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.

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