Katie Mulkowsky: Fieldwork wrap-up

Wood building with sign

Although it seems strange to be blogging again retrospectively rather than from the field, a month of distance from my time in Uganda is really what it’s taken to sink in for me. As noted, my name is Katie; I’m a Gallatin senior interested in land use planning and the promises of ‘development.’ This is precisely why my project has been so immensely important to me but also challenging to navigate. Ultimately, the work made me question the practice of simply researching global commodity chains rather than committing to something more actionable when so much is at stake for those at the bottom.

Since I last wrote, my final stretch of fieldwork in our new location, Siroko District, went underway. I was absolutely blessed with an incredible field guide named Peter who navigated our driver and I through some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes I’ve ever seen. With his help, we reached 41 farmers in a randomly sampled pool of mid- and high-altitude locations throughout the region. Many things about Sironko differentiate it from Luweero, where I previously mentioned beginning the fieldwork in. To start, battles with land are less visceral but landholdings are much smaller due to population pressure. Because the region is so mountainous, landslides and soil erosion pose additional problems which flatter-terrained Ugandan communities don’t necessarily experience. The systems of landholding are also entirely different and complicated by conceptions of community, family, and history—where land effectively becomes leased from the Buganda king in Luweero, it is generally directly inherited through customary tenure in Sironko.


A Sironko farmer and her child


Funny enough, though, I was able to watch a land deal firsthand during my last week in Sironko, when my field guide decided to make a purchase himself. Peter showed me that, even when land isn’t directly inherited from a family member, business deals still embrace very communal undertones. He essentially heard about the plot through word of mouth; his father drew up the agreement and friends of both parties watched the cash exchange hands under a tree. I’m still toying with what can be drawn from these understandings, but stand by the assertion that more knowledge about the source of our agriculture commodities is key to an increasingly equitable global exchange. Reflecting on this moment from, incidentally, a trendy coffee shop in Bed-Stuy makes me wonder what it could ever mean for New Yorkers to really “know their farmers” beyond the Whole Foods labels we prioritize without full cognizance of their meanings.


The agreement, drawn up by Peter’s dad


While grocery shopping a few days ago, my roommates and I had a bit of a friendly argument over organic labeling—whether we find it more important than saving a few cents, whether we know enough about its indicators to ascribe it importance at all. And I thought back to the local cooperative union, Bugisu, that most farmers in Sironko sell their beans to, either directly or through middlemen. I thought about doing interviews in its trading outpost, and how trickle-down economics will never pave those remote roads. I thought about the distance—geographic, ideological, imaginary—between the farmers there and the ones described on the label of Trader Joes’ arabica blend. And I realized that, even after this summer, I don’t know enough to make educated decisions about the produce I buy. What does it mean that “we” Western consumers don’t know where our food comes from and “they”—the Latin American, East Asian, and African primary producers—don’t know where their crops go? I suppose this is the result of my project: an understanding of how imperative it is to close that gap on both ends. After all, how can a Ugandan farmer advocate for the price she deserves if she can’t even conceptualize the $5 mug her toil emerges into?


Bugisu Cooperative Union