The first time I met Grace, at the NAWOU craft shop next to the Uganda National Museum, I was late to the meeting. I was supposed to arrive in the morning, but I got caught up doing something and didn’t get there until lunchtime, just as Grace sat down with her lunch of katogo and beans. Without a moment’s pause, she pulled up a chair for me and began scooping half her lunch onto an extra plate, inviting me to share her meal.
We had a lovely conversation—I learned more about NAWOU’s craft operation, which exports baskets and banana-fiber mobiles to Ten Thousand Villages and other fair trade companies in addition to their domestic marketing (NAWOU, National Association of Women’s Organizations Uganda, is an umbrella organization uniting different elements of the women’s movement). I learned that Grace has two grown sons, and that her husband died suddenly of a stroke a few years ago. By the time I said goodbye, Grace had invited me to come and live with her.
My month in the comfy room near Makerere University was up this week, so I moved in with Grace on Tuesday. She lives in Bunamwaya Nfufu, a village eight kilometers outside of Kampala on the way to Entebbe. The term “village” seems a little misleading to me; Kampala’s edges are blurry and Nfufu (“dust”) is surrounded by lots of other villages that form a kind of green, semi-urban ring around the capital. As an outsider, it’s impossible to tell where one village begins and another ends. Grace’s house is located on top of a hill, surrounded by a lawn that’s growing greener every day as the rainy season gains strength. Around the edge of her plot there is a garden with banana plants and mango and guava trees. I’m pretty sure everyone has forgotten about the old dog who lounges around the plot, which explains why he’s so excited every time I pet him.
Grace is warm, quick to laugh, and eager to make me feel at home. We are a household of women: Grace, Hanifa, Bene, Bene’s adorable one-year-old daughter Patricia, and me. Hanifa and Bene are both from Masaka, a few hours south of here—they left their villages and families and came to Kampala to earn money to pay for school fees and living expenses. Bene helps with one of Grace’s side projects, a craft shop independent of her work with NAWOU. Hanifa keeps the house immaculate (not an easy feat given Uganda’s endless dust) and cooks our meals. I admit that it feels strange to have someone cook for me and wash my shoes when I inevitably come home with my feet caked in red mud. Hanifa doesn’t speak much English, and my Luganda is nowhere near conversational, so we don’t communicate a lot, which also makes me feel strange. I’m hoping that I can insist on participating in the food preparation and make friends that way. (I really want to learn how to make groundnut sauce with smoked fish. I was pretty skeptical when we bought the desiccated tilapia at the market, but the finished dish was amazingly tasty.) I’ve finally won over cutie-pie Patricia, who was shy around me for the first few days until tickling, playing with my cell phone, nonsense talk and feeding her popcorn succeeded in breaking the ice.
Grace’s comfortable house has two bedrooms (I share with Grace), a living room, kitchen and dining room. There’s a beautiful new indoor bathroom that’s just one step from being finished—the taps aren’t hooked up yet, so we fill jerry cans with water, take bucket showers and wash clothes in basins. It’s been a while since I took bucket showers, and I’m once again so impressed with how amazingly water-efficient this method is. Running water is fantastic, but so wasteful!
Grace is a natural entrepreneur involved in all kinds of projects: she manages NAWOU’s craft shop and her own craft shop; she finds quality tailors and commissions them to make school uniforms, which she then sells to a friend who owns a shop. The day that I arrive, she and our next-door neighbor Resty are working together to finish an order of banana-fiber nativity sets that will end up on Ten Thousand Villages shelves. In her living room among the family photos is a framed picture of Grace shaking hands with Bill Clinton, along with a thank-you letter that he wrote her after they met during a visit to Uganda in 1998 (she and the other NAWOU staff gave Bill & Hillary a basket as a welcome gift).
I may have given up some of my privacy and the convenience of living in town—I can no longer hop on a boda-boda to get home in the early morning hours after a night out dancing. (Grace told me that her sons used to solve that problem by staying out until the taxis start running again in the morning, and suggested I could do the same.) But I’m so happy to be staying here.