January 26, 2022
When I first arrived in the Acholi Quarter, I was immediately struck by how warm and friendly everyone was. On that first day, I was taken to meet with three women and hear a bit about their lives and hear “their stories.” A young woman with near-perfect English, a quiet demeanor and an innocent smile, Nora, translated for me. I sat and listened to the first heart-wrenching story from a woman who was beaten to near death and then, body broken, carted by bicycle to escape the north. The second woman told me of her experiences being held captive by the rebels. As she told the unflinching details, she sent her grandson to fetch me a Coca-Cola. The price of that Coke would be the equivalent of half a day’s work in the brutal conditions of the stone quarry. By the time I entered the home of the third woman, I had shut down. I was no longer listening to the words carefully translated into English. My mind had tuned out and I was thinking ahead. How could I help?
Each of these three women shared such personal, often horrific details of their lives with me, a stranger with a camera. And each maintained a grace that I cannot forget. Despite their ordeals, the tragedies inflicted upon them and their families in the north, and their continued struggle as displaced refugees living in a slum outside of the capital and the trappings of poverty that come with it, they had a freeness of spirit. They had a way of embracing and appreciating, and living and loving life, that renewed the spirit. They did not harbor and dwell on their past traumas, but instead exhibited endurance and a will to move forward, even if the steps were small and unsteady.
It was that spirit that moved me to want to help. I had no concrete plan of how to do so. My thoughts were simple, naive, in fact. A year earlier, I had purchased my first home with an income cobbled together from a pauper’s photojournalist’s salary supplemented by weekends shooting weddings. I was certainly not living the high life, but I was secure, something the Acholi mothers could not say. Simplistically, I figured, “I can do something.” Not really sure what that something was.
Throughout high school and college, I had always worked in retail and as a wedding photographer, I had honed my small business skills, that was the extent of what I brought to the table. Well, that’s not entirely true. I also have an innate stubbornness and unwillingness to fail mentality, that probably is a greater testament to Project Have Hope’s longevity than my ability to squarely fold t-shirts, a skill I certainly don’t practice often enough.
I approached the idea of starting a non-profit the same way I would travel. Get on a plane. Explore. See who I meet and where I end up. There was no five-year plan. Heck, there was no one-year plan. There was a basic drive to do something to help.
Never comfortable with asking for money, I knew fundraising would certainly not be the foundation. I admired the colorful jewelry they made from paper beads and my retail instincts kicked in.
In 2022, it’s hard to recall that paper bead jewelry was once a novelty. These days, the craft has extended to neighboring Rwanda and Tanzania, to South American countries, and to Hades. In 2005, the jewelry was entirely unique and a conversation-starter.
I’d raise money by selling the jewelry. It made perfect sense. This would create a collaborative entity, one in which the women’s work and artistry formed the basis of fundraising. It wouldn’t be some handout, but a partnership.
From its infancy, my plan remained the same, to raise funds through capitalizing on their artistry and use that to create business opportunities in Uganda, business opportunities that were completely separate from bead-making. With that foundation percolating in my mind, I returned to the States two weeks later.
The women had gifted me a large bag of jewelry, about the size of an average grocery shopping bag. It was early November. ‘Tis the season to shop. I quickly and easily sold the jewelry. A few short weeks later, I returned to the Acholi Quarter in January 2006 to organize formally the non-profit.
I emptied my measly savings account and strapped $1500 to a money belt hidden under the waist of my pants and off I went, all heart and no real plan.