Fortunately, it’s easy to find fresh ginger any time of the year in Southern California. This is important because it’s the ginger that sets African tea worlds apart from anything I’ve tasted before. It’s habit-forming, and the best mornings in Uganda begin with a blank page, a pen, and a shared pot of tea.
It’s been almost a week since I reluctantly rode a taxi through Kampala for the last time, toward the airport. And these are my attempts to stay behind in the smallest ways: reliving the smells, the flavors, the memories. Especially reliving the tea.
I’ve traveled many times before, often under the well-meaning premise of helping. To the slums of Mexico and jungles of Peru, to remote villages throughout Malawi, to the junkyard hideaways of the Roma in the heart of the Balkans. But this trip wasn’t about assistance, it was about collaboration. And collaboration is binding: I’m unsure of when and why, but I know it will one day draw me back to the red-earth hillsides, the sun and rain soaked landscape of Kampala.
There is something more vivid about the beadmakers in Acholi Quarters, a confidence and dignity that I didn’t often see in the women I met in Uganda, or even elsewhere in the world. They dress well, and their children are full and happy and in good schools. They laugh with ease and confidently make suggestions, they learn quickly and then become teachers themselves. Yet they are excellent students, they value knowledge and quickly absorb even the smallest drop that a trail of new ideas leaves behind.
In just a few short weeks this team of women has taken in a flood of new ideas: about things like color theory, fabric, ribbon, wire, and recycled plastic. And as much as they work together as a team, each contributes to the group in her own way. Esther is kind and patient, but has a definite competitive streak and walks a little taller when her work is deemed “just perfect.” Agnes and Gladys are among the youngest, but have the sharpest eyes for color and design. Ellen can make better fabric flowers than I can- on her first try. And Nighty consistently stands among the best and fastest learners while simultaneously wrangling a squirming toddler.
The brevity of my trip leaves me feeling as though I’ve rushed in, dumped a tangle of information in a big heap and then fled; but I am confident that the women of Acholi Beads will turn fragments into works of wearable art. When they ship the new designs to America later this spring, you will see just what I mean.
I’m wearing the same strand of paper beads around my neck that I wore in January, but I see them differently now. They are full of faces and names and stories. Though you may not know the details, yours are too.