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.
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.
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:
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!
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 !
This past weekend, I went on my ideal mini-vacation—a 3-day excursion to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) in the Western Rift Valley of Uganda along the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I booked the trip a few weeks ago, as I knew my time here was winding down and a safari was at the top of my list of things to do this summer! I was able to see the Big 5 on safari in Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2015, but I had yet to see a male lion in person. This topped my list of “things to do,” and I got so much more out of this trip than I anticipated.
I booked the safari through the Red Chilli Hideaway Hostel (which is actually more like a hotel), located on the south side of Kampala bordering Lake Victoria. As the safari was leaving at 6:30 am the following morning, they offered me a free room for Friday night! Because our internet died in the office, Diana was gracious enough to let me leave a few hours early so I could enjoy the pool at Red Chilli and get some sun. They also served delicious pizza by the pool, which I enjoyed, of course.
The next morning started before dawn at 6:30 am as we set off southeast from Kampala on the Masaka highway toward the DRC. I slept all the way to the Equator (about 2 hours). We stopped here to take pictures, as the rest of our tour group (4 Belgian girls and a German dad and daughter) had never been to the Equator! As this was my 5th time crossing the Equator (!) I took the chance to grab coffee instead. We then continued on, passing through Masaka (where I had visited with my office for the UN OHCHR conference a few weeks before), the turn off for Lake Mburo (good memories from last month here!), Mbarara (the second largest city in Uganda), and finally to QENP.
The drive was sooooo long…9 hours to be exact. The road past Mbarara was full of potholes, so the driving went even slower here.
Fortunately, I was able to sit in the front for the entire trip with our driver/guide Noor, so I was able to take in all of the views from my open window on the passenger side.
We passed the most gorgeous tea plantations that covered the hills and plains of the Western Rift Valley like a blanket of green in the Bushenyi District. We were actually able to walk through one on the third day when passing back through, but here are some pictures of what these fields look like.
Tea production is becoming a huge part of the Ugandan economy. Indians introduced tea to Uganda in the 19th century, yet production almost stopped in the 1970s as war devastated the country and the ruthless dictator Idi Amin expelled all Asians from the country, confiscating much of their property in the process. Tea production picked back up when stability returned in the 1980s. While many of the larger estates are currently owned by foreign Indian companies, there is a big effort to ensure local ownership and to support Ugandan producers, particularly small farmers. It is estimated Uganda is currently producing tea at a rate of 10% of its potential capacity, so there is a lot of room for expansion. Sadly, global climate change may halt Uganda’s ability to produce tea as soon as 2050 if it continues at the current pace.
Before arriving at our accommodations at the Queen Elizabeth Bush Lodge, we stopped by the salt mining lake at the village of Katwe.
The salt lake was formed by a volcanic eruption about 10,000 years ago, and the mining activity employs hundreds of local workers. Each day, the workers “break” the salt crystals that have formed at the top of each pool, and eventually they collect the crystals from the bottom of the lake. They then wash them and grind them into smaller crystals for consumption. Katwe exports about 70% of the salt produced to other countries in East Africa.
After Katwe, we continued on to the bush lodge. For the first night, I had booked a standard tent, being the budget-minded traveling law student that I am. For the second night, they did not have any available tents, so I was “forced” to upgrade to a banda…but I wasn’t complaining!
We had a 4-course dinner under the stars at the dining area of the camp overlooking the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lake George to Lake Edward. I heard hippos and warthogs outside my tent as I fell asleep that first night…I was so exhausted I didn’t wake up once!
I woke up at 5:30am, had breakfast at the dining area at 6am, and was on the truck with Noor for our game drive by 6:30am. The sunrise over the savannah was so beautiful as we made our way toward the areas where our guide knew we could spot the Big 5 (except rhinos, which sadly aren’t in this park).
I spotted everything I wanted to see…
This bush buck…they are known to be loners and only are spotted with other bush buck when mating…
This gorgeous leopard…it was amazing to see her so close…
…and my male lion. But…I will never look at lions the same way now. Our lion had just finished hunting this buffalo, and was panting heavily with his eyes halfway closed. However, the way he chose to start eating his buffalo left a LOT of questions in all of our minds as we looked down at him from the safari truck. WHY did he eat the buffalo THAT WAY? It was truly so gross. (Warning: if you’re about to eat anything, you may want to skip this picture). I have to say…this ruined The Lion King a little bit for me.
After our game drive, we continued our journey with a 2 hour drive around the famous crater lakes. These lakes, like Lake Katwe, were formed by volcanic activity several thousand years ago. We didn’t see any game here, but the views were breathtaking still.
The lakes reminded me so much of what I saw in Bolivia last summer, which makes me wonder if the volcanic activity occurred when South America and Africa were still joined as one continent.
As we drove around the lakes deep in the bush, our truck was swarmed by infamous tsetse flies! These are known for carrying the dreaded African Sleeping Sickness, but according to Noor this disease no longer exists. (“If it did, I’d be dead by now because I’ve been bitten so many times,” he said.) I was bitten twice (it felt like a small bee sting), so hopefully he’s right!
After the crater lakes drive, we had all gotten our appetite back a bit post-lion encounter, so we stopped for lunch at the restaurant in the park. I ate my vegetables and rice while looking out over the buffaloes and elephants drinking their water in the Kazinga Channel.
In the later afternoon, we took a 2 hour boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel and into the mouth of Lake Edward, which runs along the DRC border. Our boat spotted a crocodile, elephants, buffalo, impala, water buck, and what was probably close to 100 hippos (not exaggerating!) Our boat even hit a hippo, which I was not happy about. 😦 He seemed to be ok though.
My favorite part of the boat cruise was when we sailed into the mouth of Lake Edward and saw about 30 of the local village men leaving in their canoes for a night of fishing.
Because they live on national park land, these men must earn their livelihood solely from fishing and cannot farm the land. They fish at night and then barter their fish for food in the market during the day to feed their families. Each boat contained two fishermen, and they rowed out into the lake past swarms of hippos. They are so dedicated and brave, and I felt almost embarrassed watching them from my comfortable tourist position on the boat. Our guide informed us that 30% of the park fees we paid go to support schools and infrastructure in their village. Yet to see their dedication, work ethic, and bravery in person was truly humbling and inspiring.
After the boat ride, we made our way back to the bush camp, where I moved into my banda for the night!
Hippo, warthogs, hyenas, and even elephants and lions are regularly spotted in and around the camp. For this reason, I had to have a personal escort between the dining area and my banda after dark, as the bandas are further removed from the center of the camp than the tent area.
After dinner, I sat on my porch in complete darkness and silence, looking at the thousands of stars in the sky and listening to all the animals enjoying their nightlife around the Kazinga Channel just below. I felt safe, as an armed guard with a flashlight was stationed next to my banda for the night, and could assist me if I needed to leave for any reason (but again, I couldn’t help but feel humbled at the dedication and bravery of his profession, and I was so grateful for him!) I heard elephants and lions twice respectively, and listened to the constant sounds of the birds, warthogs, hippos, and insects as I slept like a baby for the second night in a row. (Or as Noor says, “I slept like a baby, without the crying!”)
The next morning began just as the previous one had—5:30am wake up, 6am breakfast, and 6:30am departure. This time, we loaded the truck and headed back toward Kampala, stopping at the Kalinzu rainforest along the way for a morning of chimpanzee trekking. We hiked through the dense forest for about half an hour before locating the chimpanzees stationed in the tall trees above. The forest was so thick and beautiful, and it reminded me so much of the beautiful time I spent hiking alone in Monteverde, Costa Rica back in January.
Once we located the chimps, we stopped and watched for about an hour. I camped out on the rainforest floor and just took it all in. While it was fun to watch the chimps, to me it was even more fun to listen to them talk to each other. Sadly, it was hard to get any good pictures of them, but I will post some videos of the sights (and especially the sounds!) to my Instagram soon!
After spending a few hours in the rainforest, we briefly visited the Ankole Tea Estate before hopping back on our safari truck and making the long journey back to Kampala. We stopped in Mbarara and Masaka again, as well as at a local roadside produce stand where I bought fresh mangoes for 1000 UGX (about 30 cents USD).
Once I finally made it home, I was so tired, so dirty, but oh so satisfied from the beauty and magic of the Western Rift Valley. While I was fortunate to take in all of this beauty on holiday, I am moved to recognize the economic challenges that so many local people there face. I am so grateful for their hospitality—the number of times children and adults alike waved at our safari truck is innumerable. I was especially humbled to stay in such a luxurious place knowing that the villages around me had none of this. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts lately about economic opportunity and disparity in Africa, which I’ll write about soon. But I’m forever changed in a positive way by how the people welcomed me and our group into their home for a few very special days.
Hi, I’m Gracie, a 28 year old New Yorker, native Alabamian, law student, and lover of travel. I’m excited to share my journey with you.
I started this blog to encourage and inspire people to travel, no matter their age, background, or prior travel experience. I left the US for the first time just a few years ago, and recently I’ve had the opportunity to travel across 5 different continents–just me and and my trusty backpack! I hope the information and stories I share will help readers travel with confidence and purpose. I also look forward to using this blog to share my thoughts about current events within the US and around the world in an effort to promote dialogue and understanding across the political spectrum.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath