May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
My facility is more than concrete material under my feet. It’s a building. And, as I’m standing in it, I realize it’s the first evidence I have that I’m not making this whole thing up.
No one I know has come here, and seen this. No one knows how the traffic rushes and then stops on pothole outside the Industrial Research Institute, or the way the sun comes up in Muyenga bigger than I’ve seen it before. No one I know knows the exact smell of the horn I’m trying to treat out, or the smell of the red dirt when I wake up and sit on the porch in the humidity with coffee.
But, now, there is a concrete structure – there are meters and meters of something solid underneath me. What I do is under me and on top of me and around me, and I can measure it with my steps. These walls are a witness to the things I have done, and the sky, outside them, is burning the brightest blue I’ve ever seen – as if to prove that this all feels like more than it ever has before.
K is all Ray Bans and cigarettes, in his air conditioned truck, asking if I want “Mzungu food.” I nod furiously. I quit trying to act like a local a long time ago, and so I beg for a cappuccino, too. Lunch is salad and a cappuccino and, since K is buying, can I also have the rosé? He laughs, “yes, bring it to her.” When I order coffee, first, he tells me about the difference between Arabica – growing on the highlands, and Robusta – lowlands. Robusta’s lighter, Mzungu girl. That’s the common stuff, everywhere else.
Our building was used by somebody for something that someone’s mumbling about not going well. When it’s explained to me, later I can’t help but think about what my friend Sam says – that we’re all connected, like a tapestry. Even our mistakes.
Mine surface often in my mind. Failed initiatives, businesses that I ran and decided weren’t what I wanted, after all. I remember so vividly the first time I admitted to myself that I hated working with poverty. Later, that I didn’t want to be in nonprofit work. And a year later, to everyone’s shock, that I didn’t want to work in ethical or green fashion. I wanted to build supply chains for luxury markets, and I wanted to do it here, where I’ve been reborn over and over again since high school.
I want to be on the solutions side of poverty. I don’t want to have my hands in it, anymore.
Some of you will criticize me for that.
I’ll let you.
That’s because when you are a woman who builds, you must know three things:
1. know that you have a foundation strong enough to hold you up
2. know that you love your work enough to see it out
3. know that the experiences that will encompass your work are ones you are willing to live through.
Lastly, you must know that there is a promise of profit.
I don’t know why I was born in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, but meant to come to East Africa and battle out my break ups and career choices and dreams. But, I do know that this place has almost always stripped me of the things I needed to let go of. When it comes to the rest, Uganda and I have been fighting it out since I was a hormonal teen-ager with a suitcase full of long skirts. And, in that way, it has been my place of rebirth.
You might say that I’m giving it too much credit – that I could have done all this back in the Sacramento heat along the Yuba’s slow roll downstate.
But I know it’s not that simple.
I know, now, that there is no promise of prosperity for any of us without profit. Kakooge taught me that, when I went broke and busted open so hard I couldn’t pay rent, much less get on a flight to come back. I know, now, that you cannot pull a woman out of poverty with your own two hands. You need to have an enterprise and a global market behind you. And, that’s why I came out of Kibuli with my tail between my legs.
I know that I would never drag myself out on the dance floor at 5 AM to dance one more time with R, dancing slow and tight and so full up on feeling that I can hardly breathe. But he does, and I do, in Kampala.
I would never have lined up buckets in a facility to test horn finishings, ignoring the line of workers out to lunch each working to send somebody else to find the teaspoon I asked for, but that’s Nakowa.
Back where I come from, I would have stayed in an office building, air conditioning, to write about these men testing in a lab. But somebody told me it wouldn’t get done unless I did it. And so I called my driver from Muyenga to come get me. “Hey Fred, let’s go.”
Here, there is a thing outside of me that pushes me, again and again and again to the edge of what I would have been willing to build with my own two hands. It makes me a person coming out of a cocoon, or maybe living in a cocoon – or maybe being born again, except, this time, no one is going to baptize me in water.
There’s only baptism by red dirt and the bluest sky every where all around me, and this feeling that if I could pile up the sky and how I feel right now all together and send it to your doorstep, like something you could climb inside of, half way through your first cup of coffee, I would. Then, I’d make you dance around in it with me.
Not so much because I feel I’ve got it all, right here, but because I’m standing in the light, unsure, full of fear, and yet totally sure and aware that it’s going to be okay, and I’m on the right path.
That’s the stuff of a life, now, isn’t it?
That’s a foundation a woman can build upon.
January 20, 2014 § 2 Comments
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
● 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.
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.
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 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.”
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.