Monday, November 18, 2013

Kitenge, Khanga, & Kikoys

I am a fabric tourist.  I confess it freely.  My problem has been going on for some time.  Most of my fabric purchases have been in France.  To give you some idea of the extent of my problem, I confess that I have purchased and brought home enough Proven├žal fabric to make four queen sized quilts for my children and fabric for curtains in three rooms.  When I visited Martinique, I brought home enough to make one quilted throw, not to mention the stash still in a drawer.  So when I started planning my trip to Africa, I began to dream about fabric.  

The first step was to bring a partially empty suitcase.  But beyond that was the quest, itself.  Where would I find the fabric?  What kinds of fabric would i find?  Who could be my guide?  

My guide in Kenya turned out to be my friend Anne’s mother.  First she took me to the Masai Market.  I began to see what was available and made my first purchases.  The Masai wear a type of blanket, called the Shuka.  The brightly colored Shuka falls loosely over their shoulders, and although the plaid designs seem improbable, on their supple forms, the Shuka seems just right.  It is made of acrylic, and struck me as a wonderful, informal tablecloth.

 The other fabric I bought at the market was a Khanga.  This is a cotton print with an overall design, making it perfect for a loose duster.  I don’t know if I’ll use it for that, but I love the black and cobalt print.  The Khanga has a slogan.  Each piece features a text in Kiswahil, almost like our T shirts with slogans and logos.   The difference is that our T shirts reflect everything from a team name to profanity.  The Khangas mostly had Christian sayings.  The one I chose says, “ The Word of God is Eternal.”  

The next day we visited Biashara Street in downtown Nairobi, which is where many fabric stores line the streets.  After my previous experience at the market I was more prepared.  One store was full of nothing but Khangas.  But I already had mine.  What I was looking for was Kikoys.  The Kikoy is a type of scarf which is used sometimes like a wrap-around skirt, sometimes as a head covering, sometimes as a shawl.  It is a soft, supple cotton, usually in pastels.  The classic Kikoy has tassels, either knotted or beaded.  The fabric itself is perfect for quilting or aprons, or even traditional shawls. 
I bought my Kikoy fabric in a well stocked store, from skeptical gentlemen, who didn’t understand my selections, but who were more than willing to serve me.

My quest was not yet over, however.  I had been given a length of wax print fabric, a year ago, by a Nigerian student.  After a little research, I learned that wax printing is a type of batik, block printing, often done outside Africa, but favored within Africa for traditional clothing.  As soon as I arrived in Kenya, I began to see women wearing traditional dresses made with this kind of fabric, known as Kitenge.  And the more I saw, the more determined I was to come home with a piece of Kitenge fabric.  

I looked in several stores, and found only a few Kintenge pieces, in colors and designs i didn’t particularly like.  Finally I found a good selection at a place called Lucky Wear. The pieces were precut in 5.5 meter lengths.  I felt very lucky.

After my success in Kenya, I was prepared to hold back in Uganda.   I didn’t have free time to look for fabric, but I was fortunate.  A friend gave me a piece of traditional Ugandan fabric, which is a heavy, closely woven cotton, in brilliant reds, yellows, black and violet.  It is very different from the Kikoys I found in Kenya.  Finally, in a restaurant where we ate on our way to the airport, I struck gold.  There, on our last night in Africa, I found a 12 yard length of Kitenge fabric, that is the most beautiful of all. 

I have not been cured from my fabric tourism.  Now, it’s time to start making these pieces into quilts and clothes.   

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Education, Education, Education

When I visited the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, one class performed a choreographed rap for me.  The students were energetic and excited about the message.  It was a little hard to follow, but the refrain was easy:  “Education, education, education!”  And everywhere I went, the thirst for education, the motivation for learning, and the belief in its importance was strong.  From the Kwa Watoto School in the Mathere slum, to the Gentle Bells School in the Rift Valley, to the campus of Uganda Christian University, I heard the same refrain.  Education is the path to progress.
As an educator, this was an appealing notion.  I too believe that education leads to all kinds of good things, so I set about trying to understand how education functions in these two African countries. 

In Kenya I visited two schools with very few resources, serving children from poor homes, often from illiterate parents.  The most striking aspect of these two schools was the dedicated, effective leadership.  It reinforced my belief that school leadership is the key to effective schools in Kenya, Uganda and Massachusetts.  It did not seem related to an overall education strategy, but to the presence of innovative leaders.  

I saw school names posted along almost every road I travelled in Kenya, especially outside the city.  The country is burgeoning with schools.  In a place where there are many uneducated families, perhaps, just the presence of schools is a strong signal.  Parents are willing to sacrifice much to send their children to school.  However, I also know that there is probably much variation in the quality of these many schools.  The fact that I was able to visit two outstanding schools, is probably not fully representative, although I hope it is.  Nevertheless, the growth of an educated population is the most positive sign I witnessed in Kenya as well as Uganda.

My experience in Uganda was similar, although my view into the culture was from a different perspective.  I visited a university campus, and was present at the graduation of 1688 degree candidates.  I talked to people who were training teachers, who understood the history of education, and who saw the topic in a more global way.

The population statistics we heard in Uganda were stunning.  48% of the population is 14 or under.  Only 2.5 % of the population is 65 and over.  As an educator, that spoke to me of the need for schools, especially primary and secondary schools.  As in Kenya, there were signs advertising schools on every road we travelled.  Some schools are government sponsored.  Many are private schools, run by various groups, including Christian and Muslim organizations, or even parents.  Some are boarding schools; others are day schools.

What surprised me was that there were very few graduates of Uganda Christian University who were training to become teachers.  The business and law schools were much more popular.  It was explained to me that the pay for teachers was so low ($160 per month), that a teacher could not support a family with that profession.  Government schools are overcrowded.  Different people cited class sizes of 50 to 100 children to one teacher.  Clearly, little education takes place in such a setting.  Teaching is a profession that draws only the most dedicated individuals.  Even with such conditions, some people give everything to be teachers.  These were the kind of young graduates who earned an education degree.

Yet schools are everywhere.  The enrollment at Uganda Christian University is booming.  Of the graduates we saw, many were from families where the parents were illiterate  Parents sacrifice much to pay tuition for their children.
The most encouraging development is not the number of schools, or the love of education.  It is the fact that many young men and women are earning university degrees in order to go out to make their country better.  Perhaps the education system is not working the way it should, but university graduates are individuals who will make sure it works for their own children.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Beautiful hair

Although I only spent three weeks in Africa, I was impressed by the many beautiful African women I saw and met.  The first Sunday when we attended services at the cathedral, my head was turning at the beautiful dresses, and elegant hairstyles.  Many women had high foreheads which emphasized their hair.  It reminded me of the fourteenth century in Europe, when women plucked the hair on their forehead to achieve this look.  Here it was in one woman after another, and it was natural, and very striking.  I suddenly understood the craze in the 14th century.
Hairstyles were varied and often reflected the age of the woman.  Many, especially older women, wore their hair short, and used large earrings to set off the style.  Others wore their hair somewhat longer, but caught it in a ponytail or bun.  Some women straightened their hair,  However, the style that turned my head most often was the braid.
There were many elaborate braids.  One of the most popular rowed the braids back to a bun.  Often the braids were dyed so that the different rows were red or an orange henna color.
Sometimes, especially for young girls, the braids were plain but tight and straight.
The braiding was clearly a fine art practiced mostly by the young who were looking to impress.  They succeeded with me.  Finally, in addition to flowered turbans, and Muslim headscarfs, the most unique headdress was a bowl of fruit.  Bananas were easy, but a platter of mangos or papayas, showed real mastery.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Long Way Home

I am home.  It took over 40 hours from the time we left Murchison Falls in our vans to when we landed in Boston, but the time was short considering how far we traveled.  We left a wild kingdom in the north west corner of Uganda.  Driving the red gravel road past round huts, and banana fields, passing small villages where the houses were made of concrete blocks, and past gas stations offering limited amenities, coming to the outskirts of a city where there were small supermarkets and hotels, stopping at a hotel with a relaxing patio and a delicious dinner, and arriving at a modern airport took about 10 hours.  It was a transition from the country to the city, from the simple to the developed with all the problems and charms of both situations.

When we arrived at the airport, having passed security at the roadway, and the entrance to the departure hall, we found that our flight had been delayed by two hours.  It was already late by that time, so the coffee we drank in the small food court did nothing to keep our eyes open.  We dozed in airport armchairs, until the delayed KLM flight arrived from Amsterdam.  Somehow, those blue uniformed officers and "service personnel" seemed perky and wide awake.  The passengers, however, stumbled on board and sought their pillows avidly.  In spite of the late hour (it was almost 2 am when we boarded), the meal service was unaltered. They served chicken or pasta to anyone who stayed awake.  Peter ate, but I just pulled a blanket over my head and slept.  Eventually he slept too.  As we approached Amsterdam, there were a lot of announcements about making connections.  We were lucky because we had a 5 hour layover originally, which gave us time to spare.  We were planning to meet my brother and niece with two of her children in the airport.  After a stop at the bathrooms where I put my contact lenses back in, we headed to the arrivals hall to make the rendez-vous.  One more stamp in the passport, which is almost 10 years old, and is getting pretty full.  We were supposed to meet at the Starbucks, but as we were searching, they appeared in front of us.  It was all like magic.  They led us to the panoramic restaurant where we had coffee and pain au chocolat.  We had not seen her baby, and her son Ashua had been a baby the last time we saw him, so it was a good reunion.

 Then, we headed back to departures, said farewell, had the passports stamped again, and found our way to the right gate. As we moved down the corridor on our way to Gate E18, we noticed steely clouds behind the white KLM jets.  As we walked closer to take a photo, a rainbow appeared over the airport.  It was the second rainbow in two days, and felt like a blessing on our flight.
 The final flight to Boston seemed long.  Sleep was not easy, and we were restless in our seats.  The legs always seem cramped, and it is impossible to get comfortable.  But we arrived on time, and Kate was waiting at the entrance.  She had made an apple pie for us, so when we got home we had a short celebration before we collapsed.  I was in bed by 4:30 in the afternoon and slept for 10 hours.

The trip is over, but my mind teems with thoughts and reflections.  I downloaded my photos (over 3000 of them), and unpacked my bags.  There will be many more stories to share as I unpack my thoughts.  I have enjoyed writing about the trip, and I think I have a few more entries left in my head.  I will continue to write until I have it all out of my system.  I know that many of my readers have enjoyed hearing about the trip.  Perhaps you will continue to follow the post script.  I probably will write less frequently, but there is at least a month of topics to go.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Magnificent Majestic. Magical Murchison

The visit to Murchison Falls requires two steps.  The Serbian group that shared the boat with us disembarked at the base of the rapids and climbed the rocky path to the top of the falls.  We stretched the visit over two days.  The first trip was the approach to the base of the falls.  

The mist rose in the air before we saw the water falling.  The Victoria Nile drops four times between Lake Victoria and Lake Albert, and Murchison Falls is the greatest drop. Before the dam was built upstream, the falls were even more spectacular. Foamy bits of bio matter float on the surface. Our guide told us that the foam was from the water hyacinths in the river which were crushed going over the rocks.  The water plunges 141 feet to the base of the rocks before flowing the few  remaining kilometers to Lake Albert where the Victoris Nile joins the Albert Nile and flows toward Egypt.  
After the boat ride we returned to the lodge for a relaxing swim and dinner, before packing.
We had to catch the early ferry, and then drove to the top of the falls.  What a spectacular view!  Words pale.  I will merely show a few images.  The power of the water was amazing.  What a great finish to our visit to Murchison Falls.

Hippo Heaven

It seems as though half the hippos in Uganda arranged themselves along the Nile for our exclusive benefit.  On an afternoon boat ride, we watched hundreds of hippos, mostly lounging in the water, clumped together, or sometimes swimming placidly in the middle of the river.
 There were males, females and small ones.  
Although most were in the water, as is their habit during the day, a few were on land grazing.  
They are usually night eaters and only come on land when the sun sets, but sometimes, when they haven't had enough, they continue to eat during the day.  We were fortunate to see them.  Perhaps the rain the previous night had slowed them down.  They are big animals, and take their grazing seriously.
We also saw a few crocodiles and more birds.
 There is a mud wall formation along the river where kingfishers and red throated beefeaters build their nests in holes they drill into the earth.

And along the riverbank we saw baboons, warthogs, buffalo, Oribis, water bucks, and many water birds.


Our game drive was spectacular.  Every animal in the park did not reveal itself, but that is unrealistic.  The sky was one of the major players.  It was cloudy when we set off at 7 am, and throughout the morning the charcoal, blue set off white puffs of clouds.  Blue sky peeked through, and rain occasionally showered the ground.  
Against the charcoal sky, the tawny savannah highlighted the animals.  Their camouflage was striking.  Sometimes dry bushes moved or sticks stood up in the grass.  Other times an animal spotting turned out to be a clump of acacia or a termite mound.  
And in the distance the  Nile snaked through the landscape.
The lions were probably sleeping off a previous meal.  The elephants watched from far away beside the river.  
But the hills were full of Rothchild giraffes, Hartebeests, Oribis and Uganda Kob.
There were herds of buffaloes surrounded by clouds of white egrets.  
And in the hippo pool there was a convention.

 Baboons, warthogs, bush bucks grazed close to the river.  Birds of many types sang and swooped through the tall acacia trees.
It was a magical morning, even without the lions.  Our driver, Matthew brought along the best pineapples I have ever eaten, and a basket of perfect mangos which he carved up with his razor sharp knife.
The road was a muddy mess because of rain the previous day.  We thought we might be blocked by a huge truck which was mired in the mud.  But another truck gave it a shove, and 4 wheel drive saved the day for all of us.  

We made it home for lunch.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Game Drive tomorrow

We arrived in Murchison Falls Park this afternoon after a long drive from Kampala. Dinner was sumptuous and we're turning in early. There is a gene drive departing at 7 tomorrow morning, so I'm hoping to post lots of photos tomorrow evening.  It's a wild world out there.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Out on Safari

Tomorrow we leave Kampala early in the morning for a drive northwest to Murchison Falls. We will cross the Nile at the Falls and spend the night on the other side at a lodge in the park to prepare for an early game drive on Friday morning.  I don't know if I will have internet access but my camera is charged and ready, so you can expect new photos as soon as internet is available.  Stay tuned.

Going to the Zoo, Zoo, Zoo

Entebbe has a zoo.  It's not a shiny, flashy zoo  but the animals are indigenous and seem to be well cared for.  Monkeys swarm everywhere, and anyone foolish enough to offer food is instantly surrounded.  They are common vervet or red tailed monkeys which climb and play.  
Verdant trees with gnarled branches shade the pathways.  The trees are home to noisy, social bird life, which is surprisingly hard to see.
In the enclosures we watched lions and a leopard. There was a chimpanzee, and various herbivores, like antelope, impala, zebra, water bucks, and buffalo.  
There was an ostrich and a crested crane which is the official bird of Uganda.  
And under a footbridge two leathery crocodiles sunned like statues.
The zoo was full of school groups.  Each different school wore a different uniform and they decorated the zoo more than the animals.  The most colorful was a uniform in pink and deep purple.  The children smiled and waved at us.  One little girl startled me by sinking to her knees and bowing her head in front of me.  I have never been treated that way, and I had no idea how to respond.  All day I've been thinking of things I should have said. Otherwise, the presence of school groups felt very familiar.  I'm glad that so many children got to visit the zoo.