I always get a little anxious when I walk back into Acholi Quarters after months in America.
Despite my frequent phone calls and the stories that trickle back to us from across the world, my experience in Uganda tells me that trouble could be simmering just below the surface of any multinational organization. The communicational gap is as vast as the distance, and technology has yet to build a sufficient bridge.
So I called a meeting of all the bead makers and other members of the cooperative with which we are partnered and opened the floor for them to share their successes and challenges, bracing in the back of my mind for storm clouds.
They began with their successes, which took me by surprise. Many have bought land and are building houses, both in Acholi Quarters and in their villages in the north. Almost without exception their many children and the orphans they care for are in school, their fees paid with earnings from Acholi Beads. They are running savings and microfinance programs that are empowering them to accomplish huge goals like building family homes and start new businesses, goals that had been buried as impossible just over a year ago.
Perhaps most touchingly, the few co-op members who are not yet bead makers stood up and shared that even they were on the road to more successful lives thanks to the the financial training and microfinance programs we arranged. They were running their homes more efficiently and starting up new small businesses – vegetable trading, charcoal sales, etc. But still they asked to join the bead makers as soon as possible, so that, in the words of one member, “I can look better, like them.”
And it’s true. Acholi Beads women look different. Their wardrobes are newer and more varied, they gain the trademark pounds of higher Acholi society, and they carry with them an air of respect and progress, a weighty hopefulness that was palpably unique as the women paraded through Acholi Quarters in freshly minted Acholi Beads t-shirts, commissioned by them for the occasion.
Then came their challenges, and a small, unconscious clenching of my abdomen. The first woman stood up. Education, she said, was troubling them. They were now able to pay for primary and secondary schooling, but university fees seemed like they would be out of reach when the time came, and for some that time was near. Wow. Even their challenges are wrapped in success! Before Acholi Beads most of these womens’ children were sitting with them in the hot, dusty rock quarry, chipping away at the their daily meal or the month’s meager rent, dreaming of school and a better life. Now they’re worried about university tuition! It was better than I could have hoped. I made a note to
Next up was healthcare. Although they are making good money, many are having trouble accessing good health services. It’s difficult to find doctors who can speak their language, they said, and sometimes they don’t have enough in their budgets for unforseen hospital visits at the end of the month. This is certainly a challenge, but will be overcome. Together we will establish that all the resources are in place for them to receive good care, and it will only take a little planning on their part to make it a reality.
Finally, Mama Esther stood up and gave voice to a challenge that they all agreed upon. They were planning, she said, to eventually move back to their villages in the north. But before they could do that they needed to build homes, and some still needed to buy the land to build them on. Esther herself had just bought a plot of land and had already constructed the foundation for her home, but many of the newer bead makers had not yet had such an opportunity. She was echoed by many of the bead makers in stating this as one of the greatest challenges facing each of them.
With this I was filled with a smile. This is exactly the type of thing for which I designed Acholi Beads. The bead makers have not yet realized the full strength and longevity of our partnership. They are used to a pattern of white people starting projects and quickly fazing them and moving on to the next group in need. Acholi Beads, though, is here to stay, and will support their goals for as long as there is a market for their beautiful products, which looks to be years to come.
Then they started sharing their goals, which largely followed their needs – children graduating from university and homes built in their families’ villages – with one notable exception. Mama Esther wants to buy a car one day, or at least ride in her children’s cars. I think we can make that happen.