The attempt to find tree-climbing lions yesterday was, alas, a complete bust. First of all, the heavens opened up and it poured. The lions — along with nearly all of the other wildlife, apart from one new species of antelope called a topi and a lone, sodden bull elephant — took shelter from the torrential rain somewhere far out of sight. But second of all, it became quickly clear that my battered belly was in no way ready yet to handle jolting along over a wet, muddy, pothole-strewn safari park road for multiple hours. By the time Innocent got me back to the lodge, I was pretty thoroughly miserable.
But I didn’t stay that way too long; I really am recovering. When I push it too far, I bounce back much faster than I did a few days ago. Once I was back where there was no jolting and I could get out of clothes that had elastic around my waist, I rallied quickly enough that when they offered me spaghetti for lunch I realized that, for the first time in days, I was actually hungry. I accepted the spaghetti and ate most of it, grazing gently and carefully over the course of the afternoon.
We hadn’t had anything else planned that day — and even if we had, it would probably have had to be cancelled due to the pouring rain — so I spent the day relaxing and felt almost normal by the end of it. Went to sleep early and woke up with enough energy to pack my own bags for a change, as today we were on to the heart of the Ugandan part of my trip: the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
I’m still very wary of my own limitations. I’m normally fairly physically fragile under the best of circumstances, and my fibromyalgia is typically triggered by exertion, heat and humidity — all of which are available here in abundance. As much recovered as I am, these are still nowhere near the best of circumstances. But today, I gritted my teeth and bounced along in deep discomfort for three hours on dirt roads made worse by yesterday’s pouring rain… because I refused to take the anti-nausea medications that might put me to sleep. I had a date this afternoon with a very special organization, one I had particularly requested to see and I wasn’t going to allow sleepiness to get in the way. It’s an extraordinary community women’s group serving the villages surrounding Bwindi, and it’s called Ride 4 A Woman.
Ride 4 A Woman was founded in 2009, though the seeds were sown many years earlier when a remarkable woman named Evelyn Habasa was growing up, the youngest child of an equally remarkable single mother.
With little work for single women in the area, and eight children to feed, Evelyn’s mother nevertheless managed not only to keep her kids alive, but to send three of them to university. Of Evelyn, the last-born, she made a special request she had not made to the other two scholars. “Don’t take a job in the city,” she asked her daughter. “Come back to the village, and work for the women here who need help.”
Evelyn did, and that changed everything.
The first project she started, and the one from which Ride 4 A Woman takes its name, was to buy a collection of used bicycles and teach a group of women from the surrounding villages to do bicycle mechanics. The plan was to rent them to tourists, so they could bike around the local area. That project largely failed… in part for lack of marketing and in part because it was difficult to convince western tourists that they wanted to try biking the rugged dirt roads in this area. (I’ve been over them myself in a 4×4, and can testify that I wouldn’t want to try it with anything less. It’s painful even in that.) But the important part was that three hundred women showed up, wanting to participate in the project. Clearly, even if bikes weren’t the answer, something needed to be.
So Evelyn tried again. Inspired by some interesting discussions with an Australian visitor who was bringing African fabric products back to her own country, this time Evelyn bought sewing machines. She taught an initial group of fourteen women how to use them, and they began to make anything that could be made out of the beautiful, brightly colored cloths that are the calling card of Africa throughout the world. They leveraged their location on the fringes of Bwindi, and sold their products to the tourists who were in the neighborhood to see the gorillas. That project blossomed, and ultimately Ride 4 A Woman ended up training nearly all of the original 300 members in machine sewing. Only a fraction of that number still work on the premises, but the rest have taken their new knowledge in many and varied directions to help support themselves and their families.
All of the original 300 applicants remain “members,” and the organization keeps track of them. Currently, it’s not technically open to new members on a formal basis, but anyone who shows up seeking help is helped, whether member or no.
By now, Ride 4 A Woman has more than half a dozen major projects, meeting a range of community needs that fairly staggers the imagination. They still run the sewing project at full blast — I bought two of its products myself as gifts, and wished I could afford more; they’re beautiful — and they also have a basketry workshop making intricate reed baskets by hand, with natural dyes. (I bought one of those as well, but couldn’t bear to part with it, so I’ll be keeping that for myself.)
They run a guest house and restaurant, with half the money going specifically to help local women who suffer from domestic violence. The restaurant’s head chef is a local man who went away to school and formerly worked at several high end tourist lodges. In addition to cooking for their paying guests, he is now also teaching some of the women the skills they will need to get jobs in the restaurant industry.
Having realized that one of the crucial needs of the community is good clean drinking water — a need I can fervently understand right now!! — they began a Safe Water project, in which they learned how to filter water so that it’s safe for drinking and then set up safe water stations so that any community member can drop by to get fresh, clean water to take home. It’s not restricted to women, although because of cultural roles in the community, it’s usually either women or children who show up. Speaking of children, they have a school sponsorship project, paying the school fees for more than eighty local children; and soon they hope to start a school of their own.
I did meet Evelyn — she was sitting at a sewing table among the women, picking the seeds out of raw cotton to stuff pillows for a recent order. But I was shown around by a younger woman named Shallon. Like Evelyn, Shallon was born and raised in this area, and made it out to graduate from university. She chose to follow Evelyn’s example, however, and came back with her degree and her knowledge to help the women of her village and those nearby. She’s not the only one; Evelyn mentioned at least one other woman who grew up volunteering at Ride 4 A Woman, went away to university to learn how to help run an organization like this, and then came back to where she’d intended to work all along. These are the lifeblood of the program: the women like Evelyn, who go out and learn the skills of the wider world, but bring them back to use in helping the women of their native community. It’s their skills which will allow Ride 4 A Woman to continue expanding the services they can offer, in such an intelligent and well organized manner.
The women who come to make things here, whether basketry or sewing, get paid a fixed fee for every day they work. They can’t always come every day, and they aren’t expected to. When they do come, they are given breakfast and lunch on the premises as well as their pay, and they are taught how to do any part of the process they don’t know. Ride 4 A Woman tries to keep a steady population of 54 workers at any given time, which is what they can afford to hire; but many more than that have passed through their training program and gone on to start their own small businesses, doing anything from selling fruit and vegetables to sewing the same types of things the parent organization sews.
That pool of trained entrepreneurial women feeds into their last important program: their microfinance plan. Organization members can apply for small loans — usually all they need around here, but often very hard to come by for women without formal credit status — to buy livestock, or rent market stall space, or buy sewing machines, or cellphones, or whatever else they need in order to start a business with their own resources. The membership votes on which applications to grant. If a loan is not repaid on time, some of the women go to talk to the borrower, to discover what’s making it more difficult for her than she’d been expecting. They try to help get her back on track, and the loan invariably gets repaid as soon as the business is on its way again.
Ride 4 A Woman could be forgiven for sitting back to maintain the many programs already under their umbrella, but they’re not doing so. They’ve just begun a livestock program similar to the Heifer Foundation. Realizing that one of the great needs of the community was for families to have that little bit in reserve, to cover an unexpected expense — a child needs a doctor, or the roof springs a final leak you can’t patch and the whole thing has to be replaced — they gave each of a starter pool of recipients a young, healthy female goat shortly after Christmas. The plan is that the first-born kid from each goat will go back to Ride 4 A Woman to be passed along to another family, while all later offspring belong to the recipient to keep. That would give each family something they could sell in a pinch. But also, unless and until it was needed for emergency expenses, they could either consume the milk and the later offspring themselves, or else sell them for whatever needs a little extra money might help with.
Ride 4 A Woman has reduced community hazards ranging from dire poverty to domestic violence, and from lack of education to unsafe water. It’s a small wonder, and I’m so glad I came. My only question now is how many more ways they’re going to find to help. As in so many cases, everything gets better together just as everything gets worse together. Relief from the most dire crises allows for better education, which leads to better understanding of the conservation needs of the community — poaching is a real disaster for the entire area, because without the animals, nobody will come to Bwindi. Through Ride 4 A Woman’s partnership with the Bwindi rangers, local families are coming to understand that better. Women with more economic power in the family leads to greater equality, greater respect, and less domestic abuse. It all fits together, and Ride 4 A Woman has a hand in pretty much every aspect they can think of. They’re thinking of more all the time.
Their website is at www.ride4awoman.org. They have just jumped to the top of my personal charity list. I hope I’ve been able to give you some good reasons to grant them a place on yours. They are also gifted artisans, and both their sewing and their basketry is expert and beautiful work. They accept orders from overseas; their website has that information as well. I’ll be going back to them when I have gifts to buy… or simply can’t resist their beautiful fabrics!
After Ride 4 A Woman, we got back on the worst road yet — and I am personally convinced the worst in the whole of Uganda. I winced and whimpered for another ten minutes until we finished crawling up the side of the mountain to my next lodge. Haven Lodge is, like Ride 4 A Woman, a community project; it’s a tourist center whose profits go into running projects that help the community as a whole, rather than feeding back into the wealth of the company that owns it. Especially coming off of my visit to Ride 4 A Woman, where I’d asked about staying at the guest house but my travel agent had said she didn’t think, with my fibromyalgia, I would be comfortable enough there, I was glad to be staying someplace that benefited the people in this area who are struggling to make better lives for themselves from such a difficult starting point. And honestly, Kristin almost certainly had a point in that, even if we couldn’t have known in advance that I was going to get water-sick on top of the fibro, it turns out that a few extra creature comforts are pretty important to me right now.
Haven has a beautiful setting on the edge of one of the mountains just skirting the Impenetrable Forest. It’s got lovely rooms, and the first real bathtub I’ve seen since my arrival in Uganda… in fact, a bath with a view! There’s a big picture window overlooking the forest, right in front of it, and positioned so that unless they’re hovering in thin air, nobody can see in. I am looking forward to trying it out after dinner. And I will be very, very careful that not a single drop of unauthorized water passes my lips.
For the rest of today, I think, I am going to stay right here and rest, enjoying my room and allowing my stomach muscles to take a break. It’s been a busy day.
Tomorrow, however, is THE day: I am going up into Bwindi to see gorillas in the wild!!! This is what I came to Uganda for. What will they be like? There will be more than a few surprises, that’s for sure — don’t miss it!