Witchcraft! Voodoo, Juju, Makutu, Magic, Juok, Uchawi… Whatever you call it, every culture has its own version of traditional beliefs. Normally this belief system is focused around good things: healing, cleansing, fortune telling, bringing the rains, prosperity, fertility, love, etc.  In Uganda, our traditional beliefs focus primarily on ancestor altar

Ancient ancestors poses trees and landmarks where people go to pray, bring their sick children, smoke herbs… the list is LONG. Normally, the prayers are accompanied by offerings such as local beer, milk, money, and the burning of wood and herbs.  Babies have strings tied around their waists which hold charms to ward off illness, bring prosperity in the future, and even make the babies’ bum grow bigger!

Often families build houses of out of mud, brick, and grass thatch behind their homes for their spirits to live in. There is a special box in the back of the house where the spirits hide during the day, then at night the spirits come out to inhabit the house and absorb the small offerings of milk, beer, animal blood, and meat their descendants have left for them.

ssolongo, balibawo in his shopWhen building a house, the inhabitants must slaughter an animal such as a goat or chicken. The blood is spilt over the foundation and the animal’s life and blood is offered up to the ancestors to protect the home and the family inside. The animal is then cooked and the family feasts. Even in modern Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, many people slaughter chickens over their new cars so the ancestors can protect them from automobile accidents!

Talismans made of trinkets and animal parts are often kept in the home or on a person’s body to watch over him and ward off harm. Sometimes these are commissioned by the person needing the protection, but they are often given as gifts from friends or from community elders and family during the recipients rite of passage, for example, following a boy’s circumcision ceremony.

Our antique pre-independence East African coins are a direct link to the ancestors because the ancestors actually used them! The coins are tied to the babies’ waists and the great-great grandparents are asked to protect the child from diseases such as cholera, measles, and polio. During divination, instead of casting bones, here the Balibawo throws a variety of old shells, coins, and trinkets. He then reads how they land. When families hold ceremonies where they communicate with their past relatives, they often adorn themselves with long flowing necklaces made of raffia fiber with trinkets and coins tied in.

Grassroots Uganda on the other hand, uses these coins to make very cool jewelry. We buy them from villagers, and basically reinvent them using our funky West African trade beads, recycled glass beads, and bone beads to both preserve the coins character, and use it for something… a bit more modern.

When you buy our coin jewelry, you are not only supporting Grassroots Uganda and our women, you are supporting the villagers from whom we purchased the coins, and you are buying a little piece of the people’s, and Uganda’s, history.

Loop de Loop, how to make a basket ?

Have you ever tried weaving a basket? It is a long, tedious, and brain numbing process. That said, the end result isthe fibers for making baskets (usually) a beautiful piece that you can  keep with you for years. Since most of us do not have days on end to dedicate to basket weaving, it is much easier to simply buy them from Grassroots Uganda as we have just completed putting Lwazi Women’s Group through a basket training workshop!

We have actually been making and selling baskets for years. The colorful ones are made from buso (raffia) fibers wrapped around reeds. The buso is stripped from the outer casing of the fat part of a palm leaf, then dried in the sun for several days. It is then dyed in bright colors or left natural. As the woman is weaving the basket, she actually weaves the design into the basket as she makes it, which is A LOT of starting, stopping, changing colors, etc. Now if I tried doing this it would likely look like a drunken rainbow vomited. However, our ladies have design weaving down to a science!

The banana fiber baskets are actually even more difficult to make as the banana fibers are softer than the buso, making wrapping the basket rings and keeping the basket tight and solid more difficult. Banana fibers are stripped from the outer casing of specific banana trees. They are dried, then cut into thin strips which are used for the weaving. A piece of bent wire acts as a chunky needle to pull the fibers through, and knots and tied are expertly hidden behind other layers of fibers. The banana fibers are naturally a variegated brown, and the colors of the fibers result in the colors of the basket.

For our basket training workshop, we brought in Rose Kulabako from St Isaac’s women’s group to do a seven day training with 23 ladies of Lwazi Women’s Group in Mbale.  The workshop was fun and a complete success. For everyone except the chickens, who often ended up being lunch.

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Digging out of Poverty

Grassroots Uganda is not all crafts. We have many other fantastically fun things that we do. My new personal much-loved project is Peace Demonstration Farm.

Peace Farm was started in September 2012 by Grassroots Uganda in collaboration with Fred Kyakonye and his late wife Peace. The purpose of Peace Farm is to lead by example and show people that through hard work, dedication, and an open mind, they can use farming as a viable business, instead of merely subsistence farming.

The available market in Uganda is changing. At any given time there are about 26,000 American in the country alone, not including the plethora of Europeans, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, and Asians who are pouring in each day. By planting a fresh variety of cash crops to cater to the new and ever changing multi-cultural market, our farmers can tap into a HUGE available revenue stream.

The problem is that Ugandans (like my Grandpa) are VERY set in their ways. If their family has been growing cassava and maize on the same plot of land for the last 200 years, then dang nab it they are going to do the same! *Sigh* The reason we are leading by example, is to help overcome this cultural barrier. Most of what we are growing is available, but considered village food for children, so adults are reluctant to grow it commercially.  When people see us growing these crops, see the farm grow, and the farms beneficiaries prosper, it can help mobilize them to ‘drink the proverbial koolaid’ and start growing with us!

bell peppers grown at peace farms UgandaOur crops include mulberries, raspberries, strawberries, star fruit, sour sop fruit, sweet corn, colored sweet bell peppers, (really cool) purple beans, zucchini, lettuce, and varieties of western squash.

As growing our crops on a commercial level takes substantially more effort than growing local varieties of foods; we are also promoting and implementing new and innovative (for Uganda at least) farming techniques. These include raised bed gardening, raised compost heaps, fertilizing, mulching, crop rotation, aerating the soil, garden planning, and in front of beds

We have started selling our yields at Farmers Markets around Kampala, and our newest initiative it to dig a well, and install a solar pump with a drip irrigation system so we can easily water our crops year round. Our water is currently being hauled in jerry cans  on a bicycle from 3 kilometers away! Fortunately, we have received a grant from Water for Humanity for $5,000, so we just have $5, 584 left to go until the well is completed!

Stems of success

Priorities are different for everyone, and we adapt to the comfort of our individual lifestyles. What is a priority for me, may not necessarily be a priority for you. Such is the case with the women of Grassroots Uganda.

Over the past six years, we have brought over $180,000 in income to our ladies. We work with five Women’s Groups, and our Artist Co-op. These together incorporate about 200 women. Each Group governs itself, and while Grassroots counsels the women in areas like business, money management, and investing in the future, the ladies are free to make their own life choices.

Some of the ladies take these lessons to heart and instead of remaining happy in their grass-thatched mud huts, they build permanent homes made of brick with sturdy roofs and cement floors. They create small businesses like starting roadside kiosks that sell every day commodities such as sugar and soap, and they invest in boda-bodas (motorcycle taxies), from which they make a daily wage. Many ladies start planting cash crops such as Irish potatoes in lieu of basic subsistence farming, and they begin rearing livestock such as pigs, chickens, goats, and even in some circumstances, a milk cow or two.

All of the ladies use the base of their earnings for fundamental needs, such as guaranteeing food for their children, medical care, and their children’s school fees.

As we all know, saving money can be very, very difficult. There are always bills that need to be paid, things that need to be bought, and a plethora of minor crisis that seem to siphon out our coin purses. To make the process of saving money easier, some of the groups have started what they call a “revolving loan,” which is basically not a loan at all. Each time the group receives money from Grassroots Uganda, the ladies take a pre-determined lump sum out of the groups’ earnings and give it to one woman. The woman is then free to use the money however she sees fit. They do this each time they receive money until each woman has taken her turn, then they start all over again.

One of our biggest success stories is that of Aisha Nandudu. Aisha is a single mother of six girls, ranging in age from one to 15 years old, the eldest of which is deaf. She recently separated from her husband, of whom she was the third wife, and with no financial support from him, she is determined to improve her life and ensure that all six of her girls are fully educated, so that their lives will not be as difficult as hers.

When we met Aisha, she was living in a rented hut made of mud and bricks with a basic dirt floor.  Luckily, Aisha speaks English, and she is one of the few people in the extremely rural village of Namakuma that does. Since we have to be able to communicate with our partner groups, she was appointed as the Grassroots Uganda Representative (our liaison so to speak) for the Namakuma Women’s group. Apart from being a member of the women’s group, Aisha is also a member of our Artist Co-op and is the featured artist for our Go Organic! line of seed jewelry, which she gathers from the swamps and rainforest around her. In addition, Aisha weaves baskets and rolls paper beads with her women’s group. She macramés our coin jewelry, plants and sells cash crops, roasts and sells maize on the roadside in the evenings, works as a midwife’s assistant, and as she can read and write fluently, she serves as secretary to the Local Council (modern day village Chief).

Aisha saves her money and has been an awesome example of what someone can accomplish when she believes and invests in herself. Since she started with Grassroots, Aisha has bought an acre of land, built a two bedroom house on it, and enrolled herself in tailoring classes in a nearby village so that she can earn more money with Grassroots Uganda. Since starting her classes, Aisha has begun making the sling bags, aprons, head bands, coin purses, table-runner napkin sets, and potholders.  One day I asked her if I was giving her too much work, and she replied by saying that she would just give up sleeping.

Aisha’s been dealt a hard hand in life. Due to some questionable choices when she was young, her family married her off at a very early age to become the third co-wife of a much older man and live in an extremely rural village with basically no prospects. In a culture where women are still often scene as property, and can be used and discarded as the man sees fit, Aisha knows how challenging a life of poverty can be and she does not want this life for her daughters. Aisha’s first priority is always her daughter’s education. Recently, she’s been sending her daughters to stay with her half brother. She sends money for their school fees and their upkeep. This is much better than the children’s eight kilometer one way walk from Namakuma to the nearest decent school. Aisha’s daughters will be educated. They will be able to get decent jobs, make their own decisions in life, and basically do everything Aisha wishes she could have done for herself.

In closing, Grassroots Uganda can’t help everyone. The world is too big and too complicated. But for a few, hard working women, we can help them change their lives.


The main form of advertising in Uganda is by brightly colored posters glued and nailed onto every available tree, fence, wall, car, and other available surfaces. The postersImage of poster paper which is used for making beads overlap forming layer after layer of colors advertising political candidates, upcoming concerts, and spreading AIDS awareness.

What happens to the extra posters? Or to the misprints? They find their way to the second hand market, are bought by little Ugandan ladies, and eventually start life anew in our countries as beautiful paper bead jewelry.

Image of paper marked for cutting and making beadsSelecting paper is important, as the colors of the paper come together to form the color of the bead. The paper is measured along each side, and marked at a certain distance, say one centimeter. Then lines are drawn back and forth across the paper from one mark to another, forming hundreds of long skinny triangles. The triangles are then cut and set aside for rolling.

The ladies roll the beads over needle or toothpick, starting with the base of the triangle and using their fingers to push and Image of stringing paper beads for varnishingroll the paper over the needle. Slowly the triangle becomes smaller, its paper forming the oval which will soon become a bead. When she reaches the tip of the triangle, a drop of glue is added to the tip, which keeps the entire bead from unraveling. The bead is then slipped off of the needle and the rolling process begins again.

Images of paper beads drying in sunAfter several hundred beads are accumulated, they are strung on fishing line and varnished using a clear lacquer. How many times the beads need to be dipped depends of the thickness of the paper used to make the beads. The lacquer preserved the color of the bead, makes it waterproof and shiny, and smoothes out the ridges made by the layers of paper. Beads are normally dipped 3-7 times. Following the first dipping, the beads are hung and left to dry for 3 days. Then they are dipped again and again, requiring at least 1 day of drying between dips.

Image of colourful paper bead necklaces made by uganda womenAfter the final dipping, the beads need to dry for a minimum of 1 week. Then they can be pulled off the fishing line and popped apart. A razor blade is used to clean up the edges where the beads were touching on the string, and WHALAH! The beads are ready to use!

We use paper beads to create necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rosaries, key chains, and even purses. They are beautiful, eclectic, and they are a great way to recycle while giving a hard working Ugandan woman the empowerment she deserves.