DIY boat bookshelf

Last July, Eric and I drove out to Lake Victoria to pick out an old fishing canoe as our anniversary gift to one another.  We saw an old one with lots of holes, half-sunk and rotting away on the banks of the river, with several pieces of trash floating in its mucky water.  It was the one for us.

This sounds like a strange anniversary gift, I know.  But we had a project in mind, so we got the help of several locals to load the boat on top of the truck, unsure if we could make it home with the huge load.  We were told to have an "African heart" and that it would all work out.  Our carpenter friend rode along with us, calling out the window to everyone along the way who were giving us strange looks, "Da flood is coming! This is Noah!" Despite the excitement, we managed to avoid all traffic police and we took every bump and pothole along the way as slow as we could, and we made it home with our rickety boat in one piece.

It was not in one piece for long.  After unloading our rotting treasure, our carpenter cut the canoe in half and there we left it, sitting in our yard waiting for the wood to dry out.  Several weeks later, the carpenter came back and nailed a few planks into each side of the boat to make shelves.  And viola!  Our anniversary gift to each other - now a unique bookshelf with a story - adorns the corner our dining room and may just be our favorite piece of furniture.

For the love of home

With 2016 coming to an end, I started putting together a photobook of daily pictures.  I take one photo each day, write a bit about it, and at the end of the year, I compile all of these into a hardback book.  Last week, I read through these entries and I couldn't believe all we've done and everywhere we have been in 2016.  We've traveled so much and I've continued my work with a breastfeeding child, doing my best to balance motherhood with my workload.  To be honest, it's been an absolutely exhausting year and I don't say that with a sense of martyred pride.  Being so busy, I've discovered, is simply stupid.  After reading through everything, I gave myself a lot of grace.  It's been one thing after another - a lot of sickness, a lot of travel, several heavy issues we've had to deal with in our community, lots of work done through it all, and lots of relationships made and built.

Through it all, I've been ever more grateful for our home.  It is my stabilizer, my place of peace.  I find myself revived when I'm able to spend a day at home with Leo or just a few hours.  Admittedly, I too often spend this time worried that I'm not doing what I need to get done, but sometimes I am able to just sit back to be fully present and those are the moments that bring me the most joy.  Here is a compilation of photos I've taken at home this year, mostly with Leo and mostly with him wearing few to no clothes.  My favorite time is the end of the day when the setting sun brings slanting shadows and a glowing light, as if it's asking me to pay attention.

We will end this week with a staff retreat and next week we travel to the U.S. once again for the holidays.  Although I look forward to being with loved ones and investing in many activities that bring us a sense of purpose, I think this time especially, I will miss our own home.

A space for the special

I've never been a fan of living in the city, so Eric and I have tried to make our home into a bit of a sanctuary, even if we only get a quarter of an acre to work with.  We use the little space we have to retreat from the Kampala crazy and I like to pretend our home is a cottage in the middle of a tropical jungle.  With this in mind, and through the inspiration of Swahili chic decor, we combined form and function on the roof of our staff quarters to make a jungalow rooftop lounge, complete with a view of a tiny slice of Lake Victoria.

We had to work around our water tank, but we still managed to make a space that we use for the Special.  This year, we've used this small, calming space to host friends for sundowners or brunch, to throw a birthing blessingway, and mostly for my morning yoga and contemplation.  With a child in the house, it's a treat to step away, even if it is in the back yard, to re-fuel for a bit.  It's a simple set-up, but it's much-loved.  This space for the special brings sunbirds who drink water from the vine's flowers and lets me watch the hawks and ibis as they glide into the treetops at my height.

Hope to host you here soon.  It will be special to have you.

A baby in the house

When a woman becomes pregnant in our culture, she's soon told of all the "stuff" that is required to buy for her baby-to-be.  It's inevitable, we're told, that our home will become a mess, cluttered with baby gear, toys, and all the necessities our new tiny human must need.  Swings, pack-and-plays, and wipes warmers are all seen as "musts" for this coming babe.

But I live in Uganda and although I certainly could have all that "stuff" if I wanted it, I have learned from Ugandan mothers that babies actually need very little and the "musts" are much fewer than my American consumer culture insists upon.  After all, raising a baby is a practice that is literally as old as humankind and most of these gadgets have only be introduced in our generation.  Raising a baby in Uganda has given me the gift of insight into the beauty of simplicity, but even I feel like I've overdone it sometimes.  In one example, we transformed our guest room into a room for the coming baby months before his arrival, complete with a crib (you must have a crib, right?).  But a separate room for a baby is nearly unheard of in Uganda and now I know why.  It truly is not a "must." Our crib remains practically untouched, since Leo continues to sleep between the two of us, so we mainly use his room for diaper changes and storing his clothes and toys, which still feels excessive sometimes.  Even so, I had fun decorating it!

I chose carefully what I would bring into our lives when Leo arrived.  I didn't want much, and what we did choose to add, I wanted to be beautiful and practical.  I dread clutter and love my home's aesthetic, so I wanted products that would add to the decor in my home.  I couldn't always find what I wanted, which is one reason I started my own small business called Baby Lionheart, which sources beautiful handmade baby products from Uganda, all made from natural and locally-sourced materials.  Like other products in my life, I also wanted to know where they came from, what they are made from, and who made them.

Below are photos of the products I have carefully chosen to have in Leo's life and in our home.

Bassinet stand made by a local carpenter and Moses basket woven in western Uganda.  Both are available at Baby Lionheart.
Sheepskin rug from Ecowool.

Moses basket woven in western Uganda and swaddle blanket handwoven from Ugandan cotton.  Both are available at Baby Lionheart.
Sheepskin rug from Ecowool.

Toy baskets bought locally. Wooden blocks from Baby Lionheart.  Wooden puzzle from Manzanita Kids.

Activity gym handmade in Uganda, available at Baby Lionheart.  Sheepskin from Ecowool.

Crib, changing table, and rocking chair all made locally and bought second-hand.  Mudcloth wall hanging from  Mazmoon's Treasures.   Rug bought on a  trip to Jordan.

Crib, changing table, and rocking chair all made locally and bought second-hand.  Mudcloth wall hanging from Mazmoon's Treasures.  Rug bought on a trip to Jordan.

Diaper basket woven in Uganda from palm leaves.  Pure shea butter made in Uganda and available at Baby Lionheart.

Mudcloth wall hanging imported from West Africa by Mazmoon's Treasures.

Lion photo from Sherry McKelvie Wildlife Photography.  Stool hand-carved in DR Congo.

Mobile made in Uganda, bought at Banana Boat.

Quilt made by my second cousin.  Stuffed animals gifts from Leo's 2 aunts.

Photo by Sherry McKelvie Wildlife Photography.  Caricature drawing by local artist Johnmary Mukisa.  Basket from Rwanda.

Geometric toy cars and stuffed bunny from Baby Lionheart.  Bird stacking blocks from Manzanita Kids.  Other toy cars handmade and bought on my trip to Vermont.

Beads given to me by women at my birthing blessingway. Basket made locally.  Stuffed monkey was Eric's when he was a baby.

Carved pregnant belly handmade in DR Congo.

My DIY ordeal/adventure

The difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude.
— Bob Bitchin

Not long after we moved into our home, I attempted to get a cow skin rug and a cow skull as decor pieces.  This was not supposed to be a DIY project, but it certainly turned out to be one.  This post is probably not a helpful one if you're looking to DIY your own cow hide, but it is the story of an ordeal that, with a little humor, turned into an adventure and a couple of impromptu DIY projects that turned out to be "good enough."

It all started by taking Eric's cousin on a photo "safari" in Kampala, along the railroad tracks.  I had never explored the area and thought it would be a great excuse to take pictures of whatever could be there.  Soon, we ran into a flock of the very ugly maribu storks, known to be Kampala's trash eaters, and I wondered what brought them to this place.  After looking around a bit, we were pointed to the maribu storks' attraction - Kampala's slaughterhouse. 

Well, one thing led to another, as they often do, and soon I was promised that the next morning I could come by and pickup a cow skin and skull.  I thought it was a deal.  I thought my entryway would look great with a cow skin rug and I would surely find a cool place to hang a skull with the long, dramatic Ankole horns.  I thought I would swing by and pick up these items, shiny and neat and ready to adorn my home.

To make a long story short, there was nothing shiny or neat about my cow skin and skull the next morning.  I was told to follow my new butcher friend as we weaved our way through the various sections of the slaughterhouse and I was handed my very fresh, very raw pieces, right off the cow.  The skull had eyes, a tongue, and skin, all of which I convinced them to remove, and the hide had fat and blood still dripping from it.  It wasn't long before I was sitting on a boda boda, weaving through Kampala's streets while holding an enormous cow head, it horns straddling me, baffled at what just happened and clueless as to what to do with these fresh cow parts.

Picking out my own cow hide


The skin is in the yellow bag on the back and the cow skull...well...there it is.


When I reached home, I stared at my newly-purchased goods, wondering what I just got myself into.

Step one: Change my clothes, which were now covered in blood
Step two: Google

The first thing I discovered was I would have to act fast with the cow hide, or it would start rotting within a few hours.  At the very least, I needed to stretch the skin, cut off the fat, and pour salt all over it, so I lugged it around my yard, attempting to hang it, but it was so wet and heavy, I couldn't manage alone.  An hour or so later, I finally called the guy who sold it to me and asked him to come do the work.  Meanwhile, my method for cleaning up the skull simply involved letting my dogs have their way with it.


My attempt at hanging and stretching the hide.  Fail.


The stretched hide on our porch, with salt all over it.

The skull, after the dogs ate off the good stuff.

After a couple of days, we put the skull in an old latrine in our back yard, hoping the ground critters would do the rest of the work to clean it up.  It lay there, largely forgotten about, for about 2 years.

The next week, the hide was dry. It was hard and a little crisp - certainly not the nice tanned hide I had wanted, but it still looked nice in our entryway, so I called it good enough.

Just last week, we pulled the cow skull out from its forgotten hideaway and cleaned the dirt off with a brush, soap, and water.  It is by no means shiny and polished, but when placed beside our hippo skull and two impala skulls, it adds some intrigue to our home.  Again, I will settle for "good enough."

The day I picked up my animal parts turned out to be one of the more absurd days of my life in Uganda.  It definitely did not go as planned, but it did provide me the opportunity to learn something new and practice my pioneer woman skills.  I suppose I can now look back on the ordeal, laugh at myself, and call it an adventure.