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Yimba–A Reason To Sing

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Enjoying wearing my Yimba creation back home in the USA

One of the most rewarding parts of my 10 weeks living in Kampala this summer was connecting with a local organization that is working to empower young people, particularly young women, with job skills training, education, and reproductive health tools.

 

In the Luganda language, yimba means “to sing.”

 

I learned about Yimba through my ex-pat friend Carissa, who was having some beautiful clothes made by some local tailors while we were both in Kampala this summer. She shared their Instagram with me (@yimba_uganda) and I was immediately hooked…I had to have some clothes made, too! Little did I know that the beautiful clothes were just the tip of the iceberg of the work this amazing organization is doing.

 

Yimba provides a structured training program in seamstressing and tailoring, providing technical training to young women and men so that they can become economically independent through their skills. Trainees complete a full course and graduate from the program with the all the skills needed to start their own tailoring businesses.

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Me with the amazing design team in the Yimba studio!

Through my conversations with members of the Yimba team, I learned about how feminine hygiene and reproductive education are key human rights issues. I had always known female reproductive health was a human rights issue on an intellectual level, but hearing about the issue first-hand made me realize just how much work there is to be done in this area. And Yimba is addressing this issue in a meaningful and impactful way.

 

Half of the world’s population are women. Women menstruate…every month. Yet somehow discussion of this simple fact of life is taboo in many parts of the world (yes, even in the U.S. still). In Uganda, as well as in many other parts of the developing world, lack of access to feminine hygiene products means that many girls have to stay home and miss school when they get their periods. This means that girls miss 25% of their schooling each year, and often drop out as a result.

 

Menstrual hygiene products as we know them in the U.S. (pads and tampons) are often unavailable in rural parts of Uganda. Even if they are available, they are too expensive. This means many girls must resort to leaves, grass, pieces of mattress, or even stones during this time of the month. And even if girls have access and can afford these products, there is the problem of how to dispose of used pads and tampons. As there is neither trash collection nor septic systems in most parts of the country, disposal of these used products presents a real hygiene problem—especially when you consider animals can often find their way into trash piles. Reusable hygiene products are the most hygienic, affordable, and environmentally sound solution to this multi-faceted issue.

 

In addition to the clothing items they make for customers and as part of their training, Yimba trainees produce reusable feminine hygiene products for distribution to rural areas of Uganda. As of the time of my visit to Yimba, almost 1,000 menstrual hygiene packets had been distributed to girls throughout rural Uganda. Yimba trainees sew a reusable, water-resistant liner using a special fabric imported from Kenya. Then, Yimba trainees sew 8 flannel fillers that can be washed and reused with the liner each month. The liner and fillers are distributed with soap, 2 plastic bags, and 3 pairs of underwear so that recipients have something to wear the pads on.

 

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This simple packet of supplies can ensure that girls continue to go to school during their periods.

Yes, I am writing about panty liners and menstrual pads on my blog. But we all need to talk about this more! If something as simple (or dare I say “taboo”) as reusable menstrual pads allow girls to stay in school and get an education, then I am happy to shout about this from any rooftop.

 

Female empowerment and beautiful clothes—what more could anyone ask for?!

 

After scheduling my fitting with the Yimba team, I went to the fabric market located in central Kampala and picked out 12 yards total of 4 different kitenge fabrics. Kitenge is a traditional African fabric that is a bit thicker and comes in a variety of beautiful prints. I visited the market with my friends Nat and Jem—Nat was also on a kitenge-finding mission in anticipation of her visit to Yimba! While I was a bit overwhelmed by all the choices, I let the fabrics speak to me and ultimately decided on these:

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The next step was to meet with the Yimba team to discuss what exactly I was looking for, and to have them take my measurements. I had one fabric in particular that was a bit too “waxy,” but the team had an amazing idea to create a beautiful trench coat out of it. I also ordered a shirt, a crop top + skirt combo, a long high-slit skirt, and a variety of purses, hair turbans, and neckties from the leftover fabric.

A week later, I went to try on their creations, and I could not have been more pleased! I have been enjoying my kitenge works of art ever since. I am still waiting for it to get cold enough in NYC to wear my trench!

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Anyone who is visiting Kampala soon, I encourage you to visit the team at Yimba Uganda. Not only will you come away with some beautiful gifts for your loved ones (and yourself!) but you will have an opportunity to take part in something bigger than yourself—the chance to meet some amazing young Ugandan women and support the work they are doing to help other Uganda women stay in school and pursue their goals.

 

Since leaving this beautiful country, I carry Uganda with me in my heart every single day, and on the days I wear my Yimba clothes it shows on the outside as well!

 

You can learn more about Yimba and how to support their work here: http://www.yimbauganda.org. Also follow them on Instagram at @yimba_uganda !

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Attempting to help carry a jerry can at work in my new Yimba kitenge top! There was a debate over whether the pattern looked more like pineapples or fish scales…

 

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Enjoying my kitenge skirt on Lake Victoria on my last night in Uganda ❤ 
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Lyrical Justice

On Tuesday, I got to go on my first road trip across Uganda—north to the town of Lira. It was a rollercoaster 36 hours, in more ways than one.

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My reason for travel was professional. My organization was representing a journalist in the town of Lira—we will call him “J”—who had been arrested one fateful evening just before the presidential election last year during the airing of his radio political talk show, along with four other politicians. J and his co-defendants had been kept on trial for 16 straight months without the state producing a single witness for the “crime” of alleged defacement of political posters. The irony is that J could not have been involved with the defacement as he was on the air during the time the act occurred. Nevertheless, he was relentlessly prosecuted as part of an effort to chill political dissent and freedom of expression. Our client made 12 consecutive appearances before the court over this period, and each time the court would adjourn and require his presence at the next hearing, presumably until the state could produce witnesses.

 

Our client’s rights were being violated under both Ugandan law (Article 28(1) of the Constitution) and international customary law (the right to a fair and speedy trial). So, my organization sent my colleague K, an attorney on staff who focuses on litigation, and me north to Lira to argue for the dismissal of the charges.

 

K and I set off on our journey from the central bus station of Kampala. We had two options for bus travel—the GaaGaa Coach and the Baby Coach. Both were public buses without air conditioner that cost 20,000 shillings one way (about $5), yet the GaaGaa coach was known to be slightly more comfortable and organized. Of course, we missed the GaaGaa coach by 5 minutes, so we booked our tickets on the infamous Baby Coach.

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We weren’t the only ones who wanted to ride GaaGaa

After sitting on the bus for about 1.5 hours as they changed tires and continued to load more customers in, we started down the road out of Kampala north toward Lira. K and I were pretty cramped on the Baby Coach, as the tiny “baby-sized” seats were covered in plastic and super sticky. But once the bus started rolling, the fresh air made the circumstances more manageable. In accordance with what I am coming to realize of “Africa time,” the 4 hour drive took about 7 hours.

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A typical roadside stop for snacks…we made about 20 of these

One thing we were not lacking on this road trip was snacks! My favorite part of the trips to and from Lira was when the bus would pull over and local vendors would swarm up to our windows, selling their goods. Sometimes, if they spotted me, I would hear “Muzungu! Muzungu!” from down below. (Muzungu is Luganda for white person haha). At almost every stop, I tried to buy something new…I enjoyed the gonja (roasted banana-like fruit), g-nuts, and cassava (a roasted root that tastes like mashed potato). I didn’t try the meat on a stick (still vegetarian these days!), roasted corn, jackfruit (because I don’t like it), or Rolex (chapatti—a Ugandan bread—with egg wrapped inside), but they were selling all of these things as well. They also sold live chickens to any interested buyers!

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Want to buy a live chicken from your bus window? No problem! 

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We also passed over the Nile and saw several baboons about halfway along the journey, and spotted many obusisira, or traditional hut-style houses along the way.

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Crossing the Nile River near Murchison Falls

 

Once we finally arrived in Lira, our mission came into sharper focus. We first met with J and gave him our assessment of the facts and the applicable law. “I pray to God this is over with tomorrow and I can be a free man again,” he explained. It was clear the case had taken a toll on J physically and emotionally, as he seemed very tired and worn down.

 

Given the political nature of our case, our client warned us that he thought we were being “tracked” (this was later confirmed from sources both in Lira and Kampala), and he advised a certain secure hotel for K and me to spend the night. He led us to a small gated hotel just off a dirt road on the edge of town. While this was supposed to be the “safe” hotel, I instantly felt sketched out by this place. Trusting my feminine instincts, I discreetly asked K if we could keep looking, and he agreed.

 

We then asked if we could stay at the M Hotel, which looked much newer, cleaner, and more secure, but this immediately alarmed our clients. “This place is not safe and there have been many kidnappings here,” they stated. However, after visiting, I for some reason felt way safer in this place than the last place—it was much more well-lit and the staff seemed trustworthy. After finding his cousin was on security detail that night, our client finally acquiesced to allowing us to spend the night here, and allowed me to settle into my room only after thoroughly checking it for wiretaps and working locks. Even though my room “checked out,” I slept with the chair under the doorknob just in case as I was thoroughly freaked out. And it takes a lot to freak me out! Also, it made me feel better knowing K was just 2 doors down. I was so relieved to see we both survived the night to attend the trial the next day!

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The next morning, we arrived at the courthouse and met our client J, his brother, and his four co-defendants. Even though we were charged with defending J, K agreed to represent the other four at the request of the magistrate, as he preferred to keep the matters grouped together. Because K is a legal champ, he agreed. (Some judges are called “magistrate” here). We then proceeded to wait outside for 2.5 hours with all other defendants before we were called by the attendant into the chambers.

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Before our hearing, full of nerves and anticipation

We spent the time chatting about the case and life in general, and it passed surprisingly fast. I was particularly taken aback by the arrival of the 30 or so male inmates from the jail down the road. They arrived on foot, escorted by prison guards and handcuffed to one another. They then knelt on their knees before the 20 ft x 20 ft cinderblock “holding cell” for about 30 minutes, before they were allowed in.

 

Once inside the cell, the sound of voices drifted beyond the cinderblocks, harmonizing together to form a song in a language I couldn’t understand, but understood all the same.

 

“They sing to give themselves hope,” K explained to me.

 

Finally, it was our time to go before the magistrate. As we entered the chambers, the magistrate immediately looked to me. There is no doubt I stood out, as I was the only muzungu around and also one of very few women present on the premises.

 

“Are you with CNN or BBC?” he asked me. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or serious. I later found out he was serious.

 

“Neither, your honor,” I replied. “I am a law student at New York University, and am an intern with K this summer.”

 

“I see,” he replied. “You will see… we apply the law here in Uganda.”

 

“Yes, your honor,” I replied. But secretly, I wasn’t sure yet.

 

K opened with a clear and concise argument—this case had dragged on for 16 months, and our clients’ rights to a fair and speedy trial had been violated. This right is not only given in the Ugandan constitution and in international law, but is a bedrock of democracy. K argued for dismissal of the charges under the Magistrates Court Act Cap 16, Section 119(1) (want of prosecution). After a short response from the prosecution, the magistrate issued his ruling in favor of the defendants. Tears sprang into my eyes as I looked over at J and saw his eyes filling with tears as well. He is now free of the burden of being prosecuted for no reason, and can return to his family in a nearby village to rest and recover from the trauma.

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K and me giving J a high five! 

After some congratulatory high-fives and hugs, K and I jumped on some boda bodas to pick up our bags from the hotel, and then to board the bus back to Kampala. We were lucky to book the GaaGaa coach this time around! We had lunch with one defendant at the Divine Mercy café—matoke, dried fish, and rice—before boarding the bus for the 4 hour (lol…7 hour) journey back to Kampala.

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As the bus passed back through the beautiful rural countryside, I felt truly grateful that justice had been delivered for J and the four other men that day. However, I couldn’t help dwelling on the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” and feeling like a part of J will never be healed after being taken, beaten, imprisoned, and relentlessly prosecuted for expressing his political beliefs and performing his job as a journalist. I think the irony is that the more a government tries to suppress the freedom of expression, the louder those voices will rise from behind whatever temporary walls are places around them—much like the prisoners in the holding cell at the Lira court, singing their songs of pain and hope, reality and dreams of a better world.

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Uganda Be Kidding Me: Week #1 in Kampala

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Greetings from Kampala! I’ve only been here a week, but it’s starting to feel like home in a lot of ways.

Yes, I am in Uganda, and yes I am on an adventure, but this summer already feels quite different because I am living and working in one place instead of moving around constantly like a nomad with ADHD. Don’t get me wrong—I am definitely going on some weekend excursions (stay tuned!) but I am actually enjoying the feeling of settling in halfway across the world. Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorite things about Kampala so far…some which I expected, and others which have taken me by surprise.

  1. Boda bodas

Every day, I ride a boda boda to and from work. (Mom, please don’t freak out!) Rain or shine. It’s the best feeling to be weaving through traffic with the wind in my hair. Beats the NYC subway (for now at least!) Seeing as my office is off a dirt road (yes, it’s in Kampala city limits), it can get a little muddy. It’s like mud-riding. As my boss D put it, “You Americans play in mud for fun, but we don’t have a choice here.” Makes you think, right?


I’ve also had some pretty interesting conversations with my boda drivers. A few people have recommended I get one driver and stick with him for the whole summer, but I’m just not ready for that level of commitment. Lol.

  1. Matoke and other foods

Matoke is similar to mashed potatoes but made from a banana-like plant that grows on trees. It is one of the main food staples of Uganda! I love it…which is a good thing because it is served everyday for lunch in my office.

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Some other Ugandan foods I like? Posho (like mashed potatoes that taste like grits because it’s made out of corn meal), nakati (a bitter and salty dark green), and ground nut stew (literally mashed up nuts made into stew).

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So delicious
Also, the garden behind our office has an avocado tree, so we get to eat fresh avocadoes every day for lunch!

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The garden behind my office…I’m obsessed ❤
My office is pretty cool for the fact that we have 2 cooks on staff who prepare a home-cooked meal everyday for lunch, using fresh ingredients from the garden, and serve us at our desk!

As much as I am loving Ugandan food everyday for lunch, I have a confession…we literally are served so much food, I cannot come close to finishing it everyday. I then get in trouble with D, the head of our legal department, who thinks I can do a better job of cleaning my plate! I guess she doesn’t realize if I did that, I would fall asleep at my desk from a food coma. All things considered, this is not a bad problem to have, and I am really enjoying the food!

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Also, drinks are super cheap here…this huge water + coke zero cost 4,000UGX (just over $1)…
Speaking of food, my roommate and I ordered pizza my first night in town. Yes, you can order pizza in Uganda. It was delivered on the back of a boda boda….

  1. My neighborhood bodega

Like any good New Yorker, I appreciate a good 24/7 neighborhood bodega. Imagine my surprise when I found one just around the corner from my house! It’s not open 24/7, but it’s open most nights until 11pm, and they sell potato chips, wine, and other important items. It kind of looks like a jail, and they hand you your items through the iron bars…you don’t even go inside. I love this place!

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My friend Dre outside the Ntinda All-In-One shop (aka my bodega!)
  1. So many people here have asked me if I’m British…having grown up in (very) rural Alabama, I am enjoying being mistaken for a British person so much! I have no idea why I’ve been asked this so many times, but I guess it means the Southern accent is nowhere to be found anymore. RIP 😦
  1. and when they find out I’m American, they ask about Trump. You can imagine how this goes…
  1. My apartment

I love my apartment here! I found it over Airbnb, and it’s very comfortable and already feels like home for the summer. The front yard is a little crazy…there’s a huge gate and a small house with a 24/7 security guard. It took a while to get used to this, but I’d say I am now. My favorite part of the house is the back patio ❤

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My bed has a giant mosquito net, which i’ve never used!
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My favorite place at home!
  1. My work

I will have a lot more to say about this as the summer goes on, but for now, I am working at a human rights organization here in Kampala focused on defending the freedom of expression, the free press, and journalists’ rights. I felt so welcomed by the team from day #1! Everyone in my office is a native Ugandan, except me of course haha.

I am working with the legal department, which consists of D, K, and I. D is a mom of 4 with a law degree, and she is going back for a master’s degree this fall. I have mad respect for this lady! She is also hilarious, even when she is getting on to me for not finishing my food at lunch. My desk is next to hers, which is so nice because we have so much to talk about over the course of the day. K is another attorney on staff, and I got to go to court with him on Wednesday (more about this in a later post). K has been great at explaining the ropes to me, and I get to travel with him to northern Uganda next week for a trial! I is probably my best friend at work so far…he is exactly 2 weeks older than me and just finished his first year of law school, like me. He knows so much about American politics…more than a lot of Americans I know!! We’ve had some interesting discussions.

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A sample of some of the issues we address daily
The 4 of us in the Legal Department share an office with four cubicles, and the days go by so quickly as we have a lot of work to do and stories to share. One thing I’ve enjoyed in particularly is comparing cases from law school with the team. Uganda has a common law system based on British law, just like the USA, seeing as both countries are former colonies of Great Britain (geez England, you thought you owned everything there for a while!) As a result, Ugandan law schools study many of the same cases we study in US law school that date back…I was particularly amused to learn we both studied the Raffles case (yes, I was laughing about the Peerless with my Ugandan officemates today! Nerdiness knows no nationality!) I’ve also enjoyed discussing the similarities and differences in Ugandan and American civil procedure and the structure of the court systems with the team…literally the only time I’ve ever enjoyed talking about Civ Pro lol.

The organization is much bigger than the legal department, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know all of my many other colleagues who work on other aspects of human rights work. There is too much to share about the work I am doing and the things I am learning in this post, and I want to write about these things thoughtfully in a future post. Just know it’s really been a great experience so far!

  1. New friends

#nonewfriends? Nah…I’ve made so many great, new friends here in Kampala! It all starts with my roommate J from Canada…we both randomly found this apartment on our own, but it was like fate. J has been looking out for me since day 0. Before my arrival, she even stocked up on water and groceries for me, and let me in the apartment at 4:30am when I arrived!

J also introduced me to a ton of other expats, and it was so fun to explore the Kampala night life with all of them last weekend. J also introduced me to N and J– a Canadian couple who permanently lives in Uganda now. They are both artists and some of the kindest and most interesting people…they made dinner for me and J and even taught us how to light a Ugandan stove! (It looks more dangerous than it is, I think…maybe J and I will be brave enough to try it on our own soon?! Until then I’m gonna keep eating popcorn for dinner…) I also made some friends on my flight over (who knew you could meet such interesting people at a Uganda airport at 3am?!) Not surprisingly, I’ve only met a few other Americans, but a ton of other Canadians, Brits, and Egyptians! 🙂

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  1. Wifi

Right?! I am surprised too. I freaking love the wifi here…it’s actually better than what I have in NYC. I am using Vodaphone, and it’s been so great so far. I carry this little box with me everywhere I go, meaning I have wifi wherever I am. Considering I wasn’t sure if I’d have wifi at all (lol), this is fantastic!

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This little box goes with me wherever I go.
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One funny thing about Uganda is everyone goes by their last name first…so my vodaphone calls me “Smith”!
 

10. The weather

It’s not nearly as hot here as I imagined it would be, and it even gets a little chilly at night. There’s also a nice rain about every other day. I can’t believe I am living on the Equator and the weather is so pleasant!

 

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This is just a preview of my first week in my new home! I know I will have so much more to share as the weeks pass…for now, Osiibye otya nno! (Good evening in Lugandan).

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A view of my neighborhood ❤
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Beautiful Kampala Sunset from N and J’s balcony
PS- For those who don’t know, Chelsea Handler came up with “Uganda Be Kidding Me.” I love her. Credit where credit is due…

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