First … a warm greeting from the women of a small village in Jinja. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take a hoopin’ and a hollerin’, dancin’, red-dirt African welcome over the glitzy, red carpet, Hollywood variety any day of the week.
During my recent journey in Uganda, I visited this community of women in Jinja, most of whom have been widowed and/or and left destitute by AIDS. Their economic survival depends upon a fair-trade business they’ve built with funding from an American businessman, as well as private donors.
I’ll share my personal reflections on the time that I spent there with these woman and 37 other volunteers. But first, a brief background on the economic situation in this region.
The statistics paint a gloomy picture for eastern and northern Uganda, including Jinja.
According to World Bank’s 2016 Uganda Poverty Assessment Report, progress in reducing poverty in this region has not kept up with the rest of Uganda. Between 2006 and 2014, the total number of poor has increased from 68% to 84%.
What does that look like? Well, imagine living in a community where you eat one meal a day (if that), electricity is non-existent and there’s no toilet facility. That is the reality in many impoverished areas in this region, as I can attest firsthand to having recently visited several communities like it—or worse.
It can be disheartening to read reports like these, especially for those dealing with the current state of education in Uganda. It goes without saying that an education, even a basic one, is the only real hope children have to escape the never-ending cycle of systemic poverty. The summary statement at the top of a 2016 article on Uganda’s failing education systems says it all: “Despite the $302 millions spent annually on primary education, almost 70% of children are likely to drop out, with hidden costs proving too high for poorer parents.”
The article goes on to state, “Even the Ugandans who do manage to defy the odds, most return to a state of poverty … For every three Ugandans who were lifted out of poverty, two fell back.”
That sounds like a bad game of Chutes and Ladders to me. Three steps forward, two steps back and then repeat … again and again, making the finish line seem ever elusive.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see and hear from Ugandans who are defying those odds—like this inspiring group of women (Hope for Women – Uganda) who live and work together in a Jinja community, combining their skills and talents to make handmade baskets, purses, jewelry, clothes and other goods to help provide for the collective needs of their village.
Here are some photos and videos of life in that village—along with just some of the goodies they sell. (I’ve posted some of the cool stuff I purchased as well.)
One thing I regret during my brief time there was not being as “present” as I would have liked. My job was to take photos and gather stories, and that required me to be behind the lens more often than not. When your brain is actively engaged in scoping out arresting images to capture and then setting up the shots, you really can’t slow down and hug on kids or converse with adults.
That being said, I made sure I made the time to get in at least some hugs and conversations. How could I not?
Here’s a delightful young volunteer who was fully present with the kids. I stopped and captured this charming scene with an impromptu “interview.” (Clearly forgetting my journalism training with my repeated use of the word “Wow!” That’s what happens when you’re having just too much fun.
More photos of the community …
Inside the community building (even the presence of such a building is a sign of comparative prosperity), we were joyfully entertained by the women in song, dance and a Ugandan morality play (that I really didn’t get). Noticing all the kids crammed in the doorway, I managed to lift up one toddler who was hanging around the door and place him on my lap. The child barely moved a muscle—no doubt awe-struck at the sudden appearance of all these mzungus (white people). It’s doubtful he had ever seen the likes of us before.
I held the little guy close … until about 15 minutes in, when it occurred to me that he most likely wasn’t wearing diapers. The idea of urine leaking onto my silk skirt was not a welcome prospect. (We were required to wear dress or a skirt in order to be culturally sensitive.) So I put him down … just in case.
Some of the children of the village treating us to their version of an official welcome …
Feeling a bit confined, I wandered off on my own to explore the grounds, meet some women and capture more intriguing images—away from the crowd. Walking around the back of the building, I ran into the cook for the village, who was stirring a thick substance in a large pot. It was clear that she put her whole body and soul into making this gruel, porridge, grits—what have you.
She happily agreed to let me give it a whirl—a decision I immediately regretted. Apparently, my upper body strength leaves something to be desired. I barely made one turn with the large stick … a pathetic effort that had the women surrounding me doubled over in laughter. Unfortunately, the only nearby volunteer who could have videotaped the comical sight was grappling with his own third-world dilemma—how to keep from being overcome by the fumes that awaited him in the stinkin’ “hole in the ground.
My wanderings around the village ended at the front, where I decided to enter Madame Rose’s baby classroom. All I could say was, Wow! Madame Rose is a living example of the truism that money in and of itself does not produce creativity. I was so impressed by what she created out of nothing, which really was just materials from around the village. Old, holey shoes (which the children actually wear), discarded cups, tree bark, paper … anything and everything is re-purposed into something whimsical and educational.
Added to that were Madame Rose’s own artistic drawings that hung from the ceiling with the rest of the “scrap art.” It made me want to be a child again—just so I could sit in teacher Rose’s class, where I’d be sure to receive lots of hugs and enjoy colorful object lessons.
Allow me to add more whimsy and color to your day with another montage of Madame Rose’s Colorful Creations. (Fun captions included.)
Finally … a few photos of the women’s wares … unfortunately, I neglected to take a photo of the colorful jewelry table. I can show you my own two necklaces that I purchased. (Look how fab it looks with the two skirts I bought … one a vintage, wax cotton ’70s African skirt and the other a more modern, red and black model.) Snap, crackle, pop!
Here’s a small sampling of the items sold in the Hope for Women Uganda’s store. Come one and come all! (Really wish I had snapped more photos, but as you can see, it was crowded in there!)
By now, you no doubt have photo fatigue. Imagine what it was like to actually be there. Every second of every moment while I traveled through Uganda, I thought I would explode from the visual cacophony that was foisted on my senses (in a good way). Though my fellow travelers might not agree. In their minds, they probably thought I was mentally AWOL. What they didn’t understand is that for a visually driven writer with ADHD, being in Africa is like being given the keys to a French chocolatiers’ shop after hours and being told, “Here, have it!”
I’ll leave you with another fun video … this one of the welcoming committee making us visitors run the gauntlet. The teens especially seem to dig it.
If you feel moved to help these women and their children who desperately need an education, so that one day they can help lead their nation into a brighter future, please contact: Buyamba Uganda. They are the US-based fundraising arm for God Cares School—a primary and high school that’s helping to change those dismal statistics on the state of education in Uganda.
I volunteer there and trust me, they are the real deal. Your money will be well spent
That’s it. Thanks for reading this post.