WI report - May meeting

Thursday 14th June 2018

The Uganda Women’s Project

Christina Spinney, an English grandmother, spends two weeks every year in Uganda, working to support the Women’s Project there.

When Christina came to speak to Lerryn WI and their guests, the order in which she gave us information about Uganda was very interesting. She began with a map showing its physical location in East Africa, surrounded by desperately troubled areas such as Rwanda, southern Sudan and the Congo.  She described Uganda’s attempts to support the huge numbers of refugees fleeing across its borders. Initially, each newly arrived family was granted a piece of land on which to live and support themselves. Inevitably, as more and more refugees and displaced persons arrived, the amounts of land that could be handed out became smaller, but it still seemed an exceptionally humane approach.

The generosity of it was even more apparent when Christina told us about the conditions endured by the Ugandan population themselves.

This is an impoverished country. Christina is based in Nairwongo and works in Kampala, the main city, built on a swamp and named for the impala that lived there. The infrastructure developed under British rule has gone, and the hope is that China, seeking to expand its area of influence, might help re-open the long-abandoned railroad.

Meanwhile, cows, goats and chickens wander – and defecate – where they will.

The situation is not much different for the human population. There is no sanitation in the ramshackle one-roomed shacks in which many families live. The latrines are situated some distance away; they are not free of charge, even for children; neither are they necessarily safe for women to approach at night. This combination of circumstances has given rise to the phenomenon known as ‘flying toilets’: excrement simply bagged up and hurled as far away as it will go.

There is no system for rubbish clearance, and the drainage channels are choked with refuse and sewage. One charitable initiative funded a local ‘rubbish train’, which took away 100 tons of it.

Against this grim background, what was astonishing was the apparent strength and optimism of the women in the pictures Christina showed us of the Women’s Project.

Many of the women are alone, their husbands killed in war, driven away as refugees or destroyed by AIDS. The women themselves are often HIV positive and can do very little on days when they are suffering the side-effects of retro-viral drugs.  The Women’s Project brings them together, offering the practical and emotional support of working as a group.

We saw them talking and laughing together while making necklaces from rolled-paper beads. One of the problems of craft activities such as this is that they lack purchasers in an area that is very far from being a tourist haunt.  Christina herself brings back to England as much as the airlines will let her carry, and at the end of the talk people were pleased to have the chance to buy some of the very attractive hand-made goods.

One of the things women can learn in the project is to speak English, as command of an international language can give them access to further training in a range of subjects and the prospect of job opportunities elsewhere. However, this needs at least one or two people with the knowledge and confidence to support learning. One such course lapsed when people moved away.

Some of the missing continuity has been supplied by an English fundraising organization called Hope for Children. They have provided long-term educational support for some children, so that they can work hard at school in the confidence that the money will not suddenly run out and put a stop to their progress and their hopes. Hope for Children has also provided sewing and knitting machines, together with a shelter for the women to work in, so  they can now produce patchwork bags, embroidered cards and other saleable goods, in addition to sweaters for school uniforms.   

Even this practical move has raised its own practical problems, as equipment with moving parts does not take kindly to operating in a dustbowl, and local systems have had to be developed for cleaning and maintaining the machinery.

One of the things made for local consumption are washable hygiene kits for use by menstruating girls and women. These ease an enormous practical problem, as even people who can afford to buy commercially produced, disposable protection must then contribute it to the ‘flying toilets’. The kits go out – ideally free of charge – to local schools as part of a general health and sex education programme. The WPI (Women of Power International) organization occasionally buys them in bulk, which helps with funding, though most of the basic materials are recycled.

This initiative, like the whole project, is a small thing in itself, but it can transform the quality of individual people’s lives and give them the strength of operating as part of a group. Christina told us with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction that some of the women in her pictures she will not see again. By the time she returns to Uganda, their growth in knowledge, skills and self-esteem could have enabled them to move on.

Ann Henderson

Lerryn WI

June 2018

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