INTERVIEW WITH PALM LEAVES ARTIST

By John Otim, journalist, and creative writer

Palm Leaves ArtistDespite his age, the man was a dandy. Dressed in fabrics made entirely of palm leaves. His name is Michael Santos. Santos lives in Jinja Camp, which is a suburb of Lira City in Northern Uganda 

Every item of clothing he wore, was made of dried palm leaves. The round safari hat. His short-sleeve jacket. His wide pair of shorts with crisp trendy lines. As though freshly laundered, pressed, and all that. His flat footwear. All of them, are made of palm leaves. Palm leaves as everyone knows, are the material used primarily for making mats and baskets. Santos puts it to good use to create his amazing wardrobe.

On the day we encounter him on the streets of Lira, the only concession Santos made, was in his pair of red cotton socks along with his brown cotton shirt. And presumably his underwear. Even the necktie he wore was made of palm leaves.

Everywhere Santos went that day, the 65-year-old, cut a strikingly figure. You just had to notice him. It was a perfect piece of advertising for the palm leaves products he hawked. He didn’t have to utter a word. People just approached him.

We caught up with him on City Radio and thrust it out.

Me: Mr. Santos, we are extremely delighted to have you here tonight. We want you to share with us and our listeners, your unique world of palm leaves. Who would have thought that shoes could be made from common palm leaves?

Santos: My dear wife Caroline. My two sons Abel and Moses. And my only daughter Jackie. All of them, now back home in our house, will be tuned to this wonderful show. I am proud and delighted to be here.

Me: It’s a great pleasure and privilege. But tell me. How did it all begin? This idea of creating amazing items of clothing from simple palm leaves!

Santos: My father was a tailor. A pretty good one too. In those days. We are talking about the 60s and the 70s. He dressed just about every big shot in this city. But nobody respected tailors in this country. His earnings could hardly keep the family afloat, let alone sustain me through secondary school. So, I dropped out.

Me: And then?

Santos: And my mom. My dear mother. She was one of the finest weavers in the entire northern region. She worked in palm leaves entirely. Her products sold like hotcakes. Baskets, mats, handbags. But the story is the same. The money just

wasn’t there. Ours is a terrible country when it comes to rewarding talents. So, I dropped out of school.

Me: And then?

Santos: I didn’t know it. It turned out I was sitting on a gold mine. From my father, I got the tailoring skills. From my mother, I acquired the taste to work with palm leaves.

Me: This is interesting. Go on.

Santos: As I sat by my mother, I began to practice alongside her. She encouraged me. I grew in confidence as my skills improved. Before long I branched out on my own. Instead of baskets, I was making jackets, I was making safari hats. I was making boots and bells. All, in palm leaves.

Me: After you made them what happened?

Santos: I was coming to that. I had a room full of these things and no market. Then the tourist discovered me. They paid in dollars and paid handsomely. We prospered. The family built a new house. I bought a motorbike.

Me: And then?

Santos: Before I could relax and make any real investment, besides buying cattle, you know. My Dad loved cattle. He thought that was the future. But it wasn’t.

Me: Tell me?

Santos: Along came all these funny changes in government. Violent you know. Before we knew it, men in military uniform, armed to the teeth, were walking away with our cows. We were left penniless.

Me: You mean it?

Santos: Are you asking me? Do you doubt me?

Me: Mr. Santos, I am so sorry. I mean no harm. I wasn’t in the country you know.

Santos: Not to worry.

Me: This conversation will be continued.

Palm TreeThose who were in primary school in the colonial days will recall that handwork was one of the subjects in the curriculum. At the end of the year one must make and bring something like a mat, basket, hats, etc.; often made from palm leaves any papyrus to be graded. Though they were supposed to be auctioned off to raise money for the school, some unscrupulous teachers often selected the best handworks and kept them for themselves. Palm leaves baskets were wonderful for shopping and environmental safe till plastics took over and are now ruining the environment. The trunks of mature trees are often split to make beams for roof construction (Editor).