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paint-makers of lira, uganda

Young Ugandan woman testing handmade paint

Sharon Kali testing colors. 

Last year PRI accepted four young adults from Uganda as mentees of the organization. The objective has been to teach them how to forage for and process pigments, and to make watercolor paint. 

Last week I received a parcel  and felt like a proud Mama when I opened it and saw months of hard work, learning entirely new skills, language, even how to measure properly. The pigments were ground, some to paint-grade and packaged in a small plastic jar with a screw top. Each is labeled with a color name that represents the area where it was obtained and pigment number.  

Label for Paintmakers of Lira

Like any self-respecting pigment person I immediately opened all the jars, smelled each, and promptly painted out test swatches. I fell right in love with the Ongica yellow, Bala orange and Oloo red; both the Ongica yellow and Bala orange have very fine textures make them ready to be turned into watercolors as they are, while the Oloo red (and the rest of the colors) will need some more refining. 

Nine of the pigments from Paintmakers of Lira

List of pigment colors image at left


1. Ongica yellow

2. Tipper Stage brown

3. Amonmaka yellow

4. Bala orange

5. Oloo red

6. Bala maroon

7. Oloo cream

8. Anthill gray

9. Ongica black

Swatches of pigments painted out

As part of their project they visited with several potters who had good information on sources of pigments and created beautiful clay palettes like the one below. 

Handmade clay palette with 6 different watercolor paints

It has been an incredible journey of learning, both on the parts of Sharon, Nancy, Halmond and Deo, and those of us at PRI who have worked with them. We quickly found out none of them knew what a pigment was let alone where to find them and what to do with them. The only paint tradition that exists in Uganda is that of hut painting, but much of the knowledge around that has been lost. Between interviewing elders, potters and a former champion hut-painter, they were able to gather just enough information to begin searching for pigments. We worked on teaching them how to identify materials that would make good color and how to process them, but along the way we learned they had never been taught how to measure anything (let alone having access to measuring utensils), how to problem-solve, as well as a multitude of practical skills and cognitive thinking.

Their day-to-day lives don't include the kinds of objects so many of us take for granted: measuring spoons and scales, mortar and pestle, storage containers, even paper and brushes to paint out color swatches, and there's no place to purchase these things even if they could afford to, so they had to get inventive. Sharon obtained a slab of granite for a grinding slab and then the search was on for a muller. The effort, time, energy, thought and creative thinking that went into all of this was challenging for them since they'd never had an opportunity to think outside the boxes prescribed by their living conditions, appalling education, and the strictures of their living conditions. 

In spite of so many obstacles, they perservered; they scavanged empty rice and bean bags to hold newly foraged pigments, and used empty water bottles to store pigments as they were processed. They sourced wild harvested honey to use as a humectant, made their own eucalyptus oil from fresh leaves, and ground and mulled for days on end. To make certain there were no microbes or bacteria in the pigments they spread them on large sheets of plastic to dry in the hot sun.

As part of the process we had them visit local villages and interview the few elders remaining to learn about the customs and traditions around pigments and color. They were excited to learn about the days when hut-painting competitions were held the festivities that unsued. Elders were eager to share stories and information, knowing that passing this knowledge down is vital for the continuation of cultures that have almost entirely been wiped out. 



 That these kids have made such rapid progress and produced such beautiful results is an indication of just how avid they are to learn and how much they value anything they are taught.  


If you would like more information about this project, the pigments they are producing, or about our mentorship program, email us or use our contact form

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