Monday, August 24, 2009

jaia ganesha

hindu temple, kampala

A day after getting back to Uganda, I went downtown to the fabric market with Sejal. During our downtown trip, Sejal spotted the birthday-cake spires of the Hindu temple, and begged for a visit. Sejal's own religion is Jainism, but she was eager to check out the temple, making comparisons with her Jain temple at home in Fort Lauderdale. I'd always been curious, my brush with Hinduism rooted in my yoga practice - and mostly in music and the strange connection I've felt with Ganesh since Justin brought back a little statue from his trip to Bali last year.

We slipped off our shoes and walked around the temple, admiring the ornate carvings and statues inside, and the lingering scent of incense. I asked about a shop (surprise, surprise), seeking a bigger Ganesh statue to add to my apartment. The priest directed us across the street to a building that faces Nakasero Market - the doors were shut tight, but there was a banner proclaiming "Hindu Religious Items."

In the weeks since that first trip, I swung by every time I emerged from the fabric market (during my daily vendor payment trips), and the doors were always shut - until last week, when I saw them flung open with all sorts of crazy Indian stuff pouring out. I ran up the steps, breathless, and came back cradling a big white Ganesh statue, with a lotus unfurling behind his head, and a very lopsided face (thanks to a poorly made plaster cast). The priest begged me to let him paint it, but one glance at the garish green and orange versions on the shelf behind him and I tucked a wad of shillings into his hands, thanked him profusely, and said I preferred the dusty white version.

Lucky for me, I brought Ganesh home just in time for Ganesh Utsav - the 11-day festival celebrating the deity's birth - it began yesterday. The priest offered to come to my house every day for pooja...but again I politely declined. I'm nowhere near a real Hindu anyway. I'm not even sure why the little Ganesh from Bali needed a big, pale twin... but yesterday, at the start of the festival, I lit some Nag Champa and put a bowl of flowers out in his honor. He's the Hindu God of Wisdom, after all, and who can't use a little more of that?

16 again

my new ride - the pajero - at the OMT compound in Gulu

"I'll drive! I'll drive!"
"You want me to come pick you up?"

After selling the Focus and committing to bike commuting last August, I never dreamed I'd own another vehicle, let alone fall in love with driving... a {gasp} diesel SUV. Sorry Earth, but I wouldn't do much good if I ended up another victim of the boda boda fate.

In June I bought a Pajero from my roommate's friend, assuming I could trust in a mzungu's car care enough. I was so busy before leaving that I didn't bother to have a mechanic check it out. I came back from my US holiday in July and a day later hopped in my new Pajero to drive up to Gulu - and shredded a tire on the way which point I quickly realized that all four tires needed to be replaced. A few weeks and thousands of additional dollars in repairs later, I have a pretty reliable, rugged, diesel SUV that gets me everywhere I need to go.

And as for the driving-on-the-left (cake), traffic jams (not so bad), and obstacles (goat! chicken! woman with bananas on her head! man with a bicycle! twenty boda bodas riding my bumper! pothole!)... it's nothing. I learned by osmosis from all the other crazy drivers in this town. I hopped in the car and immediately became a part of the "flow" - if you can call it that.

The only time you find me on a boda boda these days is to go downtown to Nakivubo Mews to buy fabric/sponge/etc. It's too insane to get out of there - in one jaunt with Medi I ended up stuck on a street full of matatus for 1.5 hours. That's the point on the curve where risking your life on a boda boda actually sounds better than wasting another minute sucking matatu fumes and wondering if you'll ever get home.

All longish-term people in Uganda - I URGE you to get a vehicle. Just have a mechanic look at it before you buy it!

rainy season: my work

I've said it before - living and working in Uganda sometimes feels a bit bipolar. A self-fulfilling prophecy, the bipolarity reached extreme magnitudes this month.

Crest. Trough. Crest. Trough.

the pink palace - right before move-in

Perhaps the biggest crest of all was the opening of the new One Mango Tree workshop in Gulu. In one swoop we closed Unyama and Bobi locations and brought all the women together under one roof - Plot 9 Obiia Road, Gulu. The pink palace. One Mango Tree has an address, and it has a giant mango tree right outside the front gate. A compound manager, a guard, a cook, a guest house. All under the [invaluable] direction of Josh Engel and Hilary Dell - the One Mango Tree summer interns. With that huge move came big changes, and change is not always easy here. The personal and professional relationship with Lucy stretched and strained, as I sought to understand the reasons behind her choices; her decision to step aside as One Mango Tree achieves what she had dreamed. The smiles, laughs and gratitude of the other sixteen tailors shadowed by the confusion behind Lucy's refusal to take on a key role; the unhappiness that seems to grow proportionately with her successes.

Lucy in her shop, photo by Stephanie Makosky

But there are the other sixteen women, arriving early each day, picking soursop fruit from the tree out front, eagerly sweeping the production floor and settling in for a good day's work. The happy delivery of posho and cabbage cooked up by Mili while the morning hours pass. There is Prisca - eagerly taking on a management role at the workshop, commanding the ship with grace and ease. Crest.

Mili, dishing out posho and cabbage

Another crest was the visit from Stacey Edgar - the founder of Global Girlfriend. She arrived at an intense period of change for One Mango Tree; and provided a guiding voice for all of the difficult things I so needed to hear. We agreed on five apparel pieces to add to Global Girlfriend's best-selling organic cotton knit collection. We received our biggest order to date (this single order topping ALL of our orders combined from 2008), but it sent me packing to Kampala, a quick descent to the trough - to get the legal and financial pieces of One Mango Tree situated. NGO registration (constitution, bylaws, work plan, budget, LAWYERS...), export certificates, commercial invoices and GSPs...the export promotion board...a frantic (and still failing) search on how to take advantage of AGOA's duty-free policy on exports for our handbags. One million ush withdrawal limits at the ATMs, with 30 million ush due to the tailors and vendors. Daily trips to the ATM, hourly calls from vendors wanting their payments. Reserving a van to deliver materials and realizing it will take a lorry, not a van, to get all of the materials to Gulu. Realizing this after 500,000 ush is already sunk into the van rental.

Back and forth, up and down.

Cresting again - today I signed a contract with International Organization for Migration (IOM). We're receiving an in-kind grant through their USAID funding - 16 sewing machines and lots of fabric and liner to take on 10 referrals and provide them with work within the next six months.

I laugh, I cry, I scream, I slam my phone down after the fifth Sunday morning call from Joel the sponge guy asking for money ("Joel! we agreed on a payment schedule", "yes, madam but you know these African guys"). My chest gets all tight, I become convinced that I'm crazy, and then I chill out and breathe and start again.

rainy season: the weather

This morning, as I peered out the window at the now-familiar black clouds bunching in the distance, I realized that in all my trips to Uganda, I've never really experienced rainy season.

Each morning seems the same - clear and blue and even slightly hot, an otherwise beautiful dawn that now seems suspect and deceptive. I dress in my typical daily outfit - some random short-sleeved shirt, jeans and flops. And I hop into my Pajero and head to whatever meeting/coffee/internet/errand I have topping the list, turning on Fat Boy and Melanie for the Sanyu FM morning show.

I'm getting the point where I'm having a hard time remembering when the sky hasn't churned; the clouds materializing from sunshine, the heat magically evaporating, as if a vacuum is sucking the warmth from the air and turning it into gushing, weighty rivers pouring from the darkened and apocalyptic sky. It eventually fades to a light-ish gray, the green leaves freshly rinsed and the red earth churned into a sucking lurchy mess.

This week, as I drove from lunch near the US Embassy down to Lap Textiles, the rains began as I passed through the industrial area - which suddenly seemed totally abandoned - except for my lone SUV. To the right of the road I could see a sewer line exploding into the air, shooting waves of murky black water at least seven feet into the air, and then flooding the street, rushing across with a force that I imagine will sweep me away.

And then, as sudden as they came on, the rains will retreat, and a new day will dawn with another sunny, false optimism - as if no one suspects what's in store during the horrific afternoon lunch hour.

on ohio

Almost two months have passed since taking stock. Another cold trip in the big steel belly of KLM, a few weeks in Ohio with my family, a week in DC with friends, and back to Uganda again.

If I was writing while I was home, I would have told you all about Strongsville, the suburb where I grew up. I would have told you that I started each morning with a short drive to Starbucks, and how from there I proceeded to go to the mall. There wasn't much else to do. I would have shared my frustration at the bland emptiness of strip malls. The vaguely depressing feeling that sets in during the too-bright summer afternoon hours when there's nothing to do.

But then I would have told you about the evening spent with markers at a Little League game, dodging rain drops and drawing tattoos on Ella, my three-year-old god daughter (rainbows, ladybugs, a family of crabs, I LOVE USA, an American flag). Her first attempts at AcroYoga, and the warmth you feel when a little kid you love but rarely see starts to feel comfortable around you again. Voluntary hugs and kisses when you go home.

I would have told you about IngenuityFest, where my heart pounded viciously as I strutted down the runway in a super short yellow dress and a wide straw hat for the Revive Fair Trade Fashion Show. I would have told you my parents were near tears at the event and talked about it for weeks afterward.

I did get to see a different sort of Cleveland - the east side is still pretty vibrant, and with a wrong turn on the GPS, one day I ended up in a neighborhood that used to be home to the industrialists that once made Cleveland a beautiful city. I would have described the leafy and winding, yet broad streets; the houses reminiscent of English tudors.

I certainly would have told you about the day I took my dad to songwriter night at The Winchester in Lakewood. The small front room with little candles on the tables. The musicians pouring in to listen and cheer each other on. I couldn't possibly have described the look on my dad's face as his mind raced imagining himself up on the stage.

I took a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Armed with my iPod and a playlist mostly in sanskrit, I walked around a new exhibit - Streams and Mountains Without End: Asian Art and the Legacy of Sherman Lee at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Outside the museum, I felt a world away from Strongsville. I would have described how taken aback I was at the shimmering silver surfaces of what had to be a Frank Gehry building.

On the weekends we took the drive out to the cottage, where I lazed away the afternoons with Life of Pi (I certainly would have posted on the weirdness of that book!) and annoyed my brother with my cooking and excitement over peaches and berries at the farmers market. I would have written about the cocky joy in Henry's gait when he ran on the beach, ears cocked and paws prancing, stopping to pee on every sand castle. How good it felt to snuggle up with his salty paws. I would have written about the ice cream at Dairy Dock, the sunsets that turned the bay into a pool of liquid gold, and the joy of riding my Surly through the quarry to have coffee in Marblehead.

All this I would have written, but instead chose not to write at all, until this rainy Monday in Kampala, a month after my return; the intermittent weeks shedding a golden light of nostalgia on the memory, like photographs with the edges worn - a bit more loved for their distance from the present moment.