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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

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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 

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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.

Partner Update: Gladies’ New Business

Join our contest on Pinterest to win a Mabira Necklace!gladies_portraitGladies is one of our first partners, which means she’s been working with us for the last five years. We affectionately refer to her as ‘Special Teams’ because she’s smart, dependable, and can get just about anything done. Recently she made a big step towards her dreams by starting her own small business.

Gladies fled from her family home in Amuru, an area in northern Uganda, about a decade ago during the civil war. When she first arrived in the Acholi Quarters community of Uganda’s capital city it was only a collection of mud huts around a stone quarry, where men, women, and children could do hard labor for about $1 per day. That’s what Gladies did to pull her family through.

These days Acholi Quarters is looking a lot better, and so is Gladies’ family. She has three children, and she’s paying for all of them to attend good local schools, an expensive feat in Uganda’s capital.

cover_gladies_smallAnd now Gladies is using her earnings from Ember Arts to expand her earning potential, too. She recently traveled back to Amuru and bought a rice milling machine, and rented a place in a big trading center to collect, mill, and sell rice. Farmers come for miles around to sell their harvest to her.

She partnered with her brother in the business, so now his family is benefiting, too. And they have big plans for the future.

Gladies and her brother plan to put up their own commercial building in the trading center, a place where they can process and store not just rice, but other crops, too. Building, she says, will start in December.

Like most of our partners here in Uganda, Gladies wants to eventually move back to her family home. With the money she’s earned and skills she’s learned as an Ember partner, she’s well on her way to accomplishing that dream.

 

Becky Straw, Ember Hero

Becky Straw is our Fall 2012 Ember Hero. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to her organization, The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

Do not start a nonprofit, says Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, a nonprofit. She makes a strong case. If you start a nonprofit you’ll be broke, stressed, and you’ll have to be boring while you work long hours with no money. You will be rejected a lot. And, by the odds, you’ll fail within a few years.

Becky has been through all of it except the failing. For the last two years she lived couch-to-couch, maxing out her credit cards and relying on gracious friends and family, and working with her co-founder Jody Landers to build the foundation of an enormous vision. They aim to create one million jobs in the developing world within a decade.

Sitting across the table from Becky in a cafe in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, she says she’s tired from flying across the world and spending three long days in the field catching up with a social business she partners with. Still she crackles with energy. I’ve been in the country three extra, less busy days and I’m fading with jet lag. She shares with me the grand vision she and her partner are building, lamenting that it’s hard to shrink it down to the elevator pitch that many would-be backers want.

Her vision sees good businesses in poor countries as the final solution to poverty, and to many other endemic problems, like access to clean water and affordable healthcare. The Adventure Project aims to focus international attention and money on these businesses, helping them scale and make the biggest positive impact.

And, in a way, it all started with swimming.

“As a kid I was terrible,” Becky told me later over email. “I’m not trying to be modest, I have multiple last place ribbons to prove it.” Then, when she was twelve, a swim coach took her aside and gave her this advice: “Everything in life is 90% hard work and only 10% talent, so just work harder than everyone else.”

“That stuck with me, and he was right,” said Becky. “I put my head down and never stopped trying.” Her hard work earned her a scholarship to swim collegiately on a team that won two conference titles. She still wasn’t the fastest on the team (“I was the worst of the best”) but, she recalls, “it didn’t really matter to me, because I learned that I love to work hard, and will go to great lengths to make something happen.”

 

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut, and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again.”

 

That sort of determination, ‘Grit’, as it’s often called, is being hailed by top researchers as one of the most important characteristics of successful people. And Becky clearly has large grit reserves. Which means that she could likely succeed at just about anything: movie making, real estate development, technology startups, fields that could win her fame or fortune or both. So why put all that determination towards stopping poverty?

“I think the main experience for me was volunteering in Romania after college,” she said. A couple from Ohio ran a group home for kids who had been orphaned and abused. Some of them had been confined to cribs for the first ten years of their lives and had to learn to walk starting at age eleven.

“I experienced that feeling that hits you in the gut,” said Becky, “and you know you’ll never be able to live blissfully ignorant again. It made me horribly sad to see the vast disparity between the rich and poor. But it was also incredibly hopeful, because I witnessed resilience and love. And it gave me purpose.”

She earned a Master’s in International Social Welfare from Columbia before joining a fledgling non-profit called charity: water. Becky was employee number three, and helped launch one of the most innovative and successful non-profits in the world. She left charity: water during some challenging organizational growth pains and soon reconnected with a donor named Jody she had become fast friends with a year earlier during a trip to Liberia. Over dinner in Colorado they discovered their common passion for social enterprise and started a Google document titled, “Launch List,” filled with items like “Assemble a board” and “Get charitable status”.

They started in on the to do list in October 2010 and launched The Adventure Project a month later.

So far they have partnered with four social ventures in four developing countries, creating over 350 jobs. These businesses are helping solve the problems of hunger, water, environment, and healthcare, and are serving almost 900,000 people.

When I met her in Uganda she had been visiting one of these partners, a company called Living Goods that combines the Avon door-to-door sales model with the effectiveness of community driven healthcare. Women are trained as community health workers and visit the homes of their neighbors, checking on family health and offering advice and selling low-cost solutions where necessary.

On her organization’s blog Becky shares a story (with beautiful photos from Esther Havens) that epitomizes the impact she and Jody are having. A Ugandan woman named Gertrude, recently widowed and left with three young children, was hired and trained by Living Goods as they expanded to her village. When she started visiting homes she met a woman who had three children sick with malaria and no money for medication. Gertrude decided to trust the woman and paid for the medications herself before moving on to the next house. Two days later the children had recovered, the woman had repaid Gertrude for the medication, and the village was buzzing that Gertrude had saved these children’s lives. Now her new health business is booming and she can afford to send her kids to school. And all throughout the village she is known as “the Kind One.”

Becky’s dream, and the vision of The Adventure Project, is to take Gertrude’s story and multiply it by a million. One million new jobs. One million people solving their communities’ problems. One million families out of poverty. It’s the kind of goal that will take, more than anything, a lot of grit.

Learn more about Becky’s work here. We’re donating 50% of all online sales now thru November 9th to The Adventure Project! Shop our new Fall Lineup here!

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.

Meet our jewelry designer, Emily Grace Goodrich

Making Jewelry

Designing beautifully elegant jewelry isn’t simple. Designing beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material adds even more complication to the process. 

Emily, our jewelry designer, designs beautifully elegant jewelry out of recycled material and then teaches a group of 28 Ugandan women how to make all of our designs ready for our American retail market. 

Emily Goodrich, spends a majority of her year living in San Diego fulfilling various roles at the Ember Arts office. However, her greatest contribution to our company is her tremendous ability to design paper bead jewelry. 

For the next four months, Emily, will be living in Uganda teaching all of our Ugandan partners how to make our 2013 collection, a collection we believe to be our best yet. 

To learn more about Emily and to understand how she continually pushes the limits of what is possible with paper jewelry, we asked her a few questions. Her answers, about the work she does, are fascinating and reveal a side of Ember Arts most people never get to see. Here is what she shared. Enjoy.

As a jewelry designer what exactly do you do for Ember Arts?

My job entails forecasting jewelry and color trends in the U.S., and using what I know about our own market and the available materials in Uganda to find a middle ground. I do a bit of resource research as well, I just finished a day of scouring the markets to see what sort of new materials we might be able to incorporate into our jewelry. I also spend time in Uganda teaching things like color theory. For an idea of what that looks like, check out the sway earring, which is a piece I’m very proud of the bead makers for mastering, as light tints and a dark shades of a central color were once new concepts for them. We are continually working to build a color vocabulary that makes sense across cultures.

What will you be focusing your attention on while you are in Uganda?

We’ve already had a touch-up training session to remember the new designs for Fall/Holiday 2012, and to learn about making a great multicolor piece. In the next weeks, I’m going to be working with a smaller group of women to experiment with new bead shapes and new materials, and potentially some entirely new products. Then, I’ll be narrowing down a group of designs to start the training for 2013. I’ll also be looking for new kinds of materials that we can incorporate into the jewelry. In the past we’ve used ‘cavera,’ which is the local word for plastic bags. There are lots of interesting materials in the market, but they’re often available only once. Part of the work is to determine which items will be available consistently.

How many times have you been to Uganda?

This is my fourth trip to Uganda.

What is it like to work with a group of 28 Ugandan women, some of which you can not communicate with because of the language barrier? 

It’s a little challenging at times, sometimes I have to work with a translator, and I’ve definitely had to get used to being laughed at. These women love to joke, and it doesn’t always translate! But they are also starting to feel more and more like old friends. I’ve learned about 30 words in the Acholi language, and they get a huge kick out of it. They are also quick learners, mostly they teach themselves by looking at the samples, which makes things a lot easier for me. And I’ve learned a lot from them as well, like how to get a fair price for fabric at the market. You should see the glaring look of disgust that our smiling Gladies can pull off, which usually drops the price by at least 10,000 shillings!

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