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.