pm. While eating our posho (corn flour mixed with boiling water into a mashed potato consistency) and beans, we got into the routine of watching NatGeo together, ogling at the strange fish, or rooting together for the lions to defeat the hyenas in the battle for safari supremacy. It was a simple life, but I enjoyed every second of it.