Student sells jewelry to help African villages

An AU student is taking a different approach to conflict resolution in Africa by selling jewelry made by Ugandan communities.

Katie Ryan, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Emily Kassie, a sophomore at Brown University, started the website Pamoja Products after returning from Africa this past summer.

Pamoja means “together” or “one” in Swahili.

Pamoja Products is designed to fund educational development and help two Ugandan communities recover from the country’s sustained conflict between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army.

A percentage of the site’s sales goes directly back to the communities and funds the grassroots program so the communities can become self-sustaining.

“These communities are hard working and incredibly talented,” Ryan said. “They simply need to widen their circle of buyers.”

Birth of Pamoja Products

Ryan received $5,000 last spring from the Department of Performing Arts in the form of three smaller theater scholarships to fund her time in Uganda.

She was awarded the Sylvia and Harold Greenberg Scholarship, the Mary Miller Patton Scholarship and the Friends of the Department of the Performing Arts Scholarship to pursue research in peace and conflict resolution through the arts while there.

Caleen Jennings, former Department of Performing Arts chair, suggested Ryan be considered for the scholarships last spring after speaking with her about her trip. Carl Menninger, head of the Theater Department, awarded Ryan the scholarships at the end of last school year.

While in Uganda, Ryan conducted field research on peace and conflict resolution programs through interviews with representatives of communities, vocational schools, universities, theaters, prisons, shelters and women’s groups. Ryan noted that all the areas that she worked in bore clear signs of the sustained 23-year civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government.

Ryan also performed in a cultural arts festival called Center By Center while in Uganda and participated in workshops put on by East African groups.

“It was not a services trip,” Ryan said. “We were all there for different research projects, but we all had a common bond in the arts. At the workshops, we were the minority; it was by no means Westerners coming in and going ‘this is how you should do things.’”

Pamoja Products focuses on the Ugandan villages of Abayudaya and A River Blue.

Esther Seth, the wife of Abayudaya’s school’s principal, and eight other women in the community make jewelry out of wire, rolled paper and wooden beads. Esther initially started making the jewelry to support the community, and is now the functional head of the community’s finances as well as Ryan and Kassie’s main point of contact with Abayudaya.

All the jewelry made in Abayudaya is all attributed to the work of Esther on the Pamoja Products website because of her work for the betterment of the community.

“Their work is beautiful, but they have a very small market,” Ryan said.

Proceeds are currently going toward the community’s school and will eventually aid the community as a whole.

In A River Blue, extreme poverty hinders community members’ ability to effectively help the students at the vocational school there, according to Ryan. Okweny “George” Ongon established the school in conjunction with the Oloo Primary School to help former child soldiers, sex slaves and children orphaned by the actions of the LRA, said Ryan.

“The school is incredibly poor and has recently been moved from [its] initial building,” Ryan said.

The community is currently struggling to build a new building with separate bathrooms for boys and girls. Many girls drop out of school in Africa once they reach puberty because schools often lack privacy and sanitation, Ryan said.

By May 2012, Ryan and Kassie hopes to sell bags, laptop covers and wallets made by the women of A River Blue.

Pamoja Products on college campuses

Ryan and Kassie are starting Pamoja Products on the college campus level and then plan to branch outward. Ryan thinks AU is the perfect campus to start this project.

“We are an internationally focused community that believes in grassroots projects,” she said. “This is our chance to help a community trying to help themselves.”

She said she sees many overlaps in values between AU groups and the communities Pamoja Products is trying to help.

“What an incredible opportunity for a college campus to help a community grow and watch the impact we all have through the years,” she said.

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