Stella’s Long Dream

[As you browse our online store this season you’ll see a beautiful Ugandan woman modeling our jewelry. This is Stella. She is one of 28 Ugandan women who handcraft every piece of jewelry we sell. This is her story. Thanks for helping her write it.]

Stella with her Family

Stella’s beautiful daughter Susan just started ‘baby class,’ Uganda’s version of kindergarten. But it would be hard to understand how much this means to Stella without first knowing about Internally Displaced Person’s camps.

Stella was raised in northern Uganda at the height of Joseph Kony’s terrible rebellion. His soldiers, many of them abducted as children themselves, killed three of her brothers. That’s when her family moved into a nearby IDP camp.


‘The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.’


These camps were ostensibly planned for the protection of families like Stella’s, but were often more deadly than the rebels. Thousands of poor farming families were crammed into close quarters with no education, healthcare, opportunity. For food people relied on the UN to delivers sacks of corn flour and beans. Malnourishment and disease ruled people’s lives. The camps were the burial grounds of dreams.

But Stella made it out. She met her future husband in the camp and he decided to make his way to Kampala, Uganda’s peaceful capital city, to look for work. Four years later she followed him. Life in Kampala was better, said Stella. There were no gunshots at night and people weren’t sick all the time.

But still there was poverty. She worked hard in a local rock quarry, pounding stones into gravel to scrape out rent and put food on the table. Then suddenly she was pregnant, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to provide her baby with food, healthcare, the education that Stella herself never had.

At this moment of great hope and fear, we met Stella near the rock quarry and she joined Ember Arts.

With her new income from making jewelry she quickly organized a proper wedding with her husband. Soon little Susan was born into a family brimming with new hope. Stella and her husband helped pay school fees for six relatives as Susan grew and their son Jonathan was born. Today Stella has goals of building her family a house back in the north, now that it’s peaceful, and of opening a produce business.

But her greatest dream is to educate her children, to provide Susan and Jonathan with the sort of opportunity that did not exist back in the IDP camps. And now, seven years after leaving the camp, that dream is coming true.

Ember Hero Giveaway!

We believe in heroes. Not the mutant, alien, superpower kind, but the real kind. The kind of people that make the world better, if only a little bit at a time. Like our Ugandan partners, women working their tails off to chase their dreams and build better futures for their families. And Becky Straw, who has made huge sacrifices to create good jobs in the developing world.

Who are the heroes in your life? Do you have a friend or sister or teacher or mom who has made all the difference? Is there someone you know who is chasing her dreams and inspiring you to do the same? Take a moment to tell them they are a hero, and through our Ember Hero Giveaway you could win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for you and a pair for your hero.

Just follow these quick steps:
1) Click on this photo to go to Facebook:

2) Tag your hero in a comment on the photo, and tell them what makes them a hero. Comment as many times as you want, and please only tag one friend per comment. (If you can’t comment, ‘like’ Ember Arts first.)
3) The winner, announced next week, will win two pairs of our brand new Jinja Bangles! A pair for your and a pair for your hero.

We all need heroes, and luckily they’re all around us. Take a minute to tag a hero, and good luck in the giveaway!

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.

Summer of Dreams: Grace

In celebration of Grace’s story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection!

As a child Achiro Grace experienced some things that no one should have to experience. But somehow she has maintained a trajectory of peace and prosperity, now raising four wonderful children and working hard to pay for their education. She inspires us. We hope she inspires you, too.

In celebration of her story we’re offering 20% off our 2012 Summer Collection for a limited time. Shop here!

Commencement Address 2012: Soil, Community, Heart, and Soul

[Borrowed from jamesapearson.comI love commencement speeches, so I decided to write one every year. Here is last year’s. And here is one of the best of all time.

Commencement Address 2012
image from illinoisspringfield on flickr 

Congratulations to the class of 2012. You’ve come just in time. You have until December 21st to avert the apocalypse.

This year I turned 30, gave away most of what I owned (my possessions now fit, more or less, in two black REI duffel bags), and moved to Uganda. It makes my life sound very strange to put it that way, even to me. Because eight years ago when I wore the disappointingly cheap robe and the tasseled hat I could not have placed myself in such a life. It was too far outside the American cultural consensus about what a good life can look like. I still had much to learn.

I use ‘learn’ here as a euphemism for ‘find out I was totally wrong about very important beliefs of which I was extremely confident.’ This sort of learning is cataclysmic, an earthquake of mind and heart, a tsunami of the soul. It comes all at once in a terrifying moment and destroys the earth on which you stand, forcing you to rebuild your world on higher, firmer ground.

My first moment of such learning came while I was in college. I was studying economics in Los Angeles with a mind to make a million dollars and live by the beach and drive a very fast, very well-designed car. Then I went to Nepal. Nepal is home to the Himalayas, the world’s biggest mountains and, from what I’ve seen so far, its most beautiful. Nepal is also home to some of the world’s poorest people, coaxing their meager subsistence of rice and lentils from the impossibly terraced mountainsides. And although many endured poverty to the point of death, this did not restrain the joyful and generous fullness of their communities, the giving and taking-care-of and celebrating together.

During one long trek through the Himalayan dreamworld I crossed the deepest gorge on the planet, so crowned because it lies between two of Earth’s highest peaks. One cannot help but see the analogy to life in Nepal: soaring beauty and humanity astride a dizzying depth of need.

Flying back to the sprawling one-man-kingdoms of Los Angeles I could have scattered my understanding of the world like so many ashes from the plane. It was gone. And with it the future that I had long imagined for myself. I was adrift in the flood, searching for terra firma.

This cataclysmic type of learning is among the hardest experiences I’ve encountered. It undermines the identity, value system, the very sense of meaning of an individual. Three times it has done so to me.

Nonetheless it is my greatest hope for you that you allow such learning to overthrow your life, that you will seek out its catastrophic powers through travel and relationships and deep, open engagement with ideas that differ from your own.

I wish this for you first because these moments of cataclysmic learning have led me, at times painfully, to a truer understanding of identity, values, and meaning, and I believe they will do the same for you.

And secondly I wish this sort of learning for you because the world needs it. Through my most recent moment of cataclysmic learning I have come to see the great challenges the world faces – things like resource depletion, collapsing ecosystems, economic injustice, the changing climate – as symptoms of a deeper cultural problem. They derive from our pervasive global culture of endless growth, the consensus belief that humanity has a manifest destiny to conquer and control the world, no matter the consequences to the Earth or even to ourselves.

For most of us it’s hard to see exactly where this culture is wrong because our own beliefs are built on it, and because we are all complicit in its ills. I consume too much. I support labor exploitation. I drive a CO₂ pumping SUV. Even worse, I depend almost entirely on the global system this culture has created. I need it. And so do you.

This is why we must let truth get to the roots of our beliefs and, where necessary, shatter them. Because only when our foundational beliefs are broken are we driven to find a stronger foundation. Only when our identity and values and meaning are shaken will we send our roots to deeper, truer soil.

One truth that has become clearer to me through each cataclysmic learning experience is: no matter the level of affluence or poverty, what’s important in a person’s life is a sense of meaning. Our global economy-dominated culture would have you find meaning in success, in wealth, in the enjoyment of the many pleasures that it offers. The obvious problem with this sort of meaning is that it can be destroyed, by forces of nature and market.

But there is a stronger, truer source of meaning that can not be broken. It is our own ability to love. We create meaning in our world by loving it and the people and things within it. Here we see the more insidious side of our global culture: in tempting us to find meaning there it wants us to love success, to love wealth, to love luxury, even while these things care nothing for us, and will leave us at our first misstep.

The truer objects of our love care for us as we do them and will not disown us so quickly. There are four that I’ve found: the Earth that sustains our lives, the people who shape our identities, our own health—physical and otherwise, and the deep truths that teach us our values. Soil, community, heart, and soul.

Meaning is not something outside of us waiting to be found, it is a product of our proper relationship to our existence, a loving connection to our place, our people, our selves, and the deepest truth we can muster.

As you make choices in the coming years that will shape your life, your beliefs, your impact on our shared planet, I encourage you to seek soil, community, heart, and soul. Seek them in distant cultures. Seek them in the wisdom of others. Seek them in your own heritage. Let them shake your foundations. Let them topple your worldview. Let them become the bedrock on which you build your part of our future.

You probably won’t end up in Uganda with two duffel bags to your name, but together you might actually save us from that apocalypse, December 21st or otherwise.

Summer of Dreams: Christine

[To celebrate Christine’s accomplishments we are offering 25% off all necklaces in our online store thru July 4th! Shop here.]

Summer of Dreams: Christine

Christine recalls a day in her youth when the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked. She ran as fast as she could into the wild savannah of northern Uganda, her clothes catching and tearing on the thick vegetation. She hid in the tall grass until the sounds of the assault stopped, and then slowly, quietly made her way back to a devastated home. To connect the dots between that moment and where Christine is today is to see an indomitable character.

After escaping from the war she moved to Kampala, where a life of poverty and hard labor was her only option to support her growing family. She is raising five daughters and a baby son, who surprised her at 40-years-old. Despite a past shot through by war, despite options limited to slum life and physical labor, despite the many cultural weights stacked against Ugandan women in general, Christine has become a successful leader, elected to local government, and a major landlord in the Acholi Quarters community, renting out 20 rooms that she has built over the years.

Christine told us that she has three major dreams in life: To see all her children receive the best educations possible; To have her own business; and To build a house in her home district of Kitgum that her family can rely on for decades to come.

Thanks to her incredible determination, and thanks to everyone who has supported us and purchased our jewelry, she is accomplishing all three. All her children who are old enough are in school (an expensive endeavor in Uganda), with the oldest in nursing school. Her real estate business is bringing in consistent income. And a few weeks back I got to visit her nearly completed house in Kitgum.

Christine is a person a deeply respect, and a woman I truly admire. We are lucky to call her a partner, and to get to support her as she achieves her dreams.

Christine at her house
Christine with her husband’s family at her house in Kitgum.

Christine and her girls
Christine and her five daughters at their home in Kampala.

Christine and Esther visit their homes in Kitgum.

Displaced No More: Building Dream Homes in Northern Uganda (Video)

Christine and her family in front of her almost finished house. Video and more photos below.

My first visit to Kitgum, a dusty town in northern Uganda, was in 2006, when there were still curfews on the roads to prevent rebel attacks, and countless thousands of Ugandans were confined to squalid displacement camps. My second trip was a week ago. This time I came to visit two of our partners who are building homes for their families. Everything has changed.

Christine and Esther are two of the elders of our partner group. Both are extremely bright and entrepreneurial, not to mention hilarious. And both fled their homes to save their families during Kony’s war. I found them on Christine’s in-laws’ land. Across the street was a site where, a few years ago, thousands of people were stuck in an IDP camp, malnourished and without opportunity. Today the land is planted thickly with tall, green stalks of maize.

Christine led us away from the road, on a footpath through clusters of mud huts, and finally to her big concrete house. She gave us a tour, pointing out the sitting room, the kitchen, the master bedroom, the garage. It’s not yet finished, but already it’s the nicest house in the neighborhood.

Next we jumped on motorcycles and rode to Esther’s land, where the foundation and the first height of brick walls outline her new home’s floor-plan. She walked us through the house and motioned out to the big garden surrounding it, growing food for her family.

Out there, looking over Esther’s land in the sunset light, I thought about the staggering victory this moment represented for these women. They overcame two decades of war, displacement from their homes, a culture that denies women most opportunities offered to men, and the quicksand of poverty. And now they stand proudly on land that they own, in front of homes that will invite their families into peace and security for many years to come.

These are women I deeply admire.

Esther and her son standing in front of her garden and the growing walls of her house.

Neighbor kids wonder about the white guy while Christine does some housekeeping.