Banana Tree Road

There’s something special about where I am at right now. While driving through small towns and the bigger cities throughout Eastern Uganda I’ve felt something. A vibe, a beat, a song, a rhythm. But it’s not something you hear or see – it’s something you feel. In Mbale, the feeling was as bright as the sun but as cool as the glass bottle of coke sold at every little store than lines the main road. In Tororo the feeling is as friendly as a family member and as fast-paced as the motorbikes that do not fear the bumpy dirt roads. Where does this energy come from? What is the source of the undeniable and irrevocable movement?

You guessed it. It’s the people.

The women in beautiful and vibrantly-worn traditional dress with huge baskets, pots, and bags balanced on their heads, holding the hand of one child with another child in a wrap around her back. All this, while still having a loud and happy conversation with one or two other mothers carrying the same containers and children.

The men with their rolled up jeans and bare-feet. They carry a stick and follow a herd of three to as many as thirty cattle, goats, and sheep through chaotic roads full of bora-boras (motor-cycle drivers) and huge busses called matatus that often carry up to eighteen people at a time.

From the outside looking in, this is an admirable culture, no doubt. But after having a conversation with more than thirty farmers in the past two days I can genuinely say that the culture is authentically and exceptionally inspiring.

My road-trip crew for the week is Nash, Aloice, Matilda, and Jacob. Nash, the driver, is full of laughter and jokes. I got to visit his church last week and see his passion for Christ overflow. Aloice, our “Kenyan Papa,” was the first person to take us under his wing this summer. He is a wonderful friend that I hope I will keep for years to come. Matilda is a mother, a farmer, a PhD Student, a wife, and works with ICIPE on empowering farmers through sharing her knowledge. Jacob is the other intern from Iowa that I have gotten to work with for the past forty-eight days! We’ve also been joined by some Ugandan ICIPE field staff to help us communicate with the farmers that don’t speak English.

Today after someone mentioned how the supposed short drive was “taking quite a lot of time today,” we were assured that we would be with the farmers in “five minutes’ time.” An hour later, when I was beginning interviews I was reminded of some of my favorite people back home who tend to run a little later (Matt and Michelle this one’s for you).

Now I want to talk a little bit about the farmers that I got to talk to today. We were in a region where rice grows alongside the banana trees and maize is only one of the many crops grown frequently. I talked to a very bright, fifty-five-year-old women named Kitimbo who told me that she seeks out information about agricultural technologies because “you have to learn what you don’t know!” She was engaged in farming to ensure her household’s food security and wore a very beautiful maroon and beige traditional dress.

Another woman, named Agutu shared with me speaking in Swahili, that new farming technologies are very important to her because her husband is a polygamist. If she doesn’t provide the food for her family, there are no guarantees on whether or not her children will eat. She sat in a chair right outside two mud-built homes. She told me she was more comfortable sitting on the ground but I sat on a small bench, insisting that she take my seat. She pointed out the children that were hers and they came a greeted me.

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This farmer is not Agutu. This is simply a farmer from the same village who said taking pictures with her and her children was welcomed. 
I talked to a one-acre-farmer named Biyinzika. He wore a holey shirt and a tired but kind smile. He appeared to me someone who had an abundance of knowledge despite the fact he never had the opportunity to go to school. This means he can only receive information about farming through radio programs that speak the local language. These radio programs are few and far between. Sometimes his farmer group sends him text messages but he struggles with reading them.

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This also is not Biyinzika. This is another Ugandan farmer from the same village who gave us permission to take photos. 
While sitting under the dried-grass roof of her mud-built home to hide from the rain, farmer and mother, Abiot, told me that the only way to ensure a high-quality food source for her children is if she is on the farm, seeking out new technologies in agriculture. She also was suffering from visual inabilities, so she wanted to know if there were any training opportunities for farming with handicaps.

Truthfully, I’ve been avoiding talking about the farmers that I’m meeting. But I’ve been avoiding it for only one reason. I don’t have the capabilities to paint you a picture of these farmers that would do them justice. They do not come to ask for help or hand-outs. They are well aware that I don’t have much to offer them. They come to help, they come to learn, they come to laugh, they come to share, they come to grow, they come to ask one another if their second oldest son is doing better or how the fourth oldest daughter finished in school; they come to be a part of a great-big loving community that is working hard to ensure the quality of food and education for future generations.

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Here is the group of farmers we interviewed on the second day of our Uganda trip!
The four farmers that I mentioned in this post were truly special. With unique and important things to say. But please don’t forget that the other thirty-four Ugandan farmers that I’ve talked to in the past two days have voices, stories, joys, and pains. They are all individuals, they all laugh when I try to say thank you in their local language (“ya-la-ma”), and they all get very somber when talking about hunger in their homes.

img_2448.jpgOn the drive back we noticed a series of about ten banana trees that were planted right in the middle of the road. We asked the translator we had with us about these road blocks. He laughed and replied “peaceful demonstration.” The people in the village had asked the government to come and fix the road that goes through their village. After getting no response, the people living there decided that if they couldn’t drive on the roads, they might as well make a garden out of the road. They are waiting for the government to react. Please try telling me these aren’t an intelligent and incredible people. It’s not the bananas that made the road, it was the people. Just like Uganda doesn’t make this story, the people do.

This story reminded me of how incredibly lucky I am to have been able to spend my summer in Kenya and Uganda. I am fully aware that through just one interview, one conversation, or even driving through one village I am a better me because of it. I started learning the minute my plane left Omaha and that learning hasn’t stopped yet, nor will it – ever. This culture and these people have made it impossible not to fall in love.

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