Lessons from Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker

As we prepare to leave Uganda, I can’t help but think of the day we spent at Fort Patiko.

One slower day when Laura and I were waiting to hear from villages with decisions about some of our projects, I suggested that Ivan drive us to visit Fort Patiko. Ivan fueled up his van and we set off on the bumpy dirt roads that lead to this somewhat hidden monument. I wish I could adequately describe to you in words the funny looks we got, two mzungu women rolling strong with dreadlocked Ivan in the Rasta Mobile. They were priceless.

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Laura, Ivan, and Alicia rolling strong in the Rasta Mobile

Fort Patiko, also known as Baker’s Fort, is 30 kilometers beyond Gulu on the same road that leads to Pawel. Fort Patiko isn’t an easy place to visit, both because it’s off the beaten path and because it tells the grisly history of East African slave trade.

It is place you won’t forget and a place you’ll wish had never existed. It’s a stunningly beautiful natural rock formation that Trip Advisor shamefully calls “a romantic picnic destination.” I assure you, there is nothing romantic about what happened at Fort Patiko.

For nineteen years East Africans were abducted and taken to Fort Patiko where they were kept in caves, stacked upon one another day and night, until they were “sorted.”

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The cave where the women were chained and kept, forced to live, sleep, and defecate stacked upon one another until they were sorted.

Men were sorted into two groups: healthy and strong and healthy and weak. The healthy and strong men were shackled around their necks and marched for weeks until they reached Egypt where they were sold as slaves.

Those deemed unhealthy or weak were sent to Execution Rock where they were laid down and beheaded with machetes. The places where the machetes struck the rocks can still be seen today. Execution Rock slopes down into a ravine so that the dead bodies and heads were easily rolled into the ravine where lions were kept expressly for the purpose of devouring the bodies.

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Machete marks on Execution Rock

If you were a captured woman, you’d be sorted into two categories: beautiful, healthy, and strong or ugly and/or weak. If you were beautiful, healthy, and strong you’d be shackled around the neck and march for weeks until you reached Egypt where you’d then be sold into slavery. Both the men and the women were only shackled around the necks, not the ankles, so that if you fell sick or weak along the journey or if you tried to escape, one slice of the machete would behead you, instantly separating and then  releasing your body and your head from the chains so that the rest of the line could keep marching.

If you were deemed a weak, ugly, or unhealthy woman, you’d be taken to Execution Rock, beheaded, and then fed to the lions.

Anyone who tried to escape from Fort Patiko faced a firing squad on the edge of the ravine so that when you were shot, your body fell to the lions and was devoured likely before you were even dead.

Samuel Baker, or Sir Samuel Baker as he later became known, was an unlikely abolitionist. He was a mapmaker, a writer, a big game hunter, and an explorer. His goal in Central Africa was to discover and map the source of the Nile. He discovered Lake Albert and discovered that the source of the Nile had ALREADY been discovered. His wife, Lady Florence Baker, travelled with him and in their explorations, they happened upon Fort Patiko and the bloody East African Slave Trade.

Upon discovering the human holding tank and execution ground that was Fort Patiko, the Bakers returned home to England to ask for ships and army personnel to overtake the fort. This was no easy request because Samuel Baker wasn’t looked upon well. He was a widower at the age of 34 and his second wife, Florence, had once been a slave. Samuel Baker had fallen in love with Florence and then escaped with her from a Hungarian slave market. Florence travelled with him everywhere as his wife, but because they’d not had an officially recognized wedding ceremony in England, Queen Victoria refused to even meet Sir Samuel Baker or the woman who would later be given the title Lady.

Sir Samuel Baker was eventually granted ships and man power to return to Uganda and overtake Fort Patiko,with Florence at his side every step of the way. I imagine this was a personal cause for her, having experienced the inhumanity of being bought and sold herself.

It took 2-3 years to defeat the Arabs, set the captive East Africans free, and claim Fort Patiko as a military base for England. The overtaking of Fort Patiko was one of the key factors in ending the East African Slave Trade.

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Sunset at Fort Patiko

Sir Samuel Baker and Lady Florence Baker continued to live at Fort Patiko for some time after its liberation. Florence was loved by the Luo tribe living in Patiko and was given the Luo name Anyadwe, meaning daughter of the moon for her pale skin and blonde hair. Though she was looked down upon by British royalty, she was known for her charm. She spoke three languages. She rode horses, mules, and camels, and she was handy with a pistol. She was the fierce counterpart to her explorer husband.

Sir Samuel Baker continued his work as a mapmaker, explorer, hunter, writer, and abolitionist. He would go on to be knighted and awarded the gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

I’ve visited Fort Patiko twice in my travels to Uganda. Both times have left me horrified and inspired. Horrified by the brutal treatment of humans and inspired by the explorer and his wife, who, when faced with the inhumanity of it all, decided to do something about it.

When you visit Fort Patiko, you can see the marks made by the machetes in Execution Rock, but if you climb high onto a different rock, you can see another mark, a cross, painstakingly carved in stone by Lady Florence Baker.

There are so many lessons to be taken to heart from Fort Patiko and from the Bakers, but it always leaves me thinking about how I want to live my life. I know which kind of mark I hope to leave in the world.

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A Cross Carved by Lady Florence Baker in a Rock at Fort Patiko

 

 

Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, A Woman for All Women

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Tausi and Alicia

One of the greatest pleasures of returning year after year to Gulu is that I get to watch my students grow up. In 2012, the first year I visited Gulu, I taught a writing workshop where students wrote about pivotal moments in their lives.

One of my students, 19-year-old Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, wrote about being elected Deputy Speaker for the district wide student government. She was 16 at the time she was elected into office.

Here’s what she wrote in her essay, “For All Women,” about that experience.

This experience gave me confidence and in the future I want to be the female member of Parliament for my district. I will continue to advocate for gender balance and female emancipation. I will advocate for all women to be empowered even if they have not had the money to attend school. It’s my goal to allocate money to help them create businesses to sustain themselves and their families. I want to be an example for all women in my country.

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Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, age 19. Photo courtesy of Colin Higbee.
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Tausi speaking at the retreat.

Yesterday I was invited to attend a reunion retreat at the school where I taught Tausi and my other very first African student writers. It was no surprise that Tausi was one of the speakers at the retreat. When she spoke, she spoke with poise, passion, and confidence.

I had a few moments to sit and chat with Tausi and was overwhelmed with pride when she told me that she’d completed her degree in Human Rights and was now in school for her law degree. She works in the court system in Kampala as a county clerk. Her dream of becoming a member of Parliament is alive and well and seems more and more like a certain outcome.

Tausi is one of 20 children in her family. She’s number 17 and to this day is the only graduate in her family. She dreams of using her degrees to fight for human rights, specifically for marginalized women and children.

Tausi follows the work of Vigilante Kindness (Hi, Tausi!) and yesterday she asked if I had any groups of girls she could speak to and encourage because she is living proof that no matter your circumstance, if you work hard, your dreams can come true. I don’t have any groups for Tausi to speak to, but I’m confident that after hearing her story, you’re inspired by her.

Tausi was and always has been a woman for all women.

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Kobsinge Kamanyire Tausi, age 25.

A Welcome Party and a Sneak Peek

The welcome party thrown by Ivan and his colleagues at Art Shop Gulu was really just so sweet. Each time I walk up the stairs into Art Shop Gulu, it gives me chills, thinking of where Ivan came from and how hard he and his fellow artists have worked to create this space.

There was singing.

There was cake.

And of course there was art and paper bead jewelry galore! Here’s a sneak peek at a small selection of the pieces that will be available at our September 8th Paper Bead Jewelry and Painting Sale in Redding, CA. Any remaining pieces will be for sale online after that.

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Leku Ivan’s Dream Come True

Leku Ivan pulled up in a van he painted himself. A lion greeted me on the hood and Bob Marley grinned at me from the door. I ran to him forgetting to push in my chair or even to zip my backpack and we hugged for a long time in the streets of Gulu.

I couldn’t stop hugging him, this young man with a beard and a lone long dreadlock, who used to be a goofy, orphaned teenager in a school uniform with tightly cropped hair.

After the hugging stopped and I blinked back a tear or two, Ivan sat with Laura and I for dinner and told us all about his life. His sister Lillian is a stay at home mom now in Kampala on the other side of the country. Ivan has relocated his shop, Art Factory Gulu, into the main market. He now has a business partner, Mike, and three female colleagues who help run the shop, balance the books, keep inventory, and do all the other little things so that Ivan can spend his time doing what he does best: painting.

His shop has a gallery packed with paintings. At least once a month he teaches art workshops in the shop or travels in his van teaching art classes to groups that hire him.

Best of all, Ivan, who once reluctantly told me he was stopping school after graduating from his fourth year of high school (there are 6 years in Uganda), sat across the table from me and told me that he’s back in school. He’s taking art classes in Kampala to get his degree in art and then he wants to get his certificate to become an art teacher.

This kid.

That evening we strolled to the market to see his shop. We walked upstairs and I had to swallow back a lump in my throat and there was absolutely no use in trying to blink back the tears.

The stairwell was filled with art and as it opened up into the shop, there were paintings hung everywhere. Ivan’s paintings and the paintings of his students and colleagues filled the space with color, beauty, and life.

I was immediately drowned in memories. I remembered Ivan, the timid student asking if I’d like to look at some of his paintings and maybe purchase one to help him with school fees.

I remembered him painting out on the street from a closet sized shop to have enough money for food.

I remembered Ivan being so excited when he sold a painting so that he could buy his sister a brand new dress.

I remembered it all and as I walked up the staircase of his new shop I was undone with love for this kid who worked tirelessly to make his dream of being an artist come true.

Ivan told us some of the stories behind his paintings and I was once again moved at how he expressed his desire to encourage peace and love in his city through art.

Just when I thought I couldn’t love him more, he said he was throwing us a welcoming party in the art shop the following day. There would be cake and singing and celebrating.

I’ve never even seen cake in Uganda so the fact that Ivan spent his money on having a cake made told me that this was going to be something special.

I had no idea just how truly special it would be or that the next act of Vigilante Kindness was waiting there for me next to the cake.

Vigilante Kindness: Art Supplies for Ivan

Getting water for the people of Te Okot is heavy on my mind every single second of every day and I’m excited to see how that progresses, but you should also know that the other Vigilante Kindness projects are gaining momentum.  Today here’s a story of how I used Vigilante Kindness Work Study money to support Ivan, my young student artist who paints to pay for his school fees and for the fees of his sister.

“What is it?”  Ivan looks over the long, black bag I’ve just handed him.

“Open it and see.  It’s a gift from my Aunt Nancy, the artist.”

He opens the black bag and pulls out the metal pieces.  Carefully he unfolds the tripod and stands the easel up, adjusting the legs so that it stands tall next to him.

“Thank you so much!  It’s so nice!”

“And these are for you, too.”  I hoist my shoulder bag, heavy with art supplies onto the table in his studio.

Ivan unpacks the brushes and charcoals and pastels and paper and blending tools and a host of other art supplies my aunt has sent me with.  I don’t even know what half of them are or do, but Ivan does.<

His eyes well with tears.  “Thank you for supporting me, Alicia.  I don’t know how to repay you.”

“It wasn’t me.  I’m just the messenger.”

“I don’t know how to repay your aunt.  Maybe I’ll make her a painting?”

“I think that’s the perfect way to repay her.  Let’s record a video message for her as well.”  I smile at him.  “Hey, Ivan, I was at school on Friday.  Why weren’t you there?  Were you sick?”

“No, I couldn’t pay my school fees, so they sent me home.”

“How much do you owe in school fees?”  It’s a candid question and I feel glad that our relationship has earned me the right to ask and also given him the freedom to answer without shame.

“130,000 shillings.”  $50.

I think of the Vigilante Kindness Work Study shillings in my wallet for kids who want to work to pay their school fees.

“I can help with that.  Which of your paintings are for sale?”

He shows me and I pick out two for a total of 150,000 shillings.  I don’t care to barter here, not with Ivan who paints to pay his school fees and the school fees of his sister, Lillian.

I stick around the art studio watching Ivan and his partner Calvin paint.  I snap photos of their paintings and of the two of them at work.

Ivan shows me the set of paintings the hospital has commissioned him to paint to hang in the patient rooms.  He tells me about how they hope to have an exhibition soon so that they can rent the back room of the art studio and begin using it as a gallery.  Right now the door to the back room is locked.

Later that night, I post the photos on Facebook so that Ivan and Calvin can have some clear shots of their work.  It’s hard to find a camera here, even harder to find a camera that takes clear shots.  I post the photos with a note that the paintings are for sale.  Within minutes of posting, the paintings begin selling to my friends and family at home.  I go to bed dreaming of the locked door at the back of their studio and of the gallery room that waits behind it.

Vigilante Kindness: Ivan’s Paintings

“Alicia, will you buy one of my paintings?” Ivan chuckles shyly. He laughs like the cartoon character Goofy and I giggle each time I hear his laugh. “I need to earn some money to buy school supplies and some more art supplies.”

I love this kid for wanting to earn money instead of asking for a handout.

Ivan is one of my favorite kids from this year. A few years ago Ivan and his younger sister were taken in by an American couple. Ivan didn’t have a father in his life and after a tragic accident his mother was left mentally disabled and unable to care for her children. She now lives in a care facility in another part of Uganda. Ivan calls the American couple his parents. When his parents had to return to the U.S., they left Ivan and his sister with a house to live in. His parents send money for the house, for bills, for food and for schooling. Ivan keeps a detailed account of the expenses and he reports it back to his parents every month. Any extra things Ivan needs, he pays for himself by selling paintings out of the art studio at his house. When Ivan and his sister finish school here, they will join their parents in the U.S., where Ivan hopes to attend a university and major in art.

“I’d love to buy a painting, Ivan. Do you have them here?” It matters little to me if his paintings are any good.

“No, but I’ll get them from town and show them to you. I’ve got four finished paintings, but I want to give one to the Vice President of our school when he visits.”

He brings the paintings to school and we go behind one of the classrooms where he lays them out on the ground. They’re good.  I immediately know exactly which one I’m going to buy for myself. It’s a small painting of the word LOVE with Africa in place of the O.

LOVE by Leku Ivan
LOVE by Leku Ivan

What Ivan doesn’t know is that I’m using Vigilante money to buy the other two remaining paintings.

I pick up the LOVE painting and the two other paintings. “I’ll buy these three, Ivan.”

“Three? Really?” His Goofy chuckle rolls up from his belly.

“Yes, three. How much do I pay?”

“Anything is fine.”

“Ivan, I want to support the work you’re doing as an artist. So think of a price that’s fair for both of us and that’s what I’ll pay.”

Ivan takes a few minutes to think. “Is 200,000 shillings okay?” I do some quick converting in my head. He’s asking for roughly eighty American dollars. I pull shillings out of my wallet for the smaller painting and use Vigilante shillings for the other two paintings. We shake hands and both of us leave feeling like we got the better deal.

In even more exciting news, after seeing my LOVE painting another friend in Africa is commissioning Ivan to paint a similar one for her. My sister is also going to help Ivan make and sell prints of his paintings. Again, one small act of Vigilante Kindness snowballed into something even greater.

When I bought Ivan’s other two paintings I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do with them. I just knew that I wanted to support Ivan and his budding art career. Later in my hotel room as I spread the paintings out on my bed, an idea came to me: I’d give them away to my fellow Vigilantes of Kindness. The only problem-and it’s an incredibly good problem-is that I only have two paintings and I’ve got way more than two Vigilante donors.

The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting.  One is a vertical tree painting.  The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I'll take better photos when I get home.
The two paintings up for grabs are the two closest to the love painting. One is a vertical tree painting. The other is a landscape with elephants in the foreground. I’ll take better photos when I get home.

So here’s how it’s going to work, for every dollar you donated, you’ll get a ticket in the drawing. So if you donated $20, you’ll have 20 tickets in the drawing. If you donated $200, then your name will be on 200 tickets and so forth. I’ll do the drawing on September 30th. That will give me time to take photos for making prints.

This is also good news for those of you who wanted to be Vigilantes of Kindness, but weren’t able to because you offered to donate when I was already making my way back home. You can make a donation and be entered in the drawing as well. (Message me for details on how to donate.) Any new donations will go toward my return trip next year and the Vigilante Acts of Kindness that are yet to come.

I’m absolutely giddy at the mere thought of returning to the land I love and exacting more kindness for the sake of being kind. I look at Ivan’s LOVE painting and wonder just what’s going to happen next in my love story-our love story-for Uganda.

The Littlest Bird

This year I was present for Election Day at school. There was a page worth of candidates on the ballot running for different student offices. Each candidate had a couple of minutes to deliver their campaign speech to the 300 members of the student body. Before the speeches began, one of the English teachers stood and spoke about the procedures. He encouraged the students to listen carefully and then to vote with their hearts.

The speeches began and during the speeches the students were asked to submit their questions to the student Parliament running the proceedings. There were many coveted offices like Head Boy and Head Girl, each in charge of overseeing their assigned gender and assisting with any problems they’re having which they may not feel comfortable immediately bringing to the adults. One of the most coveted offices is that of Time Keeper. Time Keeper rings the bell to indicate that class sessions are over, that lunch is over, that the school day is concluding, that church is beginning. It is a big responsibility and not one to be taken lightly.

There were several candidates for Time Keeper and each gave an excellent speech, but there was one who stood out to me above the rest. Crispus is an S1 (8th grade), student. He’s a tiny kid, about as big as an American third or fourth grader. What he lacks in stature, he makes up for in personality.

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When Crispus began his speech, I actually jumped at the sound of his voice, so loud and full of enthusiasm. He proclaimed that he is responsible and owns a good watch which would allow him to ensure that classes ended and lunch began on time. The crowd, which had been boisterous throughout the whole assembly now became more vocal than ever.

“He’s too young!”
“This is too much responsibility.”
“He’s only an S1.”

Tiny Crispus stood, shoulders back, taking it all and never responding in turn, waiting for the student Parliament to gather questions from the audience and read them to him to answer.

The heckling continued until suddenly the audience began to turn in his favor. Those who had opposed Crispus could be heard no longer over the din that arose. First there was clapping, followed by stomping of feet and then a roar erupted from the crowd. They shouted his name and cheered for him.

So loud was their cheering that the student Parliament couldn’t contain them and Crispus couldn’t contain his grin, which had spread from one side of his face to the other. After returning to his seat, Crispus continued to smile for the rest of the proceedings. I imagine he went to bed smiling.