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.