Tuesday, June 21, 2011

One wild and precious life

A Summer Solstice Poem: The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Creating opportunities

In 2007, I was working for Global Youth Partnership for Africa, a non-profit that organized youth programs on conflict resolution in Northern Uganda. We were based in Gulu for a week, meeting with young people, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government officials, and Ugandan citizens - to try to understand the roots of conflict, and how the region might realize a sustainable peace. During our breaks, I would walk with students through the central market, admiring the beautiful fabrics and the quiet whir of the foot-pedal sewing machines. Stall after stall was filled with tailors - a by-product of NGO vocational trainings. Tailoring is a very popular skill set meant to economically empower women in places like Northern Uganda.

Gulu's central market, filled with NGO-trained tailors

There was a problem here. While the market was filled with tailors, few of them were able to earn a livelihood - most of them could barely cover rent on their market stalls. Their best hope was to clothe the aid workers (like us) who spent lazy weekend afternoons in Gulu shopping the market and having dresses made.

The first principle of Fair Trade is about market connection:

Creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers.

The Fair Trade Federation, the membership body in North America promoting fair trade products, defines this principle further:

Fair Trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Members create social and economic opportunities through trading partnerships with marginalized producers. Members place the interests of producers and their communities as the primary concern of their enterprise.

Auma Lucy in her market stall in Gulu

Auma Lucy was a good tailor. She had a bare stall with a sewing machine, and was trying to grow her business amongst the competition in the market. She was charismatic, and compared with most women in Northern Uganda, her English was fantastic. She took every opportunity to bring in young women who were suffering - single mothers, young women she feared might "get into trouble" - she saw herself in these women, sitting at home with nothing to occupy their time, never finishing their schooling for lack of school fee money, getting pregnant too young - or worse, contracting HIV.

the tool to change lives

On her own, Lucy struggled to make ends meet. She didn't have funds to pay rent on her market stall. She had thirteen children at home (eleven orphans) and her elderly parents to worry about. With a market connection to customers in the United States, she could really make an impact (and much-needed profit).

All women in Northern Uganda bear a heavy burden. During the conflict, they lost their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, and are often victims themselves - forced to fight as soldiers, serve as soldiers' wives, raped and stigmatized by their own communities. Regardless of their past circumstances, any woman will tell you that when it comes time to put food on the table and send their kids to school, she will do whatever she must to pull it together and make ends meet.

The sheer quantity of trained tailors in Uganda was a curse for the local market, where customers were few. A connection to the United States market turned that curse into an opportunity - an opportunity for poor women in a region destroyed by more than twenty years of armed conflict to earn a living and create change in their lives.

This post is part of a series about Fair Trade Federation's Nine Fair Trade Principles. The series was inspired by Using Fair Trade Principles to Empower Women in Uganda, a talk given at the Library of Congress by One Mango Tree's founder in November 2010. You can watch the video here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Using Fair Trade principles to empower women in Uganda

Last November, I had the incredible opportunity to give a talk about One Mango Tree at the Library of Congress. Since Fair Trade Month had just concluded, I decided to focus the talk on the principles of Fair Trade, and how One Mango Tree uses those principles to create sustainable income for women in Uganda.

The video is a long one, but it's the equivalent to meeting for a cup of coffee to learn about how and why One Mango Tree got started. My presentation begins at 8:25. I hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adventures in sourcing: horn & leather

Sourcing locally is a big deal for us in Uganda. I certainly appreciate the meaning of value-add - particularly in a country where so many resources are exported raw (coffee, tobacco, tea, cotton, to name a few). Our organic apparel line at One Mango Tree boasts "seed-to-sewn," but it's at a high cost. There is only one factory transforming Uganda's organic cotton crop into knit. High school economics taught me that only one company equals a monopoly, and we're learning - the hard way - all about the impacts on pricing. Pricing issues aside, the factory doesn't have the flexibility to mix in Lycra, or to produce heathered textures. We do what we can with what we have.

factory visit with our print manufacturer, july 2010

Another reason we try to keep supply chains in Uganda is because of logistics. Uganda is land-locked, so for us, the only way to import findings (zippers, buttons, rings, etc.) is using costly air freight to bring them in. We buy zips for our bags in the local markets, but the trusty YKK brand is not available in Uganda. We often have to sacrifice quality by buying in the local market.

adding a local market zipper to a coin purse in production

As we work on design improvements on our products, naturally the conversation falls to trims - small additions we can make to the bags that add a lot of value. Horn and leather are two items in Uganda that have a lot of market potential, so Gihan and I went on a little adventure to find both.


The horn guy wasn't too difficult to find - after all there's only one of him. All of the horn bowls, napkin rings, bracelets and rings in the local markets are made by one company. On a gray, rainy afternoon we drove out to visit Charles at his workshop. We pulled in to a water-logged field, the mud sucking our shoes as we stepped out of the Pajero. Charles invited us into his office, which was in a wooden building that had been lifted up onto cinder block stilts. I expected to see the striped stockings of the Wicked Witch of the West peeking out from the foundation. We walked down a creaking, tilted hallway and into the main office, where Charles explained the set up.

"You see, the government came in and improved the roundabout here," he gestured towards the road outside.

"Most people are happy about that. But I own this land, and when they build the new road, they elevated it. Now all the runoff comes right into my lands. Every time it rains, even a little, our workshops flood and people cannot work."

We weren't able to see the workshop that day, and learned that flooding is seriously hurting the business. Weather isn't his only problem. When we asked about high prices, Charles explained that the Chinese are coming in and buying up all the horn.

"I have a relationship with the butchers here. I've been working with them for many, many years," he explained.

"I used to go to trade shows in China to sell our horn products. Now the Chinese come and buy the horn straight from the butchers - by the CONTAINER! - and take it back to China to process it themselves. And," he paused, widening his eyes, "do you know that they are undercutting my prices?! They have increased the cost of horn for me here in Uganda, and they can still make the products cheaper than I can."

Gihan and I exchanged glances. This was becoming a familiar problem. Uganda's companies all seemed to be capital poor. While natural resources were abundant, they often found that they couldn't match the prices paid by foreign buyers. As a result, raw goods flew right out of the country before Ugandan companies could add value. We faced this all the time with Phenix, our organic cotton knit producer. With a worldwide cotton shortage, the Chinese, South Koreans and others had come in to Uganda and bought up all the raw organic cotton. Instead of buying knit from Phenix, they were taking it back and processing it themselves - and then selling the final knit version cheaper than the Ugandans could. We were left with the little Phenix could produce, which came with a very high price tag to make up for these losses.

We left Charles with some sample pieces for some horn jewelry we wanted to try, and picked our way through the marshy property back to the car.


Cows are a big deal in Uganda, so you might think leather goods would be a home run. Or that we could at least find some leather goods in Uganda. Or maybe just Ugandan leather. Our leads led us to a residential area off Ggaba Road, where we found what turned out to be a mid-size shoe factory. The scale of production was impressive - someone had clearly invested a lot of money into this project, judging by the heavy machinery that was being used to make work boots, sandals and all sorts of shoes for the local market. A friend suggested that they might sell us some leather to use for bag trims.

In the marketing office, the staff pulled out rolls and rolls of soft leather dyed in pastel colors. We marveled at the flexibility - it would work very well as piping and trim on bags. Gihan asked about the origins of the leather.

"Oh, this one? It is goat. From the UK. Very good quality. How much you want to buy?"

In a country FULL of cows and butcher shops, they were trying to sell us pastel British goat leather. The only Ugandan leather they had was extremely thick black leather used for uppers on work boots. Finally Joseph, our contact and the Director, came in from an outside meeting. After a brief conversation about our needs, he sent us off to a company called Fishnet, and we assured him that we'd be back if we ever got into the business of shoe-making.

Continuing on our journey, we headed back across the city into industrial area, to a compound not five minutes from our own apparel workshop. I'd heard that Fishnet sold leather, but Gihan was insistent that they only sold nets for catching fish. I enjoyed giving him a hard time about the huge detour we made with the shoe factory visit, when the leather place was our neighbor.

We walked into the main building, the facade tiled with undersea scenes. The reception area was empty. Gihan peered over the counter and waved me over excitedly. It was 330 in the afternoon, and the receptionist was sleeping. Not at her desk, but on an actual mattress next to her desk. She had a pillow and blanket, and was clearly sound asleep. We had to suppress our giggles as we walked down the hallway to find someone conscious to help us out.

I found a woman in the first doorway, labeled "Marketing Department," and walked into her office. I asked if we could find the person in charge of selling leather samples. She rolled her eyes dramatically and gestured to a chair outside her office. There was a one foot by one foot hole cut into the wall adjacent to her desk, with a chair sitting next to it. Apparently the protocol was that information could only be shared through the "window." Once I was in the chair, she perked up -

"Yes, hello. Welcome to Fishnet. How can I help you?" as if I hadn't met her just a second before.

I played along "Yes, thank you so much. We are looking for the person here who sells leather." Gihan stood in the hallway suppressing his laughter at me talking through this literal hole-in-the-wall.

After much back and forth, we found ourselves in a small room lined with shelves - shelves stacked high with high-quality, Ugandan leather. We bought a hide and drove the few minutes back to our workshop, content to add two more materials to our list of Ugandan-sourced supplies:

Organic cotton knit
Woven cotton prints
Banana leaf
Horn (could be made into buttons, toggles, loops/rings, etc.)
Leather (could be made into straps, trims, or whole bags)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

More than good intentions

Suppose you are walking down a street by a lake on your way to a meeting, and if you miss the meeting you will lose two hundred dollars. You see a child drowning in the lake. Do you have an ethical obligation to stop and jump in and save the child, even though it will cost you two hundred dollars? Most people say yes.

Don't you then also have an ethical obligation to send two hundred dollars right now to one of many organizations delivering aid to the poor, where it can save a child's life? Most people say no, or at least, they don't cut that check.

Linkchildren in an IDP camp in Northern Uganda, 2007

This example comes from Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher at Princeton. Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel use the hypothetical scenario to introduce the central dilemma of their new book, More than Good Intentions. The idea makes most of us uncomfortable - sending a check off to an organization requires a great deal of trust - how do we know that the organization is actually going to save the child? There's a big leap between the personal rescue and the checkbook.

When I first traveled to Uganda in 2006, I had the vague notion that I wanted to work in international development. I arrived in Gulu for the first time and my jaw dropped at the roundabouts lined with signs for NGOs - psychosocial support, HIV/AIDS work, conflict resolution, infrastructure, agricultural programs, demobilization, reintegration of child soldiers - the list goes on. I was moved by what I saw. I was appalled by the poverty, the conditions at IDP camps, the blank gaze of an 11-year-old boy who had just escaped captivity. I was deeply saddened, and felt a strong sense of responsibility (like the "walking-by-the-child-drowning-in-the-lake" example).

walking by the lake, sanyu babies home, kampala 2006

The super-saturation of NGOs and donors seemed positive. Everyone was passionate about helping Northern Uganda, and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid were pouring from the US, Europeans, and other donors. It was like a giant do-gooder party.

When I actually started working in Northern Uganda, I quickly became one of the cynics. Once a champion of Jeffrey Sachs, I started to think along the lines of Dambisa Moyo - who in Dead Aid posits that aid is actually making things worse. There are very clear reasons why I started One Mango Tree as a business. It created jobs and income for people in Northern Uganda. There's nothing muddy about that, and the impacts are obvious. I wasn't as interested in the trial-and-error (and keep funding even if it fails) approach that development seemed to take.

Randomized Control Trials: Asking the Right Question

In More than Good Intentions, Karlan and Appel take a step back from the aid debate and suggest that measurement is the only clear way forward. Serious testing and analysis can tell us what works and what doesn't, and if we put efforts only into what works (and abandon what doesn't), then aid really should make a difference, right? They dive right into this possibility, using randomized control trials (RCTs) to answer some big questions:

Why would a perfect loan candidate choose not to take a loan?
When you loan someone money for something specific (and urgent!), why do they buy a TV?
Why don't people use bed nets? Will they use them if they're free?
Why won't people pay for chlorine tablets for clean drinking water?
Why do people go to herbalists and avoid hospitals?

The answers are behavioral, and Karlan and Appel argue that most development programs operate on classical economic assumptions - leaving very important behavioral factors out of the equation. RCTs provide answers to the questions of why people do what they do. By surveying both individuals receiving the program and a control group who does not, researchers can get to the bottom of what works. Simple before-after analysis is not enough.

The Takeaways

The implications of Karlan and Appel's work are clear - support research to back up effectiveness of aid programs. If you're going to spend aid money, then spend money on a system to monitor its effectiveness - and do it right (I supposed this is where the ever-present M&E comes in). And if it ain't workin, then STOP funding it.

One Mango Tree's Village Savings & Loan Association

For a business venture, One Mango Tree does a lot of research. We collected baseline surveys for all of our staff, and re-visit the data each year. We collect cost information to re-assess our wages annually - can our staff still support their households on their One Mango Tree earnings? More than Good Intentions made me wonder if we could do more.
  • We could survey tailors in the local marketplace as a control group to see how our staff are faring compared to tailors in the market
  • We've come across problems where women stop coming to work once they earn about $100 in any period - RCT could help us get to the bottom of this
  • We could apply the research on savings - working within the One Mango Tree VSLA structure to help women set goals and restrict them from withdrawals until they reach the goal amount
Cutting a $200 check to save a child isn't enough. If we're to take poverty and development seriously, then we need rigorous testing to find out what works pump funding to those areas. A few listed by Karlan and Appel:
  • Microsavings (over microcredit)
  • Reminders to save - to combat messaging to buy
  • Prepaid fertilizer sales
  • Deworming
  • Chlorine dispensers for clean water
  • Remedial education in small groups
  • Commitment devices

Summer 2011 Lookbook

I've been wanting to make a One Mango Tree Lookbook for ages. Every time I see a new Anthropologie catalog (my mom always sends me the ones that show up at home), or some cool indie designer who put together a video with a neat little song, my creative itch starts up. I get all sorts of ideas in my brain, but then sit in front of the computer wondering where to start - or rather, how to get the ideas from my head onto the computer screen.

anthropologie lures us to exotic lands with their gorgeous lookbooks

In January I bought myself an SLR camera. I don't really know how to use it. I have an HD video camera, but no editing software. Last weekend I put Adobe Photoshop on my netbook, and then, after it crashed about 15 times, I finally accepted that netbooks are for the INTERNET, not for ginormous design programs.

What I do have, however, is Lauranne Boyd, PowerPoint, and Lauranne's already a brilliant photographer, so I took the photos from the shoot she did for Summer 2011 and put them together on PowerPoint. Amy directed me to dafont (awesome), so I added some fun font descriptions and PDF'd the whole thing (using Primo PDF, free download).

Voila! A bootstrapped Lookbook.

I mean, hey. OMT started with $500 and a suitcase of products. The website is still Yahoo! Sitebuilder (free) and the blog is still blogger (free). The shopping cart is still PayPal (though I finally figured out how to get rid of those fugly yellow buttons). I use Excel to do accounting in Uganda (at least our US office is upgraded to Quickbooks), and I "edit" my own photos using Picasa (free).

I will learn Photoshop, and Illustrator, and InDesign. I will learn how to use my SLR on manual. I will learn about lighting and photographing models, and how to take video footage and make it into gorgeous little riffs that make you want to live in OMT products.

But in the meantime, I've got a business to run.

FYI - I wrote this entire post with the repeat of the song in this little DACE video streaming in the background. A girl can dream.

Spring 2011 from Dace on Vimeo.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Carry me home

I started out this life with Catholic influences. St. John Neumann church, with its brick interior shaped like an inverted boat. I remember the puzzling blue toilet water in Father LaRocca's residence. At some point in time, I wore a frilly little dress and had some holy water splashed on me. Nevertheless, Sunday School didn't stick. I never quite became a Catholic, but I developed an affinity for the religious kitsch - especially prayer cards and paintings of saints.

in my journal: a little baptized me.

In high school, I made a little beaded necklace with a Saint Christopher pendant, a gift from my high school boyfriend's mom when I started {recklessly} driving my purple Chevy Camaro with T-tops. I hung St. Chris on my rearview mirror to ward off speeding tickets. In college, when I was studying Spanish at Fundacion Ortega y Gasset in Toledo, Spain, I marveled at the colossal painting of him crossing a river with little Jesucristo on his shoulders, faded and peeling on the cathedral's wall.

I was in Mexico last December during Puerto Vallarta's Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations, with parade floats of little girls donning virgin blue capes. I marveled at the feathered Aztec dancers approaching the cathedral with drums, hoots and yells, and stuffed my face with sugary donuts from street vendors. Across the street in the obligatory Cathedral Shop, I stocked up on prayer cards - of course St. Chris was in the mix - a nod to my secret protector.

I've spent the last 2.5 years as if I had a terminal illness, racing around the planet collecting memories and stories as quickly as I could, always anxious that I'd be missing an opportunity if I just stayed home. I've been terrified to waste time on the mundane details of everyday life. This most recent trip - a combination of a consultancy (setting up a USAID/OTI project on democracy and governance in Kenya) and product development (checking in on One Mango Tree and working on designs and supply chain issues) - lasted 2.5 months. Over the course of those months, the messages in my journal changed, from "Let go of knowing" to

Carry me home.

All I can think about is growing herbs and vegetables, cooking wonderful meals, and lavishing in routine. Building a nest and tucking in.

a list of ways to stay put.

creating a space to work from home.

books. bed. sit quietly, do nothing.

From The Alchemist:

"...before they left, he came back to the boy and said 'You're not going to die. You'll live, and you'll learn that a man shouldn't be so stupid. Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and looked for a ruined church where shepherds and their sheep slept. In my dream, there was a sycamore growing out of the ruins of the sacristy, I would find a hidden treasure. But I'm not so stupid as to cross an entire desert just because of a recurrent dream.'

And they disappeared.

The boy stood up shakily, and looked once more at the Pyramids. They seemed to laugh at him, and he laughed back, his heart bursting with joy.

Because now he knew where his treasure was."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The proof is in the matooke

Dinner at Prisca's has become a routine for One Mango Tree visitors and interns. The first time you go, she'll cook for you - after that, it's time to pitch in. International Women's Day is a national holiday in Uganda, so we accepted the invitation to lunch at Prisca's, knowing full well that we'd be put to work as soon as we arrived. We headed straight into the family kitchen tukul, the last evidence of the traditional grass-thatched housing on Prisca's property.

inside Prisca's kitchen

Kaela got to work cutting matooke, while Martina and I provided moral support. Cutting matooke is a much harder job than it seems, as the tough green bananas don't peel like the familiar yellow ones, and they ooze a sticky sap.

Prisca & Kaela peel matooke for lunch

Before we arrived, Prisca had already made her now-famous fried chicken, dodo with simsim (greens with ground sesame paste), and sweet potatoes. With the boiled matooke, we had a ladies-only feast. We filed out of the kitchen and into the two-room brick house where Prisca's family currently lives.

watching Al-Jazeera, drinking refrigerated sodas

The living room got a fresh coat of robin's-egg-blue paint over the holidays, and Charles (Prisca's husband) connected the house to the Gulu electric lines. We watched Al-Jazeera on their little TV, and Prisca commented on Qaddafi and what she thought might happen with the conflict in Libya. The new chest refrigerator hummed in the corner, and Prisca presented us with a selection of cold sodas.

success doesn't come to you... you go to it

What seem to be normal, mundane details of a ladies lunch are actually quite extraordinary. When I started One Mango Tree, I wanted to see quick results - big changes in the tailors' lives, and fast. I'm learning that fair trade's proof comes with time - sustained, regular income is what moves people out of the poverty trap, and for good. Charles only works sporadically on construction projects - Prisca is the family breadwinner. Through careful savings and budgeting, the incremental improvements she's made have translated into big changes for her family.

the front door of the new family home

In between the kitchen tukul and the two-room home, Prisca and Charles built a large brick home. She used her 2010 savings to put in the roof, floor and window casings. Even while building their home, Prisca and Charles are now able to make spending decisions based on comfort, not necessity. Their family crowds the TV each evening to watch the news and local programs (Prisca loves the Spanish telenovelas dubbed into English - they are a big hit here). They have meat for dinner almost every night, and usually invite friends and family to join in the feast. Prisca cuts up cold pineapple as a treat for the kids when they come in from playing after school. Even the matooke we ate is telling - it's a cuisine choice from southern Uganda, and very expensive to buy in Gulu. It's one of Prisca's favorite treats - one she can now easily afford.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fabric shopping: back to our roots

Since I started One Mango Tree, East Africa's {broken} supply chains have been a pretty consistent source of wonder and frustration.

supply chain problems got so bad I had to journal about them

I followed the sad history of African kitenge fabric, from its Dutch origins to bales of imitation Chinese piece-meal versions flooding the local markets. As the business grew, I tried out working with a small local fabric print workshop. I watched in fear and horror as the mismanaged business collapsed under the weight of our order. I went bigger, working with the only vertically integrated textile manufacturer in Uganda. The echo of their laughter persisted for months when they price gouged us on a critical fabric order. 2,000 meters of printed organic cotton fabric means nothing when you're clothing the South Sudanese military.

new skirts, made with Cowry print - need enough fabric to make a zillion!

So, after 4 years of trying to find the perfect fabric source, I'm still searching, and trying (really, really hard) not to source directly from China. In the meantime, I decided that we'd just go back to our roots this season, sourcing bright kitenge in 12-yard pieces from the local vendors in Kampala.

Lisa haggling with a fabric vendor

Lisa Sonora Beam accompanied me downtown to help choose fabrics. I lived vicariously through the exhilaration of her first boda boda ride as we wound between matatus and afternoon traffic. When we arrived at Nakivubo Mews, I was shocked to see an empty construction site where Nalugo Traders used to be. I heard a woman calling out, and turned around to see Margret - one of the many vendors from Nalugo Traders - beckoning me from across the street.

stacks of kitenge - this is Lakshmi

I was amazed to see how the market had changed - the cotton, color-saturated kitenge is less common these days, replaced by synthetic silk-like fabrics, laser-cut lace in yellows and teals, and lots of glittery trims and big plastic buttons. It didn't take nearly as long as I thought to find the big vendor - today it's an over-loaded booth called Wax Africa. He buys from the Chinese bales and sells to the rest of the market vendors.

this season's source

We went nuts over the colors, deciding on five busy and bright prints - Lakshmi (red with a distinctly Indian vibe), Cowry (like the traditional Congolese, white, black, blue and green batik, with parallel lines of abstract cowry shells), Nalubaale (purple!), Mandala (one of the oldest kitenge print designs, recreated in turquoise and lime), and Gingko (a deep blue with cream and black abstract gingko leaves). When we were sure we'd bought just about every piece in the market, we packed it up and headed out, excited to start creating.

pack it up!

While this return to market fabrics is likely a brief reprieve from dealing with the big manufacturers, I really enjoyed the return - the boda boda ride, the haggling, the crazy crowded market, the clouds of exhaust from the neighboring taxi park, the almost comical insistence by vendors that "these fabrics are from CONGO!"

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Filling the Well

Lisa passed around a bunch of colored pencils to the group. We each chose one (I picked a dark, brick red), and wrote out a message to ourselves in scrawling, loopy cursive. We squirted paint over the text, and scraped it around with a credit card, forever obscuring the secret message, which peeked out in the texture and parts with less paint. My phrase came out of nowhere, and became a motif for my journal - a much more personal one than the business-focused journal I made in Mexico:

Let go of knowing.

We made mini-journals. I started mine on an Art Date - a three-hour workshop with wine, which my friend Anne Liese hosted at her home. I carried that journal to the weekend Filling the Well Retreat at Lagoon Resort - a two-day workshop where I added and added to my new little book until it was literally bursting at its temporary, yarn-secured binding.

I've worked on my big journal since Mexico, but going to Lagoon Resort gave me the excuse to completely unplug (no power, no internet) and be present, totally absorbed in my art supplies.

essentials: magazine images, packing tape, glue stick, coffee

What's more, my new little journal didn't have a purpose. I didn't think I was doing any problem-solving in my pages. I just worked in the process, painting and collage, layering, tape transfers, all sorts of textures on top of each other, leaving the blank space to fill it up with writing later on.

one of my favorite poems - self portrait

At our rubber stamp station (a table set up with loads of alphabet stamps), I found little number stamps, which had the numbers spelled out as words:


I'm about to turn thirty (one month from today), and feeling oddly calm about it. I'm never one to get worked up about my birthday, but at the retreat, I stamped the words THREE ZERO on the bottom left corner of every page of my journal, concentrating on the number - making it real. I left lots of space to write, filled with beautiful images. A safe and beautiful place to record the mundane and the emotional as I journey through my 30th year.

H30: my mini-journal

About a week after the retreat ended, I reached cruising altitude. For the first time in months, I felt safe. I was shaken upon arriving in Uganda - astonished at how easy it would be to just stay; reminded at just how much I love this place, and the feeling of being alone here. My emotions were turbulent, and both happiness and anxiety were running full throttle. I don't fully understand what happened on the {still empty of text} pages of my little journal, but I'm grateful for the leveling out; the letting go.

Working alone together

When I asked Lisa Sonora Beam to come to Uganda last December, I had no idea she'd really take me up on it. Just a few months later, we met at Entebbe Airport and began an artful adventure - two weeks of travel/working together with some evening art dates and a weekend retreat.

meeting my travel/work buddy in Mexico

I've traveled with many people, but it was a completely new experience to travel with a fellow entrepreneur. Lisa and I both spend most of our time working from home on the businesses we love, and quickly found that we also suffer from the same ailments of the work-at-home entrepreneur (time-wasting on Facebook & Twitter, too much time alone, thoughts and confidence taking a nosedive in the late afternoon, etc. etc.). I'd never want to return to a regular 9-to-5 employee existence, but sometimes "working-at-home" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

recipe for success = fellow entrepreneur + double cappuccino (image source)

As Lisa and I shared morning coffee highs at Javas, a coffee shop in Kampala owned by a Somali family, we laughed over the concept of being "alone together," and how much better it is to share a workspace (or a cafe table) with a like-minded individual. Lisa worked on her design business and workshop descriptions, and I re-coded all the add to cart buttons on the One Mango Tree website. Our laptops are the tools of our trade, which allows us to work wherever there is internet. I've enjoyed this new way of working for a few years now, but traveling with Lisa was the first chance I had to co-work "alone together" with a fellow entrepreneur.

The result? Ideas shared, support during the 3:30 crash, and someone to share in the sometimes annoyingly-slow African internet. We also brainstormed ways to collaborate, began planning an Artful Traveler Africa 2012 trip, and helped talk each other through some sticky business dilemmas. The whole experience was so inspiring, I'm thinking that finding some other co-work buddies in Ecuador will be a must.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lake Victoria, or how water hyacinth is like the chatter in our minds

utterly consumed

I was in Kisumu last Saturday, interviewing candidates at the dusty old Imperial Hotel. On the way to the airport, my colleagues and I stopped at a beach resort, expecting a view of Lake Victoria. As we picked our way across the grassy yard and whispering palms, the shore came into view. From the coastline to the horizon, all we could see was green - the surface of the lake completely covered in a carpet of water hyacinth. I could see it multiplying - the tentacle-like stolons reaching through the murky water, doubling again and again, thickening the field of bulbous plants. I imagined the hyacinth devouring the boats that were anchored in the bay, patiently waiting for a wind to free them from the suffocating grips.

I walked around the waterfront, Bob Marley wafting through the humid air as I took snaps of the hyacinth. A breeding ground for mosquitoes, a haven for snakes.

hyacinth at the apocalypse

With broad, thick, glossy, ovate leaves, water hyacinth may rise above the surface of the water as much as a meter in height. The leaves are the size of a human palm, floating above the water's surface. They have long, spongy and bulbous stalks. The feathery, freely hanging roots are purple-black. Their flowers, a softer shade of purple, are beautiful; long-coveted for colonial water gardens across the tropics.

From the Victorian shore, I felt for the water, invaded as it was by this unwelcome visitor. I envisioned the similar infestation creeping in on me day by day. A "what if?" followed by more "what ifs" until the mind, unable to fend off the reproduction, is completely consumed. Suffocated by thought. Choked and paralyzed by the vastness of too many creeping opportunities. What was once calm, blue water is now something entirely different. The lake's only option is to wait it out, to wait for the winds to disperse the hyacinth.

a "beach resort" no longer

The owner of the beach resort joined us at the shore, a Kenyan-Indian with a magnificent white Fu Manchu mustache and a large belly hanging over a giant anchor belt buckle. He talked about the old days - before the hyacinth - sweeping his arm across the scene so as to erase the green and replace it with white sand beaches. He gestured to empty dirt pits on the shoreline - he decided to build fish ponds on the property instead, to give guests something to do.

the no-longer-useful recreational equipment

An hour later, on the short flight to Nairobi, we took off over the lake. The waters finally came into view, fringed by an innocuous green mist - from afar the scene seemed fine; pretty, even. I laid my head back on the seat, closed my eyes, and began to count my breaths. I envisioned a strong wind pushing the hyacinth away from the shore, leaving behind a white sand beach, waves gently lapping, and a calm, impenetrable surface.

Listening to heart sounds

I just finished reading Cutting for Stone, a book I received as a gift at Christmas and have been toting around on my travels since then. A beautiful book - here's a section from a dog-eared page.

"Looking back, I realize Ghosh saved me when he called me to feel Demisse's pulse. My mother was dead, my father a ghost; increasingly I felt disconnected from Shiva and Hema, and guilty for feeling that way. Ghosh, in giving me the stethoscope, was saying, Marion, you can be you. It's okay. He invited me to a world that wasn't secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide. You had to know what to look for, but also how to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive."

Take a peek at my bookshelf on Goodreads.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rediscovering yoga on the road

It was late 2009 when I broke up with yoga. Earlier in the year, after my big move to Uganda, I was ecstatic about both practicing and teaching, and I'd found a great community with daily classes. I was madly in love with my practice.

yoga at sipi falls

Then I found a boyfriend. Cooking dinners, drinking wine and snuggling seemed way more enticing than my nightly yoga practice. Falling in love didn't seem like a good enough reason to stop practicing altogether, but before I knew it, it was Christmas vacation, and then a road trip, and then I was on my way to Pakistan. I spent most of 2010 living out of hotels, telling myself that I'd find balance in my life "when the trip was over."

It turns out that the trip is my life, and while I was lucky enough to visit and/or work in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Pakistan, Turkey, Kenya, Mexico and Ecuador, my well-being was taking a serious hit. Stress, coffee and an unpredictable emotional roller coaster were my new practice.

One of my biggest crutches in yoga began as an amazing blessing - I started practicing in a community. My friends and I traded yoga schedules and planned our entire social schedule around our combined practice. I put heavy emphasis on the physical presence of a teacher, and the benefit of the combined breathing of all the students - taking you to a completely different place. Yoga classes were often followed with food, friends and comfort. When I traveled, as much as I loved the journey, my practice felt lonely, and the solitude drove me far away from my mat.

my lonely jade travel mat

When I started packing for yet another trip - a two-monther in Kenya and Uganda - I sighed as I folded up my yoga mat and stuffed it in my suitcase. A nagging little voice in me said "put it back, you know it's just extra weight and you won't even use it." Before I left, I stopped by my friend Dan's place (a yoga teacher) and asked him for some new music. He loaded me up with Beirut, Cinematic Orchestra, and one of his yoga class playlists.

my yoga teacher on the road - yoga downloads

One slow afternoon on the other side of the earth, I convinced the spa receptionist at my fancy hotel to let me use the 'relaxation room' to practice. Looking over the leafy streets of Westlands, I rolled out my mat, took child's pose, and came home.

My rediscovery of yoga has not been what I expected - trumpeting angels rejoicing in my return. My body feels weak. I can't do poses I used to do with ease. My breath often feels strangled and it sometimes takes 10 minutes for me to be able to fully breathe through both nostrils. I sweat buckets doing what used to be simple. But, oddly enough, instead of feeling ashamed or frustrated, I feel liberated. I wake up each day with a new soreness, and feel newly alive.

I'm beginning to realize that somewhere around this globe, maybe somewhere between Turkey and Kenya, I lost my compass. Before this trip, I was walking down 18th Street to meet a friend for enchiladas. The winter day was beautiful, but I felt wildly out of body. Wildly out of touch. I looked around at the streets crusted with ice and snow, and felt displaced.

A million miles away in a town in the dry, hot and dusty Northern Rift Valley, I arrived in my decrepit old room at Sirikwa Hotel, overlooking an eerily green swimming pool - the floor covered in an old dusty green wall-to-wall carpet. I dropped my suitcase on the bed, pulled out my yoga mat, and brought myself home.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

I can be the product

excerpt adapted from my journal, early December, 2010

I can’t believe it was only this morning that I woke up to the chime of my alarm clock bells sounding off the hours of my scheduled bio-holistic massage.

my most frequently-viewed page, advice to my little vulnerable self

It was still dark out when I creeped out of the room and to the main building to meet Adrian, who spent the next 90 minutes working on my energy with vibrating tuning forks and hot rocks.

We spent the day today working on a combination of our takeaways and the convergence of Heart & Meaning and Gifts & Flow.

little blue archers help me find the sweet spot

Each day we’re writing down 10 takeaways from the workshop – sort of little a-ha moments (and some big ones too). After sitting in the studio flipping through my pages, suddenly I wrote down:

“I can be the product.”

We spent the better part of 45 minutes answering the question “What if I can be the product?” Each skeptical, doubtful question was immediately followed by a positive one (not necessarily intentional, but that was the flow of the discussion).

What if it’s a complete failure? What if it’s a complete success?

the inner critic is a real bitch, but I am a BAD ASS

We really do walk a fine line when we follow the convergence and stay true. It could tip in either direction based on tons of different factors. Nevertheless, the question is never whether or not I’ll try. I know I will still try, regardless of the potential outcome; regardless of the fear.

Talking about convergence, stamping, creating and writing my way into the first two paths of the mandala reawakened the massive energy I received when One Mango Tree came into alignment. It’s the sweet spot – the embodiment of both my heart and meaning, and my gifts and flow. I know how to ride that wave. But, putting it all down on paper gives me something to pull out and remember when I’m having a hard time paying the bills and everything seems to be falling apart. I reconnected with the WHY behind One Mango Tree, and it’s much more personal than what I thought.

Now, what’s next? On to the next challenge? Can I be the product? What am I doing with this consulting career? What do I do with myself if I go to Ecuador?

what's next? opportunity exploration

If I am, in fact, the product, then how do I package it up and ship it out? I’m happy to say we’re still going over all of these issues, and I’ll have plenty of time to turn back to the journal and work them out in the morning. At least I’m excited to try, because working things out now also means that I get to paint and create beauty while I’m problem-solving.

Tonight we decided to end class early and head into town to check out ArtWalk. It turned into several quick trips into craft shops, looking for the perfect little altars, embroidered stuff and those hand-blown glass hearts. We stopped off at little art supplies shops and picked up more “notions” – ribbon stencils, funny Mexican bingo cards, more acrylic paints, and a bundle of magical pom poms on a rope. I have no clue what I’ll ever use them for, but I had to buy them.

art supplies: magical pom-poms and bingo cards

Halfway through our journey, we came upon the Virgen de Guadalupe. She rose above the cobblestone street in her blue cape, in front of a cloud-dotted blue sky. Bells pealed from the old cathedral. I ate another tamal.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Rubber stamps as meditation

excerpt adapted from my journal, December 2010

Rubber stamping has been a big surprise. I was in love with it as a little kid. I had a whole Caboodle box (pink and teal) in which I stored all my stamping supplies. I’ve been borrowing Lisa’s alphabet stamps, taking the time to stamp out words slowly, one letter at a time.

stamping out my "I love being messy" page

It takes on a rhythm, and each time I stamp a letter, I repeat the word to myself. I pick a letter from the box, ink it, stamp the page, dab the stamp to clean it, and replace it in the box. Over and over. I wish I could be as deliberate as this about so many other processes in life. The sheer inability to skip a step, or to make the steps any shorter requires a lengthening of pace. I want to stamp out poetry. Novels.


If when I’m having a hard time accepting something, maybe if I put the word on a page using stamps, I’ll be able to accept it more readily. I’ll fully grasp the consonants and vowels, and their almost-but-not-quite alignment on the page. They’ll come together as a full word and I’ll smile, pleased at the reward for all of the effort.

I want to stay in the flow all the time, and learn to swim in it – to float sometimes, but also to actively move with it. To stay still within the flow when I need to. I so often get going on a project or an idea and my brain speeds up to the point where I can’t slow it down. My heart races – I feel excited, but I also feel panicky. I’m not sure what to do with all the thoughts flowing into my very open brain and heart. Sometimes it feels like too much – filling up the tub to soak and relax, but then forgetting you left the tap on and walking into a bathroom flooded with suds.

opportunity statement, in stamps

I have a lot to give, and I feel comfortable contributing. I know what it takes to take a dream and turn it into a functioning business. I can walk through all the things that often seem to suck life from the dream: legal business registration, import/export regulations, shipping documentation, supply chain gaps, training, quality control, accounting and finance, cash flow management (still getting the hang of that one), finding capital (any ideas?). I guess we’ll work on those tomorrow. We started with the fun stuff.