Tag Archives: artisans

because your heart loves it

I love making stuff. This must be apparent by now, 11.5 months into my 12-month craft-making odyssey. Here’s the Mongolia update: first, I learned how to make felt with a contemporary felt artist, Bayanduuren. Here’s a couple of her beautiful creations, on display at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts in Ulaanbaatar:

I covet this coat.

Wool-painting

Bayanduuren’s studio is a cozy basement space in a Soviet-style apartment block with ceilings so low I kept banging my head on the water pipes. Here’s the carding machine for preparing the wool (wool from hybrid sheep, not pure native sheep).

You can’t make felt (or spin yarn) from wool that comes from a dead sheep. Wool has to come from a living, breathing animal, and Bayanduuren told me that to be a good felt artist, you must feel the energy of the felt and work with that energy.

“Congratulations!” she told me, when I finished my scarf. “How did it feel?”

“I loved it,” I told her. I do love it. Working with the wool is like working with something alive; I love that I need the heat generated by my hands and the friction of my movements to join the fibers.

“Because you love it, because your heart loves it and your hands love it, you are a good felt maker,” Bayanduuren told me.

Here are my creations! First the scarf, which is thin and soft and has a Mongolian cloud motif. Then the knot-topped traditional hat. The scarf took a bit more than three hours; the hat took five hours to complete.

Ready to join the Mongol horde, right?

After learning contemporary felt art with Bayanduuren, I ventured out into the countryside again to learn traditional Mongolian felt quilting. I spent the weekend in Altanbulag, with a woman named Tsendsuren who is in charge of two different traditional felt-quilting groups. Altanbulag is a little town in Tov Aimag, just an hour and a half south of Ulaanbaatar, but it already feels worlds away from the polluted, traffic-laden streets of the capital. The horizon is nothing but blue mountains, and cows wander around the dusty tracks between wood-fenced homes.

Tsendsuren is a powerful woman with imposingly excellent posture, who is always impeccably dressed in a printed dress, black patterned stockings, and black heels. Here she is at left, with quilters in the workshop:

They were hard at work on a carpet commissioned by the government, which will cover the floor of an enormous ger. Laying out the finished pieces:

To draw the quilted pattern on the felt, the quilters use a paper template with tiny pinholes marking the lines. They dust a red chalky powder over the template, leaving faint dotted lines that are then traced over in pencil, and finally stitched with wool yarn. The stitching is both decorative and functional; the quilting process strengthens the felt and helps the carpet last longer.

My stitches:

My little quilted square! It’s about 12 in. x 12 in.

And here’s my bed in her house!! Talk about a beautiful place to sleep.

Tonight I’m sleeping in Ulaanbaatar (in a not-as-lovely though perfectly comfortable hostel bed) and waking early tomorrow to board a little plane bound for Bayan-Ulgii, western Mongolia, where I will stay with a Kazakh family and learn traditional embroidery.

I’ll be back in the USA in 12 days. Here’s to 12 days of beauty and discovery and mutton noodle soup (ugh) and adventure and more Mongolian fun! I’m feeling bittersweet about the impending end already.

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apikri: fair trade reflections, part three

My fair trade sojourns in Indonesia also brought me to Apikri, another Forum Fair Trade Indonesia member company. Check out the products that Apikri sells to Ten Thousand Villages for an idea of the range of crafts that they market, from over 200 producers in the Jogjakarta area. Sri, an Apikri employee, accompanied me on visits to three artisans/groups and did a wonderful job translating for me.  Thank you, Sri!

First we visited Picuk, a batik artist based in Yogyakarta. For Apikri, Picuk makes rebana drums, wood batik puzzles, sometimes scarves. The production of the drums that she paints involves three Apikri producers: they are made by one, then decorated at her workshop, and then they are sent on to yet another who makes the basket-woven detail on the drum.

Picuk mentioned two big ways that fair trade has changed her approach to business. First, she thinks more about how best to care for her workers. Fair trade, she explained to me, means more than just higher profits from higher prices. It also means thinking about my workers’ total well-being: their health and other needs. As a fair trade producer, Picuk feels responsible for being socially aware. Second, she is more concerned with ensuring that her business practices are environmentally friendly.

Next up: Sumijem is a fiber producer in Kutogiri, a village in Kulon Progo Regency. Her workshop is called Rami Kencana, Golden Jute. She too cooperates with other Apikri producers: when she gets an order, she sends a request to an Apikri-affiliated friend who harvests raw material.

Sumijem is a tiny woman (I had flashbacks to my days of always feeling like a gringa giant in Guatemala).

I also made my first visit to the village of Giriloyo and the Berkah Lestari batik cooperative. I loved it so much that I went back there and stayed for a week, which is where I made the blue batik piece.

My last post about Lombok included one of the stories I wrote for a Forum Fair Trade Indonesia education/marketing project. Here’s another about Berkah Lestari Cooperative. Nani, the young woman who I talked to, also hosted me when I stayed within Giriloyo, and we became good friends.

Berkah Lestari’s Story

The village of Giriloyo is well known for its batik heritage. For generations, women in this community an hour south of Yogyakarta in central Java have earned fame for their beautiful, intricate batik tulis, hand-drawn batik textiles.

Nani Norchayati Lestari is the young, dynamic leader of Berkah Lestari batik cooperative in Giriloyo, a group of 50 skilled women artists. “Our mothers and grandmothers were batik artists,” Nani explains. 10 of the cooperative members work together at the cooperative center, while others work from their homes.

Nani first heard of Apikri, one of Forum Fair Trade Indonesia’s member organizations, when Apikri sponsored batik training in Imogiri, partnering with Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. Over time, the relationship with Apikri has helped Berkah Lestari in myriad ways. Apikri provides Berkah Lestari with information about market trends and reviews new product samples. After becoming involved with Apikri, Berkah Lestari has expanded from batik textiles to batik on wood and bamboo. The unfinished wood and bamboo materials come from other Apikri producers. These partnerships with other producers extend beyond business—Apikri organizes meetings in which artisans can share experiences and problems, learning from each other as they exchange materials for their craft. In the future, Berkah Lestari will also meet with Apikri to discuss fair wage calculation and make sure the batik artists are receiving fair pay for their work.

In the past, women in Giriloyo applied the wax designs to fabric, then sold it to be colored elsewhere. Several years ago, they started coloring the designs themselves. They never imagined that coloring their textiles was dangerous, until a meeting with Apikri. Nani tells the story of discovering the hazards of chemical dyes: “We found out a year ago, in an Apikri meeting, that a survey had found the chemical dyes to be harmful. Before, we used the chemical dyes on the table in the kitchen, and would drink from the cup right next to the dyes! When we learned that the chemical dyes could be hazardous to our health, we were all very sad.

“Now, our members feel that our lives are healthier than before. Apikri supported the separation of the kitchen and dye area, and we now always use gloves while working with the chemical dyes. We didn’t know the chemicals were so dangerous!”

Apikri is now helping Berkah Lestari move toward using natural dyes, which are safe and healthy for the artisan, the consumer, and the environment. When asked about improvements to the fair trade system, Nani says, “I hope that Apikri holds more meetings to build connections and cooperation between producer groups. Berkah Lestari would love to establish a partnership with a silk cooperative, so that we could do our batik work on fair trade silk fabric.”

Thing I learned from Apikri:

Networks matter. If this seems horribly cliche (I feel like the word ‘networking’ has lost all real meaning, being such a buzzword), here’s what I mean: Apikri has made actual communication and material transactions possible between its different artisans, who work with very different materials and techniques. On the production side, this means that, instead of a product that is just assembled  under the auspices of fair trade, many of Apikri’s products are made with fair-trade-sourced raw materials and include the labor and skills of several different craftspeople along the “assembly line.” In a (hand-carved coconut)shell (ha, sorry), this means more fair trade jobs in more different sectors.

For example: a fair trade coffin (yes, they exist!) is made with jute that Sumijem harvests and processes, which she sells to the coffin-assembler for a fair price. Same for the wood and bamboo– harvested in a different area where the natural habitat favors the growth of those materials. One craftsperson assembles the coffin structure, and then it will be sent to another artisan who will do the fine detailing.

But the importance of networking extends beyond the production process. Apikri has also provided opportunities for artisans to meet outside of their economic transactions. Nani, Picuk and Sumijem all told me that they benefited immensely simply from sharing their problems, challenges, and successes with other artisans. Sometimes, as in the case of Berkah Lestari Cooperative, creating a safe workspace is as simple as having access to the right information, and Apikri’s artisan meetings provide that opportunity for open sharing and problem-solving.

lombok pottery center: fair trade reflections, part two

I spent one week in Lombok with Lisa, the lovely Forum Fair Trade Indonesia coordinator, visiting artisans from the Lombok Pottery Center (LPC), one of FFTI’s member groups. Nusa Tenggara province is made up of a string of islands extending east from Bali and Java, of which Lombok is the closest to Bali.

One our way to our first of three  cooperative visits, we drove by a bustling morning market with octopus and glassy-eyed fish for sale in buckets. Lisa told me, laughing, that the supermarket closes every day from 3-5 pm, so that the proprietors can take a nap. This is a place far from the traffic of Bali, where we pass nearly as many horse carts as cars. I was fascinated by people chewing betel nuts, their lips and teeth stained a bright orange.

Lombok Pottery Center

On the shady verandah of the Penujak Village Cooperative, Ibu Ayuri, the cooperative’s leader since its beginning in 1988, tells her visitors from Bali and the U.S. how fair trade has changed their lives: “There are few employment opportunities in our villages: in recent years one of the only ways women are able to earn money is to work as maids overseas. Working with Lombok Pottery Center offers quality wages and ensures that women can remain in their communities.”

Ibu Ayuri has been leader of the Penujak cooperative, which comprises 75 women potters, since 1988. Lombok Pottery Center provides the main income for the entire village: when pottery orders are good, the village economy thrives.

Penujak Village Cooperative is one of the 4 cooperatives that own Lombok Pottery Center (LPC), a fair trade company operating in ruralLombok. For Ibu Ayuri, working with fair trade means that she is not just a businesswoman, but can also follow her passion in social work and community organizing. “It’s not easy to work with the community. You have to really know the community’s characteristics, what they really want, what they need, and then make a true assessment,” she tells us.

Recruiting artisans and extending fair trade in the villages is one of the challenges that LPC faces. In 1988, when the project began, few artisans were comfortable working with foreign buyers. “People were afraid to see bule (foreigners) and lacked the confidence to market their pottery,” Ibu Ayuri recalls. LPC began with 9 artisans, all widows, and slowly built the enterprise with initial project funding and artisan training funded by Oxfam New Zealand. 

When the cooperative staff explains the meaning of fair trade to artisans, they focus on fair price, high quality, and giving back to the greater social well-being of the community. One of Ibu Ayuri’s most important missions has been ensuring that producers do not use child labor. “We tell our artisans that children have a right to play and to get an education,” Ibu Ayuri explains.

LPC potters are artisans, but also farmers. They split their time between making pots and tending their land. The relatively dry climate means that most families grow only enough crops for daily consumption.

Traditionally and to this day, creating Lombok pottery is women’s task, although husbands often help with finishing. The people of Lombok believe that women are the best potters because of their patience. The renowned priuk design is always made by women. The priuk is a wide, rounded pot with a flaring mouth, made using the paddle method, in which the potter beats the pot’s wall rhythmically with a bamboo paddle, while holding a smooth stone against the inside wall. The technique results in a strong, thin-walled, elegant shape.

Making priuk:

In Lombok, price competition between potters is very high. Often, potters do not calculate the cost of materials and labor needed to make a piece, meaning that they sell their pottery so cheaply that they actually lose money. Part of LPC’s job is to fight this trend by offering fair wages and avoid exploitative situations in which artisans are losing money. LPC pays 7000 Rupiah for a big bowl or plate that would fetch just 1000 Rupiah in an art shop. LPC’s payment also sets it apart from the other pottery buyers inLombok, who mostly operate on consignment: LPC pays cash when the product is completed, collecting finished products on regular quality-check days in each village.

Sukian, a Masbagik potter, lists several important changes that have improved her life since beginning work with LPC: soft loans offered by the cooperative help her afford large costs, like children’s school fees or purchasing raw materials; the reliable payments from LPC; sustainable orders; and, finally, being a shareholder.

Most of all, Sukian says, it is the sense of security that LPC offers that has transformed her life. “It’s difficult to express the feeling of safety,” Sukian says. For the first time, she feels financially secure because of the steady orders she receives. Furthermore, when she completes an order for LPC, she knows she can trust that she will receive her payment promptly.

Being a shareholder also contributes to Sukian’s sense of safety and ownership. As one of the cooperative founders, she feels great loyalty to the group. “I would be very sad if LPC did not exist—I wish the staff and my fellow artisans health and success so they can continue their good work,” she tells us.

Zuriati, another potter, echoes Sukian’s opinion that being a shareholder has improved her financial security: “I receive an annual dividend. If I or another cooperative member face an unexpected expense, like a marriage, illness or death of a relative, we have access to a special fund that’s part of the cooperative budget.” Zuriati was also selected as the village representative to the cooperative for her ability to read, debate and share ideas, and serve as an advocate for the interests of her village. She is proud and honored to have this big responsibility. Before traveling to Mataram for the cooperative meeting, she meets with potters in her village to discuss concerns that she will relate at the meeting. “Learning how to make a decision that everyone will be happy with is a good challenge for me. I enjoy feeling important and useful,” Zuriati tells us. Participation in fair trade enterprise gives Zuriati and her fellow artisans a voice and helps them develop as community leaders.

The firing process is still a challenge, as the open-fire process that has been used for generations directly exposes artisans to harmful smoke. An attempt to develop closed-kiln firing in 1992, aided by the government’s industrial development fund, was abandoned because the firing took too long, and each kiln could be used for one color only—so each kampung would need separate kilns for the black, brown and tamarind-colored pots. For now, that is an investment that they can’t afford. According to Sukian, firing is the hardest and least pleasant step of the pottery process. She is always relieved to sell items that don’t need firing. (After seeing the area where the pots are fired, Lisa told me, “This is the other side of fair trade.” Later, reflecting on the day, she revised that observation: “Maybe that isn’t fair trade at all.”)

Still, despite the challenges, Hadiah, another Masbagik artisan, sums up the changes that LPC has produced at the most fundamental level: fair trade has helped the village provide for daily needs. “Before, the village had no money even for cooking. Now, the poor people and the rich people can have their same rice.”

(I own a beautiful black LPC-made tagine dish that has produced several delicious Moroccan stews, so I was excited to see where it began its life. It turns out that it likely began its life in the strong, sure hands of Hadiah, who makes six tagines per day, and whose name means “gift.”)

mitra bali: fair trade reflections, part one

One thing that I hope to do at the end of this year is compile a list of best practices for craft producers—in other words, the best strategies and approaches for building craft enterprises that are financially viable, democratically and responsibly governed, environmentally friendly, innovative and sustainable—based on the examples of groups that I’ve encountered along my way. In Indonesia, I’ve been lucky enough to interview artisans and organizers affiliated with several different fair trade organizations as part of a documentation project I’m undertaking with Forum Fair Trade Indonesia, the umbrella network for fair trade groups in Indonesia.

I’ll start with some thoughts on my visits and interviews with artisans at Mitra Bali, a wonderful and very successful fair trade organization working with hundreds of artisans in Bali. Their products include wood and bone carvings, silver jewelry, ceramics, items made from coconut shells and bamboo… Click here to see some of the products that Mitra Bali exports to Ten Thousand Villages. 95% of Mitra Bali’s production is for export.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) identifies ten Principles of Fair Trade that fair trade organizations/companies are expected to strive for. Commitment to these principles distinguishes fair trade enterprises from other for-profit companies. You can find more detailed explanations of each of these principles on the WFTO’s website. Briefly, they are:

1. Creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged producers
2. Transparency & accountability
3. Trade practices that function with concern for the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of marginalized small producers and do not maximize profit at their expense
4. Payment of a fair price
5. No child labor or forced labor
6. Promoting gender equity, freedom of association, and generally non-discrimination
7. Healthy working conditions
8. Capacity building
9. Promotion of fair trade
10. Friendly to the environment

Things I Learned from Mitra Bali

Standing behind principles. Mitra Bali provides placards listing the ten principles of fair trade for each artisan to post in their workspace. This seemingly small measure speaks volumes to me: most Mitra Bali artisans’ workspaces are within their homes, and having those ten affirmations about the right to a better life strikes me as a powerful statement about artisans’ ownership of the fair trade movement. Not only that, but it shows a commitment to building an organization in which every member and employee, from the wood-carver to the people packing boxes to be shipped, are invested in fair trade principles and serve as checkpoints making sure that Mitra Bali lives up to its ideals.

Sometimes craft production is not enough. Mitra Bali understands something that I have been reminded of over and over this year: even if artisans are given a fair price for their work, their prosperity is still dependent on the whims of consumer desires, the unpredictability of the American and European appetite for painted cat figurines or batik scarves or decorative baskets. These are not inelastic goods; craft producers suffer and thrive in direct relation with the highs and lows of Western economies.

In order to help its artisans achieve economic security, Mitra Bali implemented a sort of mini-Heifer International project. Artisans are given a cow, which is kept as a sort of buffer– if someone in the family suffers an illness, or if orders lag, or if the artisan wants to undertake an expansion project or build a new home, they can sell the cow. The program is self-sustaining, because each artisan who receives a cow donates its first calf back to Mitra Bali to be given to another artisan.

For the World Fair Trade Day celebration in May, the cows were temporarily painted with fair trade slogans! Bovine stars of the show with the Mitra Bali staff (who seem very much like a family– complete with family-style lunches for the whole staff and exercises after work on Fridays ).

-Fair trade is about humanizing economic transactions. Mitra Bali and most fair trade organizations I encountered in Indonesia do an especially good job of emphasizing this point.  Nearly every artisan I interviewed spoke about the importance of direct, honest communication between producers and buyers in their relationship with fair trade marketing organizations. Many even said that this is a more important positive aspect of fair trade than the higher price they receive for their craft. Simply being able to openly express their needs, issues, and desires to producers is empowering. It’s an important reminder, I think, that in an ideal fair trade situation, both the producer and consumer (and all the other people playing roles in between) should be treated like human beings, not economic cogs, and hopefully can even gain some sense of meaningful global connection from the exchange of goods from one person’s hands to another through the big, sometimes impersonal networks of our global economy.

Unrelated: A couple weeks ago I attended a discussion/presentation by noted Canadian designer David Berman, author of the book Do Good Design and an outspoken proponent of design thinking as an important way of improving the world. Cool project: he re-designed Canada’s unemployment law– with clear language, diagrams, etc– so that it’s easily understood by anyone, without the need for a lawyer’s interpretation. Social design/human-centered design keeps popping up everywhere this year! I think I kind of want to be a social designer.

pearl of africa to-do list: part one

A few days ago I booked my tickets to Indonesia! I’m arriving in Bali on April 21, and my impending departure has kicked my planning into overdrive for my last few days in Uganda (the Pearl of Africa indeed). I made a to-do list of things I’m hoping to accomplish before I go and am determined to check them all off. Successes so far:

1. Visit the natural dye center at Rubona Basket Weavers Association


Rubona is a little town in western Uganda, on the road between Fort Portal and Kasese. I arrived there on a drizzly Friday morning after spending a night in Fort Portal in the blue shadows of the Rwenzori Mountains.

The women at the Rubona Basket Weavers Association are well-known for their distinctive, beautiful naturally dyed baskets, made with raffia, millet straw, and banana fiber. I’d seen their baskets for sale in Kampala and I finally managed to arrange a visit to learn more about their weaving techniques and the natural dyes.

The amazing variety of brightly dyed raffia, all colored with natural materials.

The project began in 2005, when an Austrian man trained local women in natural dye techniques—reviving some dye practices that women had been using for years. It’s grown to employ over 200 local women. The managers, Kellen and Nnalongo, walked me through the dye process step by step.  First we boiled the raffia to soften it:

Then we prepared the ingredients:

Omfoka leaves (fresh; used for making green or black)

Akalamata root (fresh or dried; used for making red)

Amarwa gempunu roots (fresh; used for making maroon and yellow)

Pounding the amarwa gempunu in a big mortar:

Chop chop

Cosmos flower (fresh or dried; used for making orange and red)

Kellen mixing in wood ash:

Raffia drying:

As a business, Rubona is doing really well; their main market is the chain of Banana Boat stores, an upscale Kampala craft outlet (I was lucky enough to have an interesting conversation with BB’s co-owner, and hopefully I’ll give you a report on that and other craft-related interviews soon). One aspect of Rubona’s business model that especially impressed me is their approach to design innovation. Many craft producers get ideas for new product designs from their marketers (Ten Thousand Villages, for example, sends new designs to many of its producers each season). The Rubona basket designs, however, come directly from the women.

Each month Rubona holds a design contest for all the basketweavers—this month’s challenge is millet baskets, a distinctive basket shape with a tight-fitting conical lid that has a little handle at the top. (On the day that I visited, the eleven zone leaders were attending a workshop at the center to learn how to refine their technique for weaving the millet basket shape. They’re responsible for passing on that skill to the weavers in their zone.) Creators of the top designs win prizes, which are generally practical home and kitchen items. In this way, Rubona encourages design innovation and creativity and actively avoids the problem of product stagnation.

And the results are stunning:

CHECK.

2. See Animals!

After leaving Rubona, I hopped on a matatu south, heading for Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was dusk by the time my matatu crossed the park boundary. Almost as soon as we were inside the park, the wildlife sightings began! First, a herd of more than a hundred graceful golden-brown Uganda kob, with their beautiful spirally horns. Later, the car slowed wayyy down for a family of five elephants (including a little one!!). From the village of Katunguru, just outside the park gates, I paid for a special hire taxi to drive me to a hostel inside the park. On the way, we saw three enormous lumbering hippos who had ventured out of the water to do their nocturnal grazing.

At the hostel I met three young Dutch women, nursing students doing an internship in a hospital here, and we agreed to share the cost of a game drive the next morning. We left at 6:30 am, and the sky was too dark for me to get any pictures of our first game sighting—more elephants!!! We headed into the savannah area where the Uganda kob have their mating grounds.

As promised… animals!!

Vultures!

Hyena!

Uganda kob!

LIONS!

Not pictured: buffalo, waterbuck, elephants. All spectacular!

Unfortunately my pictures really didn’t turn out very well—something about the cloudy just-after-dawn light didn’t agree with my camera. These images don’t capture the beauty of the golden savannah, the distinctively shaped trees, and the towering, misty blue mountains across the border in the DRC that formed the backdrop to every view.

After the game drive, I got lucky and hitched a free ride back to Katunguru in a park pickup truck packed with about twenty other passengers. In Katunguru, I spent a little while walking along the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake Edward and Lake George. I watched a family of hippos hanging out near the shore, and got serenaded by the many bright-yellow weavers that make their hanging nests in the reeds along the banks.

C

I got a little picture-happy with the hippo family (you would too!!)

Look at the baby hippo in this one!!!

CHECK. To be continued!

settling

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!

My desk!

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.

Taxi park:

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.