Sunday, January 30, 2011

ambc photo shoot

In just a few short months, Ave Maria Bead Co. has surpassed all of my expectations for where I thought the project would be. The group here continues it's growth in all aspects of the word, while just as importantly, our organization has taken great strides in expansion outside of Uganda. AMBC now has two people, Lindsay and Jenna, that have taken over sales and distribution, and we are constantly in talks about new directions for the group. They have a lot of great ideas for the future, and I can't wait to see where this thing goes!

The photo album is mostly for their benefit, as it was just an easy way for me to share some materials with them as they consider constructing our own website, but I thought I'd put it up on my blog just in case anyone else wanted to take a look.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the kids are alright

When I was in college I remember returning home for holidays and being taken aback by seeing young children again. Oxford, Ohio is almost exclusively made up of the college-aged and the very old with nothing in between.

Uganda, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It sometimes seems that over half the population here is under the age of 6. Everywhere you look, there they are. Playing, cleaning, cooking, greeting every white person they see (usually just me) sleeping, farming, running shops, fetching water, eating, shitting, yelling, herding cattle. They pretty much do it all. Sometimes I feel like I have stumbled into some insane, clothing optional bizarre-o world where children have inherited the earth.

I’ve heard it said that kids are kids, no matter where you are. I guess, in some ways, that’s true. The children here love to run around and have fun just like any other. When I was young, I would have been completely lost if I couldn’t have played with my G.I. Joes, or Nintendo, or any one of the countless other toys I had. Here, though, none of that is an option. They have to get a little more creative, and it’s always entertaining for me to see what they come up with.

(neighborhood boy with a string of cars that he made)

The other day, I walked by some of my neighbors who were playing what looked like the absolute best lawn party drinking game. Yes, possibly even better than Cornhole or Bags. They had found an old rubber flip-flop sole and a bunch of discarded batteries and devised a game where two people stood about ten meters apart, set ten batteries up, vertically, in a row, and then took turns throwing the flip-flop like a Frisbee at their opponents battery row. They first person to knock over all of his opponents batteries stayed on to play the next challenger. I sat there for about an hour watching and cheering on the game.

As I said, in some ways they are similar to your average American child. In most ways, however, they are worlds apart. Kids here are tougher and more independent than I had imagined was even possible for people of their age. Whether it is a child strapped to its mother’s back, stuffed into an impossibly uncomfortable position for a taxi ride, or one that has just fallen and hit her head, you will rarely hear them complain and you will almost never see them cry. Supervision, on the rare occasions it occurs, is usually performed by a 6-7 year old sibling, and things such safety precautions, let alone any kind of code, are completely unheard of.

A few months back, I was walking home from work when I came upon a young boy, maybe 18 months old at most. He was in the middle of the town square by himself, completely nude, chasing around a chicken with a machete. “Oh my god!” I thought to myself, as I started to run. “I’ve got to get home and grab my camera!” Even my preconceived notions about how children should or should not be raised have faded with time. (For the record, I did return with my camera, but I couldn’t find the boy anywhere)

Living alone in such a foreign country can definitely take its toll. There are always unexpected ups and downs. Sometimes the kids in my village are the best part of my day. They will run right up to me after a rough day just to hold my hand while I walk home. It makes me laugh to see how proud they are to be there with me, always making sure to get their friends attention so they can rub it in a bit. Other days, and with other kids though, they can be the final nail in the coffin. “Give me my money!” they shout, or “Muzungu, mpa sweetie!” white person, give me candy! It drives me up the wall, especially when I see their parents in the background telling them what to say.

Time has helped me to do my best to ignore these negative encounters. I guess if I were in their shoes, I would be asking for something to eat too. Still though, the good more than makes up for the bad, and I really do get a lot of joy out of the crazy army of children in my village.

Monday, January 10, 2011

ave maria bead co.

A while back, I briefly went over a project that I am working on with some of the women of my village where we are creating links between a crafts group here in Uganda and local small businesses stateside. While the project is still in its very early stages, I am excited to report that a lot has happened in those few short months.

Sometime in November, Ave Maria Bead Co. (their choice, not mine) sent its first shipment of paper bead necklaces to Hair Artists in Columbus, OH. I have to admit that I was initially just hoping to recoup the costs that I had sunk into the start-ups involved, and have a bit of profit leftover to give the women of the group. In a very non-Peace Corps move, I had put more than a full month’s stipend into the cost of the materials and shipping, and I was starting to feel the pinch as the holidays approached. Fortunately, my concerns were completely unwarranted, as sales with our test-shipment outstripped even my wildest expectations. We earned not just enough to overcome the start-up costs, but also about $1,000 in profit, which, even when divided amongst the 10 group members, is hugely significant considering the median national income is about $400 per year.

Distributing the money to the women in early December was one of the biggest highlights of my service to date. Each had earned a different sum based on what they had made and sold, so I called them into a private room to confidentially give them their share. They marched back, heads held high, and received their money with very dignified thanks and handshakes. Only my counterpart, Margaret, seemed to be throwing all solemnity to the wind as she helped translate and distribute. However as soon as they left an immediate cry of joy rose up, and when I had finally finished I saw that the singing was accompanied by plenty of dancing out on the veranda. Everyone was talking animatedly about the type of Christmas they were now going to be able to have.

Not surprisingly, the group has grown exponentially in the month since that morning in December. The number of necklaces we have for our next shipment is almost triple what it was for our first, and the group itself has expanded to now include about 20 women, a handful of young girls, and now even a 10-11 year old boy named Douglas who is trying to earn money to pay for his own school fees. Even my friend Emma, a 17 year old secondary school student too proud to defy the strict gender roles of Uganda, has gotten in on the act. According to him, he hasn’t officially joined the group, but has taken the title of “Team Manager” for his family of about 10 women and girls who all work diligently on making necklaces in their free time.

Success, however, has come at a bit of a price. It may not seem like a problem, but I am legitimately concerned that the group is now making too much money. The last thing I want is for people to start diverting resources away from secure, local means of income in order to invest more fully into a project that I cannot guarantee will be able to continue indefinitely. Ideally, we will be able to take this money and turn it into other, sustainable projects. I am working with the group to think of ideas on how they can invest their new income into their futures instead of just “eating it”, as the local saying goes. The boon in production has also created the problem of finding new avenues for sales. The Ugandan market is already heavily oversaturated with these products, but I have some ideas on how to tackle this.
My hope is to turn this into as much of a business as possible, giving sales people in the states the opportunity to earn a profit for themselves while still assisting to support the artisans here in Uganda. In short, converting Ave Maria Bead Co. from a charity organization into a fair trade business. While it is against Peace Corps policy for me to make any profit, I think that allowing equally hardworking people outside of Uganda who do their part to do so is the way forward. I feel very strongly that enterprise, and not charity, is the best tool for sustainable development. Now I just need to find those people…

***Special thanks again to my Mom, my Aunt Elle, the women of Hair Artists, and everyone in Columbus who has helped support Ave Maria Bead Co. I wish you could be here to see what that support has meant for the people of Kisoga!

Monday, January 3, 2011

mgahinga xmas

This was my first Christmas away from home. A few buddies of mine and I thought that if we couldn't be home for the holidays then we might as well go out and do something totally different than the traditional Xmas.

We ultimately decided to climb the Virungas, a chain of stand-alone volcanoes that act as a natural boundary between Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.

It was definitely unlike anything I had ever done before, for Christmas or otherwise. The climb was physically more challenging than anything I can remember, but it was also one of the most memorable, rewarding things I've done since being here.

Below are some of the pictures from my holiday adventure with Jake, Devon, and Cowboy Dave. Thanks for reading, and I hope all of you had as great a holiday as I did.