Right now, there are hundreds of organizations in the states that sell products made by villagers from third world countries. Buying their products, they say, will provide a family the means to send their kids to school, to put food on their table or to put hope in their hearts.
Right now, I have plenty of products from these types of organizations in my closet at home. And to be honest, I probably couldn’t tell you much about where the proceeds from my purchases went. And until today, I didn’t really care. A good cause is a good cause.
Right now, there are tons of villagers making these products that, half a world away, Americans are purchasing. From half a world away, it’s easy to equate all these villagers in our minds as equally deserving of our money.
And right now, I’d like to question that mind set.
Today, I and a few other students from my group spent the morning with SUUBI and Light Gives Heat. SUUBI (which means “hope” in Luganda) is a group of Ugandan women that meet and make paper beads and other crafts to sell. Light Gives Heat is their partner organization that sells the jewelry made from those beads in the states.
After we tumbled out of our van at the SUUBI location, we were greeted by a British volunteer who helps run SUUBI. She took us over to a shaded area underneath some trees where about 25 Ugandan women were sitting. I took off my shoes and joined one woman who was seated on the tarp underneath the trees and rolling up red paper beads. She let me watch as she rolled a half dozen of them together while we were waiting for everyone to get situated.
Once we were all sitting down, one of the volunteers asked the women to explain the organization to us. From what I gathered from the translator, most of the women are from northern Uganda and migrated down to Jinja because of the rebel army (Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army) that was terrorizing that area in the last few decades. The British volunteer that greeted us pointed out for me an older woman with a purple skirt whose husband was actually killed a while back by the rebels and she migrated down here with her kids after that.
SUUBI began in 2007 once Light Gives Heat saw both the need for work from these displaced women and a market for paper beads. The organization got off to a great start and by 2008, about 60 women were involved with SUUBI, and each were making about four necklaces a week for about 28,000 shillings (which is about $11 by today’s exchange rate). That eventually grew to 100 women making eight necklaces a week for 40,000 shillings ($16). Then, the demand dropped as people stopped buying necklaces. The women now aren’t making very many necklaces for Light Gives Heat, who gives each woman 15,000 shillings ($6) a week anyway so that they’re receiving at least some sort of income.
Despite their past and present situation, the women were some of the most boisterous and lively that I’ve met. They took us on a walking tour of the surrounding village while holding our hands, pointing out pink chickens (people evidently dye them to confuse the hawks), proudly showing us a new hospital that is getting built, and watching our disgusted faces as we tried the locally brewed beer (which is another source of income for the women).
As we returned to our meeting place, the boisterousness died down as one of the women from Light Gives Heat asked if any of the Americans had questions for the Ugandans or if the Ugandans had any questions for the Americans. We asked the women a few basic questions, such as why some of the kids we saw while walking weren’t in school (parents can’t always afford school fees for all their children) and what else the women do to supplement their income (grow crops, sell other crafts).
Then, the women started asking us questions, or rather, one question: What could we do for them?
We first interpreted the question as a plea for financial support, and one of the students respectfully declined, explaining we are students that are financially supported ourselves and so do not have the financial resources to help them right now.
They politely listened to our answer, thanked us for coming, but then rephrased their question: What could we do for them right now?
Unfortunately, our answer was “not much.” We could tell our friends and family about them and about Light Gives Heat, but that’s about it.
But I’d like to do a little more. As I mentioned earlier, I want to question the mindset that “a good cause is a good cause.” I’m not critiquing the actual act of giving to an organization, but more so the mindlessness of it.
These women have a deep, deep history and a story unique only to them. Purchasing a beaded necklace is a great form of support, but understanding and respecting their history I feel is much more important.
Over in the states, it’s too simple to feel removed from these women and so equate their plight with the countless others vying for attention. But that mindset is just another scaffold supporting the separation between third world and first world. If we want any part in fixing the problems of the world, we first have to understand them. And understanding them involves an effort to become close to them. We can’t keep them at an arms distance and expect our blind charity to make much of a difference.
This especially can be seen with the drop in demand for the paper bead necklaces. Americans simply stopped buying them. But if consumers had that more intentional connection with the organization (understanding the story and background of SUUBI), they may still be asking about how they can help or how they can rework the marketability and sustainability of the women’s craft.
I more than anyone know how hard it is to say no to buying a $5 bracelet for a good cause, but now I’d argue that Americans with a more focused and intentional form of giving (perhaps become very invested in one or two organizations rather than slightly invested in 10 or 11) will help create a better model for success for villagers all over the world.
Granted, I had to fly all the way over here to Uganda and actually meet these women before I truly understood this concept, but I have hope that what I am doing right now can make at least a little bit of difference.