GOING BACK TO OUR ROOTS
On Saturday, 9th May 2015, I had the opportunity to make a presentation at a TEDx Kiira event at the Serena in Kampala Uganda. This is the full text of my presentation.
“The future is today” – theme of this event – fits well with my talk. The essence of my talk is to remind us that our today was determined by yesterday; as today we determine the future for the next generation. By the end of my talk I hope to have persuaded you that by staying culturally rooted we can prosper economically and socially; and that we can assure a better future for the next generation. Here is my story.
My name in full as appears on my birth certificate is Norah Esta Alinga Owaraga. I am the daughter of Ejakait Engineer George William Obityo Owaraga, the Chief; who is the son of the late Ejakait Yosia Egatunyu, who was among the chiefs of the Ikaribwok Clan of the Iteso. The Iteso nation is one of the first nations of Uganda. I was born in 1968 after Christianity had taken root in Uganda. At the time I was born, provision was made on official documents for one to state their Christian name; now it has been changed to first name. Norah and Esta are my Christian names and officially my first name is Norah.
Culturally, however, my first name is Alinga. A week after I was born I was named in an Iteso naming ceremony. I was named after the mother of my father, my grandmother Ajakait Joyce Mary Alinga. My name Alinga is part of my social capital. Within Iteso culture the name that one is given signifies one’s cultural roots. The philosophy that binds the Iteso nation – the creeping grass philosophy – emuria kolia – may the grass take root, continue to grow and spread – espouses the Iteso nation’s ideal of extending the influence and power of its people. Emuria kolia signifies that one has roots from whence they came.
In a name, a child and the adult whom the child is named after are bestowed with pride and obligation – for the child, the pride of being the extension of a legacy; and for the adult the assurance that their legacy will live on in flesh and blood. The child ideally grows up aspiring to achieve the greatness of their name; while the adult whom the child is named after nurtures the child to know who they are, to stay true to one’s roots and at the same time soar high to achieve greatness. As a child I had the privilege of spending significant time with my grandmother during which she convinced me of her greatness and therefore what I should aspire to become.
At the death of my grandmother I inherited her house, which my father built for her. My inherited house is part of our ancestral homestead. I have deep roots on our ancestral land. Yes, scary for whoever thinks of uprooting me from our ancestral land. At the death of my grandmother it became my duty to extend the legacy of our name, Alinga. With such firm roots and therefore power – however imagined – I have journeyed on this our world.
My firm roots have determined my choices. I wear multiple hats. My multiple hats are related. At CPAR Uganda we are mentors of rural men and women whom we motivate and encourage into self-reliant agents of positive change. Effective mentoring is done by example. Those mentored need to see how we the mentors are also agents of positive change. Hence, I am a humanist blogger with a passion. I aspire to make myself a thorn in the flesh of those Ugandans who are culturally dislocated and yet are in positions of power which logically require them to be culturally rooted in their own ethnic group as well as the Ugandan nation.
I align with my favourite philosopher of all times – Lawino, the main protagonist of an African classic, Okot p’Bitek ‘s literary work “Song of Lawino”, that is set in the 1960s and in the culture of another of Uganda’s first nations, the Acholi. Lawino declared:
I do not understand the ways of foreigners, but I do not despise their customs. Why should you despise yours? Listen, my husband, you are the son of a chief. The pumpkin in the old homestead must not be uprooted! … Ignorance and shame provoke you to turn to foreign things.
Lawino lectured her culturally dislocated husband, with such effectiveness that her lectures are still relevant for Uganda today. The symbolic meaning behind the “pumpkin in the old homestead must not be uprooted” is similar to the Iteso philosophy of emuria kolia – being rooted in one’s own culture, belonging and being part of a people.
What proportion of Uganda’s public and civil servants today are like Lawino? Ugandans who are culturally rooted. What proportion are more like Lawino’s husband, Ocol? Ugandans culturally dislocated. It is these who are like Ocol that I lament about the most in my blog posts.
I would like to demonstrate to you that I am actually a purposeful lamenter. Being the sole proprietor of a social enterprise, Alinga Farms, is an example of me practising the actions I advocate for in my blog posts. Some of you may be familiar with our products – Atorot (the dried calyces of the hibiscus fruit); and Ebaale (dried oyster mushrooms). Atorot and Ebaale are available in 13 outlets of five major supermarkets in Uganda. While distribution through supermarkets enables us to reach our high end market, we are also reaching our lower end market through our Alinga farms shop in Bugolobi Market in Kampala. Bugolobi market is best described as a farmers market that is bustling with hundreds of vendors selling food and other commodities. In our shop, in addition to Atorot and Ebaale, we sell other value added food items that are characteristic of the Iteso cuisine. This is a significant achievement. Five years ago, Alinga Farms distribution was from the tiny kitchen in my flat.
As you may have noticed, my roots have determined the branding of our products; our brand names are in Ateso, the language of my people. ‘Food for your good health’ is our slogan at Alinga Farms. All our value added products we vet for Ugandan cultural acceptability, as well as nutritional value, as well as social value, as well as economic value. Take for example Atorot, our customers give us feedback that it gives them more energy and more blood. Our customers’ feedback is kind of confirmed by research findings. According to researchers in the United States of America, Hibiscus sabdariffa is high in nutritional and medicinal value. It has antioxidants making it good for our hearts and bodies. By taming free radicals – harmful molecules – antioxidants help to maintain the body’s good health. This is part of the social profit I advocate for – producing and selling products that impact positively on human health.
Hibiscus fruit is economically viable – researchers in the United States of America, for example, estimate that each year the United States of America imports more than 5,000 metric tons of dried calyces of hibiscus fruit, valued at over 22 million US dollars, for use in making herbal tea. I’m sure you have already caught on that Alinga Farms is economically viable. Take my word for it, it is. In the interest of Alinga Farms’ land tenure security I beg your pardon for I will not give you the specific numbers of our economic viability. No need to over excite my landlord. Alinga Farms is located on two acres of land that is held under customary tenure. It is my father’s land at Kadegele Village in Pallisa District in Eastern Uganda; land which he inherited from his father. The land that Alinga Farms occupies surrounds my father’s ancestral home, our family home; and it is on this land where my house, which I inherited from my grandmother, is located.
Culturally, as a female member of our family – a powerful one at that, who is continuing the legacy of the matriarch Alinga – I am allowed access to customary land, as long as the leader of our family, my father, allows it. Yes, some might think it a huge risk to invest on land for which you do not have clear ownership. It is indeed a huge risk. I am comforted, however, that as long as my father is still alive, I am safe; I am his daughter and am culturally his mother, after all. I am also hopeful, that because of Alinga Farms’ significant social impact, the heir to my father’s land will continue to allow me access to the land.
Just in case, let me clarify that I am in no way using this event to attempt to influence my father’s last will. I pray for longevity of life for him and for all my family members. I pray that his heirs remain Iteso who are culturally rooted and appreciative of the Iteso philosophy – emuria kolia – and that they will not uproot me from our family customary land.
It is important that I share that the idea for Alinga Farms came to me as a challenge. I am a fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative East Africa through which I am a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. It is within this fellowship that I was challenged by my fellows to come up with a project for the benefit of others, less fortunate. I thus set up Alinga Farms with social impact in mind.
My aunts socially co-own our mushroom production – they are after all the experts in sunshine- based value addition. My aunts are my associates, they are not my employees. I ensure that my associates receive high quality inputs. My associates ensure the production of high quality value added mushrooms. We pay them for the produce and then bring it to Kampala for packaging and marketing at international standard. This has positively impacted on my social life with my aunts – the tensions related to extended family dependencies are eliminated. I do not feel it a burden to provide for them; and the dignity of my aunts is intact. They are receiving support from their daughter, but they are not beggars, they are productive business women.
Not all the mushrooms that my aunts produce do we sell. They retain the mushroom stems which are cut off. These cut-offs provide them with a reliable source for nutrition. The mushroom cut-offs have also given them a lot of power in the community. They use them as currency for paying for labour – many of our village mates, fellow women especially, trade their labour in exchange for mushroom cut-offs.
My aunts are also part of the network of over 50 out-growers who supply us with the dried calyces of hibiscus fruits. Similar to the mushroom producers, each of our hibiscus farmers is an independent business person; we simply guarantee a market for their high quality produce.
Alinga Farms has only one full-time employee, my personal assistant, Catherine Itipet. One of my brothers – Simon Opiio – the son of my father’s late brother is my farm manager. His job title is perhaps a bit deceiving for he does not earn a farm manager’s salary. He is the one responsible for establishing and managing our demonstrations on the farm. Like all farmers who supply us, we pay him for the high quality produce from the demonstrations and from his own farms. He gets a bit extra though, as he is the one who, on behalf of Alinga Farms, who does the purchasing of hibiscus from our suppliers. We pay him a commission fee.
This social cultural model of doing business does have its challenges. For example, mushrooms are very light and could be transported by bicycle, but my aunts insist that we should pick up the produce from their homesteads, just so that their neighbours can see that they had a powerful visitor – car tyre marks in the compound are a huge status symbol. Sometimes the fuel for the pickup, in comparison to the produce picked up, does not make economic sense, but the cultural social capital more than covers for it. It allows me the privilege to connect with my roots.
As I conclude, I make a plea to us all to recognise the importance of our cultural heritage; to recognise the non-commercial benefits that come from culture. Culture gives us our self-identity and character. When we give our children names, what do these names mean to them? How can these names inspire them to become rooted in their self-identity? Do our children know the language of their ancestors? How much of their heritage do our children loose when they are disconnected from their cultural elders – geographically; and sometimes just because they are unable to communicate in the language of their ancestors?
As one of my greatest heroes of all time, Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai, observed:
People without culture feel insecure and are obsessed with the acquisition of material things and public displays, which give them a temporary security.
Let us go back to our roots and extinguish our distractive cultural emptiness. Who I am today was determined by my ancestors prior to my birth and at my birth. It is our turn to determine the future of the next generation. I am Alinga and I am culturally rooted. My journey continues; emuria kolia.