In March of 2018, while you went about your 2BC (Before Corona) life, there was a gentleman flying the Ugandan flag high at the World Wood Day Festivities held in Cambodia then. His journey to the helm of the handcrafting industry in Uganda is one of resilience and tenacity with a firm belief in what his hands and mind can do with wood. Most of us look at wood and the best we can envision is a table, chair or bed, Henry Ddumba sees as far as flowers in a plank of wood.
Henry Ddumba - Nyabumu Talented Wood Carvings
A primary school dropout, he joined the handcrafting business by hanging around handcrafting businessmen in his neighborhood. His only job was to sand the completed pieces. While at it, he gleaned all the knowledge he could and overtime, started crafting his own pieces starting with a toddler’s chair which impressed his supervisors earning him more assignments and commissions including the crafting of what he refers to as ‘zoo animals’. By then, in 1995, this was highly popular with tourists and lucrative, the smallest piece of a crafted elephant, lion or chimpanzee went for UGX80,000.
Armed with these skills, he started creating pieces for his friends and family including his church at the New United Apostolic Church, Mengo where he fell in the good graces of a missionary that was impressed with a jewelry box given to him as a gift by the church. Brother Henry was so awed by the skill and expertise that he introduced Henry to Facebook, creating a page for him and teaching him how to use it to market and sell his wooden carvings. He understood the assignment and made it a goal to post all the pieces he made. With Facebook still in its infancy then, all his friends at the time were mostly Americans, referred to him by Henry.
Overtime his friend list grew building his confidence and pride in his craft. In 2015, his first international order for a crafted souvenir came through a client who liked one of his pieces and wanted it shipped to the United Kingdom. He accepted and started looking for ways on how this could be done. He discovered the Postal courier services this way. They charged UGX80,000 per 30kgs of shipment.
With this knowledge, Ddumba now had to figure out how to accept international money transfers to Uganda starting with Western Union that the client was not familiar with, to PayPal that offered hope and later turned out non-existent in the country, to world Remit which was futile. The client then asked that he meet up with one of his friends in Uganda and deliver the piece to them and get the money through them. The client’s friend was also impressed by the work and ordered for his own pieces, growing his network one piece at a time.
In 2018, another milestone order came through, this client was also a crafter based in the United States. He ordered for $300 worth of wall pieces. By this time, he was well set up with Western Union and world Remit, payments and shipments were no longer a problem. Impressed by his work, the client turned friend, asked Ddumba to craft his dog for him from a picture, he did and raised his profile a notch higher, soon the business became a collaboration. He crafted half the pieces, shipped them to his friend for completion and they made money this way.
With this traction and exposure came an email in his inbox from the organizers of World Wood Day who offered him a fully paid trip to Cambodia to represent Uganda. He accepted but asked for more details to make sure it was not one of those ridiculous Facebook scam, went CIA on the event, looking for past attendees and any information he could get and making friends with past attendees from Ghana and Tanzania who quelled his doubts and explained the event to him, his only request was to carry some of his pieces to sell at the event.
The trip was too many firsts for him, he got his first passport, boarded his first flight, got lost at the Dubai international airport, missed a flight and still made it to Cambodia to find a young lady with his name on a placard waiting for him. He laughs when he tells this story but is grateful for the experience. He came back home with 3M to boost his workshop in Bwebanjja and 1.5M in sales of his pieces.
With his experience, he occasionally takes on younger people to train them in the trade. He believes in the power of social media to create demand for products but is disappointed by the minimal demand he gets from the local populace. ‘Ugandans prefer to import or buy cheap Chinese products instead of purchasing high quality hand crafted made from long lasting Ugandan wood!’, to him this is a terrible mindset that Ugandans should shed off and realize the superior products they can have in their land.
During the pandemic, he trained his 11-year-old son how to sculpt, his son made pieces that he was able to sell off and afford his school fees. Recently he got requests to collaborate with other sculptors.
On upskilling, he attends most of the workshops organized by the tourism department in the country, one of the lessons he is most proud of is on pricing his products at the best price for both him and the client. He does not compromise on quality and therefore does not compromise on the value he fetches from the client; this has helped him stop over pricing and underpricing his pieces.
Concerning his creative process, he says anything can inspire him. If he wakes up and looks at a flower, he can tell the wood that he is able to carve it out from and does just that relying on his social media network too find market for his pieces. He runs his trade under the name Nyabumu Talented Wood Carvings.
Henry Ddumba represents a crucial piece of our culture and art, he is one of the many people holding on to our art and crafting talents passed on to us by ancestors, these people build, and craft pieces made with love and passion only human hands can possess. In a country where the appreciation of art is still high up in ‘Maslow’s hierarchy’ for us, the artisans and crafters are keeping the light on as they wait for us to live up to their expectations, to break through and appreciate their work more. To not only leave the crafts village and art pieces for tourists that are walking through the country satisfying their need to ‘see the world’.
So, they chisel on, draw and craft to create timeless pieces that they believe you will purchase soon.
Written by : Patricia Rhoda Nekesa
This article was produced as part of the Handicraft Souvenir and Development Project implemented by the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities and the International Trade Centre funded by the Enhanced Integrated Framework .