Geographically, Uganda has dense marsh lands, separating many groups of people from one another, thus creating many different types of people and languages.
Tribalism is a common problem, as there are many misunderstandings between. Since the English language has been adopted as the national language, it has brought many Ugandans together; especially making business development possible. But also making it easier for non-Ugandans, like myself to be be able to do the kind of work I'm doing. I’ve been surprised by the amount of Ugandans who speak English very well. However, as easy as it is to continue speaking English, I find it important to learn the local language. It gives me more respect in the community and I’m hoping to learn more about Ugandan cultures on a deeper level by doing so. One of the Ugandans who I’ve gathered stories from recently is a man named Michael, who owns the company that BeadforLife contracts to create the silky shea butter. If you haven't tried this product yet, you should! It's incredible and very good for your skin.
I spent an entire day with Robert, the Shea Production Manager from our Kampala office and Michael, the owner of the company, learning how shea butter was made and videotaping each stage of the process. When Robert and I arrived I laughed because Michael and I were wearing the same exact thing - a baby blue tee-shirt and cream khaki trousers! Michael had the smile and disposition of a wise grandfather. He resembled and spoke like James Earl Jones and wholeheartedly shook when he laughed.
Michael’s from the Otuke District but relocated to Lira during the war. I asked, “Where did you go during the war?” He said, “I stayed here, I just moved a few kilometers closer to town.” His stories depicted the challenges his people have faced because war. As bowls of porridge was delivered by the female cook, Michael said, “Today you will get two meals, breakfast in the morning and in the afternoon you will get some lunch. I feed all of my employees twice a day. Many of them are unable to eat at home so I started feeding them here….In the morning, they rush to work to get something to eat in the morning!...Let’s say a prayer before we start to eat....” Robert said a blessing and we each took in the porridge, eating every last bite. I think it tasted ten times better because I knew how to appreciate it. But also because it was one of the best porridges I’ve ever had! The hints of lemon and honey and the creaminess of the milk made it mushy and delicious.
Michael employs twenty-two people full time at his shea butter facility. He pointed to the large factory across the dirt road and says, “That used to be a cotton factory where two-thousand people were employed. It’s now used as a storage facility… you can imagine how many people have been affected.” Since the war, unemployment is a huge problem in Lira and Otuke District. Not only are there few jobs available, but many of the people have lost the drive to want to work. Michael says, “Once an attitude is lost, it’s difficult to get it back.” Many of the people lived in Uganda Police Defense Camps where there was barely any food, they wasn’t anything to do; many became alcoholics. The good old days that Michael described was the life of the farmers, when you grew up and worked on your family farm. When people worked really hard on their land for what they had and marriage was arranged at a young age. That was the tradition of Langi culture.
But with the war, people stopped trusting each other, and many lost hope for the future. I recalled a moment when we were driving through Lira town, on the way to the shea facility. We saw a young boy in the middle of the road with two huge bags of animal feed tied onto the rack on the back of his bicycle. His bike had tipped over because of the weight and he struggled trying to pick it back up. We stopped the car, and Robert got out to help the boy pick up his bike and the heavy load. Afterwards as we continued driving down the road, Irene said, “I can’t believe those people!” (referring to the group of people sitting near where the boy was struggling to pick up his bicycle) She was shocked that they didn't try to help the boy. Robert said, “But many of these have seen war. When you see your brother being killed, how do you know to help others anymore...”
That’s what Michael was describing as he was telling me about Lira and Otuke. He said, “I really don’t know what the future holds for us here. I hope it will get better, and I know it can take generations for things to change.” Even his own son’s have such a lack of ambition that they won’t work with at his company. Despite all that, the employees Michael currently has all are hard working and his business is employing people in the area who might have otherwise been unemployed.
At the end of the day,I videotaped the final stage, filtering the boiled shea butter, in which I recalled a familiar smell. The delicious aroma of chocolate! Shea nuts have a similar small as cacao (raw chocolate) butter when it's heated. I remembered from when I used to make raw chocolates. My mouth watered...Afterwards, I did a photo shoot with the staff members, they were all eager and happy to have their picture taken. Alex, the Manager, taught me phrases in Langi. The Langi people gave me a traditional name Akello Katie, meaning a child born after someone who is very important to the community.
As we headed back to Kampala, I looked forward to my next visit to Lira to reconnect with my new friends. The people of the North have huge hearts and I feel honored that they have shared them with me.
Until next time,