Our first trip to Africa was a very moving one. Uganda is a beautiful, complex and deeply complicated nation when it comes to economic development and women. Amanda and I were fortunate enough to stay in a remote village called Nakivumbi, which sits inside a larger land area that means “The Place of Sickness and Starvation.” The nearest population center of any size is Jinja, a city that lies at the headwaters of the Nile River. Numbers vary, but the overwhelming majority of the area known as Nakivumbi is Muslim (as much as 90%). Polygamy is still commonplace, as well as negative socio-cultural practices that can certainly be seen as demeaning and disempowering to women (women kneel on the ground and put their hand out to greet – a practice once common for both genders in the presence of rulers, however now just practiced by women).
Kampala is the bustling capital city of Uganda, which is where we found ourselves on the first day of the trip, after flying into Entebbe. Through researching, hoping and praying, we found a supply hub for oils and butters that can be used for soapmaking. Kahangi Estate grows and harvests different oil and butter-producing floras from around East Africa, such as Cocoa, Shea, Sunflower, Moringa, Palm, Avocado, Rosemary, Lemongrass and Castor. This is the single most important advancement for the group we were there to teach, as this has been the biggest and most frustrating roadblock in our soapmaking efforts in Haiti. We made a sizeable purchase of supplies for the week of soapmaking education. Kahangi Estate grows coffee as well, so we picked up several large bags (Coffee is Uganda’s biggest export).
On the way to the village we passed field after field of rice, tea, sugarcane and cassava (a staple in East Africa, and one I quite enjoyed). We crossed the Nile River on the road from Jinja to Nakivumbi.
I believe the reason Nakivumbi is so important in the nearing communities is due to 2 main things: 1) The community leaders and the church that resides in the center of the village, and 2) a natural spring that wasn’t discovered until a few years ago, when the church was being built.
I’m not religious, but as an outsider I could see the development of the area being positively transformed as it pertains to women and girls due to the church that was constructed a little over 7 years ago. The church was built by a couple of Americans and a small group of Kenyans and Ugandans (please follow subsequent blog posts for further detail into the social expansions and dynamics taking place in Nakivumbi and surrounding villages in regards to the church).
During our stay in Nakivumbi, there was never a time I didn’t look over at the spring and not see several people of all ages, carrying jugs and jugs of empty bottles to fill. This included toddlers carrying 3-liter jerry cans. Water is the source of life, and this spring was the foundation of the community. The natural spring lay hidden in the community until the church was being constructed. Since its discovery, short re-route (to make room for the foundation of the church) and assembly, there has only been 2 weeks (in the dry season) where it didn’t produce fresh clean water for hundreds and hundreds of people.
Nakivumbi is nowhere near the beaten path. There are no highways. And there are still current (and recurrent) happenings that we in the west would deem, well, just plain spooky. We heard stories of decapitation, a man burned to death in a stack of tires, violent rape and witchdoctors. The thought processes and life outlooks are so far different than ours, and though some may sound crazy, they warrant respect as outsiders. With that being said, I came in contact with only people of the absolute highest character, love and hospitality. The children and adults of the village are life giving. They know how to love and take care of each other. I am so honored to be a part of that, both now and moving forward.
Though we were there to teach women a trade, the overall theme of our first trip to Africa was children. They were everywhere. Many are orphaned. Amanda interviewed each woman in our soapmaking group individually and each said the same thing; they want an education and good life for their children.
In a neighboring village called Nawensega (The Place of Vultures), we met a boy named Gusta. Gusta’s father died of AIDS and his mother died in one of the most horrific accounts I’ve ever heard. A fuel truck had turned over and was spilling its supply. Villagers came running with buckets and cans, filling up as much as they could. The driver of the truck was upset that the villagers were not paying him for the spilt fuel, so he lit a match and killed over 200 people in the explosion. Gusta’s mother was one of the 200 and she is buried in a mass grave nearby. Gusta has open wounds on his legs that won’t seem to heal.
Hope is a beautiful, bright and fun-loving girl. I never saw her without a smile on her face. She is the product of rape. Her mother was violently raped and later left her infant behind, as she could not overcome the shame and struggle of her victimization. One of the Nakivumbi community leaders, Margaret, a Kenyan, is Hope’s great aunt and takes after her. Hope is also Kenyan.
There are hundreds of stories like these throughout the villages. This is normal. And just as thousands of case studies, dialogue and exceptional journalism has uncovered, many of these terrible instances can be avoided through education. Statistics tell us that women in developing nations who are able to earn an income will pay for their children’s education. The demographics of victimization change when generations are educated. This is a very broad scope, and one might ask where does soapmaking come into all of this, to which I will say – if the women that we have spent the last week teaching (and will continue to visit to keep momentum and learning high) develop their new talents into a trade, they will earn income enough to pay for their children’s education, as well as teach their sons and daughters the craft themselves when they are ready.
I have many stories from this trip, and this post doesn’t even really cover the topic of saponification values, techniques or even the women themselves – that will come soon enough. As I type this, I do so from 30,000 feet over Western Europe, westbound for home. I can’t even begin to touch on all aspects of this trip. Uganda is a place I will never forget, and one I can’t wait to get back to. ~ Benjamin