by Kate von Achen
On Saturday, June 27th Awava welcomed two visitors, Andrew and Autumn, to Uganda to take a firsthand look at Awava has been working towards on the ground and to spend some quality time with Awava’s phenomenal artisans. We only had six days to make the rounds and chose to head to Gulu to meet with the tailors and Konye Keni, the women’s group making our paper bead products first.
We left Kampala in “Ravi” the Rav 4, Gulu bound around 9am, tying luggage to Ravi’s rack, topping up our fuel, samosas and apples from the Shell Bugolobi petrol station. Worried that our musical selection would be severely hampered by the seemingly useless stock stereo, Ryan’s magical powers finally got the tape adaptor to work and the Ipod was blaring greatness (with a splash of Air Supply…..Ryan….) in no time. We finally pushed through the traffic in Bwaise and Kawempe (which was nicer than usual seeing as this was the first day I had driven a manual transmission in Kampala traffic and it is not fun) and were off to my favorite little town in Uganda!
The road between Kampala and Gulu used to be the most atrocious and frightening road ever. My first visit to Gulu in January 2007 felt like I had ridden to Gulu in a blender. Each of my subsequent bus rides for the next 2 years felt eerily similar. Now the road is (mostly) great! Smooth sailing (aside from the irritating police checkpoints) and we reached in about 4.5 hours. The passengers slept a lot of the way only to be periodically awakened by me either screaming because a big bus was coming and they freak me out or because I saw monkeys or baboons. Or once when I’m pretty sure one of the baboons tried to jump in the passenger side window.
We reached Gulu Town and headed straight for Hotel Kakanyero. This is the “nice” place I stay when I have visitors and each time I feel like I’m cheating on my people at Bora Bora Pop In. We checked in, hauled all of the fabrics I had brought with me from Kampala up to our rooms on “Rainbow” and “Universe” floors, got cleaned up a bit, I threw Autumn and Andrew on boda bodas for the first time in their lives and we headed to Kope Café for some mediocre “Western” food.
After getting some sustenance we headed on foot to Gulu’s Owino market to greet the tailors! And what a greeting it was! I hadn’t seen them since March and it appeared that they missed me just as much as I had been missing them. I introduced Autumn and Andrew and Ryan to the tailors and within a minute it was like they had all known each other for years. We sat on various stools and benches inside the stall and watched as Lucy’s market stall was flooded by bazungu (white people) in Gulu volunteering for the summer months. Within the first year of me working with Lucy she quickly became the “mzungu tailor” due to the different, “Western style” product designs she has displayed around her shop. I cannot express how amazing it is to see how the various designs that I have been working on with her for the past three years for export to the US market have created a thriving local business for her as well. I remember her asking me long ago if it was OK to use our designs for customers locally and I said absolutely! Gulu is her town, her market. My market is in the US. The fact that she can sell designs that we have made together in the local market, Lucy’s market, is an added bonus that I am ecstatic to see thrive.
We sat with Lucy, Rosemary and Esther for a few hours, me regularly getting in the way checking out all of the beautiful Awava products they had finished and grabbing fabrics off of the shelves to buy from Lucy and incorporate into the new order I would be placing with them the next day. The sun was setting and it was time for the ladies to go home for the night so they gave us a push to the hotel, hugged us goodbye, and wanted to make sure we would meet them in the market early the next morning.
The four of us decided to have 45 minutes of down time to get cleaned up and relax before heading back out for dinner. That 45 minutes flew by and we got Ravi and headed out to Bomah for another meal of mediocre “Western” food. We talked about the ladies and how absolutely fantastic they are, ordered an amazing amount of food and got extra due to some miscommunications and Andrew’s niceness, and ate and watched the Argentina v. Mexico World Cup match. Andrew laughed and me and Autumn’s “amateur” reactions to the match while I kept repeating “if all football matches were like this I would really like this sport!”. We headed back to the hotel and collapsed in our beds to prepare for an early morning with the tailors.
After breakfast on Monday, Andrew and Autumn headed toward the market with several bolts of liner fabric in tow. Ryan and I headed to the room to give me time to spread all of the wonderful new waxprint fabrics all over the room and develop and assign a new Awava order. This process begins with photographing all of the new fabrics, counting the yards of each print, assigning a liner color to each print and then deciding what products and how many of those products to make out of each print, which also means calculating the number of each product which you can get out of each yard of fabric. It can be a dizzying process. About 2 hours later I was done and the fabrics were all packed and Ryan and I headed to the market looking like a couple of human pack mules.
We arrived to the tailor’s stall to music, laughter and the comforting clack, clack, clack of the foot treadle sewing machines and three beautiful tailors with massive smiles on their faces. Icho ma ber! (good morning!) they greeted. And we flung our bags and backpacks filled with fabrics down for a rest. We chatted for a while and then it was time for me to start counting finished products and figuring out how much money I owed the tailors for their hard work over the last few months. I am telling you, spending large sums of money has never felt so good.
At two we headed back to the hotel to meet Florence, the leader of Konye Keni, to have some lunch, check out some of the group’s newest creations and to head out to visit the ladies’ homes. We piled into Ravi and headed out toward Gulu University where Florence now lives. Florence has been one of our greatest, or at least starkest success stories. When I first started working with the women of Konye Keni, they had all been living in Pece Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp on the edge of Gulu Town. In this last year, Florence has managed to move out of the camp, buy a plot of land, build a 4 bedroom home where her brother, mother and children live and plant several crops and keep chickens. Her home is so beautiful and truly impressive. Lots of room for the children to play, a nice toilet and detached kitchen and space. I am still in awe of how far she has been able to come. THIS is what it’s all about.
Florence and her family showed Andrew, Autumn and Ryan how to roll paper beads while I worked on improving my own rolling skills (I have seriously come a long way), being outshined by one of the children who made about 5 beads to every one of ours.
Knowing the other women of the group were waiting for us, we piled back in to Ravi and headed back to and then across Gulu Town to Pece IDP camp where the other women are still living. We met the group and went through greetings and introductions and then walked through the camp to visit each of the women’s homes individually.
When we were done we all gathered in one home and paid for the beautiful beads (and they were many) that each of us bought and I placed yet another order for Awava. The sun was starting to set and we still had to return to the market before the tailors left so we headed back into town, dropped Ravi at the hotel and walked back to the market, along with Florence, to introduce her to the tailors. Florence sat with us for a while and then headed to a nearby clinic to visit her nephew who was receiving malaria treatments.
The sun was almost gone and we were unwilling to say goodbye just yet (the plan was to head back to Kampala early the next morning) so we decided to come back the next morning to finish counting products and say our proper goodbyes.
Tuesday morning after breakfast and checking out of the hotel we headed eagerly for the market. Again, we were greeted by smiles ear to ear and mouths shouting “Icho!” I told Lucy we would need some chapatti and some bananas and asked if Rosemary or Esther could take our visitors into the market to find those things. Lucy smiled big, knowing exactly why we required such items, and Ryan, Autumn, Rosemary and Esther were off in search of my request. I sat down and finished counting and packing products while Lucy put Andrew to work snipping off corners of the fabrics for the new Awava order, taping them in her Awava order book and writing the products and quantities to make out of each.
The troops returned armed with chapatti and bananas and I busted out the jar of Nutella. I introduced this treat to Lucy a couple of years ago and now the site of Nutella makes Lucy happier than anything else in the world it seems. I sat down on a stool and spread Nutella on each piece of chapatti, Andrew pealed the bananas and placed them in the chapatti and rolled them up and passed them out and we gave this treat a name that day, the “Awava burrito”.
Our treats were finished (clearly I left the jar of Nutella with Lucy….I don’t think she would have it any other way) and items packed and it was coming to 10am so it was time for the much dreaded goodbyes. Not a single one of us wanted to go, but it was time. We gave multiple hugs goodbye, picked up all of the Awava goodies and headed out of the market, back to the hotel to pack up Ravi and were soon out on the open road. Tape adaptor for the Ipod still complying, we were moved to Kampala by Lady Gaga, Snoop Dog (old and new), Young Money and a little Peter Bjorn and Jon to get us through the Kampala traffic.
Tired and hungry, we stopped and had a delicious Italian feast in Bugolobi before heading back to my flat for showers and downtime to digest the amazing two days we had with the artisans in Gulu, and me to prepare and pack up the order for The Community Mercantile to be shipped off to the US the following morning.