“How Will We Play Today?” On Managing Anxiety in Uganda

June 23, 2014 § Leave a comment


I would never wake up at 4 PM on a Saturday in New York City.

At most, I would have slept until noon. At latest, I would have been home in bed by 3 AM.

Last night, at 3 AM, I was climbing on a bar stool with my glass of champagne, looking down at R and grinning. “I’m taller than you now.”

3:30 — turning up a Chris Brown re-mix and singing at the top of my lungs.

4:00 — buying four spicy skewers of pork from an open BBQ outside Bubbles Pub. “Have you tried this chili sauce? My god!”

4:30 — getting low on the dance floor in a circle of 5 people that couldn’t stop laughing

5:00 — watching the sun start to peek up over Kampala, with R’s sleeping head bobbing against my shoulder each time the driver hit a pot hole.

7:00 — falling asleep to the sound of rain.

In New York, I work to calm my performance-related anxiety on a daily basis with just the right amount of exercise, medicinal herbs and meditation. At dinner, I think about work the next day. At night, I lie awake wondering if I should get up and do something else to move things forward. I wake up at 3 AM and 5 AM and 10 minutes before my alarm. I try not to take lunch. I bemoan being 5 minutes late. I read work emails when they come in at 3:00 AM.

In Uganda, the reality of the rain, a lie, wrong information, the desire for a bribe, lack of material, low air time, a network problem, too drunk to remember, “we couldn’t find the way and you weren’t picking your phone” are all enduring elements in a storm of sorry-I-didn’t-get-it-done scenarios.

It’s a fucking game, out here.

How will we play today?

Who says “no” when they mean “yes,” and how do I convince them to change their answer? What is the real story behind that extra charge on the top of my fees? What is being done incorrectly, and how can I find out why? Last week, I threw out a pile of horns that were boiled in horn, instead of ammonia. Three days of work, kicked out, just like that.

My head technician, John, shrugged his shoulders, and began throwing them in to the rubbish bin — beautiful shades of black and ivory and marbled browns. I wanted to cry, behind my Ray Ban sunglasses. Instead, I said, “John I think this new process we’ve learned will be a better solution. I’m glad we made progress.”

He nodded, dumping out my materials, like left over corn flakes in a dried up cereal bowl. “Okay, I guess we begin again Monday. Three days is not so many to lose.”

In New York City, work happens in a cycle of creating strategy, communicating it to others through meetings and implementing through set tasks and deliverables.

In Kampala, work occurs in the place between perception and understanding — understanding the difference between truth and lies when the truth is only given to me an imperceptible percentage of the time, understanding how to motivate men that do not define success in the way I was taught to understand it, understanding the mental, physical, ecumenical road blocks to the tasks someone has agreed to do, but will only carry out if I can clear the way properly.

I’ve rubbed up right against the end of my capacity to commandeer, and begun to feel the boundary of my own understanding of the way things exist. Does my manager have malaria? Our start is pushed back to next week. Does this man believe I have money, because I’m white? He’ll try to get me to offer a bribe, and I’ll need to make some calls. Is the facility manager lying to me? I’ll only find out after I find someone else who has information.

I’ve come to the edge of my use of language, work ethic and intellect. And, so, I am learning to play. Did I fail today? Time to make a new move. Did my player lie to me, cheat me out of something, say he’d do his job and fall through? Time to take him out of the game. Is my forward passing to the right, when he should be driving left? Explain the process. Let him practice it a while, before expecting results.

“You must learn to create a structure within which work happens here, while effectively managing expectations in the West,” K tells me. “Then, you will be very successful.”

In between, I learn to take things less seriously. I learn to live in a place where there is no place for a mzungu girl from New York, putting together the pieces of a master plan that no-one knows yet. I learn to let people have their Friday nights, and that they will be an hour late on Tuesday, and two weeks past due on information, and maybe, the best thing I can do right now is to order another martini, manage my own expectations, and breathe.

Some days, I need an hour and a half for lunch after someone rattles my emotions during a morning meeting and others, I need to be out at 4 AM dancing out my fear and my angst and my worries about how this is all going to turn out, once it’s built — will it ever be built? — just right. This is another kind of play — one that keeps me from running back to formulas and processes and an understanding of the world from the perspective with which I was raised.

Every time I start to run, I breathe. I pull myself back — I remember that this is just a game, and it’s not finished, now— and I need to make another move.

I’m one part talent executive, one part lie detector, one part mad scientist, one part lawyer. At the crux of everything, I am a woman — opening my mouth and my heart and my mind as widely as possible, and piecing together components of a structure that creates jobs and revenue and a life for myself, in Africa.

There is no express train. There is no formula. There is no schedule or timeline or precedent from before.

How will we play, today?

On Manufacturing in Uganda: You Must Know There is Promise of Profit

May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

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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.

An Open Apology Letter: Why I Quit Writing

May 11, 2014 § 9 Comments

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Hello, after a lapse in time, to those of you who have been following my writing for a long time now.

To those of you that just joined me – hello to you, too.

This is an odd place for us to start, but if you start here, site stats say, you’ll read backwards, so I’m going to assume you’ll catch up on what you’ve missed.

This is an open apology – an apology for quitting. It may come as a surprise – because, maybe, you just thought I was busy, or had nothing to write about, or didn’t know what to say.

But, that’s not true.

I quit talking to you.

A few months ago, after I wrote this and reported on this research and shared this list of tips, The Atlantic published a piece two years in the making about having PTSD after a terribly dark relationship I came out of.

After that, I wrote several pieces I wanted to share with you about how it felt, going through telling the public (read: Mashable) about having been raped in the past.

A couple weeks later, I wrote about moving to Harlem, and I wrote about my latest and greatest breakup, and how it feels to learn you’ve been cheated on, and why that shouldn’t make you think that you’re not as strong or independent or beautiful as any other woman (read: we’ve all been through it, stop letting it make you feel like its your fault).

Soon thereafter, I wrote about how to put together a pitch for a funding summit presenting to investors. Then, I incorporated my new company and I wrote about how to find a business partner that mirrors your strengths and weaknesses, and how to craft a funding pitch if you never went to business school.

I wrote on a Saturday morning about being a woman who slept with many, many people all in a single summer, two years ago, now, to get past trauma that lived in her body. I wrote about not regretting that summer, at all. Then I wrote about how to deal with the opinions of all the people that thought I should.

I wrote again about opinions when I got offered my dream job and I turned it down to start and run a manufacturing business in East Africa.

I wrote about my shift in thinking: about going from working in nonprofit marketing and fair trade development work, to believing that I have to make money in Africa in order to create any kind of sustainable impact.

After I saved that draft, I wrote about adopting two, wild shelter cats for my little, Harlem studio and I wrote about love, and how I’ve found it running free and fast, in New York city. In that piece, I wrote about the feeling I got that one day my buddy Jeff ran across the soccer field just to grab me and flip me upside down and act like he was shoving me in a trash can, because he knew I’d been sad, and that I needed to be flipped over and made to laugh so hard my sides hurt.

Soon after, I wrote about realizing I still have PTSD, even after all this time. I wrote about how that devastated me, and made me feel weak. And, then I wrote about how admitting it made me realize that it, in fact, had actually made me strong. I wrote about the way it made me recognize flaws in nonprofit reporting on abused women in rural areas – and how we must learn to be cognizant of triggers for those who do not realize that they have them.

After that, I wrote about quitting my first business, and coming back to Uganda for a second one, and the way it made me feel, being here. I wrote about dancing until 6 AM, and what its like to go through three unsuccessful supply chains. I wrote about how I feel like I’m living in two places and, how, to tell the truth, I’m planning to do just that. I wrote about feeling stretched in two directions, and becoming fine with it. I wrote about dealing with anxiety while traveling, and how to find yourself the drugs you need when you’re on the go.

I wrote about coming out of abuse, and how long it takes, sometimes, to learn not to act like a woman living on her back.

But you never saw any of that writing, did you?

No, you didn’t.

That’s because I got scared.

I got scared about the responses I was being sent in response to my writing.

This has nothing to do with you,” my therapist insisted, when I showed them to him.

But, I refused to believe him. I crumbled, instead. I got afraid. And, I want to apologize for that.

I’m here, in Kampala. I’m making things. I’m building a life and a manufacturing company and finding my way.

It’s pretty fucking exciting. It’s anything but normal. And, to tell the truth, it’s worth writing about.

It’s worth reading about, too. I know that.

Some of you have been reading my stuff since I was just a kid. Some (not all) of you have been real nasty about it, when you felt like I became somebody different than that kid.

So, I need to tell you, before we go any further, that I’m barely older than that, now, but I feel really different. And, you’ve got to be patient with that. You’ve got to be patient with my journey, and recognize that the girl I was when you started reading this isn’t the woman that I am. That, maybe, I scare you sometimes. Sometimes you worry I’m all off base, or I’m attacking your beliefs just by my actions, or I’m trying – a little too hard – to stick it to the man. Sometimes, you think I drink too much, or I work too hard, or I don’t do it all the way you did. Some of you are admittedly living vicariously through me, and, so, that sucks for you.

Truth is, you may be right about some or all the above, and you may be wrong. You may do it better, if you were me. You may be stronger, or wiser, or older. And, you may be more talented than I am. But, that’s not the point.

The point is that I’m telling you a story.

My story.

You have taken the time to read. You have taken the time to be affected.  You have taken the time to be witnesses to a life – my life.

Regardless of how you may have responded, there is no greater honor than for another human being to be a witness to your experience.

So, I’m here.

And, I have more things to tell you.

I hope you’re still here, too.

Why #BirthdayDrinks Matters to One Ugandan Photographer

January 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

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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.
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This is a story that I want to tell.

Join me for #birthdaydrinks!

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

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.


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