Monday, January 31, 2011

A Few Last Photos of the Bitengye Designers

Here are Lidiya, Recheal and Stella - on their way home to Kikagati. Besides their sewing supplies, Recheal is taking home a sack full of dresses for the women of the HIV positive group (thanks to all of you who donated these dresses), money to rent two plots of lands on which 8 members of the group can grow crops, the first monthly installment of funds to buy basic food for those in her group too ill to work, and the assurance of money in a transport fund so those who need treatment can travel to Mbarara to get it. I couldn't resist including the next photo of the women quilting away in a heavy downpour. These heavy thunderstorms arrive quite quickly, and the women simply moved their machines a little further toward the centre of the classroom, so that they wouldn't get wet while sewing. And lastly is a photo of them walking down the road, away from Canada House, to the hostel where they stayed for the workshop, and the community centre where they ate their meals. These women have given so much to us, and as we pack our bags ready to go back to Kampala, we are already missing them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Justina, Knight and Sheilla

As in the first two years, several of the Bitengye women needed medical attention while they were attending the workshop. Justina was first to come to our attention. This 47 year old mother of six children, had spent all her earnings last year on food for her family, the needs of the 6 families of relatives who live nearby to her and come to her regularly for assistance, and had neglected her own health. When she saw the doctor at the clinic, he prescribed an amazing 6 different medications for her rampant infection. She was feeling a lot better by the end of the workshop, and hopes she will have enough earnings this year to continue
work on a new house for herself. "One by one makes a bundle", she told me. Knight and Dorothy both needed glasses prescribed this year. And Knight needed ongoing treatment for her congestive heart failure, first diagnosed when we were here last year. As for Sheilla, at 24 she is still the youngest
member of the group, and in much better health than last year. She has realized the importance of taking her HIV medication every day, and feels better for it - an important thing as the mother of two small children. Every day she came early to the workshop, to sweep up the floor from the previous days' scraps and to light the charcoal fire for the irons, and if there was time, to get a head start on her sewing for that day. What I find staggering, is how women have to put up with ill health - they simply suffer and continue working, through ailments that are really grim. I wonder if providing ongoing medical care should be a part of the Kitambaa Sewing Project, to make sure that each of these women gets the care they need in a timely way, year round . . . I think so.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Workshop Comes to an End

The workshop for the Bitengye Designers came to a most successful end on Wednesday. Certificates were presented to all the women, and a draw made for some extra prizes. But the highlight of the day was showing Alice one of the two donated Featherweight sewing machines that she will take back to Rubingo with her. She was so excited! She already has plans to have solar power installed, and will be able to connect the sewing machines once the solar power is in place. The second machine didn't fit into our luggage this time, but will go to Uganda and to Alice the next time someone has a little extra space in their luggage. Then on Thursday the women packed
themselves and their luggage, sardine-style, into the "specials", booked to take them home to their villages. There were lots and lots of tears, probably because we told the ladies that we will likely not be back in Uganda until two years from now. Alice assured me that these were happy tears, not sad tears, but I think there was a bit of both. We told them we would not forget them, that we'd tell their story and sell the items they make wherever we can. It's a bitter-sweet thing to have them so independent now, and under Alice's capable leadership. We couldn't be more proud of all they've learned and the distance they've travelled over the two years
and three workshops we've conducted. But now it's time for us to withdraw a little, to let them fly on their own. I will continue to write about their individual stories, and of some of the things that have come out of our time here in Uganda, but in the meantime, I want you to know just how much your support of these women has meant to them. Their lives and the lives of their families have been improved so much. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Fashions

Two of the new "fashions" this year, are pictured here. Kamidah, Knight and Lydia hold the notebook covers they've made, while Alice models the new overnight bag she's made and is now teaching the students. We will be bringing a number of these new designs home with us, and we've just placed a large order for more of these with the Bitengye Designers, so should have these ready for sale shortly after we return to Canada. While the more skilled sewers make these, the other group continues to work on placemats (now a standard and smaller size!!!), table runners and gift bags. Also under construction are jewellery
bags, a new design of table cloth, a new quilt design and several other smaller items. I can't wait to show you all these new "fashions" - there's something for everyone being made.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recheal from Kikagati

Recheal is an amazing young woman. At 35, she is the mother of 5 children, 4 of her own and one whom she found wandering in the banana grove and took in. When summarizing what it has meant to her to learn how to sew, she told us that before she never knew if she had enough money to feed her family, but that now she does. She is the person who used her funds last year to buy a door and windows for her house. She is also the founder and leader of the Kikagati group "living positively with HIV". This group supports one another, and travels around the district, performing dramas and singing, in order to
sensitize others to their message of hope. Last year Kitambaa provided uniforms for the choir - we hired Alice made the skirts and trousers and Recheal is wearing one of the T-shirts below. Yesterday she talked to me about the HIV positive group. She is distressed that many of them cannot afford the most basic food, that some are too old to work in the gardens, and that they have nothing to do. They visit one another regularly, always bringing a small gift with them - perhaps a bar of soap or onions or a few bananas. Sometimes they have a speaker come and talk to them, and "then we know", she says, "that 'slim' is like any other disease, and we can stand strong". But hearing first hand stories of men and women in their group, we thought that there must be something else we can do to help. So we are going to arrange for two women to be trained in bracelet making (by Dorothy, from Rubingo),and two women be trained in embroidery (by Florence, Alice's mother in Rubingo). We are going to provide a monthly food fund, so that when members come to Recheal, she will be able to provide them with posho and rice and matoke. And we are going to rent 3 plots of land, so that 12 members can begin to cultivate their own food. Such a small effort, really, but at least a beginning, for a group that has touched me deeply from the first time I met them 4 years ago. Should any of you be prompted to make a donation to the Kikagati group, anything would be gratefully received. Please know that you would be making a major contribution to these incredibly brave and strong people.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Day in the Life of Bitengye

The last few afternoons have been warm here in Uganda, although it's still cool in the mornings. But the Bitengye ladies still work right through, from 8:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night. And even then it's often difficult to send them on their way. Today a large black cloud had materialized by 6:00, and I encouraged them to go home before the rains came. Their answer was "If we wait, the rain will go." Followed by hoots of laughter. They have no intention of giving up any working time during these last few days of the workshop. Meanwhile, Joan has begun to teach a new member of the group how to make beaded
bracelets. Dorothy is from Rubingo, and had been hoping she could join the Bitengye group. She is a member of the widows group there, and friend of Annah, and was delighted to produce two finished bracelets by the end of the day. Our days usually end with singing and sometimes some dancing, praise for a good day of work, for the opportunity to learn how to make new things, and that we are all are still alive. Not even that is taken for granted.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Women and Their Stories - Tumushabe and Nightingale

Tumushabe is 31, and was the 4th in a family of 7 children in Kabale, near Lake Bunyonyi. Her father abandoned her mother and took a second wife when she was quite small, leaving the family to "struggle for food, digging here and there". There was no money for schooling for her, and no possibility of re-marriage for her mother. "It is a curse for a woman to remarry", she said, "although it is OK for a man to remarry." She married at 16 and had one child and was pregnant with the second when her father called her home, because the dowry had not been paid. She has been on her own with her own children
and her sister's son (an orphan) since then. She is unable to cultivate the little land she has due to a leg deformity, but hopes to buy a plot of land growing bananas or coffee with what she earns from sewing.
Nightingale is our translator. She's 48 and the 6th in a family of 9 children, born in a village near Mbarara. Her father worked as a bicycle messenger, then an administrator, and made sure all his children had some schooling. He sold their cow and some of their land, so Nightingale could go to P-4. She married a school teacher when she was 20, and has 6 children, five of whom have been or are still in university. The sixth is still in secondary school. She has worked and saved and sold small items all her adult life, to enable her children to get the education she values so highly. In fact she was on her way to Kampala this weekend, to see her son Gordon graduate with his degree in Business Administration.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Women and Their Stories - Lydia and Annah

Lydia was born in Rubingo, and until the first workshop was held here in Mbarara, had never been outside her own village. She was the firstborn of 12 children, and explained the reason for such large families to us. "People think to themselves, I must have 8 children, because two of them will be snatched by measles." All the children in her family had some schooling, and Lydia herself went to Primary-5, finishing was she was 15 years old. She wanted to be a nurse, but her father was a "drunkard" by the time she was in P-5, so there was no money for her to continue. So at 16 she got married. She told us
that most women do the "donkey work", while many men just build a house and then do nothing. But she had a good relationship with her husband and he helped her. Sadly he got sick and died quite suddenly 7 years ago. Lydia has four children, the oldest of whom is already married with a child of her own and another on the way. One of her children is now in secondary school, and her hope is that she can afford to send the other two as well.
Annah is 40 and was the eighth of 11 children born to a peasant farming family in Bugamba. She spent most of her childhood fetching firewood and water, digging, washing and cooking. The older children in her family didn't have any education, but by the time Annah was 10, her parents realized the importance of schooling, and enrolled her in the village school. She completed P-6. She was married when she was twenty, and was happy until her husband died 9 years later. She has 3 children of her own, two of whom are now in secondary school, also a niece (an orphan) that she cares for. The cow she bought last year with her earnings has now had a calf, which she sold, and she has bought another plot of land.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Work Goes On

Alice has taken to spending much of her day at the table under the big tree, where she helps anyone needing it with measuring or cutting or squaring up. Here she is with Justina and Lydia and Sheilla. Meanwhile another table is set up on the porch of the big house, and is used by those working a little more independently. Kamidah and Recheal are part of that group. Those whose work is still not quite up to standard, are continuing to make placemats, while the others are now moving on to new projects. Thankfully everyone seems to be happy with this new way of working. My son Ben has been taking portraits of
the women, both in groups and individually, and we have been meeting with each of the Bitengye women on their own, collecting their stories, hearing about their lives. So many of these women tell the story of not being educated because they grew up at a time when the value of education was not so widely recognized, or there simply wasn't enough money for food, let alone education. Many come from families of 11 or 12 children. Every one has overcome all sorts of almost unimaginable difficulties in their lives, and yet they say enthusiastically "I am alive", in thanksgiving and some astonishment. They are amazing women.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Marvellous Day

Tuesday saw all the Bitengye Designers hard at work on their placemats. They were quieter than usual, knowing that the bar had been raised, and that each would be graded on their work. They worked slowly and carefully, under the able and incredibly patient instruction of Alice, while we waited to see the results. The first to present their finished placemats were the finest seamstresses, all of whom received high marks for their work. But then their were the strugglers. As the afternoon wore on, we became more and more apprehensive regarding their work. It was almost 6:30 by the time the last three women presented their mats to Alice, Joan and myself, and we couldn't have been more astonished or more pleased. These three, whom we had even considered not inviting to the workshop this year, outdid themselves and all received passing grades. The placemats are now all a standard (and slightly smaller) size, with loose threads removed, straight edges (or just about), and with even stitching. We couldn't have been happier. I only wish you could have heard the singing and seen the dancing as all the
Bitengye women celebrated at the end of the day. It was a marvellous day indeed!!! (Pictured here are Sheilla, Stella and Liydia, putting the final touches on their placemats.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

First Day of the Workshop

Monday was the first day of the Bitengye workshop. We had travelled down to Lake Bunyonyi over the weekend, where we met with Maudah. We told her that now that she has all the skills,
machines and income to start her own business, she is a "graduate" of the Bitengye Designers. She has already rented a space in which to teach her own students, and she will continue to sell her crafts at Bushara Island on Lake Bunyonyi. In her place is Dinah, who has been making table napkins over the last year, and wishes to expand her skills. The other women have given her a warm welcome, and all of them have begun to make a slightly revised version of placemat. The idea is that we will evaluate everyone's placemats when they are finished, and those who have made a "top quality" product will move on, while those who haven't will keep making placemats. Alice has taken on responsibility for the teaching, and is doing an excellent job. Day 2 is about to begin, so I must rush and get dressed, so I am ready!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Alice and Athens

Alice is always full of surprises, and when she produced this large-sized star quilt I was just amazed. And she's already taught some of the other Bitengye Designers how to make this "fashion". She's found a source of solid black cotton in the market since we last saw her, which always looks stunning with African wax fabrics. Yesterday she made a tree block, which might (or might not) become the centre of a larger tablecloth. And now she is working on a notepad cover - one of the samples we brought with us. "I have come to work", she announced yesterday, and the challenge is for us to keep up with her!

Another young woman ready to work is Athens, pictured here. She has been working in the ACTS office for the last year, and now she is going to take on the role of liaison between Alice and Kitambaa Designs. It will be Athens who receives the finished items made by the Bitengye ladies, makes an inventory of them, and packages them off to Canada. We will also place new orders through Athens, and have ready access to Alice and she to us whenever one of us has questions. One more step in preparing to hand over the project to Alice entirely. For any of you who bought the shorter paper bead necklaces when you were attending Quilt Canada in Calgary, it was Athens who made those. At that time she was earning the funds to go to Secretarial School, and she made the beads to help cover her costs. I hope to have more of those beads to bring back with me this year.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Visiting Rubingo

Yesterday was a long-awaited day. Joan, Ben and David drove two hours over worse-than-washboard roads to visit Rubingo. Sadly I had come down with a tummy bug and couldn't go with them, but they all gave me a full report on their return. Alice's new school - it has most of the doors and windows now, and has been plastered on part of the outside. Now it needs floors, plastering on the inside, tables and benches, shelves, beds and sheets and, and, and. So it isn't quite ready to move into yet, but Alice was so pleased to show it to everyone, and presented us with a big box of fruit in thanks.
Over 110 widows and grandmothers, including the five members of the Bitengye Designers who live in Rubingo, met with the "Muzungu visitors" in a nearby church. As always it was moving to hear their stories, and to be greeted and welcomed by people so full of determination and pride, but with so little material wealth. Alice accompanied the crew back to Mbarara in the evening, and joined us for the first day of her training today. It was so good to get back into the actual work of teaching new designs and to sewing.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Modern Art from Uganda

I have been intrigued by the modern/abstract art that I have seen on this trip to Uganda. I don't know if it's totally new or if I didn't have the eyes to see it on other visits, but I have so appreciated seeing work a little different than the batik pictures I usually gravitate towards. These paintings were all on display in a gallery at the equator, where we usually stop on the journey from Kampala to Mbarara. The artists themselves are nearly always men, and self-taught. I had encountered a few artists in Kampala on other visits, but it seems there is an increasing amount of contemporary art in evidence. Perhaps this is one of the outcomes of
having a more stable government, or perhaps art will flourish anywhere given the opportunity, even in adverse situations. At any rate, I thought you would enjoy seeing something a little different.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Fabric Shopping

A return trip to Mbarara yesterday to buy more fabric proved very entertaining. A "special hire" taxi driven by Francis turned into a language lesson. I had no sooner closed the door than Francis began firing words at me in Runyankole. I would repeat the word to the best of my ability. He would repeat it. I would repeat it. He would give me the English, and then we were on to the next word. He was going so quickly that I started laughing, and then I protested, but I think Francis must see this as his mission to "buzungus", because he never let up. In desperation I asked Joan to pass me some paper and a pencil, and I started writing as fast as I

could. We were nearly in hysterics by the time we got to town. I don't know how many of these words I will actually remember, but the experience itself will stay with me for some time. Kobisingye, the woman who owns the fabric shop we frequent here, was reluctant to do business with me the first time I met her four years ago, but now she is the source of fabric for all the Bitengye women, and she gives us a warm welcome. Sadly the Zaire fabric we used to get from her is no longer available, nor is the Tanzanian batik fabric. But there were lots of wonderful veritable wax fabrics, and some new fabrics from Khartoum that we have never seen before. Now we have a good selection of fabrics for the Bitengye ladies to work with, as well as a good selection to bring home with us.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

At Home in the Round House

"Enchanting Africa" says the tire cover on the German safari van, where a mother hen and her chicks scavenge
for food dropped by folk who have stopped for lunch at this outdoor restaurant. And enchanting it is. It feels like home so quickly now, on this fourth trip to Uganda. This time my son Ben is with us, and it wasn't long after arriving at Canada House that brothers Willis and Michael had persuaded him to push them around the garden on a huge bicycle owned by their father. Hoots of laughter amidst the sounds of warm welcomes and ever-present birdsong. Our travels to Uganda went fairly well, all things considered, and now we are settling in, unpacking all the sewing supplies we brought with us, organizing the new teaching materials, and beginning our meetings with many of the Ugandans we have come to know here. Yesterday Rose was here, the same Rose that I first talked to about the feasibility of a sewing project (together with Perez) four years ago. Sheilla, one of the Bitengye students came by to greet us. And Dinah, maker of table napkins visited. She has had a tough year for a number of reasons, and had become very discouraged. We were able to tell her how well her napkins have sold, and after we heard her story we took her to buy new fabrics in the market so she can continue with this. And, of course, we were able to choose some new fabrics for Kitambaa and for the Bitengye ladies. Today we continue with preparations, hoping to find a converter in town for the Singer featherweights we have brought with us, as well as finding interum glasses for me. I managed to break them, sadly, this morning!! But it will be "somehow OK", as the Ugandans say.