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Want to be inspired? Check out this trailer for a documentary on women-owned craft businesses. It focuses on two groups, one of which is Uganda Crafts. It’s a beautiful piece and really gets the ethos of Uganda Crafts down in just a couple minutes. Additionally, many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers can be seen throughout the piece. AND a couple of my basket designs make the cut too! 🙂

The filmmakers were planning to go on to Haiti to learn about and film some similar work being done there. These types of businesses are more important than ever after the tragic events of last week’s earthquake. Please consider checking out their site and donating to help them capture the story of women’s businesses in Haiti.

Enjoy the film!

Proud parents Francis and Muireann with baby Liam in the pram

Sitting, taking tea in a house in Dublin a couple weeks ago, I was greeted (in the thickest of Dublin accents) with, “Oh! It’s the great Parnell!”

What a welcome!

After three years, Jon and I were reunited with the MacCumhaill family, back in their lovely home in the cozy outskirts of Dublin.

Allow me to back up. In the summer of 2006, I traveled to East Africa for the first time to do research on fair trade crafts for my senior thesis. I happened upon Uganda Crafts and spent a month there as a volunteer and researcher. I was lucky enough to meet Muireann, an Irish woman who had been working with Uganda Crafts for 6 months.  Muireann was engaged to a Ugandan man at the time, and we hit it off splendidly from the beginning. After a month exploring markets in Kampala, hanging out at each others’ homes, and having a few nights out on the town, it was time for me to leave Uganda. Muireann told me that if I ever happened to come to Ireland, to let her know, and I told her I would do just that.

A couple months later, Jon and I realized that we needed to use some flight vouchers we’d earned earlier in the year. We also recognized that Thanksgiving break was on the horizon. On a whim, I checked flight prices to Dublin. Lo and behold, they cost almost exactly the amount of our travel vouchers. I got in touch with Muireann to see if she thought her family might take us in for a couple of nights, and I got even better news: Muireann would be in Dublin at that time, not in Uganda! Elated, I booked our tickets and counted the days until our trip.

When we arrived in Dublin, Muireann took us under her wing. We stayed with her family, the MacCumhaills, and they welcomed us as if we were long lost relatives. We ate most of our meals with the family, and got to know everyone over delicious Irish dinners. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were.

After three years, Jon and I found ourselves back in the same living room. So much had changed for both families: Jon and I were married and had spent a year in Uganda; Muireann and Francis were now married and the new parents to beautiful baby Liam, and made the move to Northern Ireland; older brother Fionn had been married a month prior. But gathering together again, it was like we had never left. We heard an update from Fionn Sr. about how business was going, and looked at wedding pictures with Fionn Jr.. Siobhan joined us for a walk around the botanic gardens, and Eimear chatted with us about school. I left their house feeling warm and fuzzy all over, grateful for the exuberant welcome the second time around.

Beyond the entire MacCumhaill family, it’s been EXTRA good to spend time with Muireann, Francis and Liam. Last weekend, they came to Galway, and we had the chance to catch up in more depth, especially about Uganda-related topics. And, we also had the chance to eat a lot of good food, and have a few pints out. In two weekends, Jon and I will visit Muireann and Francis up in Northern Ireland, where they have a house out in the country. We’re excited to go!

The past couple months have been wonderful, in that I’ve been introduced to so many great new friends. But this reunion with old friends has brought me at least as much joy.

Muireann and me on the Ha' Penny bridge in Dublin, 2006

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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