Joseph Ocakacon- Pacer Artisan
The journey of craft making begins with imagination, the unwavering belief that you can make anything out of wood. It is a declaration that everything is and can be made beautiful. Where we see wood, an artisan sees a Crested Crane or a drum. This ingenuity and skill are on display in craft shops across the country, an altar to African creativity and the resilience of culture. A lot of the crafts in these shops come from one place, Pacer Blacksmithing, Wood Art & Crafts Association.
Located in Packwach district, Pacer is a community of expert artisans. For them, wood art and craft making are part of the fabric of their community, a skill whose genesis is before anyone’s memory and older than time. This sacred skill was bestowed on them by God, a divine blessing on the people of Pacer, to use their hands to mould wood. As stories of their ancestry, like the spear and the bead, are passed down, so is this craft. As a child seats on the dirt soil, watching his/her ancestors creating tools and ornaments from wood, they learn their history, culture, and receive a skill that one day, they will use to feed their family. As Joseph Ocakacon, an artisan explains, “It is our inheritance”.
Craft making and wood working first begun with the need for essential tools like bellows and motors and pestles to aide in day to day life. As their skill grew, the possibilities of what could be created from wood were limitless. They made musical instruments like the Adungu, an African harp, and naturally progressed to more intricate designs. “The wood carvers started wandering what else they could make out of wood so, they started making images of people”, Joseph explains. This imitation transitioned to the creation of animals like the Tortoise, Uganda Kob and Crocodile, animals, which were not foreign to the neighbours of Murchison falls National Park. The beautiful crafts drew admirers who wanted to take a piece of Pacer with them. Demand grew for these materials and so, the industry of craft making in Pacer was birthed.
Years later, people like Joseph carry on this legacy. Twice every week, Joseph, together with 25 members of the Pacer Blacksmithing, Wood Art and Crafts Association gather under a tree to make crafts. It takes the group about two days to make most of the crafts. First, they need to select the right wood. “We normally use wood from ‘Vodo’, ‘Kwogo’, ‘Fue’ and Ebony trees. The wood from these trees produce beautiful and strong handicrafts”, Joseph explains. Then, like lines men and women in a factory, each person is tasked with one element on a craft. The group can produce hundreds of crafts per week which, are then taken to sold in different parts of Uganda. The members of the association have also become experts in various types of handicrafts and souvenirs. “We create handicrafts that represent different cultures across Uganda. We can make anything, from rosaries to walking sticks, if there is market for it. The retailers order whatever crafts they want and we are able to produce them”, Joseph explains. The women and wives of the artisans also contribute to the association. “Some of our wives have started basket weaving and making jewelry out of wood. These have been very successful and are being sold in many craft shops”, Joseph reveals. This expertise draws apprentice artisans from all over Uganda to Pacer, a sort of artistic pilgrimage. “We have people coming to us for training. We recently trained students from Makerere, Kyambogo and Gulu Universities”, Joseph adds.
For Joseph, the association, which heavily relies on the Ugandan market, has a lot more to offer but is limited by the demand for the goods. As a manufacturer, the association gains more profit producing large orders. However, the orders are seasonal. “We can produce much more, but there is no market for the goods. We just supply retailers and lodges but these are few”, Joseph reveals. He hopes that they can be linked to markets outside Uganda. “We would like to start exporting our products however, we need support to find the market”, Joseph explains. He adds, “We also need support in knowing what handicrafts are more marketable to the outside markets so that we know what to produce”.
If anything, markets across the world are primed for unique African made products. Increasingly, there are new curators of African crafts that are linking local manufacturers to the global market. However, to succeed in such a competitive and selective market the quality of products needs to be assured, something the association is still trying to achieve. “We want to see the handicrafts made in other countries so that we can compare and know how to improve so as to compete fairly. We are capable of producing the highest quality products, we just need exposure”, Joseph explains. He adds that Ugandan craft makers are struggling to find a quality management system. “For example, our association uses basic tools and so we cannot have the same quality with each handicraft. We require some modern tools to help us achieve our desired quality, consistently”, Joseph explains. The tools, like anvils, are quite expensive for the association and it has taken them since their inception, in 2012, to buy any of these machines. Despite the heavily manual production process, the association is finding ways to ensure they produce high quality products. “We have 2 senior artisans who are tasked with approving all handicrafts. If they are not satisfied with the quality, we redo the work. This has helped us ensure we meet the customers standards’, Joseph explains.
Another challenge for the artisans has been capital to invest in their work. As Joseph explains, “It is really just the lack of funding that is holding us back. We would have been much further”. This has forced the association members to augment their handicraft making business with other work. “Some of the members sell the crafts in Packwach to tourists visiting Murchison falls. We are also able to earn from the trainings we offer to different groups”, Joseph shares. The association has also started a savings group which offers a line of credit to the association and the members. This extra money will go to buying equipment and securing a proper workshop. “We do not have a physical building where we can work and store our materials. We just found a tree where we come together and work. So, when it rains we must stop our work and this is a great challenge for us”, he adds.
Nevertheless, the association is ready to carve out their place in the global market. “We normally have tours of our production process. This has opened a few opportunities as tourists make orders and sell our products in their home countries”, Joseph reveals. The artisans are also aggressively looking for new crafts they can produce. “We are trying to be innovative and find things that we can make. We started making wooden pen covers after we saw a tourist with one. These have become one of our most frequently requested products”, Joseph explains. The association is also making plans to better promote their products. “We plan to have a wholesale shop in Packwach and Kampala”, Joseph reveals. This will bring the association closer to potential customers and offer more visibility for their handicrafts.
As they wait to make their mark globally, the association is positively impacting their community. “People in Pacer see what we are doing and are encouraged to use their skills to make money. We support some of them and outsource our work to them”, Joseph reveals. In addition, the group has started practicing reforestation. “Since we are cutting and destroying many trees in the community, we decided to replant. Each member is supposed to plant at least 100 trees”, Joseph adds. In time, the association hopes to buy land that will be exclusively for growing trees. In doing this, Joseph and members of the association are leaving behind a better community than the one they inherited.
Joseph hopes to see this industry grow for himself, but especially for his children, who will one day inherit this skill. “My children watch me make as I work and now my eldest son has learned the skill” he reveals. Just as he learned from his great grandfather, Joseph is teaching his children so that one day, through handicrafts, there will be a piece of Pacer in every home.
Written by Maxine Kampire
HOW TO REACH: Pacer Blacksmithing, Wood Art & Crafts Association.
Photos by : Chris Lutanga , Shem Derrick Wasswa & International Trade Centre
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 .