I’ve been in Kampala for two and a half weeks now, and I feel like I’m starting to hit my stride. For me, the first days in a new place always seem to span weeks—each moment is packed with so many mental adjustments, minor epiphanies, new sights and smells and tastes. By now, I have a pretty good general map of Kampala in my head. I know how to navigate my way through the two chaotic downtown taxi parks to find matatus (shared minibus taxis) heading towards Makerere Kikoni, which is home, and towards Lugogo, the athletic fields where I play pickup ultimate frisbee three times a week. I’ve figured out how much I should haggle for getting around via boda-bodas, Kampala’s enormous fleet of dangerous yet thrilling motorbike taxis. Friendly people have helped me learn the basic greetings in Luganda, and my brain is slowly beginning to adjust to the sounds of Luganda and the Ugandan English accent.
Chaotic streets of downtown Kampala:
The first real Ugandan food I ate: an enormous pile of matoke (mashed, steamed green plantain) with a piece of fried goat, some shredded cabbage, beans and some kind of brothy sauce. Plus Krest! (delicious bitter lemon pop)
I rented a room for a month, in a house for visiting scholars and researchers, located on Nanfubambi Road just west of Makerere University. For now, the house is quiet—I’m one of the only residents—but my furnished room and the well-stocked kitchen are enough to make me happy even without housemate companions. My room!
The neighborhood has lots of student hostels, which are like privately owned dormitories, and the ubiquitous small businesses that line most Ugandan streets: telephone kiosks, fruit and vegetable stands, miniature general stores, hair salons, chapatti and rolex stands, little restaurants and bars where neighbors gather to watch Champions League games. Besides my house, my block’s residents include a small welding shop, a few boda-boda drivers chilling at the corner, and a house that’s perpetually playing Arabic music, which triggers small pangs of Egypt nostalgia each time I walk by (if only they would mix it up with some bachata I’d be missing Guatemala too!). Down the street there is a guy who makes great vegetarian samosas for 200 shillings (about 10 cents), and directly across from my gate is a tailor named Josephine who has promised to make me a dress out of kitenge fabric and sell me any small scraps of fabric left over from her other clients.
Here’s my street:
It’s a very nice place to live. Most of all, it feels so great to be moved in somewhere, even if it’s only for three more weeks. I didn’t realize how much I was craving a space of my own.
Marabou storks: these guys are everywhere.
Uganda held presidential elections a week ago, and re-elected Yoweri Museveni for yet another term as president (he’s been in power for 25 years now).Although everyone agrees that the elections were rigged in his favor, many people I’ve talked to think that despite his many shortcomings as a leader, Museveni at least possesses the authority, strongly backed by military clout, to keep the country from descending into violent civil war. It’s been interesting to read editorials in the local papers comparing the situation here in Uganda to the revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and now many other countries. Reasons that Ugandan writers say a similar uprising won’t happen here: the mostly rural population (something like 85% of Ugandans are subsistence farmers); a huge proportion of the population that’s too young to vote; too much drinking (Ugandans love to party); too much poverty. Arriving during election season has definitely given me a fascinating crash course in the Ugandan political situation.
Election posters are plastered over the entire city:
What with searching for a place to live, getting lost in my urban wanderings, and the general slowdown of life during elections, my research and contact-seeking started a bit slower than I had originally hoped… but in the last few days I’ve been building momentum in that arena too! A few days ago I met with Fred Mutebi, a well-known Ugandan printmaker, artist, and activist. Fred is a visionary who has some beautiful ideas about the role of art, creative expression, and innovative thinking as integral parts of the development process. His NGO, Let Art Talk, http://www.letarttalk.org/ , builds partnerships and relationships internationally and here in Uganda to promote art as dialogue and cultural traditions as models for sustainable livelihoods. This Sunday I’m lucky enough to be traveling with Fred and some international partners to work on a community art project in Gulu, a city in the war-ravaged but newly peaceful north of Uganda.
Baskets at the National Association of Women’s Organizations– Uganda (aka NAWOU, a national umbrella organization for different women’s groups). My new header image is a detail of one of their Nubian style baskets!! Beautiful, yes?
At NAWOU, I made a tentative plan with one of the women who oversees their craft organizations that I’ll hopefully be researching and writing a booklet on different basketry traditions represented in the pieces they sell in their shop. Fun! A chance to integrate some of the research I’ve been doing in the library at the Uganda National Museum, and help out with educating visitors to Uganda about the diversity of cultural traditions expressed through crafts.
This morning I paid my second visit to Uganda Crafts 2000, a fair trade company owned by a Ugandan woman (she’s a local politician who represents the disabled community too!). On Fridays, representatives of the different artisan groups come from all over to deliver finished products. I got to do a group interview with the ~25 women who had gathered. I got to hear about how they learned the trade of basket-weaving, what they think about the fair trade movement, how craft work provides wages to support their families, what changes they would make in the system of global craft trade. It was also captivating to see their capable hands transform unruly spikes of banana stem fiber and raffia into beautifully crafted, boldly patterned finished baskets.
With representatives from many of the basket-making artisan groups that Uganda Crafts works with:
Betty Kinene, owner and founder of Uganda Crafts 2000, recording deliveries of baskets that will eventually make their way to Ten Thousand Villages shelves in the U.S.
Me with more lovely craftswomen:
In the coming days & weeks, I’ll be following up on these connections already made, and I’ll also be talking with the dean of the Makerere University art school, who’s been active in promoting the revival of barkcloth as an art medium, a local designer who has been using barkcloth in high-end home products, and various other people active in the local art & craft community. It’s been almost dizzyingly exciting to be in touch with people involved with crafts from so many angles and backgrounds—economic development, fine art, cultural history, academic study, the simple yet sometimes endlessly demanding struggle to earn a viable living. For some reason, over the past few days I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with all these experiences, all this knowledge that I’m accumulating, and what I’m going to do with myself when August rolls around. Each meeting I have here, I feel all fired up about whatever ideas/approaches I’ve just been talking about. The next day, I’m talking to someone else and getting excited about some other idea or strategy or philosophy. Ahh! This journey is challenging and delightful and scary all at once.