Uganda’s heritage for inspiration

Africa already attracted me for a long time. About a year ago, I saw a documentary about the East-African countries. I was fascinated about what was shown. By talking about that documentary with a friend, I was introduced to Theo Vos. Theo was living in Groningen but originally from Karamoja, Uganda. We met with each other at the JANBOELO studio in Winschoten and spoke about Uganda, with Karamoja in particular. I was immediately intrigued about the wonderful pictures and stories he shared! As a gift, Theo gave me a Nakatukok. A Nakatukok is some sort of blanket which the Karamajong use as a garment, blanket, baby carrier etc. This inspired me to see how we could make something like that for the European market.

Time passed and I still walked around with the idea from the Nakatukok. In the passing time, I met some people in Amsterdam from the DesignHub in Kampala Uganda. They were working on a project to collaborate with Dutch and Ugandan companies. This was the moment that everything came together. After much talking about the possibilities I took the plunge: I go to Uganda!

I have kept contact with Theo as well all that time and he wanted to show me Karamoja as I arrived. He would give me insight in the Karamajong and their habits. So the moment I arrived in Entebbe, Theo picked me up at the airport. Together with my brother and Chongz, one of the guides from Theo’s company, Kara-Tunga, we started our journey to Karamoja.

The first stop was in Jinja, after already having travelled 21 hours, we got to freshen up at the Kingfisher Safari Resort which was very nice. We also had a typical Ugandan breakfast with rolex (some sort of pancake with fried eggs rolled up, rolled-eggs = rolex). After that it was time to go by boat to the beginning of the Nile. It was an amazing experience to be at the start of the world’s longest river. Especially on a small boat. When we got back on land it was time to get on the road again to Mbale.

After 4 hours we arrived in Mbale. We stopped for a little while to get some lunch and to visit the bank for some cash as we would not be near a bank in the coming days. In Uganda they use the Ugandan Schilling, one euro is about 4000 Schilling, so can you imagine how rich I felt when I got a hundred euros in Schilling?! Haha!

Once on the road again, we had about 4 hours ahead of us before arriving at the Kara-Tunga guesthouse in Moroto. The more we drove to the North, the more quiet it became and the more nature was in sight. While on the road, we had our first African Sunset, which was amazing! After dark, we drove through the Pain Upe Game reserve. It was exciting, as the sides of the road were filled with trees and high grass. The speed limit was around 60 km/h. And there was the risk of Lions or Elephants jumping out of the grass. Unfortunately, we had to see none of them. We arrived late at the Kara-Tunga guesthouse and went straight to bed, as the next day we had to get up early for our schedule.

The next morning we went together with Chongz and Peter (another guide from Kara-Tunga) to visit some tribes who lived nearby. The first tribe we visited was just accros the Kenian border. They’ve had never seen a white person before. So that was a very special experience: I have never been so much stared at before in my life. After talking with them for a while, they came to believe that I was nog sick and that it was just the skin color of Europeans. Although they were reticent (because of my color), they showed me around their village and we got to see how they work with aloe-vera which they collect in the region to prepare for trading. Also they showed me how they worked with leather, I got to see how they prepare the skin of a goat, which they occasionally eat from their herd. The skin gets softened by cow-butter. By using this and rubbing it into the skin, the skin gets very smooth. But the smell of the butter was something to squeeze your nose to.

After getting back in Moroto, it was time to visit the local market to buy some Nakatukok’s for the project I would do later on the week in Kampala. On the market I was overwhelmed by all the products they had to offer. There were several market stalls which had Nakatukok’s to offer. I could not choose so I picked a lot (and was hoping they would fit in my suitcase on the flight back to the Netherlands). Also I bought some necklaces, bracelets and a very cool belt, hand-made of small little beads. They might come in handy with future projects, as I am already so much inspired, an African collection is in mind!

The market was very inspiring, but the most inspiring experience was still coming up: visiting the ‘Kraal’ of one of the Matheniko Tribes. A Kraal is a temporary camp where the men of the tribe stay to watch over the cattle, they go out with their cattle by day and return by sunset. We would stay the night there as well. It was a 2-hour drive to a place in the middle of the Matheniko game reserve. When we arrived, we got welcomed by the tribe oldest and we were shown around in the Kraal. Everyone was very friendly and welcomed us. They showed us how they teach the children to guard over the goats. They are responsible for their well-being. The children go out with them to graze and they collect the milk. The older men do the same with the cows. We were shown by some of the men how they ‘milk’ the blood from a cow. The blood is one of the main food sources the men have in the Kraal. Cow blood is full of nutrients and gives the men the energy they need.

As the darkness fell, we sat around the campfire and exchanged stories while having a home brewed beer. They offered a goat for us for diner as well. It was a strange experience to watch them slaughter the goat, and the offers they made with it. The goat gave the oldest also an opportunity to watch over the future. He came with the good news that there would be no harm in the nearby future. While sitting around the campfire and exchanging stories I have learned a lot of these men. Not only about the Nakatukok, but also in terms of culture and how they look upon life. In this respect, we can learn many things from their culture.

After we have packed our tent and stuff, the next morning we drove to Kidepo Valley National Parc, by CNN named; one of the 3 most beautiful parks of Africa! And so it was, what a wonderful nature! The park covers 3 countries, Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. By car we drove through the park and have seen a wide variety of animals, to the most colourful birds up to the grandeur of elephants.

After 4 days in Karamoja, it was time to drive back to Kampala, where I would start the collaboration with Xenson at the Design Hub. The day of arrival, we visited an exhibit of him in a gallery. I was deeply impressed by his work. It was difficult to find his work in advance, as people in Africa aren’t much active on social media like us in Europe.

The first day of the project was to discover, making plans and brainstorm about it. My idea was to make a Nakatukok for our culture. How convenient would it be if you have a jacket you can change into a bag? For this idea, we made sketches. Xenson and I were on de same level of understanding. The challenge was mainly in the pattern technical part. The jacket/bag had to come from 1 Nakatukok. This is because I wanted to work with the prints and fabric of a Nakatukok.

The next day, Xenson and I met at the market to buy all the stuff we needed. This was overwhelming! You have to imagine, you come in some sort of big building, with all tiny little shops, all of which bulged out of zippers, yarn, fabrics, buttons and so on. The ‘fabric’ I already bought in Moroto, a real Nakatukok. So we didn’t have to look for fabric. But we had been looking to gather other nice stuff at various shops all morning long.

Once back in the DesignHub, we could get to work. We had to work with the resources we had at the Design Hub, because well, it’s not your own workplace and you don’t have your own machinery and tools. But after a while, the pattern was drawn; almost literally on the fabric to make sure it fit. All buckles, belts and zippers were sewn by hand, because our African sewing machine could not handle the thickness of the fabric. It was a back to basic experience, but it was worth it.

After 2 days of working on the jacket, the sample was ready. It was, if I may say so myself, a very successful sample. All belts ran exactly as we wanted and also the sleeves could well be turned into additional pockets in the bag.  I was amazed at how we made a jacket with so many details in such a short period of time. The idea is to take the jacket to the Netherlands. I want to fine tune the jacket in the Netherlands and then produce them in limited editions. In Moroto, I had bought different Nakatukok with different colours and prints. This will form the base of the jackets. Soon they will be available on our to be opened webshop.

With the sale of the jackets, we will help the people in Moroto district to increase trade. The jackets are made of polyester; however, it doesn’t feel like it at all.

During my stay in Kampala, I also had contact with a weaving mill in Kampala. Their fabrics are still traditionally hand-woven, it is phenomenal what they can do! They use mainly cotton which is grown in Uganda and also made there into threads. From beginning to end it is made in Uganda. In the longer term, we will also collaborate with them, so we can offer also cotton jackets in the future.  And together with another participant of the project, which is a small manufacturing company in Kigali, Rwanda, we already have plans to see if we can do the production of the jackets over there.

Feeling inspired by this trip and you consider going to Uganda as well? Here are some interesting adresses:

Kara-Tunga Tours (Theo Vos)
Circular Road, Plot 80,
PO Box 127  Moroto, Oeganda

Design Hub Kampala
5th Street, Plot 3 Bata Close
PO Box 7381 Kampala, Uganda