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Back to My Ugandan Roots

In early August, I flew from Edmonton, Canada back to the roots of Women Who Dig, back to the place where the first words and stories took shape, back to the brownish-green rolling hills of Kabale where the women farmers were getting ready to harvest omugisha, or sorghum, a grain crop that defines being ‘Bakiga’ (the local ethnic group).

Sorghum is lesser known in North America, but in southwestern Uganda it’s a staple to every Bakiga household. On the way to Kabale, I saw women spreading and drying the seeds on woven mats and plastic tarps. The seeds are fine and beautiful, varying in shade from golden yellow to caramel coloured. After drying the seeds, women prepare a cultural drink, called obushera, whereby the seeds are allowed to germinate and are then fermented to produce a sweet-sour, grainy porridge. There’s a saying in Kabale that translates closely to: “If you don’t serve your guests obushera, may rats devour your home!”

The Bakiga women broadcast seeds in January and wait a long nine months to harvest sorghum, the food that defines them. Nine months. It’s the same period of time that I’ve been away from Uganda.

I left in December 2014 and arrived in Edmonton in the thick of winter. Over those nine months, I worked around 5 different odd jobs: from planting celeriac seeds and picking duck eggs on a farm to serving quesadillas on a film set to transcribing a PhD student’s interviews to freelancing for Vue Weekly to working a 9-5 cubicle communication gig.

Over those nine months, sadly, I did very little work on Women Who Dig. I was thrust back into the North American pace, politics and capitalist culture. I made money, I spent money and I gobbled up every tantalizing distraction that kept me from writing. Before I knew it, nine months were up and I was heading back home to finish writing my book.

“Home” is Kabale, a rural “off the tourist map” town in Uganda. It’s a pleasant place to write.

I wake with the birds, I boil water for tea, open my front door and invite in all the sounds that abound in this place: boda-boda motorcycles, bleating goats, the honk of the crested crane, music to shake your hips to, and the kids next door who poke their head in and call “Aunty Banana!” (After giving them a few sweet bananas, the name has just stuck).

As a writer, I love “Ugandan time”, which my friends joke is understood by the number of rooster crows and the position of the sun in the sky. Ugandan time extends into my social interactions, as well. Conversations and greetings are embedded everywhere I walk in town. There’s an inherent familiarity in Uganda between people, even people like me, a bumbling muzungu (foreigner), who doesn’t really belong but is “highly welcomed”, anyways.

The downfall of writing from Kabale; however, is the frequent power outages and inconsistent supply of electricity. I didn’t miss that while writing from Canada. And now with the dry harvest months over and the rainy season on the way, I can bet a few rain-induced landslides here and there will result in a regular supply of black outs.

Then again, I used to argue that Kabale’s power outages (and the shrinking battery percentage on my computer) actually made me a more resourceful writer, refusing to shrink to the paralyzing condition of “writer’s block” and instead, racing against the clock to finish an essay, article or chapter.

In an article for Verge Magazine, I wrote that:

Like the Ugandan farmers I’m writing about, peasant women who are identifying and utilizing local resources to their full potential, there’s nothing to be wasted here, including time. As a writer, I have to ration it like I ration water: 20 litres a day is enough for cooking, cleaning, bathing and flushing the toilet. Sixty minutes at the computer is enough to finish a 1000-word essay, or one-tenth of a chapter.

Mostly, I’m grateful to be closer to the ‘agricultural source’ in Kabale while finishing my manuscript. I breathe seed and soil here. The farmer’s markets are open 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. And everywhere I turn there’s evidence of Uganda’s women farmers making things grow. As I’ve written previously, their work humbles my own.