Three more months have passed! Unbelievable.
By the way, here’s my address in Indonesia! Postal love is always appreciated:
Madeline Kreider Carlson
Quarterly Report 3
I sat cross-legged on a straw mat in Joyce’s living room, enclosed by turquoise walls and under the watchful eyes of the Virgin Mary icon, who is surrounded by flowers in her privileged place in the corner. Joyce sat beside me, periodically glancing at my progress, her expert fingers working the coils of an enormous raffia and banana fiber basket that she’s preparing as a product sample.
“Usually, girls learn to weave baskets from their mothers when they are young,” she said. “While sitting together, we tell little stories to teach them different lessons about life.” She told me one such fable—the lesson is about being diligent and having respect for one’s elders.
“But my daughter doesn’t know how to weave a basket! She was so busy always with her homework.”
It’s a story that’s become familiar to me over the course of this year: the children of skilled women artisans grow up preferring store-bought clothes to hand-woven huipiles or study banking instead of basket-weaving. My desire to learn crafts is often met with surprise—why is this well educated young foreigner interested in these outdated arts? In Uganda, I spent my Wednesdays in Joyce’s home on the outskirts of Kampala. Joyce is a master basket weaver who has traveled the U.S. on several Ten Thousand Villages artisan tours, and regularly trains women in basket technique.
“You’re a good student!” she tells me, and we both smile (I secretly burst with pride).
Many people were puzzled by why I chose Uganda as a place to study crafts. Admittedly, if you’re shopping for craft souvenirs, you’re much better off in Kenya or Tanzania, where tourism is more developed and, therefore, market opportunities for craftspeople are more abundant. Kampala’s craft market has wooden masks from the Congo, purses from Tanzania, woodcarvings from Kenya, and even batik dresses from Thailand and chintzy jewelry from China. But I was intrigued by the attempts to carve out Uganda’s niche in regional craft production, now that tourism is bouncing back from a devastating lull during decades of political instability and entrepreneurs are working to develop a domestic market for locally made products.
I went to Uganda to learn how to make baskets and investigate the production of barkcloth. I managed to succeed in both of those goals, and along the way I had the good fortune to meet and connect with people involved with crafts from so many angles and backgrounds. The list of wonderful artists, activists, NGO workers, entrepreneurs, academics, artisans, Ugandans and a couple foreigners who I met and interviewed is overwhelming, but included: Betty Kinene, founder and owner of the fair trade company Uganda Crafts 2000. Liz Ssenoba, head of the African Women Art Association, who engaged me in a fascinating cross-cultural conversation about our experiences in rural women’s empowerment (I contributed my perspective from Guatemala). Dr. Venny Nakazibwe, dean of the Makerere University School of Fine Arts, who is a barkcloth research pioneer. Harriet and everyone else at Paper Craft, a small business utilizing discarded glass, paper, and plant materials to make recycled stationery and jewelry. Ralph Schenk, co-owner of Banana Boat, a chain of high-end craft boutiques that operates using fair trade principles to support small and innovative producers. Ivan Yakuze, an artist who uses barkcloth and found objects, whose art, rich with symbolism, resonated with me in a rare way. And so many others! I found a wealth of teachers and inspirations in Kampala.
I never intended to spend 2 ½ months living in Kampala, but something—many things—about the capital city kept me there. I made wonderful friends among my ultimate frisbee teammates, and was continually inspired and excited by the network of artist-activists that I tapped into. I was also really happy with my living situation– after living on my own for a month, I moved in with Grace, a middle-aged woman who works with the craft division of the National Association of Women’s Organisations of Uganda (NAWOU, another fair trade producer). The first time I met Grace, I arrived at noon and was immediately offered half of her lunch. This instance of generosity perfectly characterizes Grace’s warm acceptance of me into her home. I lived with Grace, Hanifa, Bene, and Bene’s adorable one-year-old daughter Patricia for six weeks. This multi-generational household of women became my Ugandan family, and Grace’s house in Bunamwaya Nfufu, a village eight kilometers outside of Kampala in the green semi-urban ring surrounding the city, quickly came to feel like my home.
I love this picture of Hanifa and Patricia.
I learned so much from experiencing daily life in Grace’s house! I developed a taste for g-nut sauce, matoke, and dodo greens, and accompanied Grace to services at the local Catholic church. Grace told me about the two micro-credit circles she’s involved in—one associated with church and one among several of her close female friends—which provide an unofficial but highly effective source of financial security and aid that helps fund medical treatment, weddings, home improvements and other big expenses that would otherwise be difficult to pay for on one’s one. I helped plant corn and beans in the garden, and felt the warm satisfaction of community belonging while laughing and getting muddy with my friends and neighbors in the sunshine. My housemates Hanifa and Bene both left their villages and families and came toKampala in search of better economic opportunities; their stories exemplify a broader trend of flight to the city from disadvantaged rural areas.
Kampala certainly has challenges: high unemployment, rising basic commodity prices, overpopulated slums lacking basic infrastructure that crowd the abandoned train tracks. But K’la also has more educated people, job opportunities, and gender equality than anywhere else in Uganda. Recognizing the disparities between life in Kampala and in the rural countryside, which is home to the 85% of the population that make their living through small-scale agriculture, my trips to Masaka, Rubona, and Gulu were really important to my understanding of Uganda.
Masaka is the region that produces the best barkcloth—one clearly unique Ugandan craft, an element of Bugandamaterial culture that’s recognized by UNESCO as an intangible world heritage tradition in need of conservation. (The Buganda tribe historically ruled central Uganda and still constitutes an important political entity.) Ugandan barkcloth is made from the mutuba tree, a species that thrives when inter-planted with other crops. Before the advent of commercial cotton and silk fabric, barkcloth was used for clothing and to wrap bodies for burial (a practice that continues now). I visited a mutuba plantation at KasotaPrimary Schoolin Masaka, and got to see the process (because I was a muzungu guest, I was even allowed to try pounding the bark with a heavy ridged wooden mallet—usually a job strictly for men!). Barkcloth “extraction” involves constant human care and attention; trees are pruned from a young age and after the bark is removed, the exposed tree is wrapped with banana leaves or cow dung to protect it from the elements.
Today, a loose community of diverse individuals has taken up the task of barkcloth conservation, and is imagining new uses for this completely natural and very sustainable material. They’re fighting against tough odds: mutuba trees are being cut down for firewood and to clear land for the cultivation of cash crops, and a local stigma against barkcloth exists because of a preference for cheap, modern materials and a lingering association of the barkcloth with death. A number of women are key players in advocating barkcloth conservation: along with Dr. Venny, I met Sara Katebalirwe, an entrepreneur and designer whose innovations have helped increase the quality and durability of barkcloth goods, and who has almost single-handedly helped barkcloth enter the realm of fashion cachet. In Masaka town, I met Margaret, who creates tailored gomesi (formal dresses) and other ceremonial wear for the local market, a truly remarkable feat of overcoming stigma. Margaret’s approach is to advertise barkcloth as a special, meaningful symbol of Baganda pride and heritage.
Wisdom: “Train a Woman, a Nation Trained”
Rubona is in western Uganda, a village nestled in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains along the road between Fort Portal and Kasese. The 200 women members of the Rubona Basket Weavers Association are well-known for their distinctive, beautiful naturally dyed baskets, made with raffia, millet straw, and banana fiber. I visited their workshop and spent a day learning how to prepare natural dyes from roots, flowers, and leaves—recipes that have been reclaimed in the last ten years after nearly suffering extinction because of artificial dyes imported from India. Rubona’s business is thriving, and I was especially impressed by their approach to design innovation. Unlike many craft producers whose ideas for new designs come from their foreign marketers, the Rubona basket designs come directly from the basketweavers. Each month Rubona holds a design contest for all the basketweavers, and creators of the top designs win prizes, usually practical items. In this way, Rubona encourages design innovation and creativity and actively promotes the sustainability of its image as an innovative business.
I also traveled to Gulu with Fred Mutebi, a well-known artist who is committed to promoting the role of art, creative expression, and innovative collaborative thinking as integral parts of local development through his NGO, Let Art Talk. In Gulu, which only recently achieved peace, I saw Internally Displaced Persons’ camps where reportedly 90% of the population was forced to live to escape kidnappings and brutal attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Gulu today is still reeling from the violence, the total derailment of its economy and disintegration of its social fabric that resulted from twenty years of NGO-dependent life in severely overcrowded camps. I observed as Fred led a group of local leaders and schoolchildren in creating a “talking mural” around the idea of resettlement, and was inspired by how people came to life through the process of collaborative artistic creation.
As in Egypt, I was impressed by the lessons that ordinary Ugandans taught me about environmental consciousness. In Uganda, climate change is an acute, pressing issue affecting food security for thousands of people. I met Ugandan villagers with minimal formal education who articulated the effects of climate change powerfully and succinctly, and acknowledged humans’ responsibility for precipitating this environmental crisis. I wish that such consciousness were as widespread in the U.S., and am challenged to consider the kinds of environmentalism and sensitivity to community that we lose in the march toward first-world development.
And now, Indonesia! In my first few days I was utterly overwhelmed by South Bali’s mass tourism. Now I’m happily living in a very Balinese neighborhood in Denpasar, where I’m working in the office of Forum Fair Trade Indonesia (FFTI) by day and strolling on the beach, exploring by bicycle, and sampling new culinary delights by night. I’m trying to dig below the surface of this island that, in some ways, has been marketed and packaged so elegantly for consumption. I’m still far from being able to draw conclusions about the paradoxical combination of foreigners on holiday wearing Bintang beer tshirts, the visual poetry of ceremonial processions, shrines on every corner and offerings in every doorstep, and the silenced history of violence and repression that clashes with Bali’s image as idyllic island paradise. Tourism and neoliberal growth are a blessing to some, but may be a curse to the majority, and I am excited to investigate the place of crafts, the potential of fair trade, and the notion of “tradition” in this complex place.
I never managed to adequately capture the colorful chaos of downtown Kampala.
During the last few months, I feel like I’ve hit my stride as a Watson adventurer: confident in my ability to make connections and improvise plans as needed, comfortable with the unknown, more relaxed and patient about the inevitable setbacks and frustrations that come my way, and really enjoying this rare, absolute freedom and independence. I have learned that I am enormously adaptable and capable of making my own happiness in any number of situations. I have learned that I trust people, perhaps sometimes too much and too easily. I am more certain than ever that the best thing about this Watson year is the opportunity to meet and befriend so many people representing such amazingly different life stories and perspectives. As I write this, friends in Kampala are plotting new routes to and from their workplaces to avoid the clouds of tear gas blooming in the city’s streets, a response to opposition protests against inflation and high basic commodity prices. Friends in Cairo are getting involved with community mural projects for kids. Friends in Xeabaj II are gaining fresh confidence in their cooperative enterprise as their improved products begin to sell at Oxlajuj B’atz’’s new fair trade store. I’m grateful for the chance to move in the world right now, to sense the currents that are shaping the present and the future, and to continue conversations and relationships with the friends I’ve made along the way.
I’ve recently been wishing I had a more concrete idea of what I’m going to do with this year: all the accumulated insights, experiences, epiphanies, lingering questions, and contacts that I’ve made. In Uganda I found several small projects with miniscule budgets, guided by highly motivated and passionate people who are trying to take on every social issue at once. Often they showed me amazing hospitality when I visited their projects, and I felt as though I had so little to offer them in return– not money, supplies, or expertise, not even a lasting presence. Learning to face those situations with grace is a task that I’m still struggling with. I find myself at times feeling overwhelmed, small, and powerless to positively affect the adverse conditions I witness around me. I hope I can turn those feelings into a determination to keep thinking about how I can use my incredible experiences.