Born in 1963, Zena Khalila and her family fell victim to the Amin war, forcing them to flee their home in Uganda in search for refuge in South Sudan.
Stuck in a foreign country, without education or a business, Khalila’s father taught her how to weave. At around 12 years of age, she had fully learnt and was now weaving for commercial purposes. While in South Sudan, they survived on earnings from the weavings.
Shortly after peace was restored in Uganda, Khalila and her family returned to their home in Bombo. Here, she started a small business selling tomatoes and other fresh fruits in the market while maintaining the weaving on the side.
“The market business wasn’t doing so well. The incomes were very meager, so I would mostly prioritize my weaving,” she narrates. Khalila weaved at the market, made some sales there and later travelled to sell the other products in Kampala.
“We would move to sell the baskets and other crafts around Buganda road, Kampala road and along the streets but it was hard. Sometimes you would not sell because the buyers wouldn’t buy so you would waste transport and yet have made no sales,” Khalil recounts.
Just like Khalila, many women in Bombo depend on weaving for commercial purposes and they too experienced the same challenge of scanty market. Weaving is a community activity amongst the Bombo Nubian women.
“We would trek from Bombo to Bat valley where we sold our crafts at the time. It was quite hectic,” said 47-year-old Umar Hadija, another craftswoman in Bombo.
At the invitation of Maria Baryamujura, the founder of COBATI (Community Based Tourism Initiative Uganda), a non-government organization focused on promoting tourism as a tool for sustainable rural development, the MTN foundation sought to empower and transform the women’s lives.
“In 2009, when I first came to the Nubian community in Bombo, women were hawking their crafts around trading centers, their children went without lunch at school and the majority were using traditional birth attendants during child delivery and some were experiencing domestic abuse as a result of poverty,” Maria Baryamujura, an award-winning social entrepreneur and the founder of COBATI Uganda revealed during an interview with the lionesses of Africa.
Through this partnership, COBATI trained the Nubian women to improve the quality of their weaving and equipped them with professional business skills to ensure they make quality products that would also meet the market demand.
MTN also funded the establishment of a roadside craft center which has since become the hub for these women and their products.
Thereafter, the MTN foundation through COBATI presented marketing opportunities for products made by the women through invitations to exhibitions around different areas in Kampala.
As a result, the community has since enjoyed visits from high profile members of society including the Nnabagereka of Buganda, the South African high commissioner to Uganda and the former MTN Uganda CEO Thembo Khumalo.
According to Khalila, who is now the chairperson of one of the handcraft groups with a membership of 30 women, the craft center has enabled the women attain market for their products and enabled them earn an income without stepping out of Bombo.
“We no longer have to move out of town to sell our products. People come here and make orders which we share amongst ourselves as women to enable each of us earn some money,” Khalila said explaining that she has been able to take her four children through school from her earnings. Widowed at an early age, she has also been able to cater for her daily necessities through earnings from the crafts.
Similarly, with income from the crafts, Hadija said she now earns enough money to meet her needs, educate her children and also save some money. The handcraft center has attracted people from different corners of the country and world to Bombo.
Ismail Kharim, the Bombo community mobiliser said at least 15-20 visitors are recorded on a monthly basis with some of foreign origin making orders as big as 100 or more.
Due to the organized nature of the women at the craft center, the price of products has since risen implying that the women now earn even more money from their weaving skill.
“Before the MTN COBATI partnership, a Nubian mat would go for Shs 30,000 but now it is at Shs 150,000. Traditional food covers were at Shs 20,000 but now they are around Shs 80,000- Shs 90,000. A fruit basket used to go for Shs 5000 and now it is at Shs 35,000- Shs 50,000,” he notes explaining that some of the buyers stem from the regional market in South Sudan and Kenya.
In addition, Baryamujura said with funding from the MTN foundation also introduced homestead tourism to Bombo by training the women to turn their homesteads into homestays where they now host domestic and international tourists.
A total of about 450 women have been impacted by the partnership over the years. In the future, Khalila hopes to start her own business and pass the mantle of weaving to her children who also learnt the practice.