One of the perks of being a humanitarian, and a big perk at that, is that when there is immediate conflict at your door step, you will most likely get evacuated. I add that this is a big perk because the reality is that you get evacuated when you are not a national staff, and especially if you are white. Nevertheless, the organization with whom I work places staff security on the top of their priority lists, just right under being in the midst of conflict to provide for those residents and bystanders stuck in the middle of it.
While living out my six-month displacement period, I had to somehow make life work despite the many unknowns, which was helped by the surplus of coffee and tea bars, and green, cool weather. They say that shopping is somewhat therapeutic. For me I can’t say that that necessarily holds true, WalMart at Christmas season is well, somewhat scary. But I did enjoy getting to go shopping across East Africa, touring artisanal crafts, jewelry and housewares, all handmade and housed in artsy shops. While shopping doesn’t necessarily calm my soul, art is pure therapy.
One of my favorite past times when travelling is to purchase unique pieces for my future home, if and when I ever settle into it. By buying art and homewares, I get a glimpse of what makes that place tick: what the economy is made up of, how the people view themselves in an artistic sense. It is worth noting that the items I would buy are not what the ordinary citizen would buy in East Africa. They are made for tourists, or wealthier residents who can indulge artisans with a livelihood, which I personally love to support. Many shops I choose to support are fair trade cooperatives, places of work that are directly impacting more often than not women’s lives. I note that supporting women is huge; these are the people who are responsible raising up the next generation of men and women, and a stable income is a big step in raising stronger future leading citizens. The added bonus of shopping at these places is that you don’t have to haggle down prices or be followed around by shopkeepers trying to convince you that their woven scarf is better than the next shopkeeper’s often identical scarf.
Shopping locally in a bid to support local artisans is something fun for me, something that you can do from your home too. So let me give you a tour, country by country in East Africa, of the places I love and love to support.
First and foremost in this tour, my country of longest residence and where my work and heart are most tied. South Sudan is conflict based; most of the places I shop are unfortunately not for sale online because ground production can be halted at any time due to acute conflict. But these fair trade cooperatives, all found in Juba, are worth mentioning anyway. Most have been started by Western women hoping to improve communities and especially women’s lives in the Juba vicinity, the Equatorias, although one was started by a very entrepreneurial South Sudanese lady.
Anyieth D’Awol is the founder of The Roots Project whose mission is to “help the women of South Sudan craft a new nation”. Bead a new nation would be the better verb, as the women come together from many different tribes, Dinka, Nuer, Murle and others, to bead both modern and traditional pieces of jewelry. The sale of the jewelry helps the women not only work together across ethnic lines, but it provides them with a fixed income, two meals per day at the Roots center, and the chance to further their education via literacy and math classes. Jewelry, painting and basket purchases can be made directly at the Roots Center in Juba, see their Facebook page for directions, and for curious customers outside of Juba, via their email, email@example.com. A popular way to raise funds for this organization is to host a jewelry party, which my mom has done in the past with some success. Also, interested parties can donate directly to the cause via their website which is up-to-date and easy to get around. I personally have four necklaces hanging up on my walls as art work, and wear a pair of earrings and bracelets from time to time.
An Austrian textile artist with a keen interest in Africa, named Eva Hönle, had heard about the struggle that South Sudanese women faced on a daily basis as a result of continual civil war, and saw a way that she could use her skill sets to help fill the need. After an initial visit to South Sudan, she learned about women who weaved in Lomin, a town not too far from the Ugandan border. She visited Lomin, and began talking with the women, and in the late 2010s opened up a cooperative selling cotton blankets, handbags, scarves, outfits, and even phone and tablet protectors woven on giant traditional handlooms. Eva still lives and works in Austria, but has been able to periodically visit the women of Lomin to not only ensure that the business is running properly, but to continue to support the women in business and weaving education. The goal of the project is to not only ensure that women are sustained through a stable income, but that cultures and traditions that the outstanding war has threatened to erase are being revived. “Lady Lomin, we weave the future” is the tagline and purchases can be made in Juba at Comboni Mission House. I have seen Lady Lomin products available for sale at Banana Boat stores, in Kampala, however I’ve had a harder time of locating them further abroad. As of July 2016, conflict directly affected the once generally peaceful area of Lomin and production has since been very slow. It is most likely that the women were forced to move into the refugee camps in neighboring Uganda. Some sites say that Eva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the Lady Lomin site, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Similar to Roots, donations can be made to support the Lady Lomin development project, with details on the website.
Lulu Life came to life in 2000 when South Sudan was still a part of Sudan. A French NGO started up a project known as the Lulu Livelihoods program to combat frequent hunger spells in Southern Sudan. The project’s goal was to teach women how to use their traditional skill sets of extracting shea oil from the Sudanese shea tree, vitellaria nilotica, or lulu in Sudanese Arabic, into a viable natural skincare business. Shea butter is known as a restorative skin toner that equally locks in moisture and is heavy in vitamins A and E. What is unique about Sudanese shea butter is that it is cold pressed, meaning that not only does it contain higher levels of healing agents, but it is much softer to apply to the skin compared with other shea butters. Skin care products include body butters, body scrubs, lip balms, mosquito repellents, and soaps. Butters are perfumed with lavender, citrus, oatmeal, mint, vanilla, honey and other essential oils. Lulu works has since grown into its own NGO, comprising of 40 women-owned-and operated shea butter processing centres with two administrative offices in Kenya who arrange for export to the USA and Switzerland. Lulu Life is available at a small roadside shop in Juba, but it is easier to be purchased in pharmacies and cosmetic shops in Nairobi and Kampala, or online here for USA residents or here for European residents.
*Note, all Lulu Life photos were taken directly from Lulu Life sales websites and are the property of Lulu Works.