Saturday, August 30, 2008

Training begins

by Julie Carney
Photos by Glenna Gordon
Our progress so far has been tangible, in the form of sewing machines and liner fabric, thread and hand needles. But the less measurable progress has been more meaningful, and that is the training.

I’ll attempt to explain this progress. It is arriving at our training space at Bobi camp, Prisca reading over the lesson plans she wrote up at home the night before. This is her first time teaching but she is a natural—a quiet, and patient instructor. It is the group of women, many of them coming to the training from miles away, sitting patiently at the door to the training center and scolding us for being a few minutes late. It is one young woman, quiet and focused as she peers at her stitches while Lucy watches closely, providing gentle feedback. It is the occasional laughter that erupts, as the women show each other their mistakes. It is the way they call Lucy and Prisca “teacher”. And it is Lucy and Prisca collecting all the women’s work at the end of the day so they can take it home and grade it.

During the trainings, I sit on the side, just watching and documenting; this is entirely Lucy, Prisca, and the women’s initiative. Being useless has never felt so good.

Selecting the trainees proved more difficult than we’d imagined, as many of the women who were initially selected by GWED-G were too old to learn tailoring, a trying profession that makes severe demands on your back, your wrists and your eyes. But all the initial women were desperate to participate, even if they weren’t strong enough physically. But we had to favor “business” over pity; if they were not going to succeed at the trainings, then it would be a waste of everyone’s time. The wrangling for a seat at the training demonstrated both the desperation of life in the camps and how NGOs can sometimes unintentionally create conflict by privileging some over others in their programs. This is why we asked them to bring their daughters or a female relative with whom they “share a pot.” Everything is usually shared among families, so they would presumably be benefiting if they bring their daughters or daughters-in-law. With some time, and speeches from Lucy, they’ve done so, some more reluctantly than others. Now—at both camps—we have two groups of young, eager and committed women.

While there is a certain divide between Lucy, Prisca—as women from town—and the women in the camps, many of the women have been opening up to Lucy gradually, and over time, she says she looks forward to building their trust. Some of them are now approaching her and discussing their family situations, their children, and in some cases, their HIV-positive status. She explained to me that they tell her they are happy to be participating in the training because it is not as back-breaking as ‘digging’ in their own gardens at home. I am happy that the women are opening up to Lucy, and that Lucy is beginning to counsel them in her own way. Perhaps because Lucy has suffered so much herself, her empathy is genuine.

Lucy has not read the books I have on ‘gender-based development’ or ‘empowering women’. She’s lived these theories. And she makes me believe in the power of good leadership and charisma. I had a very old professor, with decades of experience in development, who ended seminar one day with the comment that so much of development is based on charisma. I think we initially dismissed him as senile, but I think I understand his comment a little bit better in the context of seeing Lucy in action.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Bestowing of Bikes, or Christmas in August

by Julie Carney
Thanks to the ingenuity and generosity of Clif Hayward (One Mango Tree's marketing advisor) and his friends, Lucy and her tailors have shiny new transport. Admittedly, I did not realize the full value that bicycles would bring to the One Mango Tree tailors until I arrived in Gulu, visited some of their homes, and ‘put myself in their shoes,’ so to speak. All of the tailors live outside of town, and walking to and from work takes up much of their time, especially when they each have family to take care of in the morning and night. Bicycles are an excellent business investment, as they cut the time the tailors spend on the road, which means more time at work and more time at home.

It did take some days of negotiation to get the bikes. Lucy, Prisca, Monica, Kevin, Sarah and Frances were intent on making sure they got the right bikes, the bikes that would not break easily. Much time was spent analyzing carefully the bikes of their neighbors and the bikes they passed in town. And we were happy to let them choose the bikes for themselves. They chose well.

It was a Monday, late afternoon, when the bikes were finally ready. They were so excited. We followed Lucy to the bike shop, where there were six shiny new bikes, just in from Kenya, out of their plastic wrap and serviced. Kevin, Sarah, Monica and Prisca were beaming. Each new bike has a sturdy basket at the front, a lock with a key, a reflector, and a sticker that says “Smart Lady.” In Uganda, the word “smart” signifies good-looking and well put together. And these were the smartest bikes I’ve seen in Gulu Town to date. Each tailor picked out their bike, five silver ones and a pink one for Lucy, and walked them down the street toward Holy Rosary Church, where Lucy had arranged to get the bicycles blessed from her parish priest. We made quite a parade of “smart ladies.”

We gathered outside in the church courtyard with Lucy’s priest, and surrounded the bikes, as the priest said words of appreciation and caution. The tailors were laughing, the sun was out, and the priest’s words were inspiring. At one point, he asked the women to be conscious of other passengers on the road – contrary to NGO vehicles’ modus operandi of inconsideration. “These NGOs are supposed to help us, but they drive fast and splash mud on people,” he said. “That is not respect.”

After the blessing, we walked the bikes back to Bora Bora Hotel, where we held a small celebration. We ate cake and drank mango juice and relaxed. Then, as the sun was setting over Gulu Town, the tailors hopped on their new rides, and road home, into the sunset.

On a side note, a few days after our bicycle celebration, I walked past the District Council Office, where UNDP was holding a celebration, doling out a few hundred “Peace Bikes” for some village women. And I am happy to note that the One Mango Tree bikes are much “smarter.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Growth of One Mango Tree in just one year

by Julie Carney

The streets of Gulu are wide and well-mapped, and it’s easy to make your way to the market. Follow the loud music, and once inside, pick your path amidst the organized chaos of trinkets from China, second-hand clothing (you’re bound to find a shirt from your hometown or state), clicking sewing machines, roasted peanuts.

If you get lost, just ask for Lucy. Along tailoring row, Lucy is famous. And you will know you’ve arrived when you hear, in that soothing sing-song voice, “You are welcome. Apwoyo Bino!” Almost exactly a year ago, when Halle visited Lucy’s stall, Lucy was working practically alone, with no fabrics hanging up on the wall, and only one sewing machine. Lucy couldn’t afford to eat lunch, and young women she would recruit to work at her stall would eventually leave because of lack of business. She could barely afford to pay her rent, and was soon going to be evicted.

But today, Lucy’s stall is overflowing with colorful fabrics, market totes in the making, yoga bag straps hanging in the doorway—a new order for One Mango Tree being finished—as well as other work Lucy and her tailors have gathered. Lucy now has six sewing machines, and has taken on six tailors-in-training. The stall is too small and Lucy and the tailors are constantly behind on orders. It’s an incredible business transformation and a happy, chaotic workspace. Now, other tailors in the market have attempted to mimic One Mango Tree designs, but none quite match the same quality.

As for Lucy herself, she is pleasantly plumper, and she and the rest of the tailors in her stall can afford to eat breakfast and lunch together. Her life is not without its continued hardships and burdens—the stress of caring for her sick mother who is half-paralyzed from a stroke, and the stresses of school fees for her children, but Lucy now says that she has hope for the future.

When we stop work for a drink of mango juice, Lucy loves to talk about how her business can grow. Her eyes grow wide, as she talks of finding land for a center where she can train more women and have more space. “I want this thing to grow. I need this thing to grow so that I can escape my poverty.” Lucy often prefaces her thoughts by mentioning the fact that she is not well-educated. She is wary of being on the wrong side of business deals because she has been cheated in the past. But she is keener than she thinks. I brought her a calculator, but she is much quicker with calculations in her head. She is saving money in her account and she hopes to learn how to use the computer in order to email her customers in the United States.

I am reluctant to frame this narrative as how One Mango Tree has helped Lucy over the past year, because it is her business and her skills that have helped make the returns so great, but she is a positive example of what targeted, effective investments and strong market connections can accomplish.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Giving a hand-up, where the expectation is a hand-out

by Julie Carney
Photo by Glenna GordonA few years ago, the head of UN Humanitarian Affairs declared the protracted conflict in northern Uganda one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises. There’s tenuous peace today, but two decades of displacement and insecurity have left instability, poverty, psychological turmoil, and destroyed infrastructure in their wake. Admittedly, much has changed in the region over the past few years because of greater global attention and advocacy efforts: in Gulu the sheer number of signs for NGOs and groups of well-intentioned ‘muzungus’ (or ‘munos’ in Acholi)—researchers, humanitarian workers, missionaries—suggest anything but neglect. White SUVS smattered with the logos of NGOs or UN Agencies roar through the streets, and women selling roasted corn wear t-shirts that shout “I am poverty alleviation” or “Stop the conflict” (t-shirts which probably outlast the programs and projects they advertise.) If only NGOs could bring as many sustainable developments as boxes of t-shirts.

With more security, most families in the 120 IDP camps are going back to their land, but many are staying, are still relying on food-aid handouts, are still sans reliable incomes. The increasing international presence has perhaps exacerbated this dependency syndrome—on food aid, on paid school fees. Begging in Gulu town is institutionalized, a Ugandan friend told me, explaining that, on Tuesdays and Fridays, beggars take to the streets. “There is no begging in the history of the Acholi people, but the war made us beggars. And the NGOs help us continue to be beggars.”

Everyone whom I meet in town and in my homestay community - a congested group of Acholi huts just outside town, inhabited by a curious mix of displaced families and young Ugandan NGO workers - asked me what charity I am working for. They are surprised when I reply: a business. No foreigners, besides some Indian ex-pats, come to Gulu to do business. To do business, you go to Kampala. Profit in Gulu is to be found in “humanitarian non-profits”: the most highly sought jobs for locals are international NGO jobs, and the most popular course of study in Gulu University is “Development Studies.”

But there is arguably nothing more “humanitarian” than bringing business to northern Uganda. The women in Bobi and Unyama camps don’t need another NGO to bring them second-hand clothes and they don’t want another NGO to come and speak to them about ending domestic violence: they need jobs and their own income for meaningful change. Some organizations have already brought training in tailoring to IDP camps. Indeed, the idea of tailoring training is nothing new, and there are vocational programs already established in the area. But many graduates leave such training unable to survive as tailors, without sewing machines, without fabric, and without a market connection. The market connection is where One Mango Tree comes in.


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