April 27, 2013 § 1 Comment
Most of the women we work with at Nakate are mothers, if not grandmothers.
We tell the story of their lives alongside our own.
In 2010, we launched out of Kakooge with Agnes Kabugo, a mother of three, and around 30 grandmothers and mothers making handmade pieces to test out in an American market.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the mothers in my life – not only my own, but these women I work with, and that stand with me at Nakate.
This mother’s day, I choose to honor the women that first stood with me.
The Kakooge Collection – a Journey Back to our Roots, is my way of taking you back to the stories that Nakate began with.
Designer Amira Mednick has partnered with me to create a line that re-purposes beads from my first ever buying trip to Uganda. Together with South American knotting techniques and sterling silver, 14k gold or brass, these beads celebrate Nakate’s Kuzua, or beginning, in Uganda.
We invite you to celebrate your own mother through returning to our roots with us – to travel back to the place where it all began, here at Nakate. Honor her through purchasing a piece supporting the kind women that make not only our businesses, but our very lives, the beautiful journeys we experience them to be.
Where Will She Take Africa?
April 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
I took Agnes to the pacific last week. We’ve been business partners for over a year now – her running the Ugandan side of our business, myself working stateside. We’ve worked together in East Africa. But, now it was her turn to enter my world.
We spent time in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Santa Monica, introducing Agnes to shop owners and re-stocking locations with our new spring line. We found out she loves mango smoothies the way I love matooke. She loves coffee the way…I love coffee. She loves sandwiches the way I love chapati. In my world, we talked about my childhood the way we’d talked about hers during my last visit. We discussed my breakups the way we’d talked about her relationship with Patrick after she’d met him in grade school. We talked about the way I was born in San Diego and grew up in the Sierra Nevadas the way she’d talked about growing up in Kampala. And, after she met the head of the journalism department at my alma mater, we discussed our degrees – mine in journalism, hers in business.
She laughed through my dating stories. She told me she’d waited to get married on purpose to finish her education. We discussed Patrick’s views on women – his support of her. I nodded. I’d seen it – him waving goodbye from the veranda, watching their three children while we worked on our company. We traded stories about our cultures on the way into boutiques – the way Ugandans say Americans make love in the streets, the way Americans claim Uganda – and all of Africa, at that – is full of people defecating in the streets.
At the stop light on Broadway, we laughed so hard it hurt.
It was 3:30 pm when we were done – prime traffic time in LA, and I warned her we’d be late home. But Agnes had been smelling the ocean air for just about as long as she could stand without being properly introduced, and I caught the desperation in her eye.
“I’ve never seen it!” she pleaded.
I thought of myself asking to visit the Nile, and nodded, putting the truck in drive.
I’ve never introduced anyone to the pacific for the first time – let alone the ocean itself. The practice felt sacred to me, taking off our shoes on the edge of the boulevard and walking across the sand in our bare feet. I pointed out ships and surfers as we walked.
Agnes hesitated at the edge of the water, the way I’d hesitated when I’d first shared a pathway with a herd of Ankole cattle on my way through Wobulenzi. I laughed at her hesitancy the way the cattle herder had laughed at me, crouched at the edge of a herd of long horn cattle. I waved my arms – “come on!”
I watched Agnes and the ocean feeling each other out for the first time, and I thought about how many things this woman has introduced me to.
I met her when I was 21. It was my first day in Kakooge. Agnes greeted me with a loud voice and open arms. She gave me a hug and three kisses – left, right, left. She waved her arms around – “welcome to our home! You are so welcome.” By “home,” I soon learned Agnes was referring to the entire village – not just her half acre plot in the midst of it.
Skirt wrapped around her waist and an arm of bracelets, Agnes walked me through every part of town, little blonde NGO reporter that I was. We went to the outskirts of Kakooge, to the main street of Kakooge, to the village’s only indoor restaurant, to the east, where most of the children gather to play and, finally, to the bars, where drunken men recognized Agnes, and exclaimed over the Mzungu. I watched them, sitting on a wooden bench offered to the white girl, and I thought about the woman I’d just met.
She spoke about Jesus and women’s rights in the same sentence – often in church. With a booming voice and an out-streched arm, she regularly preached alongside her husband to a local congregation on wooden benches. And yet, here she was, a public figure in her village and a respected woman in her culture, laughing with the men in the bars and, later, I’d learn, with the prostitutes. Turns out, Agnes is not only progressive, she’s a bit controversial.
By controversial, I mean Agnes swims against the ancient wave carrying respected society away from anyone engaged in less than admirable activity, and pulling the religious and dignified away from issues like birth control, safe sex, AIDS, family planning and a woman’s right to express herself freely in every room in her home. Jesus doesn’t talk about condoms, does he?
Agnes seems to think he does.
After my 22nd birthday, she threw in her livelihood with me, and hired 40 women she handpicked to partner with us after meeting me once. That same year, she began to change my view of Uganda. She brought me into East Africa as a part of the woodwork, insisting that I wasn’t a visitor anymore. I had a place carved out in her home along the Kampala to Gulu highway, where the trucks run through to the West of my bedroom wall in the night, and the roosters crow on the half hour just before dawn.
Agnes must have known that any person transitioning into a culture needs to be taken in with their background, and taught new ways, instead of expected to know them, because she told me she saw me the third time I returned to Uganda. I was deep in a half eaten plate of matooke when she said it. I was struggling with a culture that I didn’t fit into – checking my iphone in between meetings running an hour behind schedule, and lying awake trying to teach myself to slow down. I was embarrassed by my white legs, and the way I kept cutting myself shaving in my bucket shower.
I stopped eating and stared. “Yes,” she nodded. “I see you. I see your heart. I get you. And, I believe in you.”
Her words, in the midst of a sea of misunderstanding, became my lifeline.
Later that week, it was Agnes, again, that gave me permission to have a large vision for my work in East Africa. She walked into a room she’d transitioned into mine for the two weeks I stayed with her. “I want you to open your heart,” she told me. “We’re going to be big. Big beyond Uganda. I have plans for Kenya, Rwanda, and the Congo. So, you let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll go.”
During that visit, I discovered that Agnes’ willingness to be controversial – to speak up, to speak out, and to go places where other women were not willing to go – had taken me to those places with her. She’d silently understood my desire for integration into her village, my desire to do business directly with the women in at, and with it – quietly been creating a place for me in Uganda – in the way she spoke about me, the way she helped me understand her culture and, now, the way she brought the two together.
She’d created a profile of my work, and my character. She’d been prepping the women working for me to meet me again. The woman she once went to visit in the bad parts of time were coming to greet her – and to greet me. Women that we’d gone to take pictures of in huts were walking across town to kiss me three times – left, right, left – and talk about our work. The prostitutes that had once pursed their lips at me were greeting me in English.
Six months later, at the age of 23, it was Agnes that gave me the grace to allow our plan take longer than expected, and for funds to come through more slowly than I wanted them to. After sales tax stripped our January bank account, I got an email from her quoting a scripture passage from the book of Zechariah. “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings,” it said.
More than matoke or Ankole cows, Agnes has taught me about the way a relationship with a person can change everything, as she’s staked her reputation on my ability to come through for her and the women she’s hired to work for us – taking months to explain cultural customs, work out our accounting on the ground, gather items and, now, to come and learn my culture so she could better integrate the needs of our customer base into hers.
As we walked on the wet sand, I pointed out kelp and washed up shells and explained crustaceans. I picked up different size shells. I pointed out the way the tide moves. But Agnes wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in the way children interacted the way with the water, and kept pulling on my arm to laugh and point them out.
I’d never seen the ocean that way – through children. One ran away from the ocean – terrified – and made a muscle, smiling at us, once he’d safely escaped the surf. Another was rolling himself in the sand and grinning underneath his gritty, gray hair. A third ran into the surf squealing with delight over waves that were too cold for me.
“I love the way they love it,” Agnes said. And, it was in that moment, watching a little girl dance the sand out of her polka dotted suit, that I realized Agnes had done it again – she’d changed my perspective on the world and, with it, the way I view the people around me, and my place in it, alongside them.
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
There has been loads of interaction regarding Uganda in my life these past two weeks. I work in Uganda, so that shouldn’t be surprising. But, after #KONY2012, my life feels a bit like a viral discussion. Phone calls, emails, facebook posts – messages…it goes on. And, I couldn’t be more grateful to IC for sparking such a valuable conversation.
It was, however, a very small interaction that caught my interest last week – one that could have easily been overlooked. And, one I did overlook at first.
It was when I posted the Kony 2012 Drinking Game to my friend Sheila’s facebook wall, and she replied with this:
“Nice. I say, bring it on. One day we will get this whole thing right. Right??”
What has me coming back to this post was her use of the vernacular – “we.”
After living in Bots as an expat for more than a year, if Sheila knows one thing – it’s that none of us have figured it out yet, and no one Mzungu can stand up in front of all the others and announce that they have the answer to how to do this dance just right.
“We” are all trying to figure out how, exactly, is the best way to weigh in on our little piece of global issues that people have been trying to solve for generations. “We” have all signed up for jobs outside of our comfort zones, our cultures – our usual frame of reference. “We” all have the propensity to get carried away in our desire to help, and misstep.
“We” all like our alcohol/marijuana/cigarettes/insert-your-crutch-here when the going gets tough. “We” have all had moments of public embarrassment – my friends are still teasing me for drunkenly burning my lip a month ago trying to smoke the wrong end of a cigarette.
But the point is that we’re all trying.
I had a long conversation with a shop owner I have an account with this week. He smiled when I walked into his office – “I’ve been wanting to you about this whole Invisible Children thing,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”
But, before we got there, he said something else. He said – “You know, personally, I get the criticism, but then, I think. ‘Hey, so, they got the story wrong, they didn’t do it just so. Regardless, there’s an army of informed people standing around telling people the real story. And, at least Invisible Children got everyone lookin’ east. At least we’re paying more attention, now.’ And, come on, that in and of itself is valuable right? Those guys could have careers marketing all kinds of things. And, they picked something they’re passionate about in Uganda. So, you know – there’s some good in this, right? At least in the dialogue? I mean, they could have been telling us all about phones, or Nikes…but they picked Uganda.”
Once he finished, I really didn’t need to tell him what I thought. He had covered it. And, as I walked out of his shop, I felt like he had been the one educating me.
I walked out of his shop feeling humbled, again, by the truth that I’ve picked a career that puts a target on my back. We all have, and we’ve done it willingly – because we’re people that wanted to help.
And, it’s exactly because of that glaring, damned target that all need the rest of us to remember that we’re human when we fall – particularly when we may have set ourselves up for a little too far of a tumble. And, let’s be real – we all do it.
Not to mention, we all tend to forget that, regardless of how we feel, this desire to help has become a career – and it does not equal the sum total of who we are as people. And, when it does, we’ve made a grave mistake.
I ended up sitting on my bed – crying – after a Skype meeting last night. It wasn’t anything that was said. It was just the realization that I crossed a line – somewhere – and I keep teetering back and forth on it, this reality that my personal investment in Uganda is so huge that when things don’t go like I hope, it affects more than my company – it affects me. When we struggle financially, when lines don’t release the way I hoped, deadlines get pushed, or confusion sets in – I think about it on a personal level, and it takes everything I’ve got to learn to make that separation.
But make that separation I must. It is absolutely necessary to know that my work in Uganda is not the sum total of who I am – and that our failure or success is, quite simply, not about me.
In this profession, the personal and the professional mix in a big jumble of emotions that crux somewhere between wanting to make a career out of providing help, and wanting the way you help to make you a career.
The reality is that it’s a career – not a religious crusade, a campaign or a movement. And, at the end of the day, the people behind these careers gone religious crusading campaigns and movements are only human.
And, you can be certain that the little scar on my bottom lip is a quiet reminder that, no matter how good we get at separating the personal and professional – we are all, indeed, still working on getting it right.
(Pictured above: Sheila, playing with some of the children in Kakooge on her last trip with me).
I like Jimmy Choos, and I Hate Cheap Beer. Otherwise Known as The Reasons Why #Kony2012 is Being Criticized.
March 7, 2012 § 13 Comments
A month or so ago, I posted a blog about a mistake I made in my work in Uganda. It was @tmsruge who caught me. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his opinion and so, when he came down on me, I listened – and I learned.
He is in a kind of twitter “trifecta council” made up of himself, @DAWNInc founder & exec director @Semhar and @InnovateAfrica – a woman whose views on philanthropy, diaspora, social justice and gender continue to challenge and educate me on almost a daily basis. I recommend following all three of them, and keeping up on their work.
In my friendships in Uganda, I have learned something huge about myself. Namely, I will always be an outsider. I will always be 1/2 of a transnational business. I will always be a white woman. I will always be different. And, as much as we tried to combine our cultures, we often come to an impasse – we are called to different realities and, with it, different lives.
Let’s be real.
I like Jimmy Choos, and I hate cheap beer.
Oh, oh! And I’ll take the $8.00 chalice of Three Philosophers please. Oh, and that’s a chalice, not a glass. Right?
(PS – I don’t currently own Jimmy Choos. And, I just paid my phone bill, so I’m not drinking any expensive beer this week, don’t worry).
People criticize me for spending any kind of money while working in “aid.” But, here’s the reality I’ve had to learn about myself. I’m an American woman who partners with Ugandan artisans for the purpose of making money for both of us. And, we’re running a business, not a charity project. They benefit. I benefit. And, I don’t think any other kind of model is realistic.
However, I struggled with my identity in regards to Uganda for a long time. I began with feeling like I could never spend any money on myself, even selling my own things to pay bills and giving up a lot of my hopes and dreams in order to work in Africa.
Let’s be clear.
I chose to do that. No one in Uganda asked me to.
And, along the way, I realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Beyond that, it wasn’t respectful.
I was not that way because I truly valued the powerful women I work with in Uganda. I did that because I was confused about my identity as a white girl working in central Uganda. I felt critical of myself for liking expensive things, handling things like a white girl would and for feeling the irresistible urge to kiss my porcelain toilet back in CA on more than one occasion.
I tried to change myself so that I would fit in better, tried to make my white a little less obvious. But, that’s not really very possible, and I have never been more aware of it than a certain day when I plopped myself down with a Nile Brew and a wireless orange connection at the airport. I’m not timid, so I sat in the middle of a group of men to watch the soccer game blaring from a small tv descending from a florescently lit airport ceiling.
I felt real cool with my Nile brew and soccer knowledge, until I realized everyone had stopped watching the game, and started staring at me instead.
I returned home from that trip, in particular, with a deep need to re-define my role in Uganda. I had been criticized for the way I handled several situations like a Mzungu (white), and I felt angry – angry at Ugandan culture, angry at American culture – angry with myself, angry with the people criticizing me.
I spent about three months really delving into the heart of the issue, and it came back to identity, for me.
My mom helped. Over coffee, I poured out the tale of my African failures, ending with, “you know, I really handled things like a white girl, and I’ve got to stop DOING THAT!”
She stared at me. “You are a white girl,” she said. “Of course you handle things that way.”
You wouldn’t think I needed to be reminded of that, but I did. I needed to remember that I’m white, that I was born in America and that the fact of the matter is that I run a transnational business in Uganda. So, here’s how that works – I have Ugandans that run my company in Uganda, and I run it here. Hence, the need for two cultures, two colors – two perspectives, two different people groups.
In my acceptance of myself, I was able to realize that, in a lot of ways, I had been incredibly prideful. I had come into Uganda with the belief that I had better solutions for issues on the ground, that the weight of saving a village was on my shoulders and that knew better how to handle emergency situations, village conflicts and the establishment of organized business in a country I’ve been traveling to for three years.
Imagine if my Ugandan partner walked into a shop on Melrose and whispered, before entering – “Don’t worry Shan, I’ve got this one covered, you just watch and learn while I take on LA.”
So, I’ve begun to learn that I have a lot to learn. And, within that paradigm, I’ve been able to embrace my place as a white girl, apologize for my shortcomings, ask for help and advice and begin to better understand a place that my Ugandan friends are just as anxious to help me understand as I am to help them understand my culture.
I’ve learned to be quiet more often, and to assume, walking into situation, that I there are cultural factors I’m ignorant of, and will be brought up to speed about later.
Here’s some full disclosure. Just this week, I had to work through a myriad of emails regarding management on the ground, and how best to run it from a Ugandan perspective. I went to bed exhausted, humbled and yet feeling more comfortable than ever in my new shoes as a white girl partnering with a fantastic group of educated, powerful Ugandan leaders and artisans.
While Invisible Children has done great work educating “the rest of us” about a conflict in Africa, you could perhaps say they have failed to take their place in African culture as a group of whites seeking to partner with powerful, educated Ugandans, rather than spreading the idealism that Ugandans need a young American Dad with a pre-schooler to save their sorry asses.
Then again, I’m an American woman.
These people are just three of hundreds of activists, journalists and experts in Uganda that are speaking about their views in Invisible Children’s campaign that shows co-founder Jason as someone taking on the bad guys in Uganda, and saving the day in the pearl of Africa.
Turns out, Uganda’s been working to save itself for a long time now.
March 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
Morris has a favorite phrase he uses – mostly with me.
He says, “you know, it doesn’t take a day!”
I think he mostly uses it with me because I’m the American woman in his life – the pusher, the watch checker, the “have you emailed it yet?”-er.
We’ve found some balance in working together – sometimes, after a loud argument. “Let me speak please!” He’ll shout, and I stop trying to explain the ins and outs of business, and how quickly we need to get something done.
“We’re losing money here,” I’ll throw out, before I let him speak. Then, he almost always begins with, “I know this is important to you. But it doesn’t take a day.”
We’ve gone ’round about this more-than-a-day business more than once.
- Shifting thought – the art of changing how one thinks about things – doesn’t take a day
- Shifting behavior – the art of acting differently based on a newly developed paradigm – doesn’t take a day
- Shifting history – the art of the great clean-up after a certain way of living, doing business or believing in a certain thing has been shifted in thought and in behavior – doesn’t take a day. There are repercussions that Morris has taught me must be expected, and taken in stride. When I yell over repercussions he expected, he reminds me: “It doesn’t take a day.”
Beyond that, change I wished would hit like lightning the first time I committed to make a difference in a village doesn’t take a day either.
But Morris expected that as well. “These women know it doesn’t take a day,” he’ll tell me.
For several months running, I’ve compartmentalized my conversations with Morris. “It doesn’t take a day” pertained to Africa, where spotty internet can move an urgent message needing response within three hours to an urgent message that will be responded to three weeks later. I know this, just like I know the way a parasite can hit the stomach and replace a day meant to be spent visiting huts with a day camping-out at the outdoor latrine. But both have continued to take me by surprise, and I’ve often been frustrated with myself at how slowly I seem to learn a culture I used to think I knew.
I have learned to expect a cycle when I hit the ground in Africa. First, there is panic. I’m not getting things done as quickly. Business is being let go. The twitter isn’t being updated like it should. In my first few days, I often find myself standing in the middle of red dirt, lap top held over my head, yelling “I think I have a wifi signal here!”
The cook always laughs.
Day four the panic fades into a quiet resolution and, with it, sudden bursts of anger of situations I simply can’t stand they seem so ridiculously slow.
Three years in, and I’m still a cultural newborn, barely blinking in the light of a new way of thinking, doing, living.
But, when I’m most tempted to be frustrated with the culture, and with myself, I hear Morris – “It doesn’t take a day.”
Beyond Africa, I’ve found that there is truth in the necessity of time, and that this great shifting of thought, behavior and, with it, the shifting of how history affects the present, doesn’t take a day.
It doesn’t take a day to get much of anything done in Africa, and it doesn’t take a day to get much of anything done in me.
Monica Berg writes that,
Once we become more aware, it’s then important to set a mandate by which we can live, a certain line that we draw, a set of rules to place for ourselves. This means creating a personal credo that speaks to our soul aspect.
Berg didn’t warn me that after a person sets a personal credo that speaks to their soul aspect, it can take a terribly long time to establish lines, boundaries – a set of rules in which to place his or herself.
Too long, I thought.
But, with a little progress and a few lines – FINALLY – established, I am reminded not to spend my life figuratively balancing in the middle of a dirt pile in Uganda, shouting about my wifi signal, and dancing against the rhythm of a schedule gone haywire.
Turns out, learning to be patient with my own process of change doesn’t take a day either.