MAY 1, 2019 – Has been a while since I updated info about the quilted bags we sell on behalf of the Mukwano Women’s Group of Bujagali Falls Uganda. Happy to say, they are doing well and thriving thanks to all the customers who have bought the bags from us and other locations – and the hard working efforts of local philanthropist Pat McGill to distribute the bags. Pat is, as I type, in Uganda visiting the group and brought them a very special gift.
Regular customers know we have a dish of mini chocolate bars on our counter where a minimum donation of . 25¢ is dropped into our Buzz Lightyear coin bank. Your generous donations have gone towards buying sewing equipment for the women’s group. Until now, they cut each piece of material by hand with scissors. Now they have rotary cutters (works like a pizza cutter), a board to cut on & a ruler to get even sized pieces of fabric to sew together. We take these sewing tools for granted here in Canada – but to these ladies they are marvels of technology. Your donations have also been used to buy books for the school library in the village. Amazing how a little donation, can do so much. Pictured is the group trying out their new tools.
FEBRUARY 5, 2016 – Happy to say, the response for bags is so good, that now a second village group has been recruited to help amp up the supply to fill the demand. Also, another sewing machine has been purchased. Still a foot powered model – that sadly is in need of repairs and parts. Hopefully it will be up and running very soon.
Another story was done on Pat McGill and the bags in the Sarnia This Week newspaper. He has done several speaking engagements lately. It was at one of these at Central United Church as part of their Forum series that Pat was interviewed by Carl Hnatyshyn. CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE.
First I want to thank every one of you who have helped bring this project to life. As one of the people I am working with said, the growth has been organic and in all different directions due to your efforts. I just try to ride the bronco wherever it goes. Thank you!
There are 30 or so people helping to sell the bags, all of whom have volunteered. We are now selling bags in Windsor, Corunna, Sarnia, Brights Grove, Mitchell, Woodstock, Forest, Blenheim, Callabogie, Renfrew, Burnstown and doubtless other Ontario cities that I am not aware of. We are also selling in Williams Lake and Prince George BC (doubtless other places in BC also). We have now reached the full capacity of the co-operative at 90 bags per week.
As of today we are at 1590 bags and I have a standing order for the co-operative’s maximum production for the next 4 weeks at least. For the moment we are nearly 100 % of the co-operative’s sales (tourism is very low as the spill over from the Ebola scare and the terrorism in Kenya create a triple whammy with the hydro dam).
The volume of sales has continued to rise and the 90 bags produced per week are not keeping up with sales. The only way to increase production volume is to get more women into the co-operative. As I talked to Florence Nangobi (Flo) who is the key spokesperson for the co-operative, I asked if it was possible to expand the co-operative to Mawoito (Mawoito is the village where the school I have been working with is located). Flo indicated that it was possible and I was delighted. I had a number of texts back and forth with Flo today on the expansion. We have an agreement that Flo will go to Buwenge (located 5 km from Mawoito) on Friday to talk with her co-op member there. Flo’s idea is that the woman in Buwenge who Flo describes as one of her best producers will teach the women from Mawoito village. I do not know how long the training and other aspects of getting the Mawoito women involved will be but I will be supporting the effort in any way I can.
It has been my dream for the last year to find some way to help the Mawoito village as a whole, as the people are so poor (probably even poorer than the Bujagali Falls village). If the bag production continues to work out as it appears it will we will, make a difference to the women in Mawoito’s lives.
In October I have began giving presentations for church, service clubs and discussion groups when I was invited. The presentation I use has a lot of pictures and seems to go over quite well. More importantly it usually results in a lot of sales. I have three more invitations over the next three months. Hopefully they also will sell a number of bags (lets hope I get a bunch for the demand). The other thing that I have been doing is to get tables at bazaar and craft sales. These avenues seem to be great for sales too and easily cover the expense for the table. If anyone wants to do this I am able to cover the costs if in the $25-50 range.
Surprising to me is the fact that so many of the women that I meet at the bazaars or other venues immediately refer back to the article in the Sarnia Journal (newspaper) in May. That article has sold an enormous number of bags as people either come looking for me or as soon as they see the display they have a flash back to the article. They seem to invariably reach for their wallets. The other surprise to me is how many repeat customers I get who often buy several at a time. Whenever I think that perhaps the local market may be getting saturated the repeat customers have proven me wrong, at least so far.
One fallout from the high bag sales is that the aprons and mitts have had to be put on the back burner for the moment even though I approved the last iteration of the designs a week ago. The women simply do not have the capacity to make them. Hopefully the new capacity will be available in time for aprons and mitts to be sold over the Christmas season as I am seeing these as a seasonal items.
There are some other ideas floating around on totally different avenues for sales. If they work it could ramp up volume and create a more stable load for the production process. The change could also set us up for some future when I will not be in the middle of the spider’s web. I will let you know if the new idea develop.
That is about it for the moment.
Thanks you all again.
SUMMER 2015 We are very pleased to be part of a small local group doing their best to help out the Mukwano Women’s Group of Bujagali Falls Uganda by selling their beautiful quilted tote bags.
Those here for Record Store Day 2015 and our regular First Friday friends may have noticed local retiree Pat McGill or his wife Camilla, near our front counter selling the bags. At first, we were only going to have Pat selling them at three events, but we have decided to continue having them here for sale at Cheeky Monkey going forward.
Roland and I were so touched by the story of these hard working women and Pat’s unselfish efforts to help them in their endevour, that we just knew we had to do our small part to also help.
For a story on Pat and the women of Uganda as reported on the front page of the Sarnia Journal CLICK HERE. It just may touch your heart the way it has ours and you will want to own at least one of these totes too.
FIRST HAND ACCOUNT…
June 29, 2015
Mukwano Women’s Co-operative
As a small child growing up in Kyabirwa, a Ugandan village on the banks of the White Nile, Florence used to watch fascinated as her grandfather sewed together cotton squares to make bed covers.
Years later, married with three children, Florence was eager for any opportunity to give her children a good education. When words spread that a UK charity called Soft Power Education was calling a meeting of local women to set up a co-operative, Florence was there.
It was explained that there was a good local market among the rafters and kayakers who came to brave the famous Bujagali Falls. The group could make mats and baskets woven from local grass and sell them as souvenirs. A stall was set up on a campsite and it was agreed that 10% of takings would go into a kitty for materials and to provide a loan scheme for members.
All went well until word spread that some purchases had been confiscated by customs because the materials from which they were made were not known.
It was time to look for new goods and SPE arranged for a woman from Gulu in the north to come to the village and instruct the women in making beads from paper. A time consuming task but the group took to it with a will and were soon making bags, purses, necklaces and all manner of gifts. In the beginning they used old magazines left behind by visitors but soon were purchasing posters and calendars in bulk from Jinja the nearest town.
In the early days the women took it in turns to run the stall, but slowly problems arose. Sometimes there would be a day with no sales which was disheartening, a few husbands disapproved of their wives being in close contact with muzungus (white people) other women had large families it was difficult to leave, while some were embarrassed that they did not speak English.
Members of the group offered Florence payment to run the stall, but she refused money, saying she was happy to do it as it fitted in well with her other jobs. By this time in order to educate her children and help support her extended family, Florence was offering accommodation to visitors and working as a cleaner on the campsite.
However as Flo looked around she was aware of the off-cuts littering her house, small pieces of cotton, too small to make anything, but what a waste to throw them away! Then Florence remembered her grandfather sewing pieces of cotton together for bedding. Why not make patchwork bags?
Several designs were made and after some trials it was decided to strengthen the bags with a thin layer of foam between the outer fabric and the lining. Painstakingly Florence cut out fabric squares, gathered together her neighbours and gave instructions in making the bags.
One day Florence’s son Arnold was working on the stall and fell into conversation with a muzungu. Returning home he told his mother that a man had liked the bags and wanted to talk to her.
Florence was quick to take up the lead. The bags were selling, but the situation was not good in the village. The beautiful Bujagali Falls were gone, flooded by the government to make hydro-electric power to sell to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, and with them had gone many of the kayakers and rafters. There was still some trading going on, but the loss of the Falls was hitting the women hard.
The muzungu was Pat McGill a retired research chemist volunteering with SPE. He offered to take a dozen bags back to Canada as presents and to show what the women in Uganda could do. He took Florence’s phone number and email and promised to keep in touch.
Today there are 20 plus women in the group and seven sewing machines, all manual or treadle models. Flo’s own machine which she claims proudly is the best in the group, is a Singer bearing the date 1911.
Rachel Kuragala has been a member of the group for two years and is 22 years old. She shares a sewing machine with two other women and sews the squares together at her home. However the assembling of the bag is done under the supervision of Florence and James the village sewing teacher, (the only male in the group). Rachel feels this system works because ‘This way we all know our bags are of the right quality’.
Sarah Naugaya is 47 years old with six children aged between 13 and 25 years. She rents a sewing machine for 11 dollars a month from a neighbour who was not using it. In addition to making her own bags from scratch, Sarah also offers a service to other members, sewing their patchwork squares together, which is a painstaking job.
Members buy their own materials, but those with no money can learn the technique and have a loan from the group, which they pay back from the money they make. Florence, now in her mid forties is in charge of quality control, packing, shipping and payment. Quite a task as over 900 bags have now been shipped to Canada and some goods to Australia. Flo says ‘I write my books and know what people are doing so there is not a problem’.
According to her she still finds time to sew her own bags. ‘Sometimes my sister Stephanie and I sit on the verandah and sew at night. Other times I wake early and by five o clock in the morning I am in my room sewing away.’
By – Margaret (Mag) McAlpine
Mag, who is from the UK, has been spending several months per year in Bujagali Falls for the last ten years. With a journalism background and the trust of the local women Mag was the perfect person to get some additional information on the women’s coop for us. Mag gracefully spent a significant amount of time in her most recent 2 month visit to put together the above story. Mag has been involved with many projects with Soft Power Education over the years and is a member of the Soft Power board of directors. She has also successfully started a separate coop with the women to make knitted goods (stuffed animals and scarves so far) that is starting to enjoy a lot of success.
I have known Mag since 2010 and particularly admire her true grit. Mag had a heart fibrillation attack in Uganda in 2012 that nearly ended her life but returned to her projects shortly after she recovered. Soft Power and the community people very much look forward to Mag’s two visits of several months in Bujagali Falls each year.