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.

Thoughts on Land Privatization and Community Creation

By Evan Pye

I’d like to talk about two things today: private land ownership and how to create “community” in today’s society. The first issue comes from a Crash Course World History video I was watching and taking notes on about Europe in the Middle Ages. The host, John Green, explained that until 1500, most land in Europe was shared by everyone and was known as the “Commons.” When monarchs began to distribute plots of land to the wealthy class, the new landowners removed peasants from their land, which drove the peasants into the city to beg or work menial jobs. These conditions reminded me of what I saw in Uganda during my summer trips there in 2013 and 2014. My classmates and I visited rural villages in the central district of Oyam. The villages were quite remote and consisted of small huts separated by large plots of land. When we asked the villagers if they owned all the land we saw, they told us that most of it was communal grazing land. No one necessarily owned it, but for generations the land was shared for animals to graze. The plots of land that the villagers we met owned were usually about one or two acres near their home. We were all struck at how much land was going un-farmed. Furthermore, the vagueness about who owned the land seemed to mean that no one could use it for growing crops and making a profit. This seemed very inefficient, but the communal land we saw can’t be utilized for agriculture unless it is legally owned and sold by specific families. It seemed that the legal structure is not set up to handle that kind of land distribution policy.

John Green explained in the Crash Course video that land privatization in Europe during the 1500s was harmful to the peasants who were removed from the land, but it led to great advances in agriculture. Green notes that since you no longer had to worry about someone else’s cow stepping all over your crops and eating them, you could focus on carefully planting seeds in rows. Land privatization gave farmers incentives to make more efficient use of their land and “experiment with new methods of food production.”

This history lesson reminded me of another article I read the other week about the purchasing of land in Africa by urban dwellers. Although legal systems have a long way to go, it seems many Africans have been able to buy up large plots of land that was previously known as communal grounds for local communities. They are unhappy with the upswing in “land grabs,” but it reminds me a lot of the land privatization that occurred in Europe. Perhaps the concept of communal land has been inhibiting African economic development, because it promotes an inefficient use of fertile land. If so, there could be a race in the next few years to “grab” fertile African land from communities that have had it for many generations. This may upset the social order but pay off in terms of agricultural output. And if a traditional lifestyle really is at odds with the most financially lucrative use of land, is the new system really worth it to improve economic conditions?

This question leads to the second topic of creating communities in today’s society. I was watching an interview with Louis Cole from his Youtube channel Funforlouis. I’m a big fan of his daily vlogs, so I was interested to hear his answer to the question of what he’s learned from traveling around the world and visiting so many different cultures. Louis told the interviewer that the biggest takeaway from his travels has been the difference between the communal/familial/tribal lifestyle of less developed regions of the world and the individualistic, high tech lifestyle of the developed Western world. Louis and the interviewer conclude that Americans and other Westerners have created a culture in which we don’t really need each other for very much, because nearly everything is available to us at our fingertips. The interviewer makes the case that communities only form when people truly need each other for some reason or another. And in the West (especially in cities), as the need for others diminishes, our connections with others diminishes. But we look around at our lives and realize something is missing. It’s that sense of communities that humans have lived with and valued for our entire collective history.

I think there’s a really important point being made in this interview. I think they’ve identified an issue that leads to so much of the mental illness that is present in our society and in our cities. Technology and advancement has satisfied so many of our needs, that the role of other people in our lives is becoming less important. This is, of course, a terrible consequence of high-tech convenience and social media. I think it’s a problem that has to be addressed and figured out, or else our entire society will suffer greatly at the hands of the technology we’ve created to “improve” our lives.