Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Whenever I see Betty, usually seated outside Uganda Crafts with a line of visitors waiting to be seen by her, she greets me like this, “Banange, Nabukalu! Nsanuse okukulaba!” Which basically translates into “My goodness, Lauren! I’m so happy to see you!” I am the happy recipient of this warm greeting whether it has been a month since I’ve seen her, or just a few days.

Betty Kinene is a indeed a very warm and special person to me and to hundreds of other people.

Betty was born in the 1950s and contracted polio at the age of 3. As one of 35 children from her father (yes, THIRTY-FIVE), Betty struggled to pay for her schooling, but managed to get by, and was one of the top students in the country.

After schooling, she made a living as a shopkeeper in Kampala. She lost her husband during the Amin regime, but managed to continue working and caring for her children on her own.

In 1983, the president of Uganda, Milton Obote, allowed Indians who had been expelled from the country under Amin to return to the shops they had lost. Betty turned up to her shop one day, and found it locked and all of her merchandise seized. It had been an Indian shop before and was being reclaimed now. Shocked by her loss of employment and merchandise, Betty sat down on the steps to cry. A woman named Marilyn Dodge, who had been a faithful customer of the shop, happened by, and saw Betty crying. Marilyn, who was an American working with UNICEF, had an idea for Betty: start a new shop which employs disabled people through crafts. Betty and Marilyn began planning, and Uganda Crafts was born.

Uganda Crafts began as a small non-profit shop, which sold a variety of handicrafts to tourists in Kampala. Dozens of men and women, some disabled, some widowed, and some simply poor, began to sell their work to Uganda Crafts for money. The non-profit grew and grew, and in the 1990s, Uganda Crafts began selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop in the United States and Canada. It was then that Betty learned about the concept of fair trade and started incorporating it directly into her work with Uganda Crafts.

Today, Betty continues leading Uganda Crafts as the managing director. Uganda Crafts became a for-profit business in 2000, in an attempt to “stand on our own” as Betty puts it, and become self-reliant, not depending on donations or charity. It turns out that Betty was ahead of the curve as some of the current trends in the development world include social entrepreneurism and a backlash against dependence on aid. Uganda Crafts now exports crafts to numerous fair trade retailers in the US, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Canada, and beyond.

In addition to running Uganda Crafts, Betty is a counselor in her home district of Mpigi. She helps settle disputes between community members and even within families. She’s involved with many different organizations which work with people with disabilities. She also started Papula Paper in 2006, a community based organization which I’ve written about recently. Always an entrepreneur, she recently opened a hostel near her home for students attending a new art university.

In person, Betty is warm and funny. She loves teaching me about Buganda culture, and was quick to adopt me into the family by naming me Nabukalu (meaning either clever woman or difficult woman, depending on who you talk to). This name signifies that I am a member of a particular clan, the clan of Betty’s husband, making me a sister to her children.

Betty is one of the people I will miss the most when I am gone. She’s an inspiration to me and to so many women and people with disabilities working in Kampala today. I’m proud to call her a friend.

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