Why #BirthdayDrinks Matters to One Ugandan Photographer

January 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 12.45.31 PM

My name is Onyait Odeke.

I am a Ugandan documentary photographer and entrepreneur.

I first met Shanley in 2011 via Twitter where we shared with each other what we do and why we did the things we do.

A couple of tweets and Skype calls later, I bought into her vision about working with women in Uganda.

I tell so many stories, as a documentary photographer. But one I always love to tell is a story of women empowered, not only economically, but also socially and otherwise yet with their dignity still intact. This is what I watched Shanley begin to do. I’ve seen how utilizing women’s skills, hard work and passion to help them earn a fair and regular wage can enable them take care of their loved ones. 

As I have spent time visually documenting Shanley’s work, I’ve seen the dire need of many of the women she hires. Most of them are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, while single-handedly supporting families bigger than they can handle. The financial burden on them is huge: food, tuition fees, medical care. They typically have very little and sometimes no viable income source. Unlike many other social entrepreneurs, Shanley is a firm believer that business and not aid is the correct way to fight poverty. Her work in Uganda has given her first hand experience on what works and what doesn’t.Shanley is now setting up a manufacturing plant in Uganda where she will partner with 40 women to provide regular and fair wages amongst other benefits. She needs your help to do this. She’s crowdfunded $1800 dollars so far, and needs $700 more join her in making the first steps toward this facility a reality.We have a few more days to go. Please, take a minute and DONATE NOW to be a part of this beautiful venture.
Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 12.56.42 PM

This is a story that I want to tell.

Join me for #birthdaydrinks!

January 20, 2014 § 1 Comment

If you have read my recent work on determining a living wage in Uganda, then you know that I am working to launch a manufacturing social enterprise in Uganda. This will be my second social enterprise, after launching the accessories line Nakate at the age of 20.

This month, I’m turning 25. On your birthday, your friends typically buy you drinks. Instead, I’ve asked my friends to donate the equivalent of a beer, cocktail, shot or round of drinks toward the launch of my new facility.


Because our company, Olivia Knox, is going to improve the manufacturing capabilities of Ankole Cattle horn in Kampala, an African city of 1.209 million.

My Co-founder Olivia Byanyima, a Bahima by birth, is passionate about promoting active breeding of Ankole cattle by improving their market value and providing further employment for her people. Our Ankole Cattle horn initiative will do so by lifting the existing ceiling on the country’s export capabilities, and increasing distribution of horn to global

Here’s why that’s important:

Olivia Knox is hiring women.


Within Uganda’s a population of approximately 34.5 million people, 23.1 million are prone to poverty, and 8.4 million are trapped in absolute poverty (United Nations). Women in Uganda bear the brunt of this poverty, earning less than half the usual salary of Ugandan men. Beyond that, 42% of women in Uganda’s labour force are unpaid family workers (Economy Policy Research Center). This gender gap in earning opportunities gravely impacts the overall national output.

●  Female artisans have limited access to training for product design, standardization, development, and marketing
●  Work frequently takes place in harmful environments due to limited knowledge of the safety hazards
●  Women’s multiplicity of roles within the household and workplace leaves them with limited time for career
growth. If the youngest child in the household is under 5 years old, Ugandan women experience a 40-79%
decrease in output

Our solutions:

●  Ensuring carefully calculated living wages that allow our workers and their families to lift themselves out of
●  Providing medical insurance, safe working conditions, and training in marketable skills
●  Providing childcare for our workers to optimize their opportunity for career growth
●  Investing in women to invest in children: in an economy where 25% of children are child laborers, women invest
90% of wages back into their families
● Creating jobs for 40 women; with an average of six children born to every Ugandan woman, our efforts allow
approximately 200 children to continue their education

As Olivia Knox implements regulated standards and positive working conditions, our work will increase opportunities for
female workers and provide them with the equal payment and benefits that are necessary to their success.

Get involved: Shanley Knox

Donate a beer – $8.00

Donate a cocktail – $15.00

Take a donation shot with me – $25.00

Donate the equivalent of a round of drinks – $100

Donate a drink for everyone in the room – $250

My friends are sharing my goal with their friends, who they have asked, in turn, to share with their friends. We plan to reach our target goal of $2500 through the power of digital community gathered around a common cause.

Together, we hope to begin a year of change in Uganda’s manufacturing industry.

I Have Options, But There Are Only Two

January 17, 2014 § Leave a comment


The evangelical community that raised me has communicated options to me since I wrote about the term, ‘Slut.‘ There are two.

Option 1: I acknowledge my faults

There is a wire thin line between strong and recalcitrant within the evangelical community. I used to cross it without seeing it there – smack into it like a line in a minefield that would blow me up and get me into trouble. I learned this during high school, when I was regularly asked to lunch by deacons’ wives that wanted to let me know, with a nod to the waiter for the check, that I had done something terribly wrong.

It hit me, after years of this kind of communication, that my religion categorizes a certain kind of female strength as something that must be “tamed” – like a colt that needs to be broken, or a zoo tiger that has to stop lunging at the children that walk by. Such a female requires tough love, because she’s a tough case.

Option one is that I acknowledge that my faults are falling out, like a bag of soggy groceries on a long walk to the Subway. I have to see how wrong I am – have to leave them behind. I have to start living right.

I’ve received emails pointing out my sins like flavors of ice cream my Daddy would buy me when I was a little girl running around an open sanctuary with Manzanita wood awnings and short, blue carpet.

Option 2: I may choose to boomerang

The boomerang works its way back around to tears and repentance after a few wild years, which I pay for in guilt and self-loathing. This is delayed penance for guilt, and I’ve already completed a cycle or two by now. I’m allowed a temporary response to the pain of early adulthood lived out of a paradigm that judged too harshly and left me wanting. I guess they figure it’s all booze and boys and cigarettes, not accounting for other creative ways I’ve found to get it out.

They recognize my need to be “wild,” and I appreciate that. Get it out — do it until you’re tired.

There’s more freedom here, admittedly. They ask me to return when I’m done, and they tell me they’re waiting with open arms that have forgiven me since I was a wild little shit in junior high.

And, I was a wild little shit in junior high.

The demand for my repentance has ranged from the first time I wanted to wear a shirt that offended a man on the deacon board, to being 18, and writing a piece that caused an entire community to run a survey about my character, and read numbered (anonymous) results that showed I was, indeed, “lacking, but, with some repentance – coming closer to the truth.”


“Run,” my therapist says quietly on a Wednesday morning. “Do not go back.”

After meeting with him, I discover the problem I have with my two options.  It’s that they, in truth, have nothing to do with me.

If I were a people group and the church were an aid organization, you’d hope that a qualified consultant would have to sit them down and share that this isn’t how this whole help-another-person-out-of-their-current-state thing works. He might shake his head a little, share his project rate, and explain that they’re missing all their cultural knowledge.

That’s the problem, see. They don’t get me at all.

The sweet space of freedom outside the church sanctuary I left is a private place of reckoning where salvation, my salvation, has been born. It comes in coffee and soccer games, the way a boy I don’t yet know looks at me across the room for the first time. It’s in phone calls with my father. It’s in the way my sister laughs at night.

I do have empty spaces I’m trying to fill. But if I can laugh hard enough that I begin to cry, I can feel the deep caverns in me begin to become shallow. If I can hold a baby, watch a sunset, get on a plane, say no to what I don’t want, and pay my bills, in addition to the three cocktails I shared with a woman who truly loves being my friend, I go to bed less bothered than the day before.

I’m grateful that my story gets to twist and turn. I believe a god breathes through it — cares about my next move, just as much as the way that god must care about Spring coming to Manhattan, when a million people trudging through damp subway hallways begin to complain that they just can’t take another day in the cold.

The choice to revel in and appreciate these things quietly is my kind of born again.

So, yes I’m running.

I’ll keep running, until I’m clear of all the options I’ve been given.

No boomerang.

No acknowledgement of sins.

No more salad.

“I don’t want to create false hope,” my therapist notes. “But perhaps this is your reckoning. Perhaps you will, indeed, discover a god that speaks to you.”

I nod, and we are quiet for a moment before he quietly says, “I believe this is where you begin.”

Jersey, Bushwick, Bed-Study: Year One in New York

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment


Year one in New York is unique as the liver of it. I landed high off the California blues in a corner space in Jersey that belonged to anybody except me. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t feel at home, didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t have a smooth transition.

I learned that making your own way is the very essence of the making of a life.

Month six: I moved into a dingy apartment under the train where I practiced pretending I wasn’t on a $15.00 budget in a hand me down fur coat and a pair of boots my mother bought me for Christmas.

I learned that will take your heart from you, quicker than you think.

The tenant before me had written ideas for a porno screenplay in ball point pen on the wall. I painted over his scrawling print in a bright yellow color the boy I was seeing at the time called “makes you want to pee.” I rewarded myself for days well done by stealing from my nickel jar to buy 40 oz cans of Heineken while I worked from my room. The Puerto Rican cashier at my bodega let me keep my dignity, those weeks. “Oh mami! I needed change.”

It’s New York’s promise that brings so many of us to town. Sublet a shitty corner bedroom in Bushwick, grab a shit part time job and you’re headed to your big dream – as if New York would give you a great big pucker up, right on the lips, just for coming round.

I learned New York didn’t need me. And I desperately, maniacally, in a do or die kind of make me or break me cut me loose or get me going kind of end of your shitty line kind of way, needed her.

The J train moved past my window in twelve minute increments, making slats on the wall and waking me up on the edge of my REM cycle throughout the night.

I learned humility comes in the secret place between self degradation and acceptance.

Month ten I was triumphant, sitting on the hardwood floor of my new apartment for the first time. Signing your first New York lease is like winning a war. I moved into a brownstone apartment on one of the coldest days in January, box by box through the ticket turner off the train.

I learned I could often be caught prutzing, waiting for the trying to be a feeling instead of a start.

My brother calls it hazing: this period of time in any new place — perhaps excalated to a point of hysteria in New York City. Some of us make it two months. Some six. Others end up here for eight years or so before they move back to the Bay or their parent’s big ranch house in El Paso.

I watched. I learned that we often try less than we think we do.

Somewhere along the way I realized, quietly, that I was home.

I learned you feel this way when you begin to live in your own life — make the decision to show up, regardless of how many times you feel like hiding through the piss stains and the pall point pen poetry on your wall.

Someone told me recently that New York wasn’t full of love, unless you searched for it. Perhaps like anywhere, except more pronounced.

I learned that a life is built around all kinds of love that you can’t bank on keeping — except the kind you learn to give yourself.

That kind you get to bury deep somewhere no one else can even start to touch.

I learned you should use to make a life.

I Prepared & Memorized my TEDx Talk in These 6 Steps

January 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

In December, I had the privilege of presenting a 12 minute TEDx presentation at Microsoft. The experience was nothing short of elating – it was all kinds of magic to spend the day in a room of driven, passionate, global female entrepreneurs and the men that support us.

I’ve been asked how I prepared for the talk several times since. Here were the steps I took to prepare, memorize and effectively present my talk:

1. I thought for a long time

I had about four months of thinking time in which I didn’t write much at all. During that time, I experienced several things that actually became the crux of my talk. Many people say you should begin to memorize your talk months and months in advance, but I knew that wouldn’t be organic and fresh for me. This thinking time was vitally important.

2. I wrote

…about three drafts, like I would a blog post or an essay. I didn’t edit for timing or worry about language or punctuation, I focused on getting the idea right. After that, I hit a total block where I knew the idea I was trying to present was fuzzy, so I reached out for help.

3. I gave it

I gave my muddled, totally unclear talk to my family and best friends. It helped me see all the areas that were muddled and unclear, as well as get the confidence boost I needed to get in front of a room of several hundred people.

4. I took it to editors

I took my talk to several different types of editors. The first was a friend of mine who focuses on tech writing. I knew he’d come at my talk with a logical focus, and he did. After that, I took it to a speech writer and campaign editor who helped clarify my key points and made it an argument of sorts. I took it to a former editor of mine after that. This was to breathe life back into it, after the logic. It gave it the emotion and push I knew he was used to getting from my writing.

5. I gave it again

After I went through my round of editors a few times, I gave my talk to a theatre director. First, he combed through everything that didn’t make sense. After I had edited those parts out, I gave it to him again, and again, and again every day for about a week until we nailed it, and he told me to take a break.

6. I memorized

  • I memorized my talk in all different environments so that it would be staged or unnatural
  • I focused on giving it while doing things, so I was used to having to move through distraction and be conversational
  • I never gave it while holding notes
  • I gave it to several different people and in several different states (first thing in the morning, late at night, sober, tipsy, tired, sad, angry, happy). That way, I was prepared for whatever came my way when I woke up the morning of my talk
  • Something that worked really well for me was to work to give my talk in my head over and over again on the plane from New York to California. I could force myself to remember phrases and words, and had hours at a time to really focus on honing in my thought process surrounding each section

What’s a Living Wage in Uganda? Post III: Entertainment, Clothing and Education

January 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 9.46.03 AM

I’ve been calculating an accurate living wage in Uganda since the summer of 2013.

The goal: To build out a manufacturing facility in Kampala that pays its workers a wage calculated based on cultural and personal needs.

The method: Combining on the ground surveys of small focus groups with adjacent research.

My prior research showed the following:

From a month long survey of 11 women living in the slums outside Kampala with an average of 2-5 children:

TRANSPORT: 1800 UGX/day ($.75) – 54,000/mo ($21)

HOUSING:  6000 UGX/day ($2.37) - 180,000/mo ($71)

FOOD: 10,000 UGX/day($3.96) – 30,000/mo ($11.88)

COOKING OIL: 700 UGX/day ($.27) – 21,000/mo ($8.31)

WATER: 1,000 UGX/day ($.39) - 30,000/mo ($11.88)

Afterward, I wrote a post putting the number I came up with (around  $125 a month) into context

A few quick facts from that post:

  • Average workers in semi-skilled trade in urban areas earn approx $63 USD per month (BRAC)
  • Teachers in Uganda recently went on strike to be paid a living wage.
  • They currently are getting $96/month (240,000 UGX) and are asking for double that $192.
  •  The minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 1984, when it was set at 6,000 shillings (less than $2.50) per month, but there is a minimum wage bill up for debate.

After our first round of calculations, we realized we were missing important categories that had to do more with making a life than they did staying alive. A living wage calculates the creation of a holistic life, rather than a the amount simply needed for survival.

The categories are a little bit different than what I had additionally listed as missing, due to the discretion of my head artisan, who was interacting directly with the women whose expenses we were measuring. Lastly, as a disclaimer, she consistently worked with 9 (instead of 12) women in the second part of this survey.

Second, the results of our second round of calculations: 

SCHOOL FEES: 10,261 UGX/day ($4.06) –  318,094/mo ($125.96)
CLOTHING: 3055 ($1.21) UGX/day – 97,722/mo ($38.69)
COMMUNICATION: 1,611 ($.65) UGX/day – 49,944/mo ($19.79)
ENTERTAINMENT: 833 ($.33) UGX/day -  25,833/mo ($10.22)
PERSONAL ITEMS: 2,222 ($.88) UGX/day – 68,888/mo ($27.28)
HEALTH: 3,888 ($1.54) UGX/day – 120,555/mo ($47.73)


My final calculation: 

A living wage, in our context, means approx $393.74/mo per family. That’s around $12/day, or around $1.50/hr.

Comments/corrections? Would love your thoughts in the comments below!

“Then They Won’t be Able to Say ‘Slut.’” A Call to Come Out:

January 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Screen Shot 2014-01-01 at 9.43.23 PM

I ate avocado salad out of a big, wooden bowl this summer in East Village, sitting on Ben’s floor and asking him if I could help clean the floors before I took the train home for the night.

“Have another beer man,” he shrugged. “I’ll get up early.”

That was the night C said, very simply, that we all must come out.

“Come out, come out, come out.”

She said it three times, just like that. Like a call to arms. Get off your ass, man. Declare what you are.

She was talking about all kinds of sexuality, but it was bigger than that. In the context of conversation, it was about the totality of the kind of living we choose to do. The people we love, the ways we express ourselves, the choices we make outside the societal or religious norm surrounding us — it all must come out.

That way, they won’t be able to say “gay” without imaging three of our faces. They won’t be able to say “slut” without thinking of their best girlfriend’s wild, wild year. They won’t be able to say “bi” without thinking of their closest friend.

“I’m so much more than the label, man,” C said. “I’m a lover and a fighter. I cry and I learn and I get angry and I am a god damn girl. They’ve got to SEE US, to picture out faces, when all they want to see are labels and sins. It’s got to become inconvenient. And the only way to do it is with love.”

Step one: Come out, come out, come out.

Step two: Love big.

I hadn’t known that C’s description was what I’d wanted when I left my religious upbringing almost two years ago. I just knew I was tired of accepting an organized group’s labeling system. I knew that the resounding “you are not one of us” that followed was like a clanging gong on the face of my entire, beating heart. The depression of being so totally alone, after growing up in such a controlled community, felt like an unraveling of my whole soul. And it was.

I didn’t know where I was running to. I just knew what I was running from. The feeling that I wanted to die. The knowledge that there a million and one things I could never do without losing everyone that cared about me. The audible assurance, from a table of men who had ruled my life by the iron sword of scripture, that I was not, in fact, a “good” kind of girl.

I threw all that off when I moved to New York in 2012. I came out as the girl who believes in love, instead of marriage. I came out as the girl who believes in the spirit of a deity moving in her bones, instead of written scripture. I came out as the girl who doesn’t want to ever go back to a church, and can’t imagine locking it down with anyone who did. I came out as a best friend who loves your daughter, regardless of who she fucked last week.

I came out as the girl that might have encouraged her to do so.

One particular night in Uganda this summer changed everything for me. There was a physical earthquake, a voice, an awakening, and a pull that I couldn’t stop. It confirmed the truth I’d been looking for – the assurance that when I left Evangelical Christianity behind, I made my way out of, instead of into, darkness.

And so, this New Year’s Eve, I toasted to living in the light.

It was a group of six of us that shared gratefulness by the light of candles and fireworks from Grand Army Plaza at midnight. We lifted glasses of champagne and, collectively, we drank to the shining light that had come out of each person’s year.

Mine – with a glass raised high above my head and all that old, aching emptiness falling out of the bottom of my being – was to love. My whole life I’ve been loved in spite of the things I did. I’ve been loved even though I was a sinner, even though I wasn’t quiet enough, even though the elders in the church were battling over me, even though I was promiscuous, even though I was a bad influence on my best friend and not the kind of girl you wanted sitting in church beside your daughter.

I toasted to never going back to that dark place again – to the knowledge that I’m loved for who I am, for the first time. I toasted to living out of my beliefs, instead of a community’s direction. I toasted to never getting married to one of those boys. I toasted to coming out against the college that taught me that hate was okay, if I could justify it with a label for a sinner.

I toasted to the hope that, for the people still living in the darkness, my face is a testimony.

I hope it resounds as a call to come out for the girls that may otherwise be labeled and kept in the dark.

Come out, come out, come out.

Here’s to a brand new year.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,305 other followers

%d bloggers like this: