Monday, December 10, 2007
Kate von Achen made her second trip to Uganda in January. She was with a group called Global Youth Partnership for Africa, one of 13 Americans and 13 Ugandans there for a three-week case study on the two-decades-long civil war in northern Uganda.
The group spent the first half of the trip in Kampala, the capital city. The second half was spent in the war-torn town of Gulu, where the Americans swooned over the colorful fabrics on sale in the central market. A light bulb went off.
Here's how von Achen, a 28-year-old Lawrencian getting her masters in peace and conflict studies at Makerere University in Uganda, is helping transform the lives of a small group of Ugandan women, with sparse means and a few foot-treadle sewing machines, into a self-sustaining business called One Mango Tree (interview with von Achen via email, from Uganda):
What's One Mango Tree and how'd it come about?
Kate von Achen: While in Gulu, we all frequented the town's central market where we knew there were amazingly colorful Congolese waxprint fabrics to buy, and very talented tailors who could turn those fabrics into something useful, be it clothing, purses, etc. Halle Butvin, one of the leaders of the immersion trip, and I were talking one night. She knew that I was into the fair trade movement, and that my first trip to East Africa (including Uganda) was with United Students for Fair Trade. She brought up this idea she had, after seeing how all of the American participants went crazy over the products they were having made, to find a tailor, or group of tailors, and start having them make Western designs with the Congolese waxprints. Halle and I are both very interested in promoting sustainable development in war-torn regions, and feel that empowering women is even more crucial. In Uganda specifically (though by no means is it alone in this phenomenon) women have had a tough go of things. From a Western perspective, women are very much second class citizens here, though it has been improving over time, and as we have seen in the US, these things DO take time. Anyway...after taking loads of extra products home after her trips to Gulu, Halle noticed that people were freaking out over our products. She realized that there was in fact a market for these products and wanted to make her dreams come to fruition. This past June-August Halle was here (in Uganda) leading more of the GYPA immersion trips and this time went home with tons and tons of products to sell, after finding the perfect tailor (Lucy). This was the real beginning of One Mango Tree.
A bit about Lucy, our lead tailor: Lucy is this amazing soul. She is a single mother of two who has also taken in ten orphans who were orphaned because of the war in the North. Lucy has no money, but knew that it was important to her community to do whatever she could to give these children a home, food, education, etc. to keep them out of a future which would very likely cause them to turn to prostitution and various types of crime. Lucy also has been teaching young women in the community tailoring skills in an attempt to keep them out of such lifestyles as well. This is why we chose Lucy. Well, that AND she's a great tailor. When Halle first went to Lucy, Lucy had no fabrics for sale in her stall in the market because she could not afford to invest in such things. It was basically just her and a couple of foot-treadle sewing machines. When I went up to Gulu to place my first One Mango Tree order, Lucy's stall was FULL of fabrics which she had purchased after Halle's order in August. This was so amazing! This woman knew that it would be more sustainable if she reinvested some of that money into her business! This was one of the most exciting moments for us because it is key to our mission. What was even more refreshing was that we did not have to come in and say, "OK Lucy, we want you to use this much of the money for this, and this much for that." This is not what we want. We want to empower women, not dictate what they should do. We want to give them an opportunity to support themselves by creating a market for them in the West.
What's Gulu like?
Gulu. Hmmmmm...it is tough to know how to describe Gulu. Halle and I would probably both describe Gulu as this magical place which we have both fallen in love with, but seeing pictures of it, or even upon arrival, many people think we are crazy. Driving into Gulu you see IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp after IDP camp. It is actually kind of startling. I still get chills on my way in and out of Gulu and I've made that drive a few times in the last year. There are all of these round banda huts which are made of cow dung and soil, and have thatched roofs. Many people paint various words on the sides of their homes in the local language (Lwo/Acholi), things like "my beloved home," etc. The homes are spaced 1-2 feet apart, with naked, or partially naked children running around between the homes, and many people sitting idly by for they have no work. This is primarily an agricultural society, so when you have no land to cultivate, you have no work. Not only is there no work, but their is no hope for you to be self-sustaining creating heavy dependence on World Food Programme and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This idle time and feeling of worthlessness has also given rise to high rates of alcoholism and prostitution also resulting in high HIV/AIDS rates.
Within the town itself: Gulu has turned into an NGO town. Every food there is another sign demarcating the home of some international NGO or indigenous NGO. It's kind of overwhelming actually. The town is incredibly dusty, and really not that spectacular upon first glance. A few Western restaurants have popped up recently with all the Westerners working for various NGOs in town, but aside from those I think 3 places, you have small local restaurants serving local food (matooke = steamed/boiled green bananas, posho = maize meal paste, ground nut sauce, rice, goat, talapia, etc.). There are many convenience stores, one or two DVD rental places (burnt copies of course), several small hotels (and we're not talking Holiday Inn, we're talking way below Jayhawk Motel standards), a few craft shops, and lots and lots of dust. There are boda bodas (motor bike taxis) on every corner waiting for work, and the central market is a maze of stalls selling various things from fabric and tailoring skills to used clothing (yep, this is where your donations to Salvation Army and Goodwill go), tools, electronics and produce.
People in Gulu are much nicer than Kampala (where I live). In Kampala every step you take you hear "mzungu..." (white person); the boda drivers basically run you over trying to get you on their bike for a thousand shillings (about $0.75).
My time in Gulu is sweaty and dirty generally. Gulu is much closer to Sudan than Kampala so is generally at least 5 degrees hotter than Kampala. Also, water and electricity go out in Kampala quite frequently, but in Gulu, it's a given that you will have approximately three hours of running water a day. And electricity, well, you just better hope the place you stay has a generator. I think to most people this may sound miserable, but somehow it's not. I think when you are surrounded by people who have had to deal with much worse than not having a shower or being able to charge their cell phone or iPod (which of course they usually don't have), taking a cold bucket bath really isn't so bad.
The people: Well, there are good and bad people everywhere, but generally speaking, of the people I have met they are amazing. The resilience I see in their eyes is dumbfounding. Most of the people in and around Gulu have seen more than anyone in the US could ever imagine. Many have seen their families killed or abducted for use of
child soldiers or to live in sexual servitude by the Lord's Resistance Army, many have been living in these IDP camps for years, many have been born in the camps, many have been forced to kill family and neighbors, etc. It's really unimaginable. But somehow many of these people still have so much hope in their eyes. I don't get it! I admire it so much but do not understand how! I have had a couple of opportunities to go into some of the camps and speak with people and each circumstance has been absolutely life-changing for me. On my last visit to Gulu (a couple of weeks ago) I went with this indigenous NGO, Information for Youth Empowerment Programme (IYEP), to Unyama IDP camp and met with one of their sub-organizations there (Unyama Youth for Peace). After talking with them for a bit and watching this amazing dramatization about stigmatization which they prepared for me, I asked them to show me around the camp and to show me some of their homes. This request excited many of them so much as they proudly took me to their homes which they built with their own two hands out of nothing. Amazing. I was also asked by one woman to name her two twin boys, who were born the day before.
Tell me about the women who make the One Mango Tree products. What impact has this had on them?
The women who make One Mango Tree's products have all been affected by the war in some way or another. I am still working on getting their personal stories, and have been promised in the New Year to hear more detail. Lucy told me that her story is very hard to tell but that she will tell it soon. I'm still establishing a relationship with the ladies at this point so I haven't pushed too much.
As for the impact, well, Lucy has started reinvesting in her business, which is awesome. This was what she did with the very first order that Halle took back in August. The money we gave her for labor for the second order will likely go to various things. Just before I paid Lucy for the first order that I had placed, she was telling me that she was so thankful for this opportunity because she needs to pay school fees for the kids, and in September she found out that she has a fibroid tumor. It is likely that this money will also be used for medical bills. Lucy was just in the hospital again the other day. The great thing is now she is actually able to go to the hospital and hopefully everything will be alright.
Aside from the monetary aspect (if you can separate the two) this project is giving these ladies hope. It is giving them a livelihood. We are not giving them money just because we have it, they are working very hard for it which is what most of these people want. Most of the Ugandans I have met are very hard working people and are desirous of work, it just isn't available. So we are empowering these women to make an income, improve a skill that they have, etc. We are also applying for some grants which will hopefully allow us to expand this project into some of the IDP camps. The plan would be to have Lucy go into the camps and train women there in tailoring skills and hopefully as One Mango Tree grows we will be able to employ these women to make our items AND give them a skill to take back to their villages once they go home. I should note here that this is a real worry that Halle and I have. Most of these people have been living in the camps for twenty years, or have been born in the camps. Land titles don't really exist in Uganda, so when people migrate back to their homelands there could a) be trouble with figuring out what land belongs to who and b) what people will do for work. Hopefully this project will help.
How does the project work?
We buy all of our fabrics in the local Gulu market, which further helps to stabilize the local economy. There are many tailors in the market, so I usually first check out Lucy's selection and buy what I can from her, and then spend several sweaty hours trapezing through the market buying fabrics from many different shop owners.
Lucy, at this point, is training three other women, having them make the less complicated items. These are all young women who Lucy has taken in to teach them a skill to keep them out of potentially dangerous lifestyles (i.e. prostitution). The products are made using old foot-treadle machines. Lucy does not have electricity in her stall, though it is a possible future venture. Electrification isn't necessarily at the top of the list considering the power supply in Gulu is so shaky, but eventually we hope to be able to electrify the stall and get 1 or 2 electric machines so that things can be more efficient. Right now if she works after sundown she uses a gas lantern for light.
As for finding buyers, the business is still in its infancy stage (you are now able to buy online as of two days ago), so we're still working on buyers, though we have many people interested. While I'm home for Christmas I will be going around to local shops with samples seeing if people are interested in wholesale accounts, and Halle is doing the same in Washington, D.C. (where she lives). When I return to Uganda after Christmas I will be going to local shops in Gulu, Kampala and Jinja (where the source of the Nile is located) to try to sell some things there. As for now, online buying just became available, but Halle has been insanely busy setting up booths at local markets in D.C., participating in fair trade bizarres at local churches, etc. and people have been buying things so fast!
Shipping: Halle took the first order back with her from Uganda in August. The second order I just shipped a little over a week ago using FedEx (expensive but reliable), and this third order I will be bringing back to the States with me at Christmas, which is nice because I think Halle has spent all of her savings on this venture so we need to cut corners where we can.
Kate von Achen's blog: http://katyakurtovavonrockinov. vox.com
How much money the tailors make: Halle and I are using the fair trade model for One Mango Tree, which ensures a higher price for products. We are both anti-sweat shop and really truly want to see this revitalize the community in Gulu. This is our goal. With our last order I sat down with Lucy and asked her how much she wanted for labor for each product. Some requests were higher than what Halle had estimated but we honored those prices. Halle has drained her savings and some friends have invested here and there, and I am not being paid for this work, so at this point the only person profiting are the tailors and people selling fabric in the market, which I personally think is great! We are also trying our hardest to keep our prices as low as possible so that the market remains keeping these women busy with work and income and hopefully allowing us to expand. One Mango Tree is not a non-profit, so eventually, hopefully, there will be some profit, but Halle and I by no means want to get rich off of the backs of people we respect and admire. We love Lucy and Gulu and Uganda and want to do our part in ensuring that their lives can be improved, not through charity but through empowerment.
What products will you be selling at the Pig?
I will be selling all kinds of things at the Pig! You can check some of the designs (though some of the fabrics will be different) on the website at www.onemangotree.com. We will be selling a medium-sized handbag (the "peace purse"), wristlet clutch purses, coin purses, yoga mat bags, oven mitts, aprons, tablemats, and I think that's it. We're having eye pillows made (they're filled with lavender and sage and used for meditation) but I'm sending all of those to Halle for her to fill, so I won't have those for sale.
We are also always expanding our line and have future products in our brains, but those won't be available until sometime early next year.