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. 

Co-Dreamer: Tina Tangalakis

We share the stories of people making great dreams into realities to inspire us all to dream big, work hard, and build a better world. Together, our dreams light the future.

Tina from Della surrounded by the Della seamstresses

Open to a new adventure, and unsuspecting of what potential lie ahead, Tina Tangalakis put the Los Angeles design world behind her and headed to Ghana.

She was instantly captivated by the culture; the colors, the landscape, a new way of life and especially the fabric. Tina decided to use some of those inspiring textiles to create souvenirs to bring back home to family and friends, leading her to a local seamstress named Beatrice in the village of Hohoe (‘ho-ho-eh’). It took only 48 hours for Tina to realize what was happening, and she instantly knew that the bags she designed with Beatrice would pave the way for a friendship and international partnership.

After a month in Ghana and with 50 bags in hand, she returned home and sold all 50 in two weeks.

Tina always had a dream of combining art and humanitarianism to create a business that is ethical, responsible and fashionable and today, 3 years later, that dream is a reality through Della. Committed to long-term success in providing jobs and education to Hohoe, Della’s products are all handmade by local women who are economically vulnerable.

Tina’s dream has received rave reviews from notable fashion culture makers such as People Magazine and has now expanded to boutiques all over the United States, even the Anguilla and Virgin Islands. Della’s products range from bags and earrings, to Macbook cases and the sale of all products guarantees a positive effect on the people of Hohoe.

1. Tell us about the name Della.

While dreaming up with the business, I wanted to choose a name that connected us with Ghana, yet was contemporary enough to be the name of fashion line. While reflecting on all my Ghanaian experiences, one person I met really left an impression: his name was Della, the driver for the volunteer organization I worked with.  He was literally the first person I met after getting off the plane and arriving in Accra & greeted me with the most welcoming, warm smile. I hope the essence of the real “Della” shows through our product line.

2. How have you seen the women of Hohoe grow and become empowered?

This has been pretty awesome. I’ve seen members of our Ghanian team become financially independent, more confident and their skill levels have all increased exponentially. I know that our team is very happy to have steady work that supports them, their dreams, and their families.  Several of our employees are single mothers and it is great to know that we are creating opportunity for their family.

3. If the world could be different in one way because you lived, what would it be?

Hm, I’m not sure about this one.  I really think making a positive impact on one person makes a difference.  So if I am able to help one person along the way, I am happy.

One Thousand Dreamers

Yesterday we hit 1,000 ‘likes’ on our Facebook page. To say thank you, our designer Emily Grace Goodrich created this hand-illustrated poster for you. Click on it for the hi-res printable version.
1,000 Dreamers

One thousand dreamers. One thousand people who believe, with us, that each person can dream a better future for herself, for her family, for her community and her world. One thousand people who support the hard work of making dreams come true.

Since we started, the women we partner with in Uganda have sent their children to school, built homes for their families, started businesses. They have realized dreams they once thought impossible.

Today they are envisioning bigger, brighter dreams. Not just escaping poverty, but building success, impact, and legacy. They are transforming their families and improving their communities.

We can all do this. We can all dream a better future and set about building it. And if, one thousand strong, we commit ourselves to building a better world, there is no telling how great a change we might make. Together, our dreams light the future.

Local Visionaries: The Past, Present, and Future of Development

In the summer of 2003 I found myself hiking with a small team through a leech-infested cloud forest in the Himalayas. In big woven baskets carried by Nepali friends were parabolic dish antennas, long-distance radios, solar panels, and a cornucopia of other electronics: strange cargo in a region with no power, no phones, not even roads connecting the scattered mountain villages. But we had a mission. Against all odds we were building the area’s first computer network.

Nepali men not only carried the equipment, they helped construct and continue to maintain the network. Click above for larger image.

This wasn’t my idea. It was the vision of a Nepali man named Mahabir. Hidden behind Mahabir’s quiet nonchalance is a brilliant mind and a tectonic dedication to the wellbeing of his people.

Mahabir is a what I call a local visionary, and I believe he is the key to global development. When I went to Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, I had no idea what its people needed or what opportunities existed. But Mahabir knew. He knew because he was raised there. He absorbed all the various nuances of Nepalese culture and society like we absorb our first language. And with great personal sacrifice he pursued a vision for his people that far exceeded what any outsider thought possible. Working for Mahabir’s vision was by far the best thing I could do for Nepal.

Mahabir holding the beginnings of a delicious dinner, with JoAnn, an American volunteer. Click above for larger image.

I think this is true everywhere. The best thing that I can do for Nepal or India or Haiti or Uganda, or for that matter for America, is to find a local visionary and support the work she gives her life to.

This caliber of local visionary is rare. But just one can change her community, her country, even the world. Most great global visionaries are local visionaries. Gandhi, Mandela, King: all were deeply and primarily rooted in the challenges and potentials of their place and people, and by their dedication they each shaped the global story.

Mahabir is one of a small handful of such visionaries that I have been lucky to meet. Sister Rosemary in Uganda is another, working simultaneously to rehabilitate war-affected girls and to recycle Uganda’s waste into socially useful products. Another Ugandan visionary is Abramz Tekya, who inspires hope, direction, and social consciousness in the youth of his country through breakdancing and hip-hop, the same pursuits that, as a young man, saved him from the dangers of the slums. Amani Matabaro, a Congolese visionary, splits his time between working for international non-profits and investing his earnings in community development work for his home village and those surrounding.

Those that I haven’t yet met include Alastair McIntosh in Scotland and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (who today reportedly won a seat in Burmese parliament after decades of struggle), among thousands of others.

These remarkable people are the future of their communities and their countries. And they are part of a proud tradition. Local visionaries are not just the future of development, they are its best history, and its most impactful present. Collectively they are building a better world.

The White Bead: Our Dreams Light the Future

Many of our jewelry designs include a special new pure white bead. Here’s the story.Ember Arts White Bead

The women we partner with in Uganda are more than just poor women who need a hand out of poverty. We believe that they are dreamers in the best sense. Dreamers who will envision brighter futures for their families and communities and then do the hard work of making those dreams into realities.

Uganda, it seems to us, is best served by the dreams of Ugandans. So in our work with our Ugandan partners, supporting their best dreams is our mission.

Likewise, America is best served by the dreams of Americans. Just like in Uganda, our families and communities need our best dreams. It is up to us to dream up ways to improve our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities, even our country. And it is up to us to do the hard work of making those dreams into realities.

That is what the new white bead on many of our designs means. It represents your dreams. And it represents how you are connected to the women in Uganda who made your jewelry by hand. And it reminds us that, together, our dreams light the future.