Young women in a war-torn region of Uganda are learning to sew. With each stitch comes greater confidence in their skill level and excitement at the prospect of earning an income. They also are grateful to the Holy Cross sisters who are guiding their paths out of poverty and despair.
Five years ago, the Archbishop of Gulu asked Holy Cross sisters to minister to the people of Koch Goma village. The two decades-long reign of terror that was the Sudanese civil war had devastated this northern region of Uganda. Thousands of Ugandans were murdered or raped, and hundreds of children were abducted and enslaved into the foreign army. Thousands more were forced from their homes and into internally displaced persons camps.
With the threat of war subsiding, the sisters answered the archbishop’s request. Families were moving back to what was left of their villages, though there was little with which to restart their lives. In Koch Goma, the sisters counseled residents. They provided a safe space for working through trauma and compassionately walked with them in companionship.
Many young women had been born in the camps and years later gave birth to their own children there. They pleaded for help in rising above the widespread violence and destruction that left them with no prospects. They had no opportunity for schooling in the camps and they lacked self-confidence. Still, they had hope that given a chance, they could craft a decent life for themselves and their children. Out of this plea the sisters fashioned the idea to teach the women a viable trade. Such skills would allow them to generate critically needed income and find stable ground socially, spiritually and psychologically.
Mastering the techniques
Five young mothers, ages 14–26, became the pioneers of the program, headed by Sister Lilian Briege Awino, CSC. The sisters set up a training center in Gulu with space provided by the archdiocese. They equipped the small room with five sewing machines, an embroidery machine and supplies.
The trainees moved to Gulu and shared a one-room house within walking distance of the training center. Sisters paid the rent and provided food, knowing the young women required proper nourishment to learn new skills. Then began five months of mastering the techniques needed to make clothing and embroider logos. In only a few months, the quality of the trainees’ products rose significantly.
By establishing partnerships with two local schools for student uniforms, the sisters provided a ready-made market for the program’s output. Previously, schools had been purchasing uniforms from vendors in far-away Kampala, the country’s capital. But with this close resource, schools could save time and money by investing in their own people and community.With the selling of the shirts, blouses, trousers, shorts and skirts to the schools, the program generated its first income. It was a happy day when the participants received a stipend for their months of hard work.
With the completion of the five-month program, the young women returned to Koch Goma to in turn train 15 others. The sisters secured space in Koch Goma, supplying it with manual sewing machines since electricity in the village is sporadic. This pattern of receiving training and then training others is a hallmark of the program. In this way, exponentially greater numbers of women are empowered to achieve stability in their lives.
Originally called St. Matilda Young Mothers Association, the sisters recently rechristened the program. It is now the Sisters of the Holy Cross Empowerment Centre — St. Matilda, and it is poised for growth. Currently, Sister Dorothy Achieng, CSC, directs the program with assistance from Sister Beatrice Wangatia, CSC, and Sister Martha Nambi, CSC.
The need for growth is not just a desire—it is a pressing issue. The sisters have a long waiting list of women who are eager to make a living, provide for their families, and discover the self-worth that comes from independence and achievement.
The sisters plan to expand into additional space with even more sewing and embroidery machines. They also will purchase a knitting machine to make the sweaters that are part of the standard school uniform. These additional machines are made possible by individual donors and the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters. The goal is to train 50 women annually. They also are developing partnerships with more schools and the diocese, for which they create liturgical vestments and linens.
Their dreams reach even farther, with the hopes of starting a catering school and providing other hands-on skills training. To this point, the Congregation’s kind donors and grants have made the program possible. But the sisters are striving to make it self-sustainable; they know it is a reachable vision.The sisters are excited to witness this growth, despite the challenges brought by the pandemic. They are especially pleased to see the freedom the program brings for women and their children. Where war once raged, hope is alive in Koch Goma.
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