Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Girl in the Purple Dress

Before training began, the women sat around talking, sharing stories, discussing their challenges, and taking attendance. In talking about the women who had been selected for our group and the other HIV positive women supported by Bishop Asili, one woman said to another, “There was a young girl who used to come to the clinic who was dying and I haven’t seen her for quite some time”. She went on to explain that the young girl had to be wheeled in on a wheelchair by her father because she was so weak, thin and near-death. “That was me!” Said the now glowing girl in the purple dress. (seen in the photo on the far right) In such a short period of time since receiving treatment at Bishop Asili, what was becoming the end of her life here, had become a new beginning. Becoming a member of our income-generating group is an opportunity for her to take on this new life journey and drastically change her path. As is turns out, she has become one of the best beaders and has taken on a leadership role helping the women who still need extra support with their bead rolling. She brings a whole new meaning to the word strength…

Rolling and Varnishing

On Wednesday we continued with bead rolling and on Thursday began teaching them to varnish their beads. The women worked so hard this week and took in such a huge amount of information! It was incredible to watch their determination. Each morning they arrived just a little bit earlier than the day before – trying to come well before the training began at 9am so that they could begin rolling their beads. By Thursday, many of them had shown up by 7am and were coming to our door one by one to pick up their paper and needles. By end of day Thursday, they were competing with one another and had transformed 6kgs of paper into beautiful beads!

We are slowly getting to know one another, share stories, exchange laughter and begin our journey together. It is such an honour to share this path with them and be a part of their new sense of hope. They inspire me beyond words – their courage, playfulness and love for each other will carry them far on this journey!

Now the beads are hanging in the sister’s convent to dry. Everyone is beginning to talk about the women and their jewellery – and the women are turning the heaviness they brought in with them on the first day into a beautiful, proud light! They established a varnishing schedule this weekend and Julius and I have left for Kampala for one last paper purchase before the women learn to make their own purchases. This time we bought 9kgs and were able to go back to the women who had wanted so badly to sign our ‘receipt’ last time….for the first time EVER in Uganda, I received a discount….its seems we are regular paper customers now!

First Training Day

The women began to gather into the round hut we had cleared as the training space - many of them were late; apologetic, they explained that a girl had been raped and killed in Kasana last night and they had been in town trying to find out what had happened.

They brought with them an excitement guarded with a bit of apprehension - I don’t blame them. As is so often the case, many of them had been promised exiting new initiatives in the past and were hesitant to trust this wasn’t one of those ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ projects. Julius introduced Topista, our trainer and she suggested we begin our training with a prayer. Ivon, the woman who had been elected as the group leader offered thanks and asked that the women be blessed - It was a beautiful way to start the week.

Quite soon into the training it began very clear that with a group of 30 women, the entire step of drawing the lines on the paper and cutting each strip of jewellery was one that could be eliminated. Many ‘beading women’ take their paper to a paper cutter in kampala after purchasing their paper. You either do this, or cut it yourself. Julius and I realized how much easier it would be for the women if they had a paper cutter and were able to cut their paper as a group whenever they needed to. We decided that some of the grant money should go towards this so that the women have their own machine.

So off we went! Once the women were well into their first training day, Julius and I took off for Kampala in search of one LARGE paper-cutting machine! It had been raining that day, so by the time we were finally able to catch a matatu and make the journey to Kampala, the roads in Kampala were a muddy mess. My flip flops splashed mud up the back of my legs – I was trying to walk as careful as one can in these conditions, because mud in Uganda has been known to steal flip flops and suck them apart. We finally found the street where all of the stationary stores are and Julius went in to see what he could find. I stayed outside so that he could negotiate a Ugandan price that didn’t double when they saw me. I was happy when I finally saw Julius coming towards me carrying a huge box – not only because I knew the women would be so happy to have a break from using scissors, but also because I was able to escape the conversation that was ensuing with a security guard who was trying to convince me to sit on a chair with his friend.

Because of the rain, this all took far longer than it usually would have. By the time we got back, the women were nearing the end of their first training day.

Paper: recycle, reuse, renewal

Our thoughts were to leave our initial meeting and then later learn the secrets of purchasing supplies, the best place to buy them and purchase enough to bring back for the women towards their initial start up supply. Well, our meeting turned into a full day experience because she wanted to go straight from there to purchase the supplies. There are so many things to think about when making the jewellery – scissors, pencils, rulers, glue, varnish, a pin (to roll the paper over), strings to hang the beads while drying, strings to make the jewellery, clasps for the necklaces and most importantly PAPER to make the beads.

We were introduced to what seemed like every possible corner and market in Kampala, back and forth ALL over – I kept asking Julius if he needed to write down the places we were visiting, but I suppose after a lifetime of living here, what seemed like the world’s largest maze to me was his backyard. Each supply was found in a different place – by the time we got to our paper search, we were so loaded down with bags of varnish, pins etc. and were drenched in sweat. She guided us through a well known market in Kampala, past the squabbling chickens, over bags of beans, through a maze of spices, dodging the men carrying heavy bags of beans on their shoulders and finally to the paper market.

I have never seen anything like this in my life. It was the largest barn imaginable with stacks taller than us of paper – books, magazines, old scraps, old calendars. Perched on top of each stack was the woman selling that particular stack. Our trainer moved through the stacks with a wisdom that can only come from years of jewellery making, sorting through colours, showing us what to look for, what to stay away from and what colours to look for on the papers to determine the colour of the necklaces.

The process was far more difficult than I ever imagined. The women thought my presence there was quite funny and would continually grab handfuls of their supply to offer me. Paper is purchased per kg – there were scales hanging from the beams.

One of the difficulties of keeping our spending on track is that the concept of a receipt is obviously nowhere in the picture here. However, it is required in order for us to maintain our finances. I have come up with our own version for these situations and pulled it out for the woman to sign. This caused quite the commotion because all of the women wanted to sign something and were quite upset that we had bought paper from just one woman. Laughter filled the barn at this very ridiculous requirement! After spending an eternity there and ‘purchasing’ the paper that would soon be used by the women in our group, we left with both paper AND receipt in hand. I’m not certain how we managed to carry all of those supplies back to Julius’ house, but I can say that I had no problems falling asleep that night!

The Training Program

After the meeting on Monday, Julius and I left for Kampala on Tuesday expecting to spend the better part of the week finalizing the training program and purchasing supplies. We lucked out and found an amazing woman who is not only incredibly talented, but has experience teaching groups of women around Uganda. We set a meeting time to discuss the training program, what it would entail and what her needs would be to lead the training. Part of the idea behind the training program is to ensure that the women receive a high level of training, not only in the actual making of the beads and jewellery, but also in the knowledge needed to plan, organize and save – the business skills of budgeting for supplies and reaching their own financial goals which were discussed at our initial meeting.

Not only does the training support the women in the income-generating group, but it will also provide a considerable amount of income for the woman who is doing the training. The total amount we are giving her is well above local wages, includes all of her travel costs and lunch during the days she is here – she is an amazing woman and feels as though this is a way for her to pass along the craft that at one point also saved her!

The training program will consist of 5 whole days over a series of two weeks. Many of the women are traveling quite far each day to participate, so each woman will receive lunch as well. They will be broken up into groups, which will form a support network over the next weeks once the training has ended. These support networks will initially meet to support one another in the skills they have learned. Both Julius and I will also be present during the training and over the next month to monitor any challenges that come up. Once they are established, Julius will be meeting with the women regularly. Each time we purchase from the group, each woman will contribute a portion of her income to the leader of the group who will make her way to the city with another member to meet with Julius and purchase supplies. Buying in bulk with allow the women to reduce the travel costs of all going into Kampala, as well as offer a discount on the supplies when purchased in a large quantity.

The Shanti Uganda Women's Income Generating Group

Another world is possible – on a quiet day I can hear her calling…

Julius and I keep saying if we accomplish one thing during the day, we’re happy! The most exciting thing so far was our meeting with the women to discuss the income-generating group. Sister Ernestine has been working to gather together 30 HIV positive women who are currently supported by the clinic. All of the women are in the HIV support program at Bishop Asili and receive treatment. Most of these women have at some point become very ill, lost their jobs and are in desperate need of renewal – both to financially support their families, but also to feel capable now that they are on treatment, feeling better and wanting to move forward with their lives again. It is about empowerment as much as it is about financial sustainability. These women inspire me. It was all I could do to hold back my tears - officially registering them in the group has been a long, beautiful journey.

These 30 women are the first to register in our official program. Although we have been supporting another group in Kampala, this new group is our first attempt to create a set program developed by the women themselves with a set process to monitor success. The women clapped, spoke up, took turns sharing their stories, expressed their happiness over the opportunity to join this group and their frustration towards the lack of support beyond Kampala for HIV positive women. After much consideration and advising with existing organizations and well-respected researchers in the field, the program was designed to give grants in the form of business and skills training, supplies and the first order of jewellery. Much of the existing development practice of giving loans, which require payback, has long been connected with the same economic model that has guided mainstream development practices limited by the focus on economic progress. In consideration of these limitations, we have chosen a model that does not loan money, but provides skills, education and materials which foster sustainable social development – we are not asking that this money be paid back, but rather that these grants provide the skills, training and materials needed for the women to support themselves in a way that reinforces their ability to contribute to their families and communities. Not only will this improve their lives, but it will also address the stigma they face as HIV positive women who are rarely given the chance to show what they are capable of.

The women were all present as was Sr. Ernestine – Julius led the meeting. We assessed their needs, expectations, set guidelines and elected leaders. We went into the meeting expecting to face certain challenges accomplishing all of our goals and instead everything fell into place exactly as it should. Collectively, we established criteria – each woman must be from the existing support program at Bishop Asili, be HIV positive and have a corresponding number representing her health history at the clinic. We set membership guidelines with regards to support from other organizations and decided that all purchases will first go through Shanti Uganda so that we can properly monitor the success of the program to determine the possibility for growth– other organizations wanting to support the women will purchase the jewellery through Shanti Uganda at our wholesale cost. This was done because there are so many women who want to take part, that it will be difficult for us to establish the program and monitor success unless there are set guidelines. We established the guidelines for growth and addressed questions and concerns. Before Julius needed to answer questions (the whole meeting was in Luganda), the women themselves spoke up to provide what they thought were the best operating practices for THEIR group – he made sure to guide the meeting while at the same time provided opportunities for the women to make it their own. Part of the program at Bishop Asili has been to train many of these women as leaders in the community, so they are used to working together as a group and supporting one another. Electing a leader was unanimous and took less than a minute – The woman who was chosen is also an HIV counselor in the program and will represent this group of women and our income-generating project on our Ugandan advisory board.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Photos from 2008

Dear Friends,

Below is a photo presentation of some of our 2008 projects. Thank you to everyone who has made this past year such a success!

In January 2009 we are starting up a new income generating group with 30 HIV positive women in Kasana, Uganda. Each woman will receive a start up grant, training and will form their own group where they decide how their money should be spent. Each grant is $100 - if you would like to make a donation towards our goal of raising $3000, send us an email

We now have land in Kasana and are starting the planning stages of the birth centre which will be made with natural building materials. This community initiated project will provide a safe place for women to receive care and birth their babies in an empowering, home-like environment. It will also provide space to hold our training workshops with local midwives and TBAs and give the women in the income generating group a place to meet and work. If you are interested in gathering family or friends to fund one part of this project, let us know. Options include funding the herb garden, a chicken coop, individual birth rooms etc.

Interested in hosting your own Shanti Uganda craft party? Our new shipment of jewellery will arrive the first week of march. Book now to host your own Spring event at home or work and we'll bring everything you need. Not only will it support the women in our income generating group, but it makes a great gift!

Be well,