Ojok Okello is building Okere City in the middle of Otuke district in northern Uganda. He has come up with a self-sustaining model through which Okere will build its fortunes and this is through planting and preserving the Shea nut butter tree. Ojok sold a dream to the community and carried on to lead as an example. Today, Okere is a different story.
The smart men. In their long sleeved white shirts neatly tucked into navy blue shorts and knee long turquoise striped football socks, the troupe of six walks onto the stage amidst very loud cheers.
Their band of four men sitting on gigantic thumb pianos is ready to kick-start them off at the earliest moment. The band is an ensemble of different sizes of thumb pianos. Four men each with a different thumb piano. The dance, like the thumb piano, are both called Okema.
Whenever this dance festival is happening, the community gathers on the hallowed grounds of Okere Primary School in Okere Sub County, Otuke district. They come together to have a wonderful time. They take on the same dance. Men have held forte as the dancers of this heavy dance that makes the ground tremble with great energy. The clouds of dust plummeting the sky are the evidence of a great skill of footwork that comes with excellently executing the role.
This group of The Smart Men is like the sixth among twenty other groups that will be performing this afternoon. It is not a competition, it is a way of life. Life as they have known it and perhaps forever will remain.
A few metres away are school children standing by the incomplete classroom, an open shell built of reeds standing between two complete classroom blocks. Like the adults, they too jump and dance in rhythm to the imagined thumb piano music that their other colleagues sitting down in the dirt plays holding thumb pianos their little fingers can scarcely produce a fine tune like the adults do. They sing the songs the adults sing as they dance. One of the boys with an unbuttoned blue school uniform shirt mimics the whistling that is done during the dance. He comes short producing a hissing sound instead and all his friends break out in laughter at him as he does to himself. The contest then goes into jumping to see who jumps the highest.
They are children imitating the world of the adults they see every day. These are their parents, their uncles. As I turn to look back at the other children scattered playing football and others on swings and climbing lanes, I think of Ojok Okello, the man from whom the idea of Okere City originates. He is standing with me alongside Amelia Martha Nakitimbo as we watch the dances. I wonder whether he has registered the impact of gathering the community members from far and wide here through this dance and music festival. As we sit shoulder to shoulder, I wonder whether he knows the strong bank of cultural preservation that is going to be kept alive through these fixed deposit accounts of these young boys and girls transacting in this cultural pride at this morning hour of their lives!
At one point he tells me, “I’ve loaned my life to the future of his city. One day it will pay off. I may be here or not. That doesn’t matter.” You don’t have to look into Ojok’s eyes to find the certainty of this grave statement. Rather, it is the solid emphasis in his soft husky voice as he speaks. It is in the spring bounce in his tyre-sandal capped steps as he shows us around about the foundational work happening in Okere that you feel his attachment to this project.
The days we were at Okere, Okello’s commitment to this project rubbed off easily through his early awakening to prepare for the day which began with a 10km run around the city. It registered as he stayed up late in the wee hours of the morning with us by the bonfire and him making sure doors were locked and minor things like utensils and other containers were all returned to the kitchen. For a man that pays that much attention to minor details, you can only believe that he has thought through the many details of this mega project.
Ojok did not grow up in Okere. He only moved back less than five years ago tracing his father’s roots, a man whose name ‘Okello’ he carries yet he never got the opportunity to live with let alone see him. He grew up with his matriarchal side. The quest to have his children have an idea about their patriarchal family saw him trace down his roots to Okere. It was then that he found all this land and he thought he would transform it into a mega city.
Naturally, Okere is rich. It is one of the few parts of Uganda where Shea nut butter trees grow with ease. The locals had never known the treasure they beheld. The need for quick cash saw them cut down the trees for charcoal. To them, “these trees make some of the best charcoal.” To a group of people used to earning their bread off the same trees, they could never have imagined beyond that.
Notably, the women have always known the secret of the Shea butter oil harvested from the nuts. They use it as a beauty product as well as a cooking ingredient. There is a whole process through which they arrive at both products.
I found this gender approach to the Shea tree very intriguing as it also brings out the difference in aspiration; one for the quick money and the other; the need for everyday home supplies. One needs a whole tree whereas the other only needs the little brown nuts.
The only meeting point for these two gender divides and interests can only be bridged by a mega project that Ojok is spearheading of planting more Shea nu butter trees. His plan is to plant one million Shea nut trees in the coming decade. With mass sensitisation, the idea of cutting down trees for charcoal is soon going to be a thing of the past.
The campaign to plant more Shea nut butter trees is inclusive of every member of the society. There is no doubt that these children who are imitating the adults dance and do other community engagements will imitate them to plant and protect these trees. It is the Okere emblem.
Today, Okere Shea butter is one of the products that comes out of the city to the rest of the world. Once these children grow up to know the source of their school fees, they will preserve these trees.
Ojok’s legacy is not going to be in the buildings that have sprung up in Okere or the Sacco and all the other investments. Those are many and very important. Rather, it is in the minds of the adults but most importantly the children who are growing up into responsible citizens for whom preservation of the Shea nut butter tree is the rock on which their livelihoods are anchored. It is the change in mind-set among men to plant more trees instead of cutting them for charcoal. It is about men and women coming together to produce the best Shea butter the world desperately needs. This will put enough money in their pockets to support their children through school.
There are so many opportunities waiting to be tapped into. Okere, being part of northern Uganda, receives a high concentration of sunlight. More opportunities from solar power await to be tapped into. There is more work that needs more people than Ojok can do as an individual but so far, he has been able to do the hardest part; to sell the dream to the people. The future of Okere rests on the able shoulders of ‘Okerenians’ as Ojok rows the boat. The harvest will be plenty but for now, there is a need to tap into the labourers so that they can own this dream and bring it to reality. It will take more than Ojok as it will take more than the Okerenians. But one thing is for certain; there will be a bumper harvest.