Bandaids, Babies, and Beads

The evening hum of songbirds and children playing mixes with the setting sun in the country- just outside of Kampala center. Sitting in the naturally lit Lodge, barefoot and freshly showered, I am less than 10 miles from where Esther, Biola, Margaret and the rest of the 24 partners of Acholi Beads are busily preparing for tomorrow’s shipment of beads to San Diego. They are barefoot as well. But their feet are weathered, and tough like leather- resistant to gravel and clay-colored earth. The women, Otto says, will work until 9pm tonight to make the deadline for tomorrow. As busy as they are, they spared about two hours today to meet with Lucy and I.

The road to Acholi quarters, a hillside slum where displaced Acholi call “home” for the time being to seek refuge from the war in the north, is chaotic and dirty. After meeting Otto, the site manager, at our hotel, we took a taxi to “Banda State”, crossing two roads to reach the base of the hill, one must maneuver their way through corners and chaotic pathways to the “Meeting Point”. This experience, in itself will make anyone reconsider what is means to have ‘a bad day’. This was my first experience in a slum, and will not be the last, as we will be making our way through these conditions over the next two months. Shack to shack, tin roof to tin roof, vendors sell everything from chilapia, a local greasy bread-like naan to bananas to live chickens, and if more well-off (which is rare in this part of town), you will smell – before you see- slabs of freshly butchered cows; flies buzzing around the stench of flesh in the red dusty heat. I later learned that the “stream” making its way down to the base of the hill is not water; rather, it is a drainage system of urine and defecation. Dogs with stringy blond hair bite at fleas they will never remove, and children play around clusters of men playing cards and women selling Chinese junk- trying to earn inflated Ugandan currency notes.

After turning left at the Meetng Point, a dilapidated establishment, chickens peck at dust, and malnourished children with dirty hands and yellow eyes look up and say “Hello, how are you?”. After a few more meters up hill, a couple more lefts and rights, you find Acholi Beads headquarters- a small, two –room, shaded abode hosting beads, and weekly and monthly meetings for the group of hardworking members.

The feeling of walking into this roadside room, and the hours that followed, are moments that will be with me forever. We were greeted by five partners: Christine, Grace Stella, Agnes, and Gladys. They welcomed us with a tribal yell (think “ya ya ya ya ya yaaaaaaa” in a high pitch) and embraced us with hugs and two cool Coca Colas. As we sat down with Otto and the women, more partners began to arrive, bringing finished jewelry in black plastic bags and money to put into the weekly Sunday cash collection pool. As we introduced ourselves and hugged, I became emotional at the realization that these women are real– and although I have been working with them for over four years from half way around the world, we were still connected, and have been, and always will be. I began to cry as “Mama” Esther arrived from church in her pastel silk shirt- smelling of baby powder and hair gel, as Biola entered the small quarters and reached out for my hand to tell me I was “most welcome”, and as Christine sat next to me cutting ribbons to secure Acholi Beads for the shipment tomorrow. Biola felt fragile and her hand popped as I shook it… to think of all the other things this hand has touched- how many miles (roughly 700 km) she has traveled to escape war, rape, and killings in the north. This hand met my hand, and I remembered that we are all human- and deserve respect and love.

Lucy and I had the honor of sitting in and observing something I have only ever studied in the classroom- tontine, or merry go round lending. An activity that has been around long before micro-finance, merry go round lending is essentially a weekly, or monthly, pooling of money from members of a group (almost always women). Each woman contributes 2,000 to 10,000 Ugandan shillings, roughly $1 to $5 (an amount many of us spend on a bagel and coffee in the morning), to a growing sum that two members will receive monthly. A loan that must be paid back to the groups’ savings stash with 10% interest. Late fees apply- as interest will increase. Otto says most of the women either, in turn, lend this money out to trustworthy neighbors in need, or sell other handicrafts or produce. Any excess money is typically put into savings for their children’s futures. It is a formalized process that appeared as if the country of Uganda is promoting in the slums.

After this collection was taken, I noticed that Margret was making a different style of bracelet- one that I had never seen before… I asked Christine about it, and she had me try it on. It was beautiful- it appears as if it is a five strand bracelet, but it is a wrap around type of bracelet. It is difficult to explain, but Lucy took tons of pictures (of the entire day) and will post them soon. I took it off and gave it to Lucy to try on. Christine told her to keep it, and Margaret began to make me a new bracelet- on the spot! They also gifted us with a triple-strand bracelet (my favorite) and a short classic necklace- each to match the clothes we were wearing (mine were bright blue, and Lucy’s were shades of pinks). These women are so beautiful and generous, and STRONG. To think of all they have been through; they are truly survivors.

Lucy and I explained that we were honored to be working with them for the next two months conducting needs assessments, an impact evaluation, and a feasible study to scale up their business, and eventually bring in more profit. The women smiled, as we explained what these items meant for their future- more financial stability and the ability to choose- something so many of us take for granted. I told the women that I had been working for them since the beginning, and that it was like a dream to actually be there… they let out another, “ya ya ya ya yaaaaaaa”, and I sipped my now warm, sugary, Coca Cola to stop from getting emotional once more. It really was like a dream though. People passing by, other Acholi, looked in on the all the commotion, and I noticed a sense of pride and honor on the faces and in the mannerisms of our partners. Acholi Beads truly is transforming their lives, and hopefully, with our combined efforts, can positively impact so many more, for years to come.

Two of the women had babies- Gracie was a little camera queen, and then there was baby James (Mohawk of allJ) who took frequent feedings on the lap of his mama. Precious! As Otto, Lucy, and I were walking back down the hill to “Banda State” Taxi stop, I slipped (no traction on those rainbows!) and fell on my side, and cut my palm. Nothing too bad, just some dirt on the inside now too… But it was humbling in a small way. Children fall in this area all the time, and accumulate cuts, scrapes, bruises, and blood. They deal with it. They do not have running water to wash and disinfect the cuts; no bandaids (with built-in Neosporin (thanks dad!)) to patch it up and expedite the healing- if they become infected, there is no health insurance, let alone money to pay for a doctor’s visit. But this (very) small cut reminded me that we all bleed the same blood, feel pain, and need love and attention.

Today was powerful, and I feel like I am growing and learning more every moment. To see the people, to shake their hands, and see their beautiful skin, face to face, drove everything home for me. I am here. I am in Africa- Uganda… a half a world away from all familiarity, family, and friends. And yet I do indeed feel ‘most welcome’, and more at home than I think I realize.

So as I sit here with faint cricket buzzing acoustics in the now darkened (in comparison) sterile room, I am thinking of the 27 women on the hill who will work for two more hours tonight in crowded spaces and dim-lit shacks. These women have courage, strength, and hope like I have never seen. They are lights in the dark quarters, and will undoubtedly shine forever.

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