An Ode to the Women’s Group

As I turn the last corner on my long and winding walk to the Shanti Uganda Birth House, through the overwhelmingly green African countryside, past the little smiling faces carrying bright yellow jerry-cans of water, past brightly-clad women working in the fields and in the cooking huts, and alongside the bicycling schoolchildren and elderly men, I think to myself how lucky I am that this is my daily commute.

1I am on my way to work. Work for me, as Shanti’s Women’s Income Generating Group (WIGG) coordinator, takes place largely in a spacious grass-roof hut with open sides, a smooth concrete floor, and 8 foot-powered sewing machines. The “Women’s Hut” is set in the gardens of the Shanti Birth House site and is one of the most peaceful places I’ve yet to visit here in Africa. Aside from the steady whirring of the sewing machines, the faint rustle of a brightly coloured bird in the nearby trees, and the occasional cry of a newborn from the labour suite across the lawn, this place is an oasis of meditation and tranquility. Except for Thursdays.

Thursdays are colourful, and loud, and vibrant. Thursdays are busy and crowded and sometimes hectic. Thursdays are about learning, and exchanging, and developing. Thursdays are meeting days. Every Thursday at 4 pm (which usually ends up being 5pm, because “Africa time” is not the same as “Canada time”), the WIGG women start arriving at the birth house. In ones and twos they enter through the red front gate in a vast array of traditional and modern wear. Kiguli and Rose always look stunning in the shiny local “gomez” dresses. Babirye comes with little Calvin strapped to her back. Abisaj and Justine are usually late, but make a strong presence when they do arrive.2

Bamboo mats are unrolled on the soft green grass outside the hut, and we gather. Today’s meeting is about English literacy and knitting. Teaching English to 21 women at various stages of fluency is not an easy task. Some have completed high-school and speak very well. Some have never attended first grade and are painfully shy about it. We start from the beginning, with phrases like “I understand / I don’t understand”, “My clan is…” and “In the future I hope”. I’m no ESL teacher, but I think they are taking something away from our interaction. Edith has pages of notes written in her little book, and the others are carefully studying the cards I’ve handed out. We end the lesson understanding one another a little better.

9Next is knitting, which is something I know a little more about. I love knitting, and against all good advice brought a small supply of mix-match yarn and old needles to Africa. On one of my first days at the birth house I was sitting on a bamboo mat in the middle of the hut, knitting a pretty terrible first version of a baby hat, and was soon surrounded by several very curious WIGG members. I asked/mimed to them in my broken Lugand-glish if they knew how to knit, and was surprised when they said they didn’t but wanted to learn. After running about Kampala I finally found the one and only yarn store, and 21 pairs of second-hand needles to bring back to the village.

Knitting is something that can be taught without words. Many of the women caught on incredibly quickly, which I shouldn’t find surprising seeing as these women spend much of their day doing things with their hands, and children learn quickly to have nimble fingers. Today is our second lesson and the women have come back with their projects after I sent them all home with a pair of needles and a ball of red yarn. Some have returned with beautiful and flawless squares of knit-stitch. Others have a jumbled, tangled, spaghetti mess that they sheepishly pull from their bags. Progress. Today we will try to learn pearl-stitch. These are the two main stitches in the baby hat’s I hope they will learn to make by the end of my time here. We sit together, and my instructions are translated from woman to woman, like dominoes, and soon we are surrounded by the clack-clack of needles and the chuckles and groans successful rows and dropped stitches.

As I sit here in an African paradise, surrounded by 21 beautiful, strong, smart women and several tag-along babies, I think how very similar this is to the evenings I spent in the coffee shops with beautiful strong smart knitting women in Canada. Only this time the roles are reversed and it is I that is the teacher, and they the learners.10

Before I left for Africa, many people questioned me, “Why don’t you just send the money you would have spent on a plane ticket? Wouldn’t that help just as much?”. I couldn’t confidently answer them then, but now I know. In the past three months I have seen, met, experienced, and grown more than I could have imagined. I have learned a new language, made beautiful new friends, pushed myself through cramped transport, chaotic cities, week-long water/power outages, and both heartbreaking and ecstatic moments. Living and working with the women at Shanti Uganda has been meaningful in a way I cannot put in words, and I pause for a moment in the middle of my row and take it all in.

If you would like to support these women considering making a purchase of one of their handmade pieces of jewellery or bags from our online store. Each paper bead is carefully hand-rolled using recycled paper and bags are made with traditional African wax print or hand dyed batik to make a unique ethical gift for you or a friend!

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