This is Also Africa

fair trade jewelry

When you hear the word “Uganda” what do you think about? When you think about Africa, what pictures pop into your head? While some of us have been to the African continent and experienced it’s nations first hand, many of us have formulated ideas and notions of what we think Africa is like.

Our Ember Arts jewelry designer Emily lives in the Uganda’s capital Kampala. She is always sharing with us about her adventures and experiences living and working in Uganda. Recently she has been posting pictures on Instagram using the hashtag #africaisalsothis revealing the upscale, glamorous, modern and artistic side of Uganda.

Today we asked her to share on the blog some of her experiences with the other side of life in Uganda.


A couple of weeks ago, I met my roommates at a little cafe after work, where I ordered a couscous, grilled vegetable, and halloumi cheese salad. While we waited for the food, I logged into their free wifi and Instagrammed a photo of their cool rustic wood wall with a map of the world painted on it.


Bistro, Kampala

After dinner, we walked across the road to the mall, which houses a two-story 3D movie theater. A European style restaurant and bakery shares its outdoor dining space with the theater entrance, and to enter is like passing through an olifactory gauntlet. Fresh breads, croissants, and cakes filled the air with a buttery warmth, mixing with the candied sweetness of fresh gelato and bitter earthiness of expresso.

Up the escalator and past a boutique featuring the work of internationally recognized local fashion designers, the lights of the theater shine brightly, advertising newly released Hollywood films. Tickets cost only $4 for the Monday matinee, and a small line is already forming in the lobby. A young woman with bright red lipstick leans lazily across the counter next to the popcorn machine, waiting for customers.

Acacia Mall, Kampala

I don’t go to the theater very often, but for some, that’s just a typical Monday night in Uganda.

Judging by the western world’s panicked response to Ebola, most of us have a very incomplete picture of life on the African continent. It is true that there are small towns and villages with poor access to sanitation, information, and medical care, where outbreaks spread easily due to misinformation and poor resources. But here in Uganda, the airport quickly instituted a health screening for arriving passengers, and everyone carried on with life as usual.

Uganda has its fair share of slums and poverty, and much of the population still lives in remote villages, depending on rain and soil for the fields of corn and plantains that build their diet. But things are rapidly changing. More and more of those farmers get crop price updates via text message or an app, and pay one another with a few presses of a button through mobile money on their phones. In the cities, government workers and wealthy business owners dine in the hotel gardens and discuss the latest Tom Brown novel. Young people work their way through law school, arrange TEDx events and performance art pieces, and meet their friends for happy hour at a trendy new wine bar after a busy day at work. They speak three or four languages, and slip easily back-and-forth between English, Luganda, and their own tribal tongues.

It’s this latter Uganda that represents the future of the nation, as technology closes the gaps of geography and information. Though we may tend to idealize grass roofed huts and village farms, many contemporary Ugandans are choosing modern technology and lifestyles for themselves, blended with the best and most vibrant parts of their own culture. They envision their country competing well on an international level, and many, especially the youth, have the ideas and the drive to take it there.

A couple of years ago, Ember Arts brought a few of the women from our partner co-op to visit one of the malls as part of the preparation for a photoshoot. Most hadn’t realized they were allowed to go inside and walk around any time they wanted to, and had never seen such clean and bright shops before.


Living on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city, our artisans are often on the outskirts of these changes as well. Their children, though, have grown up with cell phones and Facebook just like American youth. In partnering with these women, we hope that the money they spend on educating their kids gives those children the resources they need to participate as equals in a changing world.


Uganda is a beautiful nation, it’s people progressive, creative, tenacious and full of hope. We at Ember Arts are privileged to live in, work from, and partner with such a place as Uganda. #africaisalsothis

Read more about Emily’s story here.

Shop jewelry handmade by our Ugandan artisans here.

Gifts Without Bows

Gift Giving


There’s something spectacular about watching someone you love light up at the sight of a meaningful or much anticipated gift. Sometimes, though, in the rush of holiday sales, it’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of presents and wish lists and forget the reason for all that giving. We give because we care about those around us, and want to show them that they are loved and thought of. But expressing that to one another doesn’t always need to involve wrapping paper and bows.

Christmas in Uganda hasn’t quite caught up with the commercialization of the western world, and is usually just a reason to return to the village and spend time with family. And though there are no present-laden Christmas trees, the ladies in our partner co-op can think of plenty of ways to give meaningful gifts to the people they care about.

Gifts without bows – How Ugandan women give generously

Christine gives Service 


This year, Christine gave the gift of service. Her oldest daughter is in medical school, attending classes during the day and studying at night. Like any other busy  student, she doesn’t have much time to take care of the small things in life that accumulate, like washing dishes and doing laundry. One day, while her daughter was out, Christine brought food to the hostel where she stays, and spent an afternoon cleaning the small room to surprise her studious daughter.

Anna gives Laughter 

anna-laughterAnna doesn’t speak a bit of English. But she comes to every single Ember Arts meeting armed with a enormous grin and a joke, and through them gives the gift of laughter. Her joy makes visitors feel welcome, even without words.







Grace gives Encouragement

grace-encouragementGrace has a son who was struggling in school. Instead of speaking to him out of frustration and disappointment, Grace gave him the gift of encouragement, letting him know that she believed in his abilities to study and do well. With hard work and his mother’s kind words, her son improved and passed his exams.

Esther gives Forgiveness 


Esther recalled a story from her village, a very powerful tale of the intangible gift of forgiveness. The daughter of her aunt was in an ongoing feud with a male relative. One day, in anger, she burned all of his property. The village intervened and the two reconciled, and were thrown a special sort of party where the man forgave the woman who had wronged him. These days, they are friends.




Margaret gives Belonging

margret-loveorbelongingGiving gifts like these to friends and family are incredibly important, but Margret, after much prompting from others, shared a story about the way she gave a gift of love and belonging to a boy she barely knew. One day, she met the boy and realized that he was a classmate of her son. He explained to her that he had a sponsor who paid for his school fees, and that people from his village had been paying for his meals. Unfortunately, they had to stop sending money during the third term, and he was barely getting by. Without hesitation, Margret invited him to join her family for meals- every day.




When you give Ember Arts jewelry to your friends and family, you are giving not just a necklace, but opportunity- for these women and their children. But we also hope you’ll take a moment to slow down and think of ways to give intangible things. Take in a co-worker who has no family to celebrate. Watch your neighbor’s children so she has some free time to relax and plan for holiday festivities. Share a meal and some kind words with someone who needs encouragement. Be patient and kind in the busy lines at the store. Service, encouragement, forgiveness, and love are all powerful gifts that truly represent the spirit of the holidays, and we hope that this Christmas, you’ll find ways to give more than just stuff.

Agnes Dreams of Education

The first thing you’ll notice about Agnes is her great sense of style. She’s always well put together, or as they say in Uganda, “looking smart.” Perhaps this is because she has a designers eye; in addition to her work with Ember Arts, she is constantly making jewelry of her own and testing out new ideas. Her creativity, though, is well balanced by a gifted mind that constantly seeks out opportunities to learn new things.


At every meeting in Acholi Quarters, you’ll find Agnes huddled over a notebook, adding figures or taking records. These days, she’s the person you call to organize a meeting, or the representative sent to town to purchase supplies like earring hooks and string for the group. She has a quick wit and a good sense of humor, and has made herself an invaluable part of the beadmaking group.


Though she’s easily the best with words and numbers, it’s surprising to learn that she was never able to finish school. For awhile, she was overcome by challenges, and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her own dreams. These days, though, she is happy to see her children in school, and dreams of finishing her own studies, too. She’s working toward that goal, and even daring to dream smaller things along the way: she’s set her sights on getting access to a computer, and learning to use email, Excel, and other programs that can help her with her work.


Ember Mother: Paska

Nearly all of the women we partner with through Ember Arts are mothers, and part of the privilege of working with them is the opportunity to see their children grow throughout the years. We frequently have babies and toddlers teetering through the office, and during training sessions, older children stop buy regularly to deliver messages from home and watch their mothers at work.


Achiro Paska’s two youngest daughters, Emily and Evelin, have been staples at our meetings over the last few years, and she was happy to be asked to show them off and speak more about their lives.

When prompted to share her favorite part about being a mother, Paska couldn’t choose; from pregnancy to teenagers, so far, she’s loved it all. With six children from ages 14 months to 14 years,  she has certainly seen motherhood from many different angles. While she admits to getting annoyed when her children are quarreling with each other, most days she is happy to see them playing well together. They even have a favorite game that she couldn’t quite explain through her laughter, apparently it’s so funny that even the thought of it makes her giggle.


Paska herself was left with relatives at the age of three, and grew up without a mother. She is determined to live her life differently, no matter what sort of trials she faces. Her advice to other mothers is “Love your children, whatever you are facing, and educate them. If you educate and love them it is good, because they are the future.”

She is most proud of her children when they do well in school,  and working to earn money for their school fees is her greatest concern. Her dream is that they will all finish their educations, and never have to struggle the way she did growing up. 

We are thrilled to be partnering alongside hard-working mothers like Paska, and so grateful for the support of all the women- mothers and otherwise- that help make those dreams a reality.


Ember Partner: Tukula

Tukula Workshop

Jinja, the source of the Nile, is a major tourist destination in Uganda. With whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, and beautiful views of the river to occupy your time, you might overlook the town itself and the growing textile industry found there, which is turning out some of the most spectacular weaving and tailoring I’ve seen in Uganda. Through the windows of one small shop along a main road, you’ll often see Sally, a tailor, hard at work behind her pedal-operated sewing machine; the word “Tukula” painted on the wall behind her.

In the local language, Tukula means “we grow,” and that is precisely what Sally and her co-workers are doing as they refine their tailoring skills and learn to believe in a better future for themselves. Sally, who is newly married and does not yet have children of her own, dreams of one day opening her own tailoring shop in her home village. For now, she is happy to be able to help her father pay school fees for her younger siblings, to make sure they will have opportunities to succeed. Founder Melissa Terranova has worked tirelessly to promote the talents of these women, and makes sure they are provided with fair salaries, medical care, and access to savings programs.

This year, Ember Arts has partnered with Tukula to make colorful kitinge headwraps, which you can find in our shop online. We believe that Tukula’s mission lines up perfectly with our vision, and have been excited about this opportunity to work with them. In their words, “There is so much potential for people if you just give them a chance to dream. We’ve seen first-hand how quickly circumstances can change for young women by giving them that chance. After getting to know the ladies of Tukula, we realized they have dreams beyond their sewing machines. Whether they want to buy livestock or teach others how to sew, Tukula is dedicated to giving these ladies the opportunity to reach their goals.”

Tukula Logo

Behind the Scenes

Ember Arts is all about creating beautiful jewelry and helping our Ugandan partners fulfill their dreams; but with the fun parts comes a lot of behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t often make it into the limelight.

First and foremost is choosing the paper. Most of the recycled paper that we use comes from Owino, a bustling and crowded marketplace in the center of Uganda’s capital. After winding through a maze of temporary stalls, piles of used clothing, boda boda motorcycles, and giant loads of goods strapped to the backs of bicycles, there’s an aisle lined with booths of paper stacked ten to twelve feet high.

This paper comes from all over the city, in the form of outdated brochures and advertisement posters, mistakes from local printers, and pretty much any other source of used paper you can think of. This is Kampala’s version of a recycling program, where virtually no scrap goes to waste. The women scour the stacks of paper, looking for colors like rich reds, blues, and the elusive favorite turquoise. Gladies is an expert at negotiating and has a great eye for color, so she’s often one of the representatives sent to the market to choose paper. She’ll also pay a visit to one of many small jewelry supply shops in town to buy things like spacer beads, ear hooks, and string.



After the paper makes its way back to Acholi Quarters, the co-op has opened their office to paper cutters who come with their machines, a stapler, pen and a ruler to cut the paper down to size. Most beads start as long, skinny triangles. The paper cutter are experts at knowing how different weights and lengths of paper will affect bead size and shape.



Last but not least is quality control. The women have chosen a leadership team to direct their group, and that team is also responsible for counting and checking each order. They spend several days in the office measuring necklace lengths, sizing necklaces, and making note of how many pieces of jewelry each member of the co-op has made. Gladies (below left) and Alice (below right) are two of the women responsible for quality control.



Perhaps the most interesting part of this behind-the-scenes work is that it also creates employment for others in the community, like the expert paper-cutters or the entrepreneurial women of Owino market.

Each piece of jewelry represents many hard-working hands, and we hope you’ll be excited to carry all of these stories with you.


Back to School

Early on a Monday morning, all of Acholi Quarters is buzzing with children in freshly washed uniforms as mothers, fathers, or grandparents help them carry a term’s worth of school supplies to the first day of classes. There are notebooks, pens, crayons, and even some very practical classroom supplies like bundled grass brooms and toilet paper. Six year-old Tracy is ready with all of these, plus a completed packet of homework assignments.

She looks a little dazed as her mother pulls on her socks and shoes. The sun is barely up, after all, and it’s the first day back to school after a long break. Her older sister Margaret, four years ahead of her in P5 (primary school level 5), is a seasoned morning veteran. She is in and out of the room preparing the breakfast while she works on shirt buttons and shoe buckles. Both girls finish up a cup of tea and some bread before heading out the door to walk down the hill to their school.

Our partners here in Uganda are eager to show off their freshly washed and uniformed children on the first day of school, and throughout the day they drop by the office with children and a pile of school supplies to make sure their child is photographed too. Education of their children and grandchildren is one of the highest priorities and biggest dreams for their future.

School fees, though, are too often an obstacle in this community. As the sea of uniforms dies down and the students settle in to their first day of classes, the neighborhood is still surprisingly full of children playing games and sitting on front stoops, children whose families cannot afford to send them to school. Steady jobs with fair wages are a profoundly important way to bring about change in Uganda, allowing parents like our partners in Acholi quarters the opportunity to educate their children and provide them with everything they need to succeed.

Pursuing the Work of Play

Recycled Playground in Uganda
The other day, I asked one of our bead makers if she’d seen the playground being built at the primary school on the hillside below Acholi Quarters.

“Yes, I’ve seen it!” she replied. “With the helicopter. It’s very funny.”

The ‘helicopter’ she’s referring to really is a bit funny; a whimsical, primary colored aircraft- made from plastic bottle caps. This curiosity, and the recycled swings, climbing toys, and life-sized board games that accompany it are the handiwork of Ruganzu Bruno Tusingwire, a Ugandan artist who has recently been awarded a TED City 2.0 prize for his creative approach to playground equipment.

With a few years of teaching experience under his belt and a background in fine art, Bruno is using what knowledge of education he has to design creative, imaginative spaces for children built largely out of recycled materials. The climbing structures are made from old tires, as will be the seats for the swings. Games such as ‘Snakes and Ladders,’ where kids will act as life-size space markers, are being build atop cement platforms that use plastic bottles as building blocks to give shape to the structure and cut down on the price of concrete. The game will also provide a fun opportunity to practice addition and subtraction.


The surrounding community has played a large role in building this structure, collecting bottles from trash heaps and roadsides for the construction and even donating time and efforts to the building. Bruno noted that he’d actually had to do very little of the work himself. He also shared the story of a local mother who thanked him for his work, saying that she no longer has to struggle to get her children off to school in the morning, they are eager to go. And studies show that they’ll be better behaved in the classroom because of the opportunity to play. One teacher at the school is grateful for this, but also the opportunity the children will have to imagine a better future for themselves. He believes they’ll look at things like the bottle-lined wall around the playground and the brightly colored airplane, and be inspired to create things like that themselves. “If someone can build and airplane like this, what can I do?” he mused, speaking as he imagines a student might speak. What’s clearest, though, is that the children themselves approve. Though construction is still underway, the functional parts of the playground are already crowded with children eager to try out the new equipment.

Bruno worked hard to pull himself out of very challenging childhood circumstances and moved on to study art at university, working toward a successful career as a gallery artist and portraitist. But what is perhaps most inspiring about his story is the shift in his personal goals toward providing creative play environments for children who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to them. He says he realized that as a fine artist, at the end of the day, his work would just be hanging on the wall of a rich person’s house, and that the story mostly stops there. Now, he plans to be part of building a better story, one that lives on in communities for years after the playground is finished, creating conversations about new topics like recycling, and the importance of imagination in childhood.

In this capacity to envision a better future for the children of Uganda, Bruno has much in common with our bead makers in Acholi Quarters. When asked about their own dreams, education for their children was at the top of nearly everyone’s priority list. When you support the dreams of the women of Ember Arts, you support the education of their children as well; and we agree that raising well educated children who know how to dream is a crucial step in moving Uganda toward its best possible future.