When I traveled back to Uganda in January 2006, with the intention of starting the non-profit, my focus was on helping the women become financially self-sufficient by their own means. I was adamant that our work would focus on creating economic independence that was not simply tied to their crafts. After all, it’s not financial independence if they are still dependent on me to find markets for their wares.
With that goal in my mind, I’ve been providing business loans and assistance to Project Have Hope artisans for about thirteen years. However, more recently, as COVID has decimated the craft market, more and more artisans are establishing additional businesses to find innovative ways to support their families.
Each time I travel to Uganda, I try to carve out some time to interview a few women so I can better understand their backgrounds and business enterprises, and understand how PHH can help. My days in Uganda are jammed packed and making time is always a struggle.
One morning, after having spent a couple of hours on the back of a boda running errands, I arrived in the Acholi Quarter to find one of the women I’d been wanting to talk to already in the building. She had come to the office to deliver the jewelry order she had just completed. Making the most out of the unexpected opportunity, I asked Jennifer to help translate so I could ask Lucy some questions.
Prior to arriving in Uganda, I had given Jennifer a list of preliminary interview questions to ask a dozen or so women, including Lucy. The simple act of meeting a single woman and getting through a list of basic questions takes several hours, and time is a commodity I never have enough of while I’m on Ugandan soil. With some basic info at hand and Jennifer to translate, I sat down with Lucy to dig a little deeper.
According to Jennifer’s earlier interview, Lucy said she went to school until the third grade. Most of the women with whom I work in the Quarter attended very little school. Either the civil war in Northern Uganda interrupted their studies, or fathers did not see the value in educating girls who would simply become wives and mothers, or basic poverty prevented them from gaining an education. To better understand a woman’s background and give me a clearer perspective, it helps to know the reason behind her inaccessibility to an education. So, I queried, “Did the family not have enough money? Did the war interfere?”
There ensued a long conversation in Acholi. I waited for the translation. The conversation continued to ramble on endlessly. I became impatient, annoyed. Time is not a prized commodity in the Quarter. Whereas I spend my days in Uganda racing against the clock, desperate to cram way too much into ever diminishing time increments, these women will laugh and joke and talk incessantly. They never consider how much time is being “wasted.”
Yes, wasted. In my critical estimation, where I feel the insurmountable pressure of what needs to be accomplished to make sure we can keep moving forward as an organization, to ensure that I can find funding for all of the critical expenses and necessary programming, thirty minutes of casual banter seems like an eternity to me and often, grips me with tension.
I was feeling annoyed. These women will turn a two sentence answer into Gone with the Wind. At long last, Jennifer translated their conversation. “Her mother sent her to the market to get vegetables for dinner,” Jennifer stated simply. My mind whirled. What did dinner have to do with anything? But, I continued to listen. “The rebels abducted her from the market and she was forced to live with them for 7 months before she could finally escape.”
My heart dropped, my stomach tightened, and I chastised my impatience. After fifteen years, had I not learned anything?
She was 10 years old. Ten fucking years old. Not wanting to pry into a history I’m sure she’s happy to bury, I asked no questions about her life during 7 months of captivity. I’ve read enough about Joseph Kony’s Army and have heard enough stories to understand the depravity she likely endured. Young girls were generally abducted to be “wives” for the soldiers. Abducted children are forced to commit a slew of atrocities to show their allegiance. I did not need to hear the details of Lucy’s personal story to know the horrific impact those seven months must have had on her.
I learned a bit about her haunting escape. One evening, government soldiers ambushed the rebels she was with amidst heavy gunfire. The rebels scattered. Lucy was in a group of ten who gathered together after the ambush. Of the ten, only one had a gun. And the gun had only two bullets. If the soldiers found them, she knew she would be killed. This fear finally gave her the courage to escape. While the small group traveled together under the cover of darkness, Lucy feigned needing to relieve herself.
She walked in a different direction. After waiting for her group to continue without her, she ran fast and hard in the other direction. Lucy was given the duty of carrying a jerrycan while she was fleeing the ambush. The jerrycan was supposed to contain Joseph Kony’s magic. It was thought that this magic could be used to protect the rebels from bullets or other bodily harm. She traveled the entire night and reached her home at 7am the next day, still in possession of the powerful jerrycan.
When Lucy arrived at the doorstep of her home, she found her family gathered together for their morning tea. Upon seeing her, they felt no relief, but instead, fear. Since it had taken her seven months to escape, the family believed that she, too, had become a rebel, and was there to harm them. She left the jerrycan by the door and went into the surrounding bush to hide.
The rebels came that very day to her parents home to reclaim the magic-filled jerrycan and to warn that they would be back for Lucy. After the rebels left, Lucy came out of hiding and her parents immediately sent her on a bus to Kampala to live with her uncle.
Lucy stayed in Kampala for six years before returning to her home in the North. Upon returning, she met and married her husband in 1993 and in 1996 they moved together to the Acholi Quarter. Her husband found work as a conductor on a bus, and Lucy managed the pit they owned in the stone quarry. With their earnings, they started to build homes in the Quarter. They now have six rooms which they rent, in addition to their own home.
A talented artisan and a true entrepreneur, Lucy was able to provide for their seven children by making paper bead jewelry and selling it at the weekly craft market. However, when COVID hit, the market closed. As fears of COVID spread, people sought vitamin rich fruits and a market for fresh oranges, mangoes and passion fruit grew. Lucy tapped into this market. She later used the profits of this small fruit business to set up an expanded shop selling vegetables and other food stuffs.
The next morning, I arrived in the Quarter early so I could visit Lucy as she set up her vegetable stall for the day. As the early morning sun bore down on her, she took onions and tomatoes from a sack and carefully positioned them, pausing briefly to smile at me. Lucy’s smile is bold. It embodies her will and stamina to move forward even when faced with obstacles others could not endure. The smile is genuine and mirrored in her eyes, and is a reminder that we each have the power to choose to be happy and to carve out the future we want.