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.
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!