New Years had come and gone and we were back in our usual work routine. Joined in the office with the PHH team, Jennifer, Mama Oyet, Santina and Sylvia, we waited for the remaining women to come and claim the few and small jewelry orders I had to give.
It’s standard practice when I first arrive for the women to come to greet me in hopes of procuring an order. Sadly, there are too many of them and too small of a market to be able to give all of the artisans sufficient work. 2020 was especially trying. Because of COVID, I didn’t participate in a single in-person event to sell their crafts. In a typical year, I’d schlep all the goods to 50+ events, often traveling to nearby states to maximize our reach. Our only sales in 2020 came from our online presence. Despite my aggressive marketing, there was no way to bridge the gap in sales.
For Christmas, I always send the equivalent of about $10 to each of the women so that they can purchase a chicken for their family’s Christmas dinner. This past December, I didn’t. The budget was just too tight. And with COVID still raging, I’ve had to make hard choices so that PHH can survive another year.
In consolation, when I returned for New Year’s, I made sure that every woman received an order for about $15 so, at least, they’d have rent for the month. $15 may not sound like much, but when there’s about 100 active artisans, it multiplies in a blink. And besides, after 15 years of buying more than I could ever possibly sell, our warehouse (ahem, my basement) is overflowing with product I buy out of sympathy, not exactly the ideal way to run a business. It highlights the never-ending strain. After all, PHH is a non-profit and aims to serve the Acholi Quarter, but, in reality, we’re still a business that needs to turn a profit so our work can continue. Suffice it to say, I have a very colorful basement.
Most of the women had already come to get their orders, hoping that if they finished quickly, they might procure a second order. There was only one remaining order left to give, for Layet Christine. I was distracted by a conversation with one of the women, when Christine quietly slipped into the building and seated herself on the bench outside of the office. I looked up, locked eyes with her. My throat tightened and my eyes instinctively filled with tears. My heart pounded more heavily with each step I took towards her.
Christine speaks pretty much no English and my Acholi, even after all of these years, is pathetically limited. But, as is the case for the most emotional exchanges, a common language is an unnecessary vehicle. I slowly approached her, my eyes cast downward, in the way we so often do when we pass the homeless begging for assistance. I did not want to see the depth of sadness in her eyes, knowing that in acknowledging it, Washington’s death would become real.
“I’m so sorry,” I uselessly whispered. “I’m so very sorry.” We both struggled to restrain the tears and to avoid eye contact, knowing that neither of us had the strength to withhold the tears if we saw the depths of the other’s sadness. Of all the unfortunate and unnecessary deaths I’ve experienced in the Quarter, the death of her husband was too much to bear.
Washington was one of the few men in the Quarter that would work just as hard as the women. I had grown accustomed to people seeing my photos and asking where were all the men. By rote, my response was matter of fact, and without much tact. “Probably getting drunk, or f---ing around, or beating their wives.” But not Washington, with his wide smile, he was always engaged in meaningful work to help provide for his family.
Married for 34 years, they had four children together and were the caregivers for another 5 children. A carpenter and roofer by trade, on December 14, Washington was replacing old timber on the roof of a local church. Descending the ladder, he mis-stepped and fell. Conscious, but in pain, they rushed him to the hospital. He had a broken rib and a dislocated shoulder, but he also had internal bleeding. At 3am, on December 16, Washington passed on from the living world.
His body was taken back to his home village of Padibe in Northern Uganda where he was laid to rest near his late parents. Christine remained in the North with her grieving family until after New Year’s. One can only grieve for so long when there are 9 children dependent on you alone.
We gave Christine a small order for jewelry and then I silently gave her a bag. Inside there were two 8x10 framed photos of her and Washington from the 2019 New Year’s Eve party, standing beside each other, fingers casually and familiarly, intertwined.
A little more than a week later, I gathered together with the women of PHH on a Saturday afternoon in the PHH building. Since COVID prevented us from having our usual New Year’s Eve bash and forced us to postpone our 15th anniversary celebration, I wanted a chance to gather together, laugh and dance and forget about our individual and shared struggles. To enjoy the moment. To enjoy the company. To kick back with a soda or a beer and let loose. As per any of our parties, some women were invariably inclined to get a little looser than others, which would lead to riotous laughter and a greater escape from the burdens we each carried.
This, in itself, is an evolution for me. For the first few years after I started PHH, I was frugal with every last penny. I’d never consider something as scandalous as wasting $30, or, great horror, $50, to buy crates of soda and beer and gather together with the women. The importance of camaraderie and connection was somewhat lost on me. I’d think only of the hard work it took to earn the money, of the faith people who made a purchase or gave a donation bestowed upon me, of the money needed to pay school fees for the kids or to give a woman a loan. I wouldn’t squander a cent. It took time for me to realize the importance of balancing work with play – not just in the PHH world, but in my own life.
In Uganda, when a child doesn’t do well academically, they diplomatically call him a slow learner. That term aptly applies to me in this regard, as well as in many other regards, but you’ll have to keep reading to understand.
My family is kind and loving and wonderful, and provided me with unlimited support and opportunities, but my family, pretty much in its entirety, is made up of serial workaholics. Some have mellowed over the years, but that’s a recent development. In my formative years, they diligently and reverently passed down the Italian work ethic paired with the Catholic guilt complex. And undoing that shit isn’t easy. In Uganda, I was there to work, not to joke around, and certainly not to waste time, a commodity valued even above money.
In my early days, I would sit restlessly as Mama Oyet would tell one of her rambling stories, which wasn’t so much a story, but more of made up concoctions intended to poke fun at someone and garner a laugh. As she’d tell one of these seemingly never-ending and pointless tales, I’d sit there agitated, thinking of all the better and more useful things I could be doing, of the time we were wasting. I failed to value her gift of diffusing stress and her ability to unify. Over time, I’d come to encourage her stories and laugh louder than the others, grateful for the reprieve from the harsh realities that surrounded us.
This personal transformation, from frugal workaholic to laid back (okay, so maybe that’s a stretch) partier, was on display during the Saturday afternoon gathering. The women danced with abandon, taking turns on the drum and the calabash – a dried and hollowed out gourd that can serve many purposes for the Acholi, including that of a percussion instrument. The energy was electric. I stood to the side, watching them and laughing voraciously at their antics. Aciro Agnes and Adibo Christine donned masculine clothing and fake beards and took leading roles in a rendition of a traditional war dance.
Some of the more reserved women seated themselves on the benches lining the makeshift dance floor, sitting quietly in the way wallflowers might do at their first high school dance (think that scene at the end of Footloose before Kevin Bacon entered and ignited the dance floor).
Then there was the handful of women who took full advantage of the extra crate of beer I ponied up and, drunkenly, without reservation, or balance, danced recklessly, swilling and spilling their bottles of beer.
In the middle of the most enthusiastic dancers, was Layet Christine. Sipping her Coca Cola, she danced, seemingly, without a care in the world. I watched her, and instinctively smiled, but felt a quiet sadness. Three weeks ago, she buried her husband. The sole provider for nine children now, the burden she carries is beyond the depth of my understanding. She could have chosen not to come to the party. She could have just sat on the sidelines as a bystander, unengaged. Instead, she took center stage and chose to dance and to laugh and to forget, for the briefest of moments, that her life had been turned upside down.
She smiled back at me as she saw me watching her. I was overwhelmed with one thought. Resilience. Each one of these women dancing before me has it in spades. They choose happiness over despair, despite their hardships or nightmarish history. I admire them tremendously.