DISPATCH FROM UGANDA
One of my close friends and favorite writers once defined love this way: “If you love someone, you stand up for the greatness in them.” This Valentine’s Day, I want to celebrate the opportunity I had to gain new insight into the greatness of my friend and LXMI’s founder, Leila Janah, and the extraordinary world and relationships she built half a world away in northern Uganda.
Leila and I met our first week of college when we moved into rooms just down the hall from each other in our freshman year dorm. But while we shared some intense experiences during college - some happy and some tragic - I didn’t know her nearly as well in her post-college life, though our work and close friends often overlapped. As many of you probably know, she incomprehensibly passed away two weeks ago, after one of the hardest-fought battles with cancer that I’ve yet seen anyone fight. Yet the opportunity to get to know Leila better still exists, a fact I discovered as I traced some of her footsteps through the Nile River Valley over the past few days. As a result, I am better able to stand up for the greatness in her, greatness that survives her and continues to ripple across communities and continents.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been in various parts of Uganda to support an education and conservation project in the northeast and southwest of the country. After completing that work, I had the privilege of extending my trip to travel to the Nile River Valley to visit the company’s main harvest and production sites, both located within a 6-8 hour drive over pretty bad roads from Kampala, the nation’s capital. During these visits, I got a glimpse of the community and relationships that Leila built in service of launching LXMI and contributing to the region’s economic development.
LXMI’s products have a base of Nilotica shea nuts, which are unique to East Africa and concentrated in and around northern Uganda. . The rural district of Otuke has one of the highest concentrations of Nilotica shea trees, from which the nuts are harvested. Otuke registers as one of the poorer districts in Uganda, with approximately 40-55% of households living below the poverty line. One of the reasons for the district’s high poverty rates was its role as an epicenter of much of the violence between government forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel militia led by the now-infamous Joseph Kony in the early 2000s. Otuke is still recovering from the conflict and jobs are scarce. Nilotica nut harvests provide LXMI’s farmers and producers with wages that are approximately three times higher than the area’s average living wage. Most of LXMI’s producers are women, and many are widows who lost partners during the conflict, making them the sole providers for their families.
“For three months, the rebels left my family alone,” Sarah Amollo, the shea association’s coordinator, tells me. “Then one night in 2005, they came to our house in the middle of the night. I told my husband, who was a teacher, to run, but he refused to leave us. They killed him. Then they threatened to kidnap my daughters. My mother begged them not to, but they refused her. Then I begged. I said that if they truly felt that I deserved to have my children taken from me, that I must have wronged them terribly. I asked them if they truly thought I had wronged them. What had I done to them that they could hate me so much? This stopped them, for they could not answer me. They knew that I was good. They left without my children, and after that, they left us alone. I lost my husband, but kept my children, and because of that, I was one of the lucky ones. But I had to learn to provide for my family alone, without my husband to help. Most of the women here lost husbands and faced this same problem. That’s when I began to work with Nilotica nuts. Then I could earn enough to feed my children and pay their school fees.”
Sarah is a beautiful force of a woman who emanates strength, commands every room she enters, and occasionally breaks into dance if things get too serious. She was also close to Leila, and I tried to imagine Leila hearing Sarah’s story directly. It gave a new context for the commitment she always exhibited to make LXMI succeed, as much as a source of security for Otuke’s women as for the wellness of its customers. I spent a day with ten of Otuke’s Nilotica producers, each of whom had unforgettable stories about their upbringing, the armed conflict, and their hopes and dreams for the future. [Insert individual producer profile photos, if desired] At the end of the day, the women volunteered their own act of love for Leila, a blessing-in-song of her memory and an offer of solace for her husband and family.
Perhaps the greatest gift and act of love we can give this Valentine’s Day is the offer of our help and solidarity in fulfilling our loved ones’ most worthy pursuits, an offer as apt for friends and family as it is for romantic partners. Consider this my Valentine’s Day challenge to you - extend yourself today to support something good that you admire in the people you love. Of course, if you’d like to join me in honoring Leila, perhaps consider that LXMI gifts pay your kindness forward to not only their lucky recipients, but also to the women who produce them, half a world away. By standing up for - and with the women of Otuke, we are not just continuing Leila’s work, we are realizing our own potential to be better, and even great, too.