Single mothers. Trafficking victims. Vulnerable peoples.
These are a few of the “labels” that could be used to describe the 80 women graduating from Yobel’s Entrepreneurial Training Course in Soroti, Uganda this past August.
More specifically, our team trained 80 ladies, 66 of whom are single mothers participating in cooperatives formed in 31 villages by Beauty for Ashes Uganda. These women, aged 17-65 support a collective 414 children, on less than $23 a month per household. 40% report that they earn ZERO income.
And I’ll be honest, as someone who has dedicated her life to development work, it is easy to categorize every person in Africa beneath the umbrella of one desperate cause or another. To label them, and in so doing, separate ourselves from the reality of who they are as fellow human beings within a greater narrative.
Upon jumping into a bush plane, flying to Soroti, Uganda and walking into that packed training room filled with so many nameless Ugandan women, I was tempted to do just that. To zoom out and operate in response to the “collective need” rather than choose to invest in the individual story. Because I can only witness so much pain before it becomes too much.
My self-protection kicks in and I step back to remain safely above it all, cruising like a 13 passenger aircraft, all in the name of seeking the bigger picture. I would much rather look at the root of problem rather than individual needs, and address the issue from a position comfortably once removed. In this way, I can affirm and validate myself for “doing something that matters” all the while protecting my heart from carrying the burdens of so many individuals. In a way, conducting business training becomes my therapy. It’s the reason I can sleep at night. Because I know that what we are doing is transforming individual lives who can then transform communities and nations.
However, in working with Beauty for Ashes Uganda, I was not going to get off the hook so easily.
This advocacy based non-profit creates single mother’s cooperatives throughout villages in Uganda as a source of encouragement, strength, practical training, and support.
BFA comes into women’s stories and is able to see and value each one for who she is in the midst of her struggles and triumphs. This organization not only addresses women’s most immediate needs, like access to clean drinking water, school fees and emergency medical attention, but they also address emotional and spiritual wants as well.
Arguably the most important thing that they do is cherish each woman and give her a place to be seen, heard, and loved.
In a land where single mothers and widows have little to no rights, where they can be beaten, threatened, even POISONED to be pushed off their land by greedy family members, these ladies desperately need advocates.
I have been working in Uganda since 2003 and had yet to grasp the full value of caring for the widow and orphan prior to my trip with Brandi-and-crew this past month. What BFA does is so necessary, and it is necessary RIGHT NOW for these women. No one else is coming for these girls. Not their family, not their local community, not their government. And their sense of aloneness is greater than any physical poverty they may feel.
This became evident as we began our training intensive. We encountered women like Sarah, who were quiet at first and seemingly disinterested, but as we came to find out, honestly just scared. On our final day Sarah shared with us that:
"For me, the most challenging thing about the course was how to have a dream. I never had it in mind because I never had any way of starting a business before, but now I know many things. I have learned how to start a business and how to be free with others because I am a fearful person. I have 2 children, am a single mother, and there is no land for me. At times my brothers attack me to chase me away with my children. So it is my desire to work hard so I can get land for my children, especially because they are boys." -Sarah Apolot, 26 year-old mother of 3, plans to open a hair salon
Sarah was one of 26 woman that learned to dream of starting a business for the first time during this training.
Another woman shared the hope that the business training offered her:
"I appreciate the business training program and BFA and Yobel for lifting up single mothers. I was ready to leave my baby with the Father but he wouldn't take care of her. This training has given me hope that I can make it!" - Patricia Apolot, 24 year-old mother of 3, plans to begin a produce business
Patricia will be able to make it because she now knows how to create a business plan, to find start-up capital, to create a budget, to market herself, care well for customers, keep accurate records, determine profits, create a savings plan for her family and reinvest properly. She is one of the women who currently earns no monthly income. Talk about potential for change!
The challenge for me in working with Beauty for Ashes was to be willing to choose to keep on seeing and hearing story after story. It can be difficult to repeatedly step into a person’s deep suffering when we feel truly powerless to do anything about it.
But thankfully, throughout the week I was able to choose the individual in the midst of the bigger picture. Individuals like Hellen, a bright young 32-year-old mother of 4 who wants to open a small cafe, whose son slipped into a coma the second night of training due to a heart condition. As Hellen wept, we prayed with her, stepping into her distress and the futility of knowing her son needed a surgery that cost more than she can earn in 20 years.
And in that moment as I stood grieving with Hellen, the powerlessness of the situation threatened to overwhelm me. I felt not only her suffering but also that of the 79 women in the room each facing their own daunting circumstances.
I was challenged to decide if I believed that Jesus is strong enough to carry their burdens and if the Father is good enough to meet their needs. Because while I can do my part, I surely will not be enough.
And therein lies the challenge for me. To know that we will never be enough. But that we are still meant to do our small part alongside of others who are doing their small part to come alongside beautiful mothers like Hellen and not look away when we sense our own inadequacy.
And although we cannot fix the situation or solve each problem, we can make sure that each woman there knows that they CAN dream big. That they are CAPABLE of starting a business. That they are ABLE to plan for the future and to save for their needs. And these small things really do result in big change.
As Mary said on graduation day:
"My eyes have opened and I have got the courage and I have learned how I can manage my business and balance it properly and handle my customers with care. I have learned how to widen my dreams and work toward my goals, to plan well so that God will be glorified in whatever I do. I want to have a tailoring school for the community to create 1,000 jobs for the people, to reach all the communities and help educate others about business and savings and to dream bigger than what they have been dreaming of. With God all things are possible." - Mary Ksenga, 40 year-old mother of 8, wants to begin a tailoring school
Thank-you Beauty for Ashes for inviting me to not only care about long-term solutions to poverty and oppression, but to be moved by individual and immediate needs for relief and support. What a gift it is to see the single story.
Photo Credits: Courtney Hoffman & Missie Bonser