Inspiring Women

Yes indeed, more weeks have dashed past us here in the UK and as ever such an enormous amount has happened at the Big Beyond sites out in Africa, it’s hard to sum it all up to be honest and never fails to amaze. So noted, expect more regular snippets from now on!!

For now I want to firstly tell you a little bit (or perhaps quite a lot!) about how one very inspirational woman (Cheryl) travelled all the way from Australia to join the Big Beyond team in Uganda for just three weeks and brought seriously admirable passion and experience to the local women that she described as “resilient, loyal and inspirational”.

“I recently had the privilege of working with rural women in southern Uganda as a volunteer with Big Beyond. All the groundwork was done so I could come into this community and immediately start working with the women. These women were farmers and business women – inspirational. The process started by asking the farm women of Nombe village to share their dreams. Their answer was not what I expected but reinforced the professionalism and determination of these women. They wanted to know the acid/alkaline balance or ph of their soil. This would enable them increase its fertility; grow more and different crops; gain access to markets, with the end result being an increase in their income to pay school fees for their children.” (Cheryl August 2012)

Cheryl expressed how she was blown away by what the women said and her programme evolved from there.

And I also want to tell you a little about how one more very inspirational women ventured from the depths of the UK’s corporate world, grabbed the baton from Cheryl, and evolved the women’s empowerment and mentoring programme. She kick-started an innovative work experience platform for the girls in secondary school as part of it.

“It has been such a privilege to be welcomed into the local community at Nombe and Rubuguri. To have a month where the responsibilities of home life can be left behind and your focus is trained onto trying to help and make a difference is something I will never forget…I loved working with the girls and had a weird sense of pride when they went to the clinic and met the warden and asked questions about nursing and student portering … With this project I would have happily continued with this forever and a day.” (Holly September 2012)  

The challenge?

In this rural corner of Uganda, well a lot of Africa in reality, women have their lives mapped out for them from the day they’re born. And it’s usually what their mum, grandmum and sisters do too, and also quite often what husbands expect. They work enormously hard to keep the household running, the children fed, the water fetched, the family bathed, the food cooking on the fire, the fields dug, seeds planted, crops harvested and eventually the kids off to school. The men traditionally take the role of heading out in search of income to buy the household oil, salt, soap and to afford the school fees. This isn’t intending to be a feminist comment in any way, but not all men in truth really achieve that, want to achieve that and are quite good at relaxing! Not all, but some. And, although it’s definitely becoming less the norm, men sometimes have more than one wife and their efforts are therefore spread across huge families. And, with younger girls now more educated than their elders because of new local educational opportunities that have emerged over the years, it’s creating greater aspirations amongst the female population. These attitude shifts don’t always translate to significant change but I have to say the potential for both women and men in this little corner of Uganda is really exciting, and why not.

Beneath all this tradition is a big range of remarkable women that would love to succeed no less than a women living in London or New York, with ‘success’ of course not having just one meaning in this world, and not a sad erosion of culture with females aiming for something new, or disrespect and one-up-man-ship over men, but humanity quite simply striving to play their part in making their lives and those around them better. Also adapting positively to the changing environment around them. Here may not be about job titles, suits and salary raises, but yes, it’s about hard work, determination, motivation and vision. And capability.

In taking on a ‘development’ challenge in Africa women are recognised as a powerful platform. It’s been said to me so many times over the last few years by different local people in Africa that ‘if you work with the women you work with the men’. It’s not that Big Beyond have been ignoring women at all but we’re now starting to put more emphasis on putting their unique issues to one side and specific projects that empower their voices, identify relevant solutions together and help strengthen that platform.

In July we were very lucky to welcome Cheryl on to the Big Beyond team in Uganda. She got us thinking even more. Cheryl’s 59, runs her own successful company in Victoria, Australia called Leading Industries, and her placement combined her experience with women and motivating people, in business and her passion and skills in photography to help us achieve our project goals. Cheryl was on the one hand aiming to help us establish the women’s arm of the business clinic and took it one step further by setting the foundations for a truly inspirational programme we’re so excited to be building upon – community mentors.

Diverse days in the lives of Ugandan women 

Some more of the insightful and wondeful pics of ‘a day in the life of a Ugandan women’ from Cheryl’s photography task in her volunteer placement… many will now be used to tell a story in the community cultural centre for the local people and for their visitors. They will celebrate role models as much as cultural tradition.

 

Making dreams a reality 

This is one story of how inspirational women travelled to stay with us, inspired and built the confidence of women on the other side of the world, and learnt just as much too. Memories that stay with different people forever.

“On the way to Itambala [through the valley from the Big Beyond house to the local demonstration farm] it was quite quiet, but just walking rhythmically with the women along the valley and then on the way back, just being part of this amazing group of women who were sharing what they had learned at this demonstration farm… and so it’s the communal sense of being a part of the group of women. It’s been amazing.” (Volunteer Cheryl, 2012)

Cheryl spent time meeting a range of local women to chat about their dreams and to learn the realities of life in Uganda. This helped her contribute ideas to help them achieve today’s dreams of tomorrow. She highlighted the need to work towards accessing markets, expert advice on farming techniques, soil erosion and fertility, business planning, financial management and visits to other local fields implementing novel methods of producing different crops. She also connected a group of women to a farming co-operative we’re supporting in the local town as steps towards solving some of the challenges. She encountered frustrations with local community based organisations putting barriers in the way, disillusioning moments that she tackled head-on and she also experienced some of the warmest moments of her life. What a lot can happen in 3 weeks!

“The women in this community came together to plan, work and create – they would dig in the fields, cart water from the spring, weave baskets, attend church, organise family and community celebrations and wakes.  They also saved together through a saving circle to ensure there was always money available in time of need. They also supported and challenged each other when they saw the need. They really enjoyed spending time together – the laughter and talking was a great indicator. 

Many of these women were doing several jobs (as well as being mums, wives and daughters-in-law) and some had established businesses in the town. They identified creative market niche opportunities e.g. charging mobile phones (with no electricity in town, one woman purchased a solar panel and was able to charge people’s phones – on market day that was her main business); wedding planner, dress designer and maker.

These women were amazing but always focused on their children and their education by generating wealth that they could control.” (Cheryl 2012)

 

Cheryl talks passionately about the incredible women she met in Uganda and worked alongside. She identified 8 mentors for the community. Some were related to life and some business.  One, a head of a local school, listened to the radio every Friday to hear snippets from around the world (there’s no TV here) and heard about life skills, role models and enjoyed introducing what she learnt to her community. Another (Annet you can see below) an entrepreneur that invested in a solar panel to charge people’s phones on busy market day, is a wedding planner and wedding dress maker and has a pharmacy simple looks for opportunities and goes for it – she told Cheryl she was already living her dream – and Cheryl saw her and her husband as a model couple because they had found the balance between the cultural tradition and living their own dreams. Cheryl hopes to see “more Annet’s coming out of the woodwork”. Women are also building their own savings circles to build more insurance for the family.

Aspiring young ladies

Cheryl experienced how kids are not really used to talking in school classes so by combining forces with another inspiring volunteer, Akila (a teacher from Canada), they introduced some fantastic and interactive activities to get the girls talking more confidently about their dreams, who is there to support that and how determined they were to achieve it. Akila added great value to the projects and another blog (although very delayed!) will be posted about her work building the capacity with the teachers soon. Cheryl said that these days, forget babies, they’re interested in careers.

“The teenage girls also shared their dreams during the workshops conducted at schools and conversations as we walked. They want to be engineers, teachers, nurses, park rangers, trekking guides, midwives, agriculturalists and nuns. It became clear that some of the inspirational women would make great mentors to the girls and other women who were not yet as confident or financially self sufficient. Eight women were approached and were delighted to become part of the first group of mentors. We conducted a workshop for the mentors and they reinforced why they were chosen. They were confident, successful, resourceful and had generous hearts so they were prepared to support, guide and resource others. The women included business women, educators, farmers, and trekking porter. They will make a huge contribution to the future of women in this community”. (Cheryl 2012)

 

 

Experience Exchange 

Volunteers are sharing their experience with the local people.

Local people are sharing their experience with volunteers.

Local people are also now sharing their experience with each other.

Volunteers are also of course sharing their experience to enrich the Big Beyond bigger picture and vice versa

 

So Holly, age 40, arrived from the UK to take a short break away from her busy 20 year career in retail property and at the bridge between working for Zara and her new role at Monsoon (congrats on the new job and good luck!). Amongst other projects, she was allocated the task of meeting 22 secondary school girls to follow on innovating the concept of their mentoring programme. Listening carefully to the career dreams, Holly explored the area to find relevant people with those careers to meet the girls and advise. This included the health centre, school head mistress, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), etc. Since then, UWA have suggested opportunities for them to gain work experience alongside the park rangers and also being porters in their school holidays. UWA are also happy to invite the girls to make and sell sweet treats for gorillas trackers at the end of their day. We’re excited to see developments there. These links with UWA could be one excellent integration of local people into the national park’s success.

Both Holly and Cheryl did an awesome job joining the dots and linking it up which is what Big Beyond’s all about. Cheryl explained she was linking the girls to the women and linking the women to the farming cooperative. Thank you.

Cheryl said one of her most powerful experiences with Big Beyond was initially feeling the instinct to give money to local friends when meeting people expressing such need for schools fees, etc, but realising that they honestly stood in much better stead if she didn’t. She said it was a powerful learning for her although tough.

“The resources within the community are significant for the girls that I met who really need support and guidance and advice and that there’s local women who I met who would provide that, so that I really am convinced that Big Beyond’s approach on empowering the women rather than giving handouts is absolutely the way to go.” (Cheryl) 

We’re continuing to build on the work of Cheryl and Holly at the moment if you want to contribute out there lets chat about it… answers@bigbeyond.org or +44 (0)800 6446203