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Today’s photo is really important to me. The two women in this photo are from my first sewing class in Uganda. In a future blog, I will talk about why I left development, what working in development and Uganda taught me, and why I am more critical of international social economic ventures and charities.
In 2011, I bought a few plane tickets to countries and set out to help some charities. One of those tickets took me to Uganda where I volunteered with Krochet Kids in Gulu and hung out with an Indianapolis based start-up in Kampala. The start-up took me to the village of Kapeeka and I fell in love with the women.
The women were hungry, they wanted opportunity, they had been through terrible events during The War of the Bush. I have video after video after video of women in intake interviews describing what they went through during the war and how their life was impacted afterwards. They are difficult to watch but with the other project, I felt we could make a difference.
In this photo were two women who still hold my heart, two women who gave it everything, two women with more determination in their pinky finger than I have in all the hairs on my head.
In the front is Francis. Francis once lived in Kampala, was married, and was a successful singer. Her husband was abusive towards her and her children, and one day she had enough. She packed one suitcase, dropped her daughter off to her brother, and took her sons as far away as she could get.
Once she landed in Kapeeka, life was not easy. I don’t know the rest of the details, and the details I were told were spotty, sometimes disconnected, sometimes translated in ways that didn’t fit together.
She cooked for us during the first classes and when she could steal a few minutes away, would sneak onto a back bench and try the exercises out until the pastors shooed her away back to the kitchen. She caught my eye immediately. She has a strong frame, well defined muscles, rough hands from working the land and raw, calloused feet from not always being able to afford a simple pair of shoes.
Her stitches were horrible. There’s no other way to describe it. She pulled too tight, her hands were permanently covered in earth, her threads turned color, she ripped the pages or gathered the fabric. By all means, when starting a sewing project and having to limit it to a small amount of participants, Francis would usually be one you had to set aside.
But Francis walked to the center every morning at 4 am. She would sneak in, light up the gas lantern, and practice until she had to start cooking the tea and breakfast. I found this out because one night a bat snuck in to my mosquito net and landed right on my face. I jumped up, shooed it out as quietly as I could to avoid the wrath of the person I was working with (more on that in future stories and my upcoming book, Diving For Pearls). I noticed a soft light outside of our door. Rumors had been swirling between the women and told to me in quiet about the pastors sexually abusing the women. I stuck my head out the door, hoping I wouldn’t see anything to validate the rumors, and instead, thankfully, saw Francis. It was 4:15 a.m.
When the class was over at 5 so the women could walk home before the sun set, Francis would stay and keep trying. She would pull out stitches, look for discarded homework assignments or scrap fabrics, and she worked and worked until she created something that was semi acceptable. Her face lit up and she showed it to me with pride.
I knew I had to take a chance. I still have one of every bag she sewed.
The lady in the back is Mama. Mama was crazy- crazy with happiness, crazy with joy, crazy with hugs, crazy with loud laughter. Anytime anyone made a mistake, she would walk over, take a look, lightly smack them on the back of the head, and the whole room would erupt in laughter. Many times I had to remind her that it’s okay to make a mistake, we were all learning.
She stayed late, she helped clean up the threads, and she gave a hearty belly laugh that echoed through the school house shell every time I picked up the makeshift broom made of dried grasses to sweep the house.
“Muzungu no sweep,” she would tell me while pointing outside to my ‘partner’ who would be sitting around, making the women wash her hair, trying to explain she only liked certain foods and they shouldn’t cook what she didn’t like, or telling people that rich white Americans don’t actually care about poor people – they spend all their money on drugs (true story, I sadly have this on video).
When I set out to work in development, I promised I would never let myself sit on a pedestal and I would always do any work I asked of those I worked with. If they had to clean, I would clean with them. If it was time to wash dishes, I washed with them. I bucket washed laundry with them. I painted walls with them. I gardened with them. I cooked with them (but they didn’t like my food too much).
Mama would always tell me that a Muzungu’s place was to be waited on. I didn’t subscribe to that theory. When Mama realized this, she would watch me cleaning and tut-tut or grab the broom and act like she was teaching me how to use it before chuckling and throwing her hands in the air and walking away.
In the end, I didn’t accept her into the program. She was the matriarch and village customs was that she should be at home being attended to by her children. I always tried my best to work within the cultural confines and not to instill a westernized dialogue. I was told how taking Mama into the program could cause large problems with the village elders. Mama would always come anyway and hang around. I never told her she couldn’t come and we always welcomed her.
One day she stopped coming. I left Uganda the next day due to illness. I never saw her again, she never came back, and we never had any answers.
That’s just the way things happened in Uganda. When you work in development, you get used to people disappearing. Some are trafficked, some die, some up and move overnight, and some turn into ghosts and memories.
Also published on Medium.