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.
[My mom, sister, bro-in-law, and niece recently arrived in Uganda to work with our Ugandan partners. I’d like to share some of our stories with you.]
Biola always smiles when we greet each other. She smiles and laughs and almost dances and like a contagion it spreads to my face and all the people around us join in the small burst of celebration. On our first day in Acholi Quarters she had clapped her hands up and laughed and we hugged and she used her little English and I my little Acholi to tell each other how happy we were to be there together.
But yesterday when I went into her home she did not smile. She did not move, did not look up, but sat in sculpture on the concrete floor, letting a steady rain of tears speak loudly for her. At the previous day’s celebration she had danced with all the copious joy that she brings to life, leading her fellow bead makers in displaying the beauty of Acholi culture and their pride in their recent accomplishments. They had given my family and I a welcome that none of us will forget.
But it had been too much. Now she could not stand, could only sit shivering on the ground, struggling to lift a bottle of water to her parched lips.
Biola came from northern Uganda when her embattled imune system began to fail. Kampala, Uganda’s capital, offered better medical care, proximity to her son George, and hope for a better life. When I met her she was a robust 60, still working in the rock quarry with a strength that would have been stunning from a healthy woman half her age. And when she began making Acholi Beads I saw her innate joy boil over and splash its color all around her. HIV, however, is no forgetful foe. It always returns.
George called a car to come and he and his friends carried his grimacing mother down the steep, graveled hillside. She collapsed into the back seat, resting on a shoulder, unmoving. At the hospital last night I sat on an old, disembodied Toyota bench seat, struggling in the dim light to discern the rise and fall of her grey blanket. Today she remains in the hospital, slightly improved but still weak.
It is a bitter reminder that despite their ascension our women remain vulnerable to the specters of their long, ragged past – disease, poverty, lack of education. Life change does not happen quickly, community change takes years.
We are committed.
On this trip we will continue to refine our business to benefit those who need it the most – our Ugandan partners. We will help them create a healthcare solution, ensure that their incomes are sufficient and well-used, and look towards the future with continued education in finance, health, and the value of school.
And we hope and pray that Biola will continue to spill her joy on our Acholi Beads family for many years to come.
This week Senator Russ Feingold introduced a new bill to the Senate that, if passed, will accelerate the United States’ involvement in ending the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army and aiding the victims of their decades long war in northern Uganda.
In his statement introducing the bill, Senator Feingold credits the efforts of “young Americans” in bringing the distant civil war to forefront of American concern. This is a direct nod to the efforts of several groups like Resolve Uganda and Gulu Walk, but most notably to the years of creative activism and awareness campaigns by my friends at Invisible Children. Read this excerpt from Senator Feingold:
For many years, we have both sought to bring attention to the terror orchestrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, and the suffering of the people of northern Uganda. We have come a long way in just a few years, thanks especially to young Americans who have become increasingly aware of and outspoken about this horrific situation. And as a result, the United States has made increased efforts to help end this horror. Those efforts have yielded some success, but if we are now to finally see this conflict to its end, we need to commit to a proactive strategy to help end the threat posed by the LRA and support reconstruction, justice, and reconciliation in northern Uganda. This bill seeks to do just that.
It has taken thousands upon thousands of screenings, a bunch of national and international tours, three audacious nation- and world-wide events, and countless hours and dollars committed by high school and college students, and finally this week the greatest single power in the world, the US government, is considering making our cause its own.
Congratulations to IC for this huge victory! And don’t stop now.
We just sent out our latest dispatch to members of the Acholi Beads Friends. Click the link to sign up and get the next one! You can see the email in your browser by clicking on the picture below:
Acholi Beads jewelry is made by Moms, for Moms. See the mothers of Acholi Quarters as they juggle their kids, and use their art to build a better life for their families.
This special Mother’s Day video is dedicated to Suzie, Lorraine, Lindee, Jessica, and Willie Jean.
I just finished (like 5 minutes ago) an updated version of the Acholi Beads Story. It brings the story up to present day and features our latest beautfiul design. Here’s a PDF version for you to check out. If you want a high-res version to print out, Contact Us.
“You look so fat today!” To an American that’s a pretty blunt tool of an insult, but to an Acholi those words are a high compliment. After all, it’s hard to get fat as subsistence farmers facing the hunger and malnutrition of war. To be fat is to be rich. Men hope to grow a “politician’s belly” and women strive to be big and curvaceous.
As Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday” approaches we’re launching our own celebration: Acholi Gras, “Fat Acholi.” This first annual sale is a celebration of Acholi culture and our Acholi partners, who are eating better than ever thanks to all of our customers and supporters! These 16 women have experienced tremendous life change over the past year, and you can bet one change is reflected on the scale!
For a limited time we’re offering Acholi Gras Bags of Acholi Beads to celebrate. Each gift quality bag is filled with at least $80 of beautiful, handmade Acholi Beads jewelry from last year’s line (i.e. two months ago), and you pay only $39.99!
This is a great chance to fill out your Acholi Beads collection, get some gifts for friends, and change the world while doing it. Happy Acholi Gras!
It was an unexpected statistic in our research. Twenty sounded high, but the numbers were right there, double-checked. Each displaced Ugandan we employed spread the benefits of their income to approximately 20 people around them – children, spouses, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, parents and grandchildren; all of them benefitted from a single, well-earned income.
I was working with a nonprofit called Invisible Children, running part of their operation in northern Uganda. We had just finished conducting a round of research among the beneficiaries of my program, trying to plumb the details of how our work was helping, and where it might be falling short.
This was arguably the single most important finding in shaping my work and understanding. These impoverished, war stricken Acholi people, most of whom had never made a fair day’s wage in their lives, took the money they earned, which was still low by American standards, and essentially gave it away to 20 people around them. They used it where it was needed most, filling needs that we never would have seen.
Acholi Beads now partners with 16 similarly displaced Acholi women. It’s safe to assume that these women also spread their earnings to 20 people each – about 320 people total. That’s an impact.
And we want to do more. A lot more.
This idea of “Times 20” inspires us. We know that if we can partner with enough women, a whole community can be changed. They will use their earnings to make sure their families are cared for, and to raise up a new generation of Acholi leaders. So we have set a goal. We want to partner with 100 women by 2010. Does your mind immediately do the math? That’s 2,000 people benefiting from the sale of this beautiful jewelry.
How will Acholi Quarters change when this is a reality? How many more kids will be in school? How big will the smiles be on the faces of the 100 women? And their children?
We’re excited to find out. Help us get there.
Contact us to find out about distributing Acholi Beads in your area. The more we can work to expand the market, the more women we can partner with, and the more people benefit.