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While in Uganda for Christmas, I visited the Kireka stone quarry. This is where the women who will be part of our tailoring program work seven days a week. The quarry sits about a mile away from the dusty commercial center of Kireka – high above the main road. I hired two boda boda motorcycles; my sister and I snaked through the maze of shops and homes that line the steep path leading to the quarry. When we arrived we were greeted by boulders, rocks, smoke and dusty, exhausted workers ferrying stones up and down the sides of cliffs. The pit itself is deep and dizzying. There are no guardrails or signs on the edge of the quarry but kids, moms, and workers navigate the site without a thought. The women work on top of the quarry. They are brought piles of rocks which they then smash to bits with primitive hammers. The “hammers” are an ingenious marriage of a stick and an engine gear. The one on the right has been worn down. Just think of how many swings it takes to wear down an engine gear by slamming it against stone. It’s a repetitive, depressing way to earn a meal. 

This visit was my first opportunity to meet the women face to face. I wanted to see the kind of conditions they were working in day-in and day-out with my own eyes. For months I only had a mental construction based on the pictures taken by Siena Anstis and Glenna Gordon, aka Scarlett Lion. When faced with the real thing it was jarring. The entire work site looks as if a meteor came down and took a chunk out of the hill. 

The women were expecting me and we quickly dispensed with the rounds of handshakes and smiles; well-worn rituals that they are used to. After all, I am just another stranger with a camera, another outsider here to glamorize their misery. However, were it not for those photographs and write-ups by Siena Anstis, Glenna Gordon and countless others, I would never have heard of these women. Meeting these women put matters in perspective. It is easy to sit and have conference calls in the comfort of an office in Dallas. It is easy to get caught up in this or that development project and the possibility of pie-in-the-sky results. It’s a completely different reality when you are at the bottom of the Kireka quarry and looking up to the endless blue sky. The smell and the smoke of burning tires, the clang of hammer on chisel define the daily atmosphere at the quarry. Men, women, children, and children of children are down there chiseling out meager earnings to get them through the day. This is their bottom, and they desperately need any skill-set or opportunity that can get them up and out. 

There are some success here, no doubt. One such success was well documented by the work of journalist Glenna Gordon, during her time in Uganda. Her photographs of a young boy named Stephen spread his story across the world. His story got its happy ending and so did those of a few of his child coworkers. Yet on the day I visited, there were children still swinging their hammers, and countless workers, young and old, struggling and sweating for a few pennies. How I felt seems best described by Glenna while documenting Stephen’s plight.

Project Diaspora publicized what we know about the situation in the quarry. We are working to find a way to get the 13 women we met by way of Siena into programs that will allow them get out of the pit. However, as I looked around the quarry, I saw so much more. I saw a gentleman setting a pile of tires on fire to warm the rock so he could easily sledgehammer it into pieces. I saw two children, huddled in a shadowy corner, looking at me curiously. I saw a sweaty old woman with a bandana around her head filling her jerrycan full of rocks. I saw Amos. All of them fell outside the scope of our small project, but they are all part of this very same ecosystem. Pluck any one of them out of this pit, someone else will fill that void. If we manage to lift this group of refugee women and children out of the quarry, another set of women and children will fill their spot. This quarry serves a purpose in this community; it is a steppingstone for the have-nots. It is a meal for the starving; a very hard-earned meal at that.

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Where do we go from here

After my brief visit to the bottom of the quarry, I sat down with the women, updated them on the fund-raising and we brainstormed additional fund-raising ideas that would allow them to participate. I am a believer in “Trade, Not Aid,” and teaching a man to fish, etc. I am excited about the tailoring program and the prospect of giving these women skills that they can use to make a living for themselves and their families. In the mean time, maybe there was something else they could learn and use now. The above picture is of the women looking over one of the bracelets that I regularly wear. I get many compliments on my bracelets, and this gave me an idea. I asked them if they could make something similar.

The women oozed confidence in their ability to replicate the bracelet. A week later the women presented samples and I was impressed. They were able to reverse-engineer my bracelet–sourcing the leather, beads, strings and putting together three sample bracelets—in less than a week. I gave them money for supplies so they could continue working on their craftsmanship. So we have the beginnings of a plan. The women could make a version of this bracelet, and change the label on it to read “Kireka.”  We can buy the bracelets from them, and use them in our fund-raising efforts. This way, the women are part of the effort, our partners in the fundraising process. $25,000 isn’t much money to raise, but it’s a whole lot easier to raise if we can give people something tangible in return. Our goal is to raise enough money to start buying sewing machines and other tailoring equipment and pay teachers to do the training.

Check this space in the coming weeks. We’ll let you know when we get our first shipment of bracelets! 

  1. If the quarry serves a function in the local economy and produces materials with market value, and therefore any labourers who "make it out of the pit" will just be replaced by others (as you point out), wouldn't it make more sense to focus your efforts on improving working conditions at the quarry?

    It seems to me that better equipment, protective clothing, etc. could do a lot to improve the quality of life for quarry workers in the long term. Bracelet-making for international markets doesn't strike me as sustainable an enterprise or as secure a skill-set as quarry work, given that profits and demand for bracelet-makers are subject to the fickle demands of the international marketplace.

    Perhaps a combination of strategies would be most effective: improve working conditions while helping some move out of the quarry into other jobs.

    I'm sure this is something you've already thought about, so I'd be interested in hearing about why you ended up choosing the bracelet-making approach.

    • Hi Melissa,
      I'll start by stating that I do agree with you on some of your points, but I will update my post on a few of your other points.

      To start, perhaps what I didn't (re)state clearly was the history of this Women of Kireka and how PD got involved, and what it is we are trying to accomplish. We started covering their story late last year: http://projectdiaspora.org/?s=kireka&x=0&…The original founder of this project Siena Anstis did a great job of outlining what the women wanted to do with the money we raise, http://nuwechi.wordpress.com/funding-goals/.

      True, if we help these 15 women train and do business as tailors—a far more sustainable, safer, and lucrative occupation than busting rocks—another 15 men, women, and children will replace them. At this point, we can only do one thing at a time. Once we accomplish our goal, then we will look into promoting safer working conditions perhaps for the quarry.

      The bracelets are a temporary fund-raising mechanism to help us raise $25,000 that will help pay for teachers, equipment and supplies required to train these women as tailors – something they said they wanted to do, instead of pounding stones. Fickle or not, if we make any money from selling those bracelets to train even one woman, then we've gone a long way… Trust me, these women would rather be tailors than pound stones 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.

      If you'd like to help us improve the conditions for those who will remain working at the quarry, we'd be happy to have you assist us.

      We are not saying our solution is the only solution, we are just saying that this is what we can accomplish within our skill-set at this time. Thanks for the input.

  2. Melissa:
    Your points on the safety of the workers in the quarry are good ones, and we hope that some organization with resources greater than our own will take that on. Right now we are a very small enterprise and are very challenged with the goals that we have already established. Grace and the rest of the ladies chose tailoring training as a viable trade that would help them earn enough money to care for themselves and their families. We can make a small difference in the lives of these 15 women and their children and we feel that the task we have taken on is large (for us) but manageable. We are not equipped to tackle the safety issues at the quarry, but we are not the only group that is aware of their circumstance. So spread the word, we hope that something can be done and soon about the working conditions. In the mean time we are committed to getting this training program off the ground and the Women at Kireka want to be part of that process. If we can generate even a small extra income for them while we fundraise for training could mean more than we might believe. It means one less day a child had to work on the quarry and instead spend in school. It means medicine, or food or shoes. So although you are right it is a small, short-term solution that will not mean a life-long income… it is a step on the path to a better life. Like all things, it begins with the smallest of steps, followed by another and another until you get to your goal. What we can't do is take on more than we can deliver, make promises to these families that we have no skill or hope of accomplishing or just giving up because that task is to big. We can make a difference in this one small way and we hope that others will do the same.

    • I am happy to see that you have taken up the conditions of the people working at this quarry. First late me say how bad the land is being treated. Secondly the people who work in those quarries get so littel money that you may clasify them as slaves.

      Did you know that the quarry is run by the royal family through THE UGANDAN PRINS HENRY KALEMERA LIVING IN AMERICA.

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