For now I want to firstly tell you a little bit (or perhaps quite a lot!) about how one very inspirational woman (Cheryl) travelled all the way from Australia to join the Big Beyond team in Uganda for just three weeks and brought seriously admirable passion and experience to the local women who she described as “resilient, loyal and inspirational”.
“I recently had the privilege of working with rural women in southern Uganda as a volunteer with Big Beyond. All the groundwork was done so I could come into this community and immediately start working with the women. These women were farmers and business women – inspirational. The process started by asking the farm women of Nombe village to share their dreams. Their answer was not what I expected but reinforced the professionalism and determination of these women. They wanted to know the acid/alkaline balance or ph of their soil. This would enable them increase its fertility; grow more and different crops; gain access to markets, with the end result being an increase in their income to pay school fees for their children.” (Cheryl – August 2012)
Cheryl expressed how she was blown away by what the women said and her programme evolved from there.
And I also want to tell you a little about how one more very inspirational woman ventured from the depths of the UK’s corporate world, grabbed the baton from Cheryl, and developed the women’s empowerment and mentoring programme. She kick-started an innovative work experience platform for the girls in secondary school as part of it.
“It has been such a privilege to be welcomed into the local community at Nombe and Rubuguri. To have a month where the responsibilities of home life can be left behind and your focus is trained onto trying to help and make a difference is something I will never forget… I loved working with the girls and had a weird sense of pride when they went to the clinic and met the warden and asked questions about nursing and student portering … With this project I would have happily continued with this forever and a day.” (Holly – September 2012)
In this rural corner of Uganda, and a lot of Africa in reality, women have their lives mapped out for them from the day they’re born. And it’s usually what their mum, grandmother and sisters do too, and also, quite often, what husbands expect. They work enormously hard to keep the household running, the children fed, the water fetched, the family bathed, the food cooking on the fire, the fields dug, seeds planted, crops harvested and eventually the kids off to school. The men traditionally take the role of heading out in search of income to buy the household oil, salt, soap and to afford the school fees. And, although it’s definitely becoming less the norm, men sometimes have more than one wife and their efforts are therefore spread across huge families.
Now with younger girls more educated than their elders because of new local educational opportunities that have emerged over the years, it’s creating greater aspirations amongst the female population. These attitude shifts don’t always translate to significant change but I have to say the potential for both women and men in this little corner of Uganda is really exciting, and why not.
Beneath all this tradition is a wide range of remarkable women who would love to succeed, no less than a women living in London or New York, with ‘success’ of course not having just one meaning in this world, rather people quite simply striving to play a part in making their lives and those around them better. Also adapting positively to the changing environment around them. Here it may not be about job titles, suits and salary raises, but yes, it’s about hard work, determination, motivation and vision. And capability.
In taking on a ‘development’ challenge in Africa women are recognised as a powerful platform. It’s been said to me so many times over the last few years by different local people in Africa that ‘if you work with the women you work with the men’. It’s not that Big Beyond have been ignoring women at all but we’re now starting to put more emphasis on looking at their unique issues and creating specific projects that empower their voices, identify relevant solutions together and help strengthen that platform.
In July we were very lucky to welcome Cheryl on to the Big Beyond team in Uganda. She got us thinking even more. Cheryl’s 59, runs her own successful company in Victoria, Australia called Leading Industries, and her placement combined her experience with women and motivating people, in business and her passion and skills in photography to help us achieve our project goals. Cheryl was, on the one hand, aiming to help us establish the women’s arm of the business clinic and took it one step further by setting the foundations for a truly inspirational programme we’re so excited to be building upon – community mentors.
Making dreams a reality
This is one story of how inspirational women travelled to stay with us, inspired and built the confidence of women on the other side of the world, and learnt just as much too. Memories that stay with different people forever.
“On the way to Itambala [through the valley from the Big Beyond house to the local demonstration farm] it was quite quiet, but just walking rhythmically with the women along the valley and then on the way back, just being part of this amazing group of women who were sharing what they had learned at this demonstration farm… and so it’s the communal sense of being a part of the group of women. It’s been amazing.” (Cheryl, 2012)
Cheryl spent time meeting a range of local women to chat about their dreams and to learn the realities of life in Uganda. This helped her contribute ideas to help them achieve today’s dreams of tomorrow. She highlighted the need to work towards accessing markets, expert advice on farming techniques, soil erosion and fertility, business planning, financial management and visits to other local fields implementing novel methods of producing different crops. She also connected a group of women to a farming co-operative we’re supporting in the local town as steps towards solving some of the challenges. She encountered frustrations with local community based organisations putting barriers in the way, disillusioning moments that she tackled head-on and she also experienced some of the warmest moments of her life. What a lot can happen in 3 weeks!
“The women in this community came together to plan, work and create – they would dig in the fields, cart water from the spring, weave baskets, attend church, organise family and community celebrations and wakes. They also saved together through a saving circle to ensure there was always money available in time of need. They also supported and challenged each other when they saw the need. They really enjoyed spending time together – the laughter and talking was a great indicator.
Many of these women were doing several jobs (as well as being mums, wives and daughters-in-law) and some had established businesses in the town. They identified creative market niche opportunities e.g. charging mobile phones (with no electricity in town, one woman purchased a solar panel and was able to charge people’s phones – on market day that was her main business); wedding planner, dress designer and maker.
These women were amazing but always focused on their children and their education by generating wealth that they could control.” (Cheryl 2012)
Written by Amy Scarth, founder of Big Beyond