Ugandan artists’ crafts coming to Highland Games

August 6, 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield – Where there are needs, there is frequently a creative solution. So it was in Uganda, when an arts teacher, Jen, realized that many women, especially those in the rural villages, had no source of income. So she thought if they started something by making things they could create an income for them.

In 2006, she began by teaching them how to make batiks and jewellery with paper Mache. Many of them knew how to sew and weave cotton thread into fabric. Once they started, Jen took the first items to Germany to sell them in exhibitions with a view to supplying shops around Europe with African crafts.

Eventually, a co-op was developed which was joined by many women, many happy to work at making things and a few ready to travel to sell them.

“We are a team,” Caroline said in a recent interview. “There are about 12 of us who go to the various villages to collect, teach and suggest ideas to the artist women.”

She explained how it all works. “I teach them how to make the bracelets.  Another lady teaches making batiks but the ladies do the drawings themselves. We suggest to them what subjects and what colours sell the best but they do the drawings.”

Batiks are paintings of African life: the animals, the people and their way of life, the work, the villages; each is so appealing, so true to the subject, it is really difficult to choose among them. They are created by using dyes and wax on a thick canvas type of material.

The raw materials are purchased, some from the shops in the villages, others from larger stores in the city, as needed. Many of the dyes used are created from plants growing in their own area.

Jen continues to travel to Europe, particularly Germany, from which she negotiates larger orders to stores across the Continent.

One of the other travelling ladies, Sissy, takes the product to China, where it is very popular. Caroline told us that China is, by far, their largest market.

All the ladies have their own lives too. Caroline is married with four children, living in Kampala. She also has “two more dependent children, my brother’s children.” Her husband is a lawyer, working for a government department.

“Life is very stable in Uganda now,” she assured us. “Many people come from Europe and North America and do very well there. They have big homes and love the life so that they don’t want to go back to Europe or America.”

The steadiest ship of all, formerly, Kenya, is currently not stable at all with the recent attacks on the cities and the country by the group, Al- shebob.

“Tanzania is the most stable country in Africa,” Caroline commented.

Caroline’s sister lives in Toronto, where she has finished school, having studied community work. She is looking for work in that field. It is to her sister that Caroline ships all the goods she needs for the festival season.

Originally, she came to Canada to sell her goods at the CNE, in the International Building which is where we met her in 2008. The beauty of the Batiks is fascinating with the somewhat exaggerated drawings of the animals and the life of Africa. They are dreamy in a way and, yet, deliver the feeling of Africa quite clearly.

At the time we first met, Caroline was five months pregnant but still hauled her massive suitcase of materials back and forth in taxis. She was quite remarkable.

It is not only Batiks that she has to offer but kaftans, dresses, loose shirts and an assortment of jewellery. Much of the jewellery is assembled with hand-made paper beads but stone beads as well, collected locally, polished and drilled. She has some wooden figures, also carved by local artists.

What strikes one immediately is the density of colour.

There are no dull blacks or heavy browns. Everything is vibrant and exciting, just like the environment from which they come.

The part of the co-op she works with is in suburban areas of Kampala, also in the east of Uganda. All the ladies who sell the products abroad travel to the villages around Uganda, giving suggestions, sometimes, teaching the artists and, always working with them to produce the images most likely to appeal to the markets to which they travel. The workers are fairly paid for their efforts – this is a co-op where everyone does her share to make a living for all of them.

To begin, Caroline came to Toronto just to do the “Ex” but recently she has been coming earlier to sell in other festivals and, for the first time this year, she was introduced to the Highland Games circuit. There is a strong connection between Africa and the British, so Caroline’s beautiful handmade items are an interesting variation on the usual line of vendors at the festivals.

Her goods are lovely, yes, but the point of her travelling to sell them is to create work and stability in her own home country. Her real ambition is to connect with a shop or a string of them here when she can sell goods in reasonable bulk and all year round.

The artists are married or not, some are mothers; they work pretty well full time to provide these items. They all garden.

“They just grow their own food in the villages,” Caroline said.

It is a whole other life in the tropics, near the jungles, near the earth, the land from which we all came. And it is reflected in the colours and forms that Caroline sells.

Caroline is participating at the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games this weekend, August 8 to 10.

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