Life

Merry Christmas made in Uganda

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Bukenya at work. PHOTO BY CHRISTINE W.WANJALA  

By Christine W.Wanjala

Posted  Sunday, December 22   2013 at  02:00

In Summary

Greeting cards. When Bukenya stumbled upon a dried flower course for the persons with diabilities, he had no idea that it would change his life. Today, the 76-year-old earns a living through making cards with natural flowers.

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“You are welcome and thank for your interest,” says the elderly man, handoutstretched. His name is Joseph Bukenya, a card maker, and we meet by the road side in Kyebando where he directed me. The interest he talks about began at a bookshop when casually browsing for Christmas cards.

In a sea of mass produced glittery cards, the white cards seemed painfully plain, but they stood out for the same reason that they were different and that despite their neat finish, one could tell they were hand-made. I simply had to find the person who made them, and that is how I end up meeting Bukenya.
“I have the cards at several outlets around town,” says the 76-year-old as we walk the path to his home where he makes the cards.

A homely workshop
A corner of the living room is dedicated to card-making. A desk sits by a window, strewn with card-making paraphernalia and cards in various stages of completion. All around the desk is material related to making the Christmas cards, the paper, a homemade flower press, and more paper. “I was in the middle of making some cards when you called me,” he says.

Bukenya, a retired social worker began making cards in 1994, after a three month training course. “I was working for Community Based Rehabilitation National an organisation which sought to rehabilitate the disabled. A European lady, Patsy J. Stevens who was hired as a consultant on rehabilitation came to teach the art of flower pressing to the members,” he shares. Though he was and still is able-bodied, Bukenya picked interest enough to enroll into the three-month course. “I fluked. I was the only able-bodied person. It was a fulltime course so I stopped everything I was doing,” he says, smiling.
Funny enough, Bukenya had not done any handcraft before, or even shown any interest in doing any.

He has a certificate of completion of the course which was 1994 and still keeps the examination papers he did during the course which seemed to cover everything from basics like the parts of a flower to more specialised lessons like how to make your own flower press. “I did not do too badly,” he jests
He started making the cards immediately he finished the course, even after he went back to his social work. The first cards he made and sold were a little different though. “We had been taught to make the cards plain and back then I used pressed flowers to decorate them,” he says. Still, they were good enough to sell, and he started selling his very first ones immediately after the course.

A work of patience
About four years later, a woman from Kenya had seen his work and contacted him interested in learning how he made his cards. Through their interaction, he learnt the threading which he incorporated into the cards and has become a defining feature of his cards till date.

Though he makes all types of cards from congratulations, to birthday, Christmas is his busiest season in a year. This season he says he has made about 300 Christmas cards, which he has supplied to gift shops and bookshops.

Decorating the cards is painstaking work, the cards which he has cut and printed in advance have to be perforated in one of the shapes he likes to use, a heart, star, a circle or oval, after which he has to carefully thread the paper and then stick on the flower. Years of doing this however, means he is perfect at it. In a day he can make 40-50 big cards but this is not a constant as the demand for the cards is irregular. “Sometimes I do not make cards since all my outlets are full and other times I get a big order and I have to work day and night,” says Bukenya.
Now his cards bear messages each appropriate to the purpose of the card. The Christmas messages are especially touching and when I point that out, Bukenya says a lot of people like the cards because of the words inside.

He says the years of experience (almost 20 now, six of which he has been making cards full time) are enough for him to become adept at writing messages. But he makes a confession’ “Every once in a while, I will make a trip to gift shops, read other cards and if I see a really special message, I buy the card and snatch,” he says again breaking into laughter.

He may laugh a lot, but he takes card making very seriously, both as a hobby and a source of income. Unfortunately, none of his family members have taken after him. “They know how to make them just that none does it,” he says adding that making the cards is a matter of interest. In fact as far as he can tell, the one who just fluked as he called it is the only one of the original group who were trained who still carries on with the card making.

Standing out on the shelves
Despite the market being flooded with much shinier, more glittery sometimes even cheaper cards, Bukenya says his cards are doing pretty well. “Of course I am able to get back something that justifies the money time and effort I put it. If I was not, I would not have done it for this long,” he says. Maybe that is why he has not changed the prices of his cards for years. “I have always sold them at, Shs1,500 for the big ones, Shs1,000 for the medium and Shs300 for the small ones,” he says. The price may be a little higher in the outlets as different businesses introduce their own markups on the price.
Unfortunately, the glitter and colour on the cards has been sacrificed at the altar of keeping the costs low. “Printing colour is very expensive, it would make the card more expensive,” he says.

On the local front, he may not have much competition, a thing he attributes to lack of interest from most people. Over the years, he has known a few other people who used to make Christmas cards but have gradually stopped. Maybe it is because in the end the market is still very small, after all, locally cards are bought by a very specific group mostly foreigners and Ugandans who are sending to their friends abroad according to the operations manager at Uganda bookshop Ruth Karibwije.
Bukenya is still in contact with the Steven’s who taught him the art of card making and through her he has managed to get some of them on the European market. “They are very well received there,” he says.

He believes in his own work too, sending out his own handmade Christmas cards to his friends and relatives every year. “I do it for publicity, but also because I like it,” he says.
Overall, Bukenya sums up card making as rewarding work, and something he wants to keep doing for as long as he can. As long as he does, Ugandans can hope to turn a Christmas card over and see Made in Uganda by Joseph.L. Bukenya. Makes you a little proud doesn’t it?

cwanjala@ug.nationmedia.com