Bananas are a staple in the rural Ugandan diet. You see plantations everywhere, and on market day, the men pile bunches high on the backs of their bikes and cycle to sell alongside dozens of other banana vendors. With bananas so plentiful, it is hard to see how the vendors can compete, as the market seems saturated. Especially given it is a type of ‘taboo’ for a household not to have a banana tree on their plot and bananas in the home, because this is a sign of providing for your family.
Alongside the banana sellers are woman sitting on mats and blankets with eggplants of different types and sizes, red and green tomatoes, and large bars of soap. Further into the market there is a circle of men standing around stock – goats and cows. There is a lot of inspecting – pulling of this, prodding of that, sizing up each of the animals. A goat in this market is valued at around 18,000 Ugandan shillings (equivalent to about four or five beers).
Further into the market and there is the fish section – stall upon stall of smoked fish, laid out on cardboard. A discerning few walk around the stalls, scrutinising and smelling the blackened catfish, still with their whiskers. And for those wanting snacks while they sell or shop, there are large slices of sweet pineapple, banana pancakes, meat kebabs and a curious looking juice. For those wishing to top up their wardrobe, there is a mountain of shoes and beautifully coloured sarong-type wraps.
A lot of markets will run once a week, or in the weekends, which is understandable when you realise the distances many have to come to both buy and sell goods. But it also seems to be the social side of things which is a big draw card to the markets. The place is alive with chatter, and circles of men exchange greetings, while others stand lounged against their motorbikes or cycles.
Back home in the village, it’s a much quieter scene than the hustle and bustle of the markets. For many there are crops to attend to, relying on rain for irrigation, and simple tools for ploughing and digging. A type of sweet potato is a common feature in the rural landscape, as this is cooked and eaten in a variety of ways, including raw for breakfast, which kids much on like apples.
For the women, there is the house to tidy and the constant battle with dust, which is vociferously swept away from the door with bristly brooms. Mud houses are made of branches woven together to make a criss-cross structure, allowing mud to be packed in and then clad around the outside.
For some, work comes from the nearby tea plantations which thrive on the rich soil, warmth and rain. Picking tea can earn a top picker up to 8,000 Ugandan Shillings per day (about $3 US). Payment is based on the weight you can pick – 80 shillings per kilo. It is a very manual job, which requires a quick hand and a quick eye, so you can spot and swipe the green, juicy tips of the plants.
Tea as a cash crop in Uganda has had its ups and downs. In the 1970s a lot of the tea farmers were Indian Nationals, who were expelled by the Ugandan government, and tea production slumped significantly during this period. However, as political stability slowly returned to the country, so have some of the tea farmers, and a lot of the tea estates today are Indian owned.
Whether working in the local tea plantation, maintaining subsistence crops, selling your wares at market or keeping a home, the common theme across market and village life is the intense labour factor. There seems very little that helps ‘speed things up’ or makes life easier. Small children learn to use their hands, head and smarts at a young age so that they can help with the daily chores, like fetching water, carrying vegetables, or caring for their even younger siblings. It’s perhaps this last task that is the most surprising to see – toddlers carrying babies, but it’s probably also the most symbolic, as village life seems to be a lot about playing certain roles, sharing responsibility, and looking after each other.
Words: Kelly Ley-Dahm
Images: Hayden Dahm
Information and reading: Our local guide from with Chimpanzee Forest Guest House and Camp, International Business Times, Wikipedia (‘Tea/agriculture in Uganda’ and ‘Indophobia’).
Photo credit Bananas on bike IITA Image Library’s photostream
Taking a village walk
At first it might seem a little intrusive, but doing a guided walk through a village was one of the best ways to get a sense of everyday rural life in Uganda. As well as seeing the crops and learning about the different surrounding vegetation, soil conditions and climate, we heard how people have to find a way of living with threats from wildlife, like destructive elephants, whose pillaging ways have been thwarted by the introduction of ditches. Having a guide was incredibly helpful, as we could ask questions instead of just being passive observers.
Upon entering the village we were greeted first by children, excited by our arrival, wanting to try on our sunglasses and take photos with our cameras. The temptation of course is to give things away, but one of the best things to do is send back photos that you take, like a previous group of visitors had done. If you really want to ensure there is some form of ‘giving back’ to the village you visit, enquire with the guide or company how your fee will be spent, and what portion is being reinvested into the local village or community.
by Kelly Ley-Dahm
Hope this travel blog gave you a glimpse into rural live in Uganda, please share your thoughts with us in the comments box below.