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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Self-taught crafts artisan raising Uganda’s level in footwear


As a young boy, Labartin owned a beloved pair of Kenyan sandals, a birthday present from his mother. With time, the sandals were badly in need of repair but Labartin didn’t have the money to have them mended. As necessity is the mother of invention, so it has been said, he made his own awl and set on repairing his sandals.

He fell in love
with his repair work and was suddenly seized by the urge to make his own sandals. Pencil on paper, he began sketching different types of sandals, then started collecting old car tyres and making lugabire out of them. To his delightful surprise, the locals clamoured for his work, a sign of appreciation for his creativity.

To cut the story short, that’s how Labartin became a self-taught crafts artisan. From tyre sandals, he experimented with real leather and began “making serious stuff”. He went over to Crane Shoes on Sixth Street, got membership to pay facility rent which allowed him to work there and master his art as well.

Labartin makes leather sandals, belts, and classy wallets. He also makes key holders in designs of sandals, maps, bottles and animals. You just have to tell him whatever design you fancy and should you want your name included, it will be done.
He cannot forget how far he has come, which is why his favourite creation remains what he now calls the “Labartin Sandal” along with its catchphrase: Walk in style!

“It has put me somewhere and I know it has put Uganda at another level in footwear because people really love it,” he says.

It makes his story interesting that he came from nowhere and started doing these things. He admits though that he was best at fine art in secondary school and also learned something from one of his uncles who is an artist specialising in batik.

Shortly after S.4, Labartin, whose real name is Edman Mwima, was confronted with life’s hard knocks with the death of his mother. He couldn’t continue with his studies because of financial limitations, so he began earning his living solely from his crafts business.

“People believe in my designs because they are original and unique; that’s why I supply those craft shops at National Theatre and on Buganda Road,” he says. “I even get some customers from Rwanda and Sudan. In Sudan they call my sandals Kabaya, which means something nice.”

The young craftsman has reason to boast. At only 22 years, he’s already a landlord in Kampala! He owns two rooms which he bought from his arts business and he rents one out and occupies another.

Labartin says it has taken him patience, hard work and discipline to win the trust of customers: “As a very creative artist, I have to sit down and take a lot of time sketching and cutting the patterns which I turn into stuff people like…no one can copy my products because they are unique and customers like that.”

Labartin, who comes from Tororo, surfs the net to update himself with the latest designs and is particularly “inspired by Italians because they are very ahead in leatherworks”. In fact it is an Italian that gave him the name Labartin, which he says means something genuine.

“I want to open a school that teaches young people about leatherworks so that in future it will not be me in the production room,” he says of his big plans. “I know my dream will come true because I believe that you can come from the ghetto and make big things.”