Thursday, February 12, 2009

"You Are Lost!": My 2009 Return to Gulu

by: Kate von Achen

February 3-9

I feel that my last several blogs have started with, “It has been long since I’ve written…” or something to that effect. Perhaps I should just start saying, “Hello! I am still alive and well in Uganda!” or something like that? Hmmmmm. So yes, it has been long and I am still alive and well in Uganda, though I took a five week hiatus in the U.S., Kansas and New York more specifically. Why have I been so quiet you ask? Well, I’ve been busy and then unmotivated, followed by busy and followed again by unmotivated and well you get the point, no? To catch you all up to speed more or less I have been plugging away at Awava and the Awava Foundation, applying for grants, recruiting volunteers, setting up various avenues for sales, designing product, applying for grants, etc., working here and there on my dissertation (but more often laying awake all night thinking about how I need to work on it), drinking (like I said, I was in Kansas and New York for five weeks), readjusting to life in the U.S. just in time to come back to Uganda and have to readjust to life here, helping my friend Sarah who I forced back to Uganda with me adjust to life in Uganda, and now we are here! Today. I can start with this week I think, unfortunately leaving out small, amusing details of the weeks and months before that while sitting and thinking without any way to record them, have forgotten. Sorry.

On Sunday I traveled to Gulu for the first time since October. It had been far too long. My intention was to make it here before going back to the US for the holidays but that didn’t happen. At the last minute, I had to call the tailors and the women making the recycled paper bead necklaces and ask if they could send them on the bus to Kampala. So Sunday was my “homecoming” in a way. Lucy pretended to cane me for “escaping” to the U.S. but stopped when I told her I had brought her some Nutella for our chapatti, Nutella, banana happiness, a concoction I invented shortly after my move to Uganda (this culinary delight is perhaps remembered by those on my Fair Trade trip as chapatti, Blue Band, raw sugar and banana happiness, but now has what I refer to as the capital city upgrade).

But let me rewind…..Sunday, Ryan, Sarah and I reached the bus park in Kampala around 11am to head to Gulu. For Sarah and Ryan this was their first time, and what a first time it was. Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time must remember some of my stories of previous travels to Gulu from being grabbed and yelled at by every other person in the bus park, many pulling you trying to get you to fill a seat on their bus while others try to guess where you are going, always guessing places like Fort Portal, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Mbarara and other touristy places but never Gulu; others mob you trying to “help” you to carry your things only to ask for money once you reach the bus and what you give is never enough…..Well, Sarah and Ryan got to experience this multiplied by 100. When I travel to Gulu I often only carry as many things as I can take myself and I take a boda to the bus park. This time, since I was with extra hands, I took lots and lots and lots of things: wax print fabrics for Lucy and for Awava, foam stuffing for products, elastic, solid liner fabrics, etc. We had tons of bulky, heavy things. I was willing to pay for the carrying of the anvil-laden suitcase, but the rest was up to us!

We reach the bus to Gulu and the muyaye (cheats) tried to charge me 20,000UGX to put my luggage in the boot! I talked them down to 5K which was more than enough and boarded the bus. Sarah and I lucked out because the bus was so full that we got to sit in the conductors’ seats giving us loads of extra leg room. This did, however, leave us vulnerable to more stares. Every time I woke up from a doze one of the conductors was staring at me, sometimes my face, sometimes my chest…..

On the way, the bus stopped several times, as always, to buy street food in various trading centers. I bought Sarah some gonga (grilled banana, not marijuana) to try. Yum!

We reached Gulu around 5pm and were filthy and hungry. We reached Bora Bora, my favorite place to stay in Gulu, and I was informed that Francis, the manager for years, had left! I was sooooo sad. I had tried to call his phone a few times during the bus ride but it was switched off. We washed up a bit and headed to Bomah, one of the local hotel/restaurants with “Western” cuisine. I’ve made quite a few Ugandan friends in Gulu over the last year and a half and hadn’t seen one of my favorites, Jacob, in a few months. Jacob is the manager of Bomah and is constantly smiling and giggling. We received the biggest welcome from him when he saw me walk in! It was truly good to be back.

We were all exhausted from the journey and had full bellies so called it an early night, for we had to be up by 7am the next day to conquer the mountain of work we were to accomplish in such a short period of time.

Monday we hit the ground running. We had a nice planning breakfast at Kope Café and then went to the market to hang out with the tailors, pick up finished product and place the new order! After lunch a laid back lunch of maloquang, simsim paste and cassava, we headed to Unyama IDP camp to conduct livelihoods assessments with the tailors which I am studying for my dissertation and who Lucy also employs. The interviews didn’t take nearly as long to conduct as I expected and were actually pretty fun seeing as we were all laughing at my attempts at Acholi (I am getting much better).

We headed back into town where Sarah and I met with Richard, the man who organized the paper bead women’s group, Konye Keni which in Acholi means “you help yourself through yourself”. We were going to be doing baseline interviews with this group the next day and wanted to go over the interview guides with Richard so we could plan the best method for translation, etc.

Following our meeting, Sarah and I returned to Bora Bora, showered and went for a beer with Ryan at Havana Pub to celebrate Sarah’s Half Birthday (she’s such a Leo). While their beers were ice cold, mine was hot and considering that I really don’t like beer much in the first place, I drank about 4 sips and then just sat there. All I really wanted to do was organize stuff for the next day and pass out!
My days in Gulu are typically exhausting because 1) it’s quite hot there especially during the dry season which is now; and 2) I spend my days running around doing a billion things trying to maximize on the short time periods while I’m there. So yes, computer work and bed were calling me!

Tuesday Ryan was traveling back to Kampala so we loaded him down with product to mule back the night before. Sarah and I slept in until 8am (yay!) and had rolex and coffee and an orange for breakfast at Bora Boar. For Christmas my sister’s family gave me quite possibly the coolest and most useful thing in the world, a travel French press! It’s kind of amazing. It looks like a travel mug but one of the tops has a coffee press built in! I am a bit coffee obsessed as any of you who know me personally know, and outside of Kampala you only get instant coffee which I think is an abomination of the coffee bean. In fact, I’m partly convinced that it doesn’t contain a single trace of anything remotely resembling any part of a coffee tree. But I digress…so I got this fabulous gift that I had yet to use, I took my own ground coffee so all I had to ask for was hot water! Brilliant! Megan, you guys saved my life.

After breakfast, I showed Sarah how to deposit money for the tailors, we went and visited the tailors and then headed out to Bobi IDP camp to conduct the rest of my livelihood assessments with the tailors there! This process also went by quickly and before I knew it we were in the back of a very full farm truck on our way back to Gulu town. Sun burnt, filthy and exhausted, Sarah and I returned to Bora Bora just in time for our 2 o’clock meeting with the ladies of Konye Keni!

Despite the language barrier, we had tons of fun with these ladies who also enjoyed laughing at me and my Acholi speaking. We took photos, they tried to teach Sarah how to roll the paper beads (she and I are at similar skill levels) and we learned about the Women’s lives. We also bought all of the necklaces they had and the following day met with Florence, the unofficial leader of the group, to place a new order and go over design.

While I had been sad that Francis, the old Bora Bora manager was gone, the new management was Ethiopian and it turns out no offers Ethiopian food! Ethiopian is one of my favorites so we asked the woman if we could have whatever they had for dinner. We were served one of my favorite dishes, Kir Kwot with injira! It was delicious and only 5K! Excellent.

Wednesday, our last full day in Gulu, was much more laid back. Sarah and I slept in again, had our meeting with Florence, stopped by and greeted the tailors and then headed to Bomah to do lots of computer work. We went back to the market around 4pm for what I like to call, “chapatti, Nutella, banana happiness”, a delicious concoction which I invented when I first moved here which is a chapatti with a layer of Nutella on top, a banana in the middle and then rolled like a burrito. BEST THING EVER! And the tailors, Lucy in particular, are obsessed with it!

Sarah and I headed back to Bora Bora and sundown excited about our Ethiopian dinner that was just a few hours ahead. I showered and put lotion on my sun burn and then lay on the bed thinking, decompressing and looking forward to the food we were soon to be served.

Just like the night before, our meal was delicious. I cannot recall the name of the dish but had had it many times before and it was another one of my favorites! This time it was only 3K! Seriously, you cannot beat that.

Sarah and I decided to go have one beer (this time mine was cold and thus more drinkable) at Havana Pub and then pack up and rest early for we were leaving for the bus at 6am! We sat at Havana Pub reflecting on the past few days, Sarah’s opinions of Gulu and the Women, etc. All in all things were good! We accomplished a lot and made space for a lot more future growth. Fantastic!

We arrived at the Post Bus at 6:30am. The bus was to depart at 7am which means we left at 7:45, but not before the nun at the front prayed that should we crash that our bus would be covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. Sarah looked at me wide-eyed and said, “is this really happening” and I replied “yes, this is normal”. The bus departed and we were headed for Kampala.

I was passed out in true Kate form (i.e. mouth half open and slamming my head against the window with every bump) for the majority of the ride home. I would periodically wake up when the bus stopped to see if there were any samosas or chapatti available.

We made it safe and sound to Kampala, me with only a minor concussion. We exited the bus, grabbed our bags from the boot and walked tiredly and grungily down Kampala road in an effort to find lunch.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Very Awava Welcome

By: Sarah Clark

I arrived in Uganda at the beginning of the year, and am living with my good friend from Kansas, Kate von Achen. We live in a two bedroom apartment in Kampala. Besides being a good friend of mine, Kate has founded her own fair-trade craft business, Awava. Part of the reason that I moved to Uganda was to help Kate with her endeavors here. After several days of recovering from jetlag and just beginning to adjust to the newness of life here in Uganda, it was time for my first adventure outside of dirty, bustling Kampala. We were going to Gulu on business.
The plan was to purchase fabrics and other supplies here, in downtown Kampala, and carry them by bus to Gulu where we would meet with various artisans to place new orders, pick up old orders and just generally check in with them to see how things were going. Kate and I were to make this trip along with one Ryan Schutte, a bear of a Texan, who is also working for Awava. A few days before we actually headed for Gulu, Kate and I headed to Old Kampala to purchase the goods that we were to carry to Gulu. Most of the fabrics and other general supplies that one can purchase while in Gulu, and that Awava uses for its products, come from Kampala. If we are traveling there, it is cheaper for us to carry supplies from Kampala rather than purchasing them in Gulu after the prices have been jacked.
The buying experience was an adventure in itself as we dodged bumper to bumper honking matatus, special hires, boda-bodas, boda bicycles and other pedestrians all on intersecting paths to unique destinations. As Kate and I weaved our way through the crowded scene with huge rolls of foam stuffing atop our heads, Ugandans pointed and laughed at the sight of mzungus carrying their own things, much less in this common fashion. As usual, our white skin brought us more attention than either of us deserve or desire during our day-to-day dealings. Every purchase invoved some degree of negotiation. All in all we purchased two huge rolls of foam stuffing, several yards of elastic, several bolts of solid-colored liner fabric and a beautiful variety of wax-print fabrics from various vendors in the Old Kampala market before heading back home. The experience was exhausting and left both of us covered in dirt and grit. I was more than ready to jump into the shower after finally arriving home and making multiple trips carrying our purchases up the stairs to our apartment. Of course, when it was finally shower time, water was not flowing.
A few days later, it was time to actually make the journey to Gulu. I was excited. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do no matter the length of the actual journey (and it is usually longer than expected). I love being in a bus without air conditioning surrounded by stinking strangers. I really do. I love having only what I will need for the length of the trip packed in a bag on my back. Ryan met us at our apartment bearing lemon crème biscuits and water. We chopped up some carrot sticks and hauled all of the Awava supplies back down the stairs to the special hire waiting to deliver us. We would head to the famed Old Kampala taxi park where we would then vie for a spot on a bus headed for Gulu. As the special came to a stand still outside of the taxi park gates, miriad men leaned into the open windows asking us where we were going. They would all guess the most popular tourist destinations, Gulu not being one of them. Many of them stuck their heads in and simply shouted, “Obama!” They had no idea that all three of us happened to be American, and I thought how annoying it would be for other, non-American mzungus to be shouted “Obama!” at all of the time. Kate started replying “Museveni!” Nice.
A few of the men stayed with our special as we slowly crept our way inside the taxi park gates. When we were finally unloading our things to begin searching for a bus, these same men automatically tried to grab anything that any one of us was carrying. We had to yell at them to stop. We could handle it ourselves. There was one large suitcase that none of us had hands for, so we did allow one man to help us with this large item, and we all made our way to a Gulu bus. The whole time we had to guard and pull our things away from helpful hands. We found a bus and the conductor said there was room for three, so Tex climed in to save three seats while Kate and I wiggled ourselves and our goods around to the boot of the bus. The conductor tried to charge us the price of an extra ticket for our luggage storage (ridiculous) so Kate negotiated a more reasonable price. We payed our helper for carrying the extra bag to the bus, and climbed on. Ryan was seated just across from the boarding doors and the two seats across from him were reserved for Kate and I. It was the conductor's seat! We lucked out! Because the conductor wanted to ensure the extra fare for our things, he had to give up his leg-roomy seat in order to accommodate the three of us.
We were soon on our way from Kampala to Gulu. The busy downtown scenes of Old Kampala rolled by and slowly faded into rural scenes of smaller towns. I nodded off and on, but never got any real sleep. The advantage of having the conductor's leg room was countered by the disadvantage of not having a seat-back in front of us to provide any amount of privacy. Everyone in the front part of the bus was staring directly at us. The journey was long, unrelentlessly hot and bumpy. Just what I had expected. I saw a few baboons on the side of the road. They looked mean. Several hours later we were pulling into the bus park in Gulu. Kate, Ryan and I were all sweaty and tired, so we piled ourselves and all of our bulky belongings into a car and asked the driver to drive us the two blocks to the hotel.
The Bora Bora was run down, but cheap and provided all of the essentials. The front of the building was a “pop-in restaurant” opening onto a courtyard behind. The rooms formed the boundries of the courtyard. Each room was named after an international place. Kate and I shared California, while Ryan stayed two doors down in Madrid. California was cracked and peeling, but had a working fan. The room's furnishings consisted of one bed covered with a mosquito net, the fan, a small brown table, a weird little bench, a small mirror on the cracked wall and a pair of sandals to use for showering. The bathroom was bare-bones as well with a toilet bowl sans-seat, a small sink and the shower head protruding from the center of the room. Bar soap was also provided. We all showered, settled into our spaces and met back up for dinner. During dinner we discussed the game plan for the next few days'—we had a lot to accomplish in the few days.
The real work began the next morning. We headed out for an early breakfast before making our way to the tailors' stall in the Gulu market. I had heard many stories of Lucy and the other tailors, and was excited to finally meet them in the flesh and see their famed market stall. The market was cut with many winding and intersecting foot paths, and was packed with people buying and selling everything from hardware and used clothing to fresh fruit and vegetables. Kate led us down a few paths to Lucy's stall. Lucy was indeed a warm and welcoming figure. We were each given a warm greeting from each of the tailors, and were wished a happy new year by everyone. Ugandans seem to wish each other, “Happy new year!” the first time that they meet again after the new year even if it is well past. I think that I have heard that phrase more in my short time here than I ever have in my life. The stall itself was jam packed with fabrics and products in varying stages of completion. Somehow there was still room for the four foot-treddle sewing machines and their operators. Virtually every inch of three-dimentional space was occupied in some way within the tiny stall. Ryan and I sat on benches just outside the stall.
We counted finished products while Kate talked to Lucy about new product prototypes we had brought with us. Then we gave the tailors the new fabrics and supplies we had carried from Kampala with specific orders attached to each fabric. We chatted with the tailors as they worked, and arranged to make trips to two of the IDP camps around Gulu to check-in with some of the other tailors that had been trained by Lucy. We planned to conduct surveys with each of them in order to monitor weather having this new skill and being able to use it is having a positive impact on their livlihoods. That is obviously the goal.
Over the next few days we managed to fit quite a lot in. We made it to both IDP camps to meet with tailors and successfully conducted the tedious surveys. We also met with the group of women that Awava has been buying paper bead necklaces from and conducted surveys with each of them. We placed a new necklace order with them, and talked about new necklace designs. In addition to work, we managed to have a drink on behalf of my half birthday (yay!), and enjoyed a few interesting eating experiences. I had been warned ahead of time that there were few restaurant options in Gulu and that even those options were notoriously slow. In my experience up to this point, Ugandan service was already extremely slow compared to my U.S. standards, so I thought I understood what to expect. I quickly found out that Gulu indeed has its own set of standards.
On more than one occasion, we waited more than an hour between placing our order and actually receiving any food. And when the food did arrive, it never came all at the same time, so we ate whatever came first and waited for the rest of the meal to arrive. Many of the menu items were also misleading or not at all what I expected. One night, Kate and I each ordered a sandwich at a restaurant. We were both feeling pretty hungry so we decided to split some chips (fries) as a side order. The server took our order and returned several miutes later to inform us that the restaurant was out of chips. I didn't think that this was possible in Uganda! It is common to order many times in a row before choosing something that “is there”, but every place at least has chips! Even if they have run out of every other thing on the menu, you can always get chips. Not the case in Gulu. So we opted to split a salad instead. We scanned our options, and quickly decided on the Greek Salad. An hour later, when the salad finally arrived, Kate and I looked at each other and started laughing. Our “Greek Salad” consisted of large chunks of avocado, tomato, hard yellow cheese, onions, and carrots. This chunky pile was amply drizzled with straight yellow mustard. The concoction wasn't too bad, but was in no way Greek, and barely even qualified as a salad!
Kate and I were finally delighted to discover that the Bora Bora actually served not only local food, but Ethiopian food as well! We enjoyed authentic Ethiopian dishes our last two nights in Gulu. Yum! I also tried local food for the first time while in Gulu. We were at Lucy's stall around lunch time one day, and so we joined the tailors for their meal. A girl from somewhere else in the market appeared with covered plates of food. There was boiled casava, simsim (seseme seed paste mixed with other spices and usually some form of meat), and one of Kate's favorites, maloquan (ground g-nuts cooked with greens). Everyone ate with their hands, balling up a chunk of the casava, then dipping it into the sauce as a vehicle to the mouth. Everyhing was very hearty and I think that I would require a nap if I ate that many dense carbs on a daily basis. The girl from the market came by the stall again later to collect the lunch plates and collect payment for the food. Kate provided dessert that day. We found a fruit stall in the market and bought bananas and some fresh chapati (flat bread). We spread nutella (brought with us from Kampala) on one side of the chapati, and then wrapped a peeled banana inside. It was a delisciouse treat!
Generally, life in Gulu seemed even slower than life in Kampala, but it moved at a pace that I could get used to. Once the sun went down, there was really nothing to do. One night I walked down to an internet cafe (I use the word cafe extremely loosly here), and about twenty minutes into my session, the power went out. No generator. I paid what I owed up to that point and left. Everywhere was pitch dark. I had a small LED light on my keychain that I carry everywhere, but all around me was intense darkness. Losing power is a typical part of life here in Uganda, but in Gulu it left me with literally nothing to do after dark. I did have the option of reading or writing aided by my headlamp, but that was it. The darkness felt vast that night and dictated my bed time.
Through it all, we managed to get all of our Awava work done, and we were finally ready to leave Gulu. We said goodbye to the tailors on our last evening at the stall, and wrapped up any other business we could before heading to California for our last meal and to pack-up. The next morning we left Bora-Bora very early. Each of us, armed with a headlamp and several bags, made our way to the Post Office where we planned to catch the earlier-departing post-bus. We arrived minutes before it was scheduled to depart, and then proceeded to wait at least half an hour before boarding began. Then another half hour before the bus moved. Some woman from the front of the bus stood up and prayed for our journey prior to departure, asking for the blood of Jesus to protect our bus on its journey. Creepy. The journey was hotter and longer this time, but we did make it safely back to Kampala, and eventually back to the apartment. Water was not flowing.