Friday, February 27, 2009

Saying our Goodbyes

Last Saturday we loaded up two of the Toyota trucks with sewing machines, and the trucks and a van with the women in our sewing and quilting class, and said our goodbyes to them. Unfortunately a week has passed during which I have been unable to post a blog - my apologies to those of you who feel you were left hanging . . . The women were palpably excited when they departed, and left with promises of making many more items for sale. Alice left with the extra fabric, two new machines for her shop, and fabric to make up bags. These we will be selling to help her raise money for her new sewing school. As for us, we feel tremendously pleased with the way things unfolded. Which isn't to say that we didn't learn some lessons along the way! We know now, for example, that attending to any physical needs, including vision, must be done before any learning can take place. And that we should never assume anything - it truly was a shock when we realized that many had never used a ruler, a pair of scissors, or an iron before. We will make more of an effort to learn more of their language next time. Knowing how to say good morning and thank you just isn't enough, although they were so good at helping us out. We know now that starting a charcoal fire first thing in the morning is essential. There is much more, but I don't want to sign off before letting you know that in spite of any shortfalls on our part, Kitambaa's Sewing and Quilting Project has overall been hugely successful. What happens now largely depends on Alice, and on the groups from the different geographical areas. And we have every confidence in them. I will continue to post more info over the coming days, but this day (Saturday) has already begun, and we need to rush off to the DHL office for the black fabric which has finally arrived.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Time to Celebrate

On Friday afternoon, we presented each member of the Bitenge Designers with a certificate, to acknowledge their completion of Kitambaa's 3-week course in sewing and quilting. They had arranged for a photographer of their own to be present, which gives you an idea how important this occasion was to each of them. They then gifted us with singing and dancing, with the name Bitenge, the names of each woman and the village she came from, and our names, figuring frequently in the midst of their Runkankore.

Perez joined us for these celebrations too. In his work with ACTS, he visits most of these women regularly, and his support will be instrumental in seeing how the women incorporate their newly learned skills into a life that also involves working in the gardens, and other chores. He talked with them about not being proud because they have learned to sew and now have a sewing machine, while their sisters (other widows) do not. It is our hope and prayer that these women, in time, will be ready to teach others, so that the benefits they receive from learning to sew will spread to others.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bitenge Designers with Joan and Pippa

So here is a photo of the whole group - now called Bitenge Designers. They chose this name themselves - bitenge being the plural of kitenge, which is the type of fabric they are sewing with. They have chosen a chairperson, a secretary and a treasurer for each area (Bunyonyi, Rubingo, Kikigati), and Alice will be the overall
Coordinator of the group. Yesterday we gave them their pay packets for the work each one has completed, and then they purchased more fabric from "Alice's Shop" in an exercise that was designed to get them thinking about how to use the money they received. They decided to purchase fabric as a group, and to share it so that they would always have a good selection. Several visitors have dropped by Canada House to see what we've been doing these last three weeks, and we've already sold 10 sets of placemats! The rest will be coming home to Canada with us for sale at home, as will the cushion-covers and wallhangings.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Justine and her son, Aron

Justine is the last member of the Bitenge Designers group for you to meet. By the way, Bitenge Designsers is the name the group has given to itself - bitenge is the plural of kitenge, and refers to the cloth that is being combined in making placemats, cushion-covers and wallhangings. Justine is 40, has been a widow since 2001, and has 6 children, aged 8 to 18. Aron is her eldest son, and is receiving training to become a mechanic in Mbarara. He was short on fees for this term, and Kitambaa was able to help with the short-fall, meaning that he is now able to continue with this education. Justine is from Rubingo, where she is involved in basket weaving and the community garden. She is a lovely, gentle person, and is so happy to be sewing. She has taken to it like a duck to water, and her products are getting better and better all the time.
We now only have two days left before the women leave for their villages on Saturday morning. Three weeks has gone by incredibly fast, and each day (barring Sunday) has been full. Now it's time to tie up the loose ends, to ensure that the women know what to do with the money they have already earned - what will go to more fabric, what will go in the bank in savings, and what will be kept by them for their own households. Eight of the twelve have neither a stool or chair to sit in at the sewing machine, nor a table on which to cut and iron. So some funds will have to go towards these purchases initially. None had previously had an iron - we've now purchased one for each woman. They tell us they will fill it with coal from the cooking fire. These and other specifics will have to be worked out today and tomorrow. Meanwhile, Joan and I are filling our totes ready to bring their products back to Canada with us. Two are already full. Thank you to all those who have already indicated that you'd like to make purchases from us! We will post the specific items on our website as soon as we're home again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sheilla and Maudah

Sheilla is 22 years old, and from Rubingo. She has a 2 year old daughter, Viola. Sheilla is HIV positive and is also caregiver to her mother, a widow, who is also HIV positive. Viola is negative. Sheilla had already taken classes in tailoring, but was looking for some way to sew from home, and joined our group when one of the ladies from Kikigati was unable to come. She likes to sew fast, but has also become skilled in also sewing carefully, during her time in class. Here she is holding up one of the cushion-cover designs the women have been working on.

And here is Maudah with another style of cushion cover. Maudah is from Lake Bunyoni. She is 41 years old and has four children, aged 12 to 20. Her fifth pregnancy was a difficult one, and the baby was stillborn. The delay in getting her to hospital resulted in some permanent injury, and chronic pelvic pain. No longer able to cultivate the family garden, she began to sew as alternate means to earn an income. Her quilted items are carefully sewn, and she is an extremely hard worker. She and Tumushabe will sew together when they return to the lake, and hope to earn revenue for school fees from the high quality items they make.
To date, about half the women involved in our project have required medical care. When they are back in their villages, this is not possible, and in all likelihood, they would put up with any dicomfort or illness, or resort to traditional medicine. But while they are here, they know they will be attended to at the nearby Ruharo Clinic. They have been treated for malaria, pelvic inflammatory disease, urinary tract infections, HIV-related infections and still-to-be-diagnosed conditions. This is something we did not anticipate, but is all part of working in this part of the world - a "workshop expense" one would never see in Canada.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stella and Anna

Meet Stella. She is 49 years old and comes from Kikigati. She birthed 11 children of who 7 are still alive, and has 1 grandchild - 5 others have died. She has been a widow since 2000. Stella is Coordinator of the three widows groups in Kikigati, involved with them in the gardens, in meetings and with other activities. She tells me that the widows meet monthly, and each one brings 1,000 shillings to the meeting (about 65 cents). The names of those present are put into a bag, and the person whose name is drawn from the bag, can buy whatever they want - a lantern, plates, a dress. I met Stella in 2007, and had her old sewing machine repaired for her and gave her a new one (the old one was in such bad repair that I didn't really believe she could sew with it). Since then, she has taught 8 others to sew on a treadle, but they have only repaired old clothing, having no new cloth to sew. Stella lives in a house with a leaking roof, and has to move the sewing machines around during the rains so that they don't get wet. We have asked Perez to look into the cost of either new roofing, or if the house is in bad repair, new housing. Stella is one determined lady, and has already shown that she has the capacity to teach others. We want to support this fine lady in her efforts.
Anna is 38 and from Rubingo, widowed in 1998 and raising her three children on her own, plus a niece who is an orphan. Her oldest child, Saphan, has completed P-7, but there are no funds for him to continue on to Secondary School. Yesterday we told Anna that we would find the funds for Saphan to continue, and he will join Barbra at Bugamba Secondary School, where he had already been accepted. First he must purchase a mattress, sheets, a basin, towel, file folders, an identity card, and other miscellaneous items. We will help Anna do that in town before she returns to her village at the end of the week. There is also a uniform to be purchased. She was extremely happy when we gave her the news, as were Knight and Kamida, both of whom have sons who are to be sponsored by a very generous Canadian who saw their story in this blog. Isaac will learn mechanics, specializing in motorcycles, and Swabu will learn building skills.

Barbra and Loidah

Barbra and Loidah are students at Rushanje Secondary School, who we began sponsoring when they completed P-7, the last year of Primary School. Now they are in S-3, they are working hard, and their marks are good. Barbra's father is an HIV client. She has four younger siblings. Loidah's father is described as a drunkard, who sold the family plot against the mother's wishes, and left her to raise 6 children alone. The third student we visited on Friday was at another school - Bugamba Secondary School. Both her parents are HIV clients (this is the language now used both for HIV positive people and people with AIDS). She is the eldest of 4 children. All three of these girls are boarders, and assistance has been promised to them as long as they keep their marks up.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Alice's Sewing School

Last Friday (the last day I was able to post to the blog), Perez drove us to Rubingo, about two and a half hours over red and rutted roads, where Alice has her sewing school. This is it. I was standing outside when I took this photo, so it gives you an idea how small it is. There is another room of almost equal size attached to it, with woven mats on the floor, which her students use when it is raining. Otherwise they study under the corrugated iron roofing attached to the side of the building. She has purchased a "plot", a good sized piece of land, on which to build a new school. This will include a dormitory for the girls who come from far away to learn. She has already got the sand, aggragate rock and building blocks, and the plot has been levelled. She will be making bags for us to sell at home, which together with the other items she has made, will help her save enough to start building.
On the way down to Rubingo, we stopped to see 3 of the secondary school girls sponsored through Kitambaa - Barbra, Loidah and Barbra. I had hoped to post a photo of them too, but this computer isn't going to cooperate today, so I must wait for another day. Thank you to all who have posted comments or sent emails, in response to the blog. I haven't been able to reply, but certainly do appreciate them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Alice, Maudah, Tumushabe and Joy are pictured here examining the first completed cushion-cover. This is one style, and the other will use strip-piecing in a rail fence setting. Alice, Tumushabe and Maudah are having great success in making both wallhangings and placemats; there are others are not far behind. But there is still a struggling group of four, and one in particular is having a lot of difficulty. It was heart-breaking yesterday to have to tell her that her placemats still needed improvement before they would be the "good quality" they must be before I can buy them from her. She has worked so hard, and she has come a long way. She is someone who knows how to cultivate the land and grow crops, to feed her children, and to put a roof over her head. Rulers, scissors, measuring and sewing are all totally new to her. I think it was me who had expectations that were too high. So I have had to modify those, and have told her, that if she is able to measure and mark a strip of fabric, to cut it out, and to sew it together with others, by the end of the three weeks, she will have succeeded. And she will, if we can then combine her efforts into items finished by others.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another Lydia

Lydia, from Rubingo, is 35 years old, and a widow with three children, aged 16, 14 and 8. She earns most of her income from working in the gardens. When the crops are harvested, she sells what she doesn't need. She has also learned how to weave baskets. Lydia has an indomitable spirit, and the ability to laugh in almost any situation; even when a mistake is pointed out, and she has to remove some of her stitching and do it again. The determination she shows to "make good quality", is present in all the women, and their practice is yielding constantly improving results. Twice now, I have suggested to Alice that the four women who are struggling the most, be given an alternate project to work on. And each time she has told me "No, let them finish their mats". What would be discouraging to them, she tells me, is if I were to stop them in their efforts. But sometimes I yearn to give them something a little easier to do.
Here, Joy, our translator, is taking out the stitching on a placmat. Joan and I help with this too. You can see the practice 12" huts hanging on the mat at the back of our classroom, made by the 8 students who moved onto a new project on Monday. Once they perfected this, they moved on to making 8" huts and arranging these in a wallhanging. There is a loose plan to make the 12" blocks into a lap-sized quilt either for sale or as a fund-raiser. It has become clear to both Joan and I that this project is not a one-time affair, but is the beginning of an ongoing commitment to these women and others like them. We grow more and more attached to them, the more we work with them, and feel responsible for this thing we have started.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Knight, Maudah and Tumushabe

Here is Knight, ironing her placemat. We've become used to lighting the charcoal fire each morning, so that the irons can be filled first thing. Many women have never used an iron before, and we have never used this variety, so lots of learning is being done by all. Knight is a widow from Rubingo. She's 41 years old and has 5 children whom she has been raising on her own since 1993. She is involved in gardening and making mats. She's an active memberof the widows' group in her area. Her biggest concern at the moment is her eldest son, Isaac (18), who is too old to go on to secondary school and who would like to become a mechanic.
Tumushabe and Maudah were the first two to finish their sets of four placemats. Once their mats had passed inspection, I pinned them together and wrote their names in the book in which I am recording all completed projects and the amount they will be paid for each. There was great excitement the first time this happened - clapping and whooping and singing. And the demand that their photograph be taken. Now there are at least a dozen sets of these placemats packed into one of the totes we will be taking home with us - not all perfect, but pretty impressive for first time attempts. Today one group has moved on to making huts, which will be pieced together as wallhangings.
Others are still perfecting their mat-making skills, but no-one is giving up, and those who are farther ahead are helping out those who are having a little difficulty.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Kamida is 40 years old, and comes from Rubingo. She is a Muslim, and her husband was a polygamist. Her husband and his two other wives died of AIDS in 2004, and she has been raising all 9 of their children alone since then. They range in age from 10 to 20, and all are still at home. They completed Primary School, but she has had no funds to send them on to Secondary School. Kamida has been tested and is HIV negative. She works as a labourer and has also been involved in weaving baskets. She is hoping a sponsor might be found so that her eldest son could receive training as a mechanic. There is a strong tradition in Uganda that eldest sons look after their mothers as they grow older, something that I hadn't fully understood until this visit. So assisting eldest sons to get training proves another way to provide for widows and their families.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

More of the Women and Their Stories

Yesterday - Saturday - was an incredible day.
We interviewed each of the women one at a time, so that, with their permission, we are able to share their pictures and stories with you. They were eager to talk to us, and you have already met two of them. This photo is os Tumushabe, who comes from the Lake Bunyoni area. Through the efforts of other Canadians, she learned to sew clothing some years ago. These are sold through the tourist camp on Bushara Island. She joined our project to learn of other hand-crafted items she could make. Tumushabe is 29, and has been on her own since 1999, raising three children aged 12, 10 and 8. She learned to sew because she has one leg shorter than the other, and subsequent hip pain, so can't earn her livelihood from agriculture. When I asked her if she had had polio, she laughed, and told me she didn't know, because she's never seen a doctor in her entire life. I'll have to wait until tomorrow to introduce you to more of the women, as this computer rarely lets me load more than one photo per post. Yesterday was a welcome exception!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I Did It!

Meet Rechael, proudly showing us her completed placemat. She has made slow but steady progress all week, and was delighted to be able to move on to working with African fabrics today. Rechael is 33 years old, and comes from Kikigati, in the south of the country on the border with Tanzania. She has 4 children, aged 13, 9, 7 and 2. She has been a widow since 2001 and first tested HIV positive in 2002. She is both a peer educator for people with HIV and Chairperson of one of the widows' groups in her area. Her only source of income at the moment is from growing crops, eating what she needs and selling the rest. She wants to see her children progress onto secondary school, but has no funds at the moment.

And this is Lydia, a photo taken on Wednesday, when she graduated from sewing straight lines on paper to working with the practice fabric. Lydia is also from Kikigati, Chairperson of another widows' group, and also a member of the Mothers' Union, where she teaches women how to care for their families and about sanitation. She is 51, and has been a widow since 1995. She birthed 9 children, of whom 7 are still alive. Four are still in school. Since her husband died, she has been head of the family, and has earned enough from working in the gardens (where she grows sorghum) to support them all, plus two grandchildren. Her main concern at the moment is how to come up with the extra funds for her eldest son to continue in the second year of his program in vocational school, where he is learning building skills. Thankfully there were sufficient funds in the Kitambaa scholarship fund to help him in the short term, and on Monday he will be back in school.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Practice, practice, practice

The first project the women have been working on is placemats. Before they begin working using the good African fabrics, they must each make a sample using practice fabrics, and only when Alice says it is OK, can they move on. Here Kamida (with Joan's help), is painstakingly removing all the topstitching, which she had done in grey. She will use thread to match the borders once this is done. The willingness of these women to work hard; to practice, practice, practice; and their patience in correcting an error when it occurs, is humbling. They already know that if the quality is good, I will buy the placemats and bring them back to Canada to sell, so they have much invested in making a "good quality" product. But yesterday was a very good day - they were all cheered by their progress, staying at their machines until 6:30, and singing in praise before they left for the day to go and have their supper.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thursday at the Round House

It seems very strange to think that we have come to the end of our day - the ladies worked until 6:30 this evening, and have just left us and are walking up the hill to the community centre where they have supper. Meanwhile you are just getting up at home. They are terrifically keen, and hard working, and all are making progress. Today, however, we realized there are some who have never used a ruler before, others who have never used an iron, and none had used pins before. So in addition to Alice reviewing the threading of a sewing machine, as seen here, we spent much time on these basics. Alice is amazingly patient, and Joy and Perez both help with translation, and somehow between us, we are all learning. We were also joined by a new student today. Sheilla is the daughter of Generous, and while she has been taught tailoring, she is unable to leave home to work, as she is caregiver to her mother, whose husband died of AIDS in 1998, and who is now quite ill herself, despite access to treatment. We hope we will be able to teach her some things to make at home, as she already has a sewing machine.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Outdoor Instruction

The first three days of class, the women have been practicing sewing in a straight line, using graph paper as a guide. Once they perfect this, they move on to practicing with fabric. Here I am introducing them to strip-piecing. We have set up a table in the shade for marking and cutting. But besides making sure the sewing machines are in good working order, it has been important to attend to other issues. Four of the women were complaining of sore eyes. When they visited the Ruharo Eye Clinic, it turned out that three of them needed glasses. Still another woman had what sounded like a bladder infection that had been untreated for one month. She visited the Ruharo clinic and is now on antibiotics. And another came to us complaining of lower abdominal pain. She has been HIV positive since 2002 - her husband died in 2001. We will arrange for her to have a full physical examination before she returns to her village. Despite all these possible setbacks, they are keen and enthusiastic, working on their machines from 8:30 in the morning until 5:30 or later in the evening, with an hour break for lunch in the middle of the day.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

First Day of Classes

On Monday, the first day of classes, 12 women arrived at Canada House. They are all widows, with the exception of Joy, who is our translator, and Alice, who is teaching the women how to use treadle sewing machines. Three women have had previous sewing experience, and here Mauda and Stella are examining one of the samples I brought with me to see how it is made. Meanwhile Lydia is practicing and practicing to get the rocking motion necessary to operate the machine. Yesterday we discovered that she has poor eyesight, and are taking her to the clinic to get her eyes tested (something she has never been able to afford).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Morning in Mbarara

This is the Round House, part of the Canada House compound used by ACTS staff, and it will be our home for the next three weeks. We wake to the cooing of the morning dove, and other birdsong. Looking over the hedge and toward the hills, the smoke of early morning fires can be seen. We have all we really need here - beds equipped with mosquito nets, a tiny kitchen with 2-burner hotplate, a couch and chair in which to read or receive the many visitors that drop by, and best of all, indoor plumbing. The shower is really only a trickle, but as long as the power is on, the water is warm not cold. Right next to us is a second round house, but this one is open to the air, and it will be where classes are held.