Tales from East Africa
July 16, 2013
So, just where have I been anyway? My blog has been in MIA as I disappeared into the wilds of east Africa. I’ve set foot on the continent more than a dozen times over the last few years and I’d even spent some time in Uganda in 2010. But this particular journey took on a life of its own- I stayed longer than planned and wept more than I could have imagined and it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get my bearings back together. I touched down in Columbia, SC with a full plate of African projects I hadn’t anticipated, but excited to spend ten days with my daughter Celie before putting her on a boat to glide around the British Virgin Islands for three solid weeks. At 12 years old… seriously, how does a kid get that gig? Never mind, the child is gone now, sending home photos of crystal blue waters and giant island boulders and pretty fish and sunny skies. And I am finally (finally!) back to blogging and working a full schedule and apologizing for getting my head so very deep into Africa that I could scarcely manage anything else. There’s so much that I want to share and I anticipate that this will be the first of several blogs that share my adventure, though I’m not making any promises about precisely when they’ll see daylight. Grab a cup of coffee… this will take a few minutes.
So, why Uganda? Brilliant question. I have long indulged a love affair with Africa and have been fortunate enough to visit a handful of countries in North, West and East Africa (South Africa… you are soooo next!), though none of them managed to get under my skin and into my head the way Uganda has. The people are incredibly warm and welcoming, despite decades of military coups, horrific human rights violations, mass killings, the kidnapping of children to be converted into soldiers, rebel armies and some of the most crushing poverty this earth has ever seen. I am continually astounded by their tenderness, which betrays a steely will to move forward. I was first invited to Uganda by my friend Devin Hibbard, executive director of Bead For Life. She runs the most astounding nonprofit that simultaneously teaches women tangible business skills, guides them as they build a sustainable path out of poverty and boosts their confidence. Running an NGO in Africa is no walk in the park (I know this first-hand as I manage one myself) and Devin and her team are constantly exploring new projects, setting benchmarks, carefully reviewing and strengthening their strategy. It’s amazing to watch and Devin invited me in 2010 to come to Uganda and meet her shea nut gatherers, who were pioneering a new economic development project in the north.
You see, we use shea butter in many of our products. In fact, I originally met Devin in Mali when I was asked to speak at the Global Shea Alliance annual conference. We hit it off and I found myself in Uganda just a few months later. I was interested in sourcing ethical shea butter and meeting her women. I was willing to lend any shea butter expertise I had to help nurture her project and Devin patiently shared knowledge about a her school fees program, which I was considering duplicating with my Moroccan nonprofit. It was an amazing (if mind-bending) journey that deepened my commitment to the economic empowerment of African women. You’re welcome to read an older blog about that first journey right here.
Soon Devin and I were collaborating in several fashions: I was purchasing her shea butter to use in our cosmetics while also consulting with her team to help them expand distribution. Eventually, my company began manufacturing lip balms, body creams and sugar scrubs to sell under the Bead For Life label. It was a win-win situation: those products were shea-rich, allowing Bead For Life to produce more shea (and, thus, support more women gathering nuts as they rebuild after the atrocities committed by the LRA rebel army) and the large orders for finished goods were certainly welcomed by my small business. Recently, Devin began exploring ways to keep more money in Uganda itself. Around the same time, I was pondering taking my fifteen-year-old daughter on a working trip to Africa. Chloe has inherited my passion for all things African and is hoping to pursue a career as a human rights advocate living and working in Africa. She traveled to Thailand last summer for three weeks of volunteer work that was mildly disastrous (picture: a nasty and dangerous skin infection that necessitated repeat visits to the hospital, a handful of overly privileged teens in her group who were hell-bent on misbehaving in shocking fashion in Bangkok and one panic-stricken mom) and I had sworn that she’d not undertake a multi-week volunteer stint more than 5,000 miles from home until she graduated high school, unless I was by her side. So, I rang Devin and we set the balls in motion for a Ugandan rendezvous.
Devin lives in Colorado but travels to Uganda a few times each year and we timed our arrival to coincide with the tail end of her visit. The next few days were deliciously hectic: quality control meetings, a visit to the shea butter processing facility, returning to visit a few of our friends up North to discover what new projects they had undertaken and… teaching the Kampala staff how to create the sugar scrub I’d been manufacturing for Bead For Life. Smart business move? Not exactly. I essentially paid to fly myself to Africa and teach Devin’s staff how NOT to order from me anymore. Smart karma move? I’d like to think so. While I can’t going around every day working to put myself out of business, I was nevertheless excited to spend time with Robert, the Bead For Life production manager, as I helped strengthen the existing quality control program they have in place (Bead For Life already makes lovely soap in their Ugandan facility!) and added another product to their repertoire. Robert and his team readily picked up the procedure and we cranked out two varieties and three formulas in just two days. Bonus points: I somehow sweet-talked Robert into bungee jumping over the Nile River with me- true story. Oh, pics or it didn’t happen? you say. Fine then, here’s your photo.
Paying it forward lightens the heart and rallies the spirit and I need that sort of jolt from time to time and I’m super-grateful to have been able to share this experience with my daughter. We enjoyed a few days on safari after wrapping at Bead For Life (prepare for an onslaught of adorable animal pictures- coming soon in another post!) and then spent ten days volunteering in an orphanage (prepare, as well, for some gut wrenching tales and plenty of smiling faces in- coming relatively soon in yet another post!). For now, I’m happy to be back in the land of hot water, consistent power, wireless internet and malaria-free mosquitoes. But I’d be lying if I told you that I’ve successfully processed all that Uganda offered. Or that I’m not desperate to return, but that’s a story for another day.
Have you ever been to Africa? I’d love to hear about your journeys or dreams…