The Power of a Sewing Machine in Northern Uganda – Part I

Creating Jobs in Oyam District

Between 1986 and 2006, northern Uganda suffered a violent insurgency by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. In Oyam District where Global Health Network (U) works, most residents were forced to leave their homes and move into displacement camps. The population today has returned to over 300,000 residents but their outcomes in terms of education,  income, health remain very poor. Below are some examples:

Income – The average income per person is 70 cents a day, while the global extreme poverty line stands at $1.90 a day.

Education – 20,000 children from the district enter the first level of primary school, but only about 6,000 children finish primary school. 141 children complete secondary school.

Health – 191 out of every 1,000 children born die before the age of five.

To remind myself a human face within some of those numbers, I think back to meeting a woman named Molly who was 31 years old the first time I visited Uganda in 2013. She already had seven children and was planning for one more. Molly had been diagnosed with typhoid fever and had been prescribed pills that were offered for free at the nearest public hospital. The hospital was too far away for her to reach on foot, however, and she was unable to pay for a $5 repair that was needed to fix her bicycle. She told me she would wait one month until she had saved enough to fix her bike, then travel to the hospital for her free typhoid medication.

This story is exactly why poverty is so wrong. Five dollars was keeping Molly from free, life-saving medicine. So she would wait a month – while suffering from typhoid – to save up those five dollars. I spend a lot of time in rural Ugandan villages and I’ve met a lot of people who seem very happy. Their lives seem simple, but not necessarily bad. In fact, I often think about how aspects of their lifestyle would be an improvement on my own as an American. But then I visit a hospital or hear a story like Molly’s and I’m reminded about the terrible side of poverty. It’s not always visible, but it is unavoidable for just about everyone living below the extreme poverty line, struggling just to survive.

When Che Guevara traveled around Latin America as a young medical student, he met a woman with asthma and a heart condition but without any access to the required treatment for her illnesses. He concluded that failures in access to health care are the most striking and egregious results of poverty. Witnessing these failures is enough to make someone demand a better system that cares for the people who face them. He wrote about his feelings in his memoir The Motorcycle Diaries:

“It is at times like this, when a doctor is conscious of his complete powerlessness, that he longs for […] a change to prevent the injustice of a system in which only a month ago this poor woman was still earning her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. […] It is there, in the final moments, for people whose farthest horizon has always been tomorrow, that one comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over.”

While I was visiting different villages in northern Uganda during my 2013 trip, the topic of potential income-generating activities came up quite a lot. After all, more jobs would go a long way in improving the statistics listed above – they would raise incomes, pay for children to stay in school, and pay for transportation and medicine for those who are sick. Many of the women I met told me that they would like to learn tailoring. There aren’t many jobs available in a rural village without electricity and with a labor force that is largely uneducated and untrained. But a mechanical sewing machine works just fine in a remote village, and you can even make things that people in rich countries might like to buy. So tailoring seemed like a good way to help these women of Oyam District make some money. The next summer, we brought some sewing machines to Adyege parish and taught women there to make canvas tote bags, which they sold to students at the University of California. Today, we’re making even more tote bags and T-shirts for university students. We’re looking for the right market, the right customers, and the right products to match these women with a job that can be sustained and can earn them money for their families.

Generating incomes can have a major impact that extends to the entire community. Furthermore, a full social enterprise can help fund an organization like Global Health Network (U) while providing jobs that supplement the health services the organization already offers. We’re starting off small, but meeting and working with the women who make these items provides more than enough inspiration to keep moving forward.

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