Tuesday, March 31, 2009

and more cotton

I'm getting used to this 24-hour turnaround in Kampala. After the long journey back from Gulu on Sunday, I had one day in town before my 4:30 am drive to the airport, setting off for Jo'burg.

The one day back in town was broken down into tightly-packed hours and minutes, starting with a morning meeting with Phenix. We toured their factory in Kampala, which looked exactly like UTEXRWA. Phenix gets its 100% organic cotton from farmers in Lira, northern Uganda. The factory was filled with the same big green Swiss machines, spinning the raw cotton into yarn. The difference between the two companies is in the processing. UTEXRWA weaves cotton, while Phenix knits it. What's the difference? With UTEXRWA you get wax-print, woven fabrics. With Phenix you get t-shirts. Turns out Phenix is the supplier of all the organic cotton yarn used for EDUN Live - the clothing company started by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. I'll let you use your imagination as to the outcome of our meeting.

On to Jo'burg!

Monday, March 30, 2009

of tsetse flies and brake failure

I spent much of the past week with Tim, the owner of Greater Good, and One Mango Tree's biggest buyer. After two days with the ladies in Gulu, we decided to take an on-the-way-home safari at Murchison with Noela and Medi, our driver. Gulu is about a two-hour drive from the north gate of the park - on a really nice tarmac road that runs from just north of Karuma Falls out to Pakwach. In 2007, I stopped in Pakwach on a reverse trip (heading to Gulu after a safari in the park). The town must see its fair share of tourists, as it's completely packed with men selling handicrafts - little drums and funny carved men with spears balancing on a pedestal. We stopped for breakfast (roll-ex and tea), and proceeded through the north gate, treating ourselves to a self-guided game drive on the only road that goes to Paraa Lodge - where we were meeting park ranger Nelson and his boat.

Elephants road-side during our self-guided game drive

It turned out to be a beautiful Sunday, cruising up the Nile in our long, white boat. I parked myself at the bow, often hanging off the front pretending to fly. It was so relaxing that we all fell asleep at one point or another. The smell of fresh water and the sound of waves lapping against the hull set me dreaming of my family's cottage on Lake Erie. It felt a bit odd to have a wave of nostalgia for home while cruising up the Nile surrounded by hippos and crocodiles.

Me and Medi, our awesome driver, at the base of Murchison

We set off for K'la around 2 pm, hoping to reach Masindi by 3:30 and K'la no later than 6:30 pm. The gods had other plans for us. About 5k into our drive, the tsetse flies launched a full-on offensive, dive-bombing our car by the dozens. We had no A/C, so we had to choose between sweat lodge or angry biting flies. You would think we would have chosen the sweat lodge. Tim embraced his inner zen while Medi, Noela and I shrieked, cussed and swatted with hats, notebooks, hands. There was a tsetse fly massacre in our little sedan, but I'm sure we barely made a dent in the population, which lies in wait for unsuspecting tourists on their way to and fro the safari lodges.

Then, not long after the attack subsided, we lost our brakes. Noela and Tim were blissfully passed out in the back seat, and Medi calmly showed me when he pressed the brakes that nothing at all happened to slow the car. I was mildly freaked out, but Medi illustrated such calm that I decided to roll with it. Literally. We drove brake-less for one hour, until we finally arrived in Masindi (honking at pedestrians as we rolled through town). Medi finally threw the car into reverse in front of a garage and we came to a jolting halt. I must say, only in Uganda can you blow out both brakes, roll to a garage and have them repaired in under an hour on a Sunday, and for only $10. It was barely an annoyance, and gave me time to drink a bag of yogurt, eat some glucose biscuits and read about ritual murder and devil worship on the front page of the New Vision.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

acel, aryo, adek, angwen (1, 2, 3, 4!)

Havana Pub celebrated the fourth anniversary of its opening in Gulu on Saturday night. I'm not one for the bar scene in Gulu, but I've definitely had my fair share of Havana experiences. Early in 2007 it was bending bottle caps during happy hour, drinking Bell and falling for a much, much younger guy. Later that year it was hearing gunshots from the balcony of Kakanyero and learning that a UPDF soldier had shot himself in the head just inside the bar.

Now, in 2009, with Club beer apparently buying every piece of advertising space they could get their hands on, Havana celebrated its anniversary by closing off the street for a night of musical debauchery. Between two rigged walls of blue plastic tarpaulin, the Hotel Pearl Afrique Band filled the air with jazzy Antibalas-like tunes. The lead singer announced that they were "going traditional," switching into the familiar beats from all those bus rides from K'la to Acholiland - with live dancing. In black t-shirts, jeans and NY Yankees caps, the guys came out and performed what can only be described as a crotch-thrust, where the upper body stays totally still and the lower body, well....hips thrust, knees wobble. I was smiling and laughing so hard my face hurt.

The MC and DJ gave lots of shout outs to northern Uganda, and as I looked around at the growing mass of smartly-dressed young Ugandans at the show, I couldn't help but think of how much this place has changed since I first came in 2006. I went back to Jojo's after the hotel band wrapped up, but when I left for K'la the next morning at 6 am, the music was still going strong.

Friday, March 27, 2009

friday night hafiz

the small man
builds cages for everyone
he knows.

while the sage
who has to duck his head
when the moon is low
keeps dropping keys all night long
for the

- hafiz

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

cotton & cooperatives - digging deeper

One of our One Mango Tree customers is in town visiting the cooperatives he buys from in East Africa, so I ended up spending much of the week going on his site visits with him - first to Gahaya Links (they partner with Fair Winds Trading to supply all those baskets to Macy's - and pretty much any African-made product you see at Starbucks) and then to Partners in Health (PIH) in Rwinkwavu.

In between, I spent yesterday morning at UTEXRWA - a textile factory located in Kigali. The factory is a shining example of Rwandan industry, with a spotless facility and remarkable openness about their processes. I learned about fabric production in its entirety, starting with raw cotton from ginneries in Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi:

-- from cleaning - to spinning - to weaving - to processing - to printing - to packing --

I saw how they make 50/50 poly blend (mixing in equal parts natural cotton and the blindingly white poly made in Korea and imported), and watched women in the weaving department hand-hook the fabric patterns before sending them off to the automated weavers. Into the processing department, where all those chemical baths reside - hopefully we can avoid this room with One Mango Tree's fabrics.

Then on to the printing, where they have thousands of designs etched into huge metal cylinders. I found the ones used for Obamabags (recognize the face in the image below?) - that's right, they too are a production of Fair Winds and UTEXRWA. The Obama print is off-limits.

The whole process is impressive and incredible - and a challenge to explain, particularly the spinning department, where cotton turns from fluff into longer and stronger threads. The end result? We get to choose from thousands of designs and weights, which means One Mango Tree products are about to get that much cooler - we're aiming for 100% organic - and our bags will finally be 100% East African, a combo of Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi - from soil to sale.

Check out some potential new prints here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

omnivorific, or julie carney-copia

Showing off some shiny eggplant at one of the GHI gardens

Our first dinner in Kigali was wheatberry risotto with squash, and salad greens from the garden, topped with beets. I'm visiting Julie Carney, one of my best friends, who lives in Kigali and runs Gardens for Health - an organization that works with HIV/AIDS cooperatives to construct home gardens, in the hopes of improving nutrition (and thus the effectiveness of ARVs) the good old-fashioned way - with nutrient-rich foods. We first met back in 2006, on a GYPA trip in Uganda - both of us visiting Africa for the first time. This trip is our first African reunion - three years later and we now both live here.

Julie is IN it. She lives, breathes, and sleeps (and obviously eats) sustainable agriculture. We visited the GHI model farm, which occupies what used to be the backyard in the compound that houses their office. Julie convinced the landlord to tear up the turf and ornamental trees, and they now have a thriving example of a home garden: eggplant, cabbages, pepper, tomato, amaranth, onions, carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes, along with a tiny tree farm of tamarillo (tree tomatoes), mango, and moringa. GHI uses lots of innovative gardening techniques, since all of their cooperatives live in a peri-urban area and do not have the space normally required for a garden. My favorite is the sack garden.

So, understandably, the underlying theme of our stay in Kigali has been food. We're eating carrot-zucchini muffins, lots of wheatberry, fruit salad topped with tamarillo, loads of fresh veggies. On our hiking trip to Ruhengeri this weekend, Julie tried out her latest iteration of a power bar - a mix of moringa, honey, peanuts and some left over dried fruit she found in my backpack.

All of this food and farming is probably the reason I wasn't too surprised when I opened the Sunday NYTimes email to read that the Obamas are tearing out a piece of the South Lawn to build an organic garden at the White House, something Michael Pollan suggested in a New York Times op-ed back in 1991. Granted, Pollan offered a garden as one of several alternatives - a symbolic gesture for removing the chemical-loving non-native turf that so often symbolizes domestic American life. Either way, to me this is illustrative of a priority shift. I've been reading a lot about food and farming in the past year, and am elated to see that Michelle Obama is embracing food issues. What impresses me most is that this so-called food revolution crosses the divide. Whether improving nutrition for people living with HIV in Rwanda, or decreasing obesity in the United States, the spotlight is on how we, as humans, eat.

And, thanks to the happy combination of Julie's cooking and Rwanda's fertile soils, I'm eating quite well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

italian african fusion - mango caprese

photo from

slice up a ripe mango
slice up fresh milk mozzarella cheese
layer with fresh basil
drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil

I encountered this awesome variation on the traditional caprese at torero cafe, kigali, rwanda.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

tea fjords

image courtesy of farm2's flickr photo stream

10 hours on a bus from Kampala to Kigali, passing through the increasingly rugged terrain that separates the two cities. Oh, Rwanda. I've wanted to travel to Rwanda for the past couple of years, adding it to my itinerary several times, only to inevitably cross it off as the packed weeks fly by. That crazy bus ride always seemed a bit much.

This time I actually made the trip, getting to the Jaguar Bus station a few minutes before the on-time departure. I managed to eat an entire box of NICE coconut biscuits before making it to the border. I listened to music, but rarely nodded off, looking out the window facing east, across matooke plantations covered in red dust.

The border crossing was uncomplicated - there is no visa fee to enter Rwanda if you are American. As I grabbed a bottle of water and a hard-boiled egg from a vendor and re-lugged my pack back onto the bus, the engine rumbled to a start and we were once again on our way.

Just minutes into the ride, Rwanda's landscape became dramatically different. The road hugged the snaking base of the hills, flanked on the east by little bunches of eucalyptus and tea stretching across valley floors to the opposite terraced hillsides. It was a cloudy day, with mist and woodsmoke collecting in pockets; the deep green of tea leaves criss-crossed by footpaths. Up ahead the curves of the hills recede and you see more tea, lapping at the base of the hills, sometimes washing up onto their slopes before the elevation steepens and the terracing starts. I imagined the tea as water, doing a lazy, shimmering, and winding dance between the hills and the road.

I put down my book, turned off my iPod, and spent the next few hours peering through raindrops at the scenery. So, you could say I'm grateful for that ridiculously long bus ride, and surprised by the sheer beauty of Rwanda.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

sipi river lodge - heaven on mt. elgon

Alain de Botton conjures Wordsworth in The Art of Travel; something he referred to as "spots of time." There are certain places that stick - owing their sticky-ness to a fortuitous combination of scenery, smell, temperature, and a very specific mental state - that become a motif in life. For me, it's the low-hanging stars in Belize, it's the smell of water in Zanzibar...and currently, it's every little piece of Sipi River Lodge.

wildlife: a cow peering at you while showering, baby pigs and wandering goats
cuisine: carrot and coriander soup, pineapple crumble with vanilla custard, ample Roberts Rock wine
soundtrack: falling asleep to the sound of sipi river flowing by your banda, will's awesome iPod selections during dinner
wake up call: drinking coffee you roasted yourself

ambience: the banana leaf roof in the lodge, especially in the lantern-lit evenings
fun: the hat collection in the bar (and play bites from Captain - see slide show)

If you're visiting East Africa, you owe it to yourself. Set aside 4 or 5 days and a few good books, and go there.

Monday, March 09, 2009

fabric of life - one mango tree press

Check out the latest piece of news on One Mango Tree - thanks to Bob Sberna for an awesome piece, and to Glenna Gordon for the beautiful photos!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

aromatherapy adventures

Some of Marion's tea blends sold at local grocers, and the re-designed One Mango Tree eye pillow.

Yoga is getting big here in Kampala. Big in the sense that there is really good ashtanga vinyasa, and there's a nice (and growing) contingent of yogis that show up regularly for classes. Through the network of Kampala yogis, it's not too difficult to find meditation classes, massage therapy, lomilomi massage (and training workshops!), cranialsacral therapy, ayurvedic practice and counseling, etc. etc.

It's getting so big, in fact, that "The Munyonyo Studio" (as I call it) - Kevin and Gavin's beautiful home on Lake Victoria - is hosting Africa Yoga's spring teacher training course. One Mango Tree is providing all of the yogic accoutrement - mat bags, bolsters, eye pillows, meditation cushions, malas, organic cotton t-shirts. The resulting new product development has sent me to some amazing and unusual new places.

Yesterday it was Happy Herbs Ltd. - 100% organic herb farm near the airport in Entebbe. Started as a hobby garden by Marion Boenders (when she's not co-running Wagagai Ltd., a flower export company), Happy Herbs is a small farm that grows a wide range of aromatherapy and medicinal herbs - from tea tree (only grower in Uganda!) to staple cooking herbs like basil, thyme, marjoram. Marion and I spent the afternoon pinching leaves to get ideas for fillers for the One Mango Tree eye pillows. After a stop off at the drying shack (shelves and shelves of harvested herbs drying out and awaiting the chopper or blender - depending on their final destination) - we went into the storage room to start mixing.

The room is lined with rough shelving and neatly organized, colorful plastic buckets - labeled with all sorts of interesting things - including pulverized specimens like plantain, moringa, alfalfa (Marion makes capsule supplements as well). We took out some buckets and started mixing, smooshing the herbs in our hands to combine and release the smells - settling on five scent varieties. My favorite is Lemon Mint - which I imagine will be quite energizing and refreshing (especially when chilled) as an eye pillow. We mixed Lemon Balm, Lemongrass, Spearmint and Peppermint.

I'm currently checking into the export rules for products that include herbs - so you might be seeing Happy Herbs as part of the One Mango Tree line up in the US very soon!

Marion also makes a variety of herbal teas - I sampled a delicious one with lunch, which we shared on her patio overlooking Lake Victoria. Happy Herbs indeed.