NOTES FROM THE FIELD: UGANDA
Notes from the Field is a series that follows our founder, Treana Peake, as she visits our Obakki artisan partners around the world. This is part three of Notes from the Field: Africa. We follow Treana to Uganda, where she climbs a mountain, attends a graduation, and tries her hand at pottery.
How do I describe the sounds, the smells, the light? I’ve spent many trips here trying to capture it in a picture or trying to put it into words. It’s about sitting outside your tent at night or in the early morning and listening to the laughter, the muttering in the homes, the frogs, the crickets, hyenas, and birds. Someone working, someone singing, someone celebrating. It’s layered and beautiful. It’s life.
It’s an essence that can’t be captured here. It’s too ethereal.
Red earth. Eucalyptus trees. Rain pounding on roofs. People waving as you pass. Boda Bodas honking. Brightly coloured dresses. Men sitting under shade trees … coffee, cassava, sesame. Roasted shea and firewood burning. Pink skies. Blue skies.
I CAN SEE FOR MILES AND MILES
I wanted to go up into the Rwenzori mountains to meet our new African basket weaving partners in their environment. It’s essential to meet all our artisan partners face-to-face to understand their goals and their community needs. But it’s also necessary for us to ensure that every product we sell is sustainable, ethical, and intentional. So, off I went. As it turns out, it wasn’t easy.
We flew to south Uganda, following the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border. Then we drove for hours in a 4x4. It was a long drive, but it was stunningly beautiful and almost as though they had arranged a private African wildlife tour along the way. The mountains are in southwestern Uganda, close to Rwanda. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.
Then we walked over an hour, almost straight up. Insane incline on that mountain. I was drenched with perspiration by the time I got there. But it was unbelievably beautiful at the top. The views go on for miles and miles.
When we reached the top, covered in sweat, they told us that “trust was established,” as we were the only people who had ever hiked the mountain to see them in their place. Buyers come from around the world, but they require the women to bring these huge baskets down this mountain to the nearest city and back again. And they ask this with no guarantee that they will purchase a single piece.
And the baskets are gorgeous. None of these baskets are chemical dyed. These rural weavers have generations of ancestral knowledge of using herbs for medicine, food and natural dyes. And with this knowledge, they produce a superior, organic, sustainable basket. On the top of a very high mountain.
It wasn’t easy, at first, to comprehend that people live up there. And walk all the way down (and back up) when they need to go to town, a hospital, or school (if you are lucky enough to have school fees). Or get water. That’s why we’ve committed to establishing four clean water catchment systems and a rural mobile health clinic on top of the mountain.
It’s challenging terrain, and I’m so happy I walked it to understand better how our artisan partners live. I’ll go back again, and I’ll climb the mountain again. And again, and again.
We’re excited for 2022 and grateful for this partnership. Baskets coming soon to Obakki.
THE HEART OF AFRICA
The women in Africa are amazing. They are the quiet workers with steady hands – the backbone of society. They are the farmers, the water collectors, the mothers. And they are businesswomen, teachers, and care providers – all in challenging conditions.
Sometimes they walk hours for water – and then they walk for hours carrying it back. Water is heavy. And after that journey, they spend hours cleaning the house, cooking the meals, and caring for the children. There are no modern-day conveniences here. Everything is hard. Everything takes such a long time. Yet it gets done daily without any complaint.
Women take in many children outside of their own; they care for their neighbours, they make extra food to deliver to someone who needs it. It’s a community way of living. And they are the mainstays of the communities here, the supports, the glue.
I was in Bidi Bidi, Uganda—the world’s largest resettlement area—where we empower thousands of women who have been displaced from South Sudan by a brutal civil war. Having survived unspeakable trauma as well as the loss of their homes and families, these brave women are starting over from nothing.
I asked a woman there, “With all that you do, what makes you happy?”
She replied, “I have a purpose.”
That’s the secret key to unlocking happiness. Having a purpose. At Obakki, our purpose is to better the lives of our artisan partners and their communities around the world. And nothing makes us happier than when we do.
YOU GOTTA HAVE FRIENDS
In addition to economic opportunities, our programs support people in less obvious but equally vital ways. Through our tailor shop initiative in Bidi Bidi, women can connect, build friendships, and support each other. As their hands create, the women open up to each other and share their experiences—helping each other move past their trauma as they rebuild their lives. They refuse to be victims of their past, and we admire them so much.
We work with such strong women in Bidi Bidi. Women who have been displaced from South Sudan by a brutal civil war. Having survived unspeakable trauma and the loss of their homes and families, these women are starting over from nothing. It is our privilege to assist them as they rebuild their lives.
NOTES FROM THE HIVE
As noted in the last Notes from the Field, our initial nine superstar beekeepers are now the teachers, and we’re training hundreds of new farmers in the region. This is the portion of the road we have been travelling together. And now, we have reached a crossroads of sorts.
We have local expertise, and we have locals training locals. I will soon no longer be needed. And that’s my job - to get all our programs to a place where I am obsolete. That is success in development. When the student becomes the teacher.
The graduating class was taught everything from honey collection and processing to hive construction and distribution methods. Training must be thorough. Support must be ongoing. What’s happening on the ground needs to matter more than statistics for an annual report.
It upsets me to see so many hives dropped off in communities and abandoned for lack of knowledge. Hives that never house bees. They use them as stools. They are useless artifacts – blatant reminders of what we are doing wrong when we try to help without understanding what a community needs to grow and become successful.
Development plans need to be treated like business plans - there should be a strategy for advancing income-producing projects. Some thought given to the transfer of knowledge and skills. And there needs to be an exit strategy. There is no shortage of willingness. Responsible partnerships are needed. Not random equipment drops with a tip of the hat and a wave goodbye.
We buy all the honey the beekeepers produce at above market price. We package it and sell it, and the local market is very strong. We reinvest 100% of the profits into teaching more beekeepers with this program.
We’ll have 550 hives in a few months, and we will produce 18,000 kg of honey annually. Those are the kinds of statistics that make an annual report meaningful. It’s always about the people and the continuing opportunities. Not the numbers.
THE BLACK SUITS
I find myself looking back on Graduation Day and smiling out of nowhere. It was the day my beekeepers stood proudly together to accept their certificates. Many had borrowed a black suit from someone in their village to celebrate the special occasion. I watched with immense pride as they arrived that day holding their heads high, knowing they had accomplished something so meaningful and lasting.
Borrowed suits. Too big. Too small. Nobody cared.
It was all about that special day. Where dreams, effort and accomplishment collide in a spectacular moment in time. A moment worth celebrating. And remembering.
CONNECTED TO THE EARTH
In the rural West Nile area of Northern Uganda, I found a village of inspiring women who create incredible clay pots. I fell in love with the look, the process, and the story. Determined to support their entire community with pottery, these beautiful creations are handmade using locally sourced clay and stacked into a brush-covered mound for firing.
This is the beautiful Aisha. She’s the elder in the village and a source of power and inspiration for all the others. Aisha has been making pottery since she was a little girl, having learned from her own grandmother. Now she passes on her knowledge to the younger generation attempting to keep the traditional craft and culture alive.
Everyone here has such a connection to the earth. You barely see the division between human and nature. Gratitude is deeply ingrained, and people spend their days taking care of, and respectfully benefiting from, the natural wonders around them. I’ve heard people thank the earth, the animals, the water, the air they breathe. It’s such a beautiful and holistic approach to living.
We have since bought many pots and I returned to celebrate with them. Through the sale of these pots, their children can attend school, medical needs are being addressed and everything has started to shift.
In rural creative communities like this one, artisans design out of necessity. They make the same shape over and over because it’s what sells at the local market. There is no room for free design. Experimental pieces eat up valuable resources as well as valuable time and don’t result in the sales they need to buy food or pay school fees. Free design – being able to explore your creativity – is a luxury they can ill afford in Uganda.
I asked these women if they had ideas that they’d been keeping close to their hearts. When they create their traditional water jugs – do they dream of creating something else? It was a resounding YES - and everyone started sharing their ideas.
I offered them a day of uninhibited design. And I decided to join them and try my hand at making a piece alongside them.
It did not go well. A solid pottery class behind me & oodles of confidence did not prepare me for the amount of village ridicule that ensued.
Note to self: Do not try to go toe to toe with the masters.
However, I purchased every sample they created that day - and some amazing pieces came out of this. Some you just might find on the Obakki website soon.
It’s hard to believe that a chance encounter brought us together over a year ago. With 600 pots sold and a feature in The New York Times, this village is standing strong - providing for themselves through their ancient craft. Thank you to everyone who has one of these special pots in their homes.
IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT THE WATER
I first met Bashir in the village of Oli, Uganda when we were doing a standard water well assessment. I noticed him off to the side and went to greet him. All the villagers said, “Forget him, leave him, he’s mad!”
Turns out he wasn’t mad at all. He was deaf. And that day we showed him sign language. From that moment on we’ve been working on a village strategy to help Bashir communicate to those around him.
We were able to stop in and say hi on this trip. Bashir’s life is very different today and it is stories like this that speak to our purpose at Obakki.
In many of our water well villages, people find it astonishing that strangers on the other side of the world would do something for them without expecting anything back in return. In addition to the delivery of clean water and the many important benefits it produces, what you’ve helped us bring to these villages is something that isn’t measurable in litres and quarts.
Your generosity reminds people that caring for others really is the most important gift we can give another human being. And that no matter how old you are, no matter where you live or what your colour skin is – everyone matters.
Quite often with the work that I do in these parts of the world, the unseen gifts create the most impact. The ripple effects of our actions continue long after a water well is drilled.
And today, I want to say thanks. Because you buy our products, because you support the livelihood initiatives of our foundation – lives are changed for the better around the world. There is no higher purpose than that.
Until next time. See ya! I’m outta here.
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