Producers | NAWOU

Who makes our stuff?

Who makes our stuff?

NAWOU, Uganda

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The National Association of Women’s Organisations of Uganda is a cooperative of over 4,000 mainly rural women who help support their families through making wonderful banana fibre and raffia fruit baskets and jewellery from recycled magazine page beads.

They use traditional skills to weave beautiful patterns with a great sense of colour - the more colourful baskets are Nubian designs while the browns and muted earth colours are more typically Ugandan.

There are a great range of designs too, including large winnowers from the North, storage jars from the Kampala districts, and banana leaf mobiles and figures. Uganda, as most African countries, has a very high AIDS rate, widespread poverty and added to this there is still conflict in the north.

Most families will not entirely rely on selling goods but use this as a supplement to subsistence farming - 87% of Ugandans live in rural areas.

Many have bought extra land, built or repaired houses and are sending ther kids to school. One basket maker, Mary, earned enough to build a small brick house with windows and a proper corrugated iron roof. She had saved up a whole year’s money from basket making - at an average of one a day. Joyce, who often comes to the office, has sent her eldest son to university through basket making.

Lovethatstuff has supplied Oxfam UK with the recycled magazine page necklaces and bracelets which has generated more income for the women. We hope to be able to increase sales further to help NAWOU continue their great work.



Barbara Wilson, lovethatstuff director, visits NAWOU

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• Kids at Villa Maria Community primary school
The plane touched down at Entebbe at 5.30 am. It was still dark. I hoped Olive Muwagga from NAWOU would remember to meet me and, as I walked out of the airport I looked round, nothing happened for a few seconds and then a cheerful, smiley person raised a note with my name on. We both burst out laughing - apparently I didn't look anything like my photo. The road to Kampala was fairly quiet though kids were already on their way to school as dawn was breaking.
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• Local kids
Apparently, school starts at 7.30 am and finishes at 4.45 pm and parents generally have to pay, though the government does provide some classes.

The traffic began to get heavy as we reached the outskirts of Kampala, with lorries, cars, minibuses and scooters all jostling along with several belching out thick, black exhaust.
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• Olive and Joyce at the project office
The NAWOU project office supports and represents the work of over 4,000 craftswomen. I saw a great range of basket designs - large winnowers from the North; storage jars from the Kampala districts; vibrant Nubian fruit baskets; soft toys and the most amazing banana leaf mobiles, now on sale in the Brighton Marina shop.

The colours and skill used in basketry were wonderful and I was delighted to see that Olive Muwagga, assistant marketing manager, certainly knew her stuff when it came to quality control.

I saw her test a sample batch of baskets and pronounce them unfit for export. At first this seemed a bit harsh, since each basket takes a full working day to make, but if they are not made tightly enough, they will go out of shape when shipped and then will be no good to sell.
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• Basket maker
I felt great confidence in NAWOU. I'd always thought their products were first class, now I knew why.

Ugandans don't seem to particularly like being photographed, even though many look great on camera, but on the second day we went to one of the women's houses about 20 kilometres outside Kampala and I persuaded the weavers to let me take some photos of them at work.

They were sitting under a beautiful, orange canopy in a lovely, green garden in front of the house that Mary had built with the proceeds from basket making. This was seriously impressive as Mary had saved up a whole year's money from basket making - at an average rate of one a day - and built a house at the end of it. Most modern houses are brick built with corrugated iron rooves and Mary had also had windows fitted.
I felt great confidence in NAWOU. I'd always thought their products were first class, now I knew why.
Barbara Wilson
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• Basket maker
All the women were able to earn a good living, many had bought extra land, built or repaired houses and were sending their kids to school. Joyce, who often came to the office, had sent her eldest child to university through basket making. James, the project driver, tried to get into rather a lot of the photos and he did look rather fetching. He was my best teacher of Lugandan, even though I was a seriously useless student and had to write everything down before it flew out of my brain.

He also showed me lots of trees, fruit and other plants like cassava, yam, green banana, jack fruit, mango and avocado. Apparently 87% of Ugandans live in rural areas and most are subsistence farmers. We visited the Stella Maris primary school, which was just about a kilometre away from Mary's house and this is the school where the weavers' kids go to.
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• Stella Maris primary school
The kids were all pretty excited to see a 'mazungo' or foreigner, many shrieking with delight and running away when I tried to photograph them. I spoke to the head teacher and he asked if I would like to address the school. I said I would. So, all 120 kids were lined up and I asked them which subjects they liked and if they knew anything about animals and food in England.

They all wore school uniform and some of them were boarders. As with other schools I've seen in developing countries, the classrooms were pretty basic - bare brick, blackboards and chalk, no glass in the windows, and not many books. But the teachers had a great rapport with the kids, they were gentle yet firm and the kids obviously respected them. I liked both the head and the director of studies enormously and wondered which school in England would have welcomed a complete stranger in this very open way.

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• Grace at NAWOU craft shop
Later in the week I visited the new NAWOU craft shop and the lovely Grace, who is a strong contender for the warmest smile ever, showed me around. Sadly, they'd had a break-in fairly recently and the double padlock hadn't been much of a deterrent. It seemed that the thieves had taken their time and sorted through to take the items they thought most saleable.

NAWOU had called the police but they weren't interested, so the only solution seemed to be to erect iron bars to prevent access to the doors. Inside they had some nice batiks, intriguing bark bags and paper necklaces. Nearly all the materials NAWOU use are very sustainable: banana leaf fibre, palm leaf, raffia, sisal, tree bark (without having to fell or damage the tree) and recycled paper from magazines.

Paul, the driver from the Villa Maria community, took me to Masaka, south of the equator, near the end of the week. He was a skillful driver, successfully negotiating the many potholes in the long asphalt road that stretched unendingly towards the south. As we turned off the main road, we hit a red dirt road with huge gullies and bumps, which looked pretty treacherous after a heavy rainfall.
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• NAWOU craft shop
I saw women making the most amazingly coloured straw mats and was impressed by the community there. They had organic gardens and fields, which they managed with interplanting, so they had no need for pesticides. There was a shoe workshop, a convent, a deaf school, two secondary schools and a primary school. Women here made baskets too, which they supplied to NAWOU. NAWOU then check, market and ship baskets abroad for a very modest percentage. They also sell to the home market but, like most countries, Uganda needs export sales to generate income.

I found the Ugandans I met most charming and hospitable. When I got back to London, people seemed to be scurrying about but not in Uganda, they are cool and calm. They had the nicest handshakes and were the most solicitous about health I've met. Lots of the village kids I wanted to photograph were scared and ran away at first, thinking I was going to kidnap them. Bikes were loaded up everywhere and people worked really hard. The rains were late and people said the seasons are changing. They were courageous, kind, and we laughed a lot. Thank you NAWOU. Now I'm going to try and sell more of your lovely stuff.