HOW IT ALL BEGAN
THE WOMEN UNDER THE MANGO TREES
by Esther Kwaku
ONE AMAZING WOMAN
In a former life when I worked at a disability charity I got the chance to meet a formidable woman called Dorothy. We were in Gulu, in the real north of Uganda and back then Dorothy was working as part of a strong collective of activists, doers and change-makers who came together under a mango tree for a common reason - to make sure that women with disabilities were treated as equal beings – by their families, by their communities, society...and by anyone who viewed them as less than capable.
BRILLIANCE IN ACTION
Dorothy had me mesmerised from the get-go. I marvelled as I watched her day in and day out. I followed her on outreach trips to various households where she listened, counselled, advised or simply provided a supportive shoulder for women to lean on. We heard about their struggles and concerns but also about what they wanted in life. "They really have it tough." I remember thinking.
To make a trip like this is heavy going. It's not all as straightforward as it may seem. In remote places like Gulu you don't just rock up in a town and everything is there. Once you hit a place like this you often have to get on a motorbike and travel inbound. Deepinbound...into the bushes. We're talking a 40 min ride or an hour to rural villages, see a family there, come back into town, rest a little, dive back in, return to town, start again. You get the picture. If you're lucky you might get a good connecting road to shortcut you to another village...save yourself a few hours. If you're lucky. Dorothy had been doing these trips every day never questioning how she was going to get this all done. Somehow, some way, she would get it done.
At the end of each day we'd talk about what we'd seen, what these ladies were sharing with us and also their frustrations as a team. As one of Dorothy's colleagues told me:
It's an odd position to be in, knowing that you're trying to 'do your bit' but feeling some angst of something missing. Knowing that there's more you want to do but it's not really in your brief. Believing that high-level, society-wide changes are fundamental but so is food...and the shame when you come on your period but you can't pay for sanitary towels. Well, that's not right. Transport, school fees, water - it's basic stuff for goodness sake. People need it.
I knew right then that I wanted to do more than fundraise – not to discredit my 15 years' experience, I loved it for the most part. However, at this precise moment, in the here and now, sat with those out in the field who make it all happen I could sense that this particular aspect of my career was coming to a speedy end and I simply wanted to go beyond.
THE QUESTION THAT DISRUPTED MY WORLD
As I left Gulu wrapped up in the amazing stories, ideas and a total buzz about me, I asked Dorothy "what do you actually need in order to do what you really need to do?" . She explained that if they just had a bit of kit - better computer, wi-fi, more people passing on knowledge and resources so that they could do things for themselves - do their own funding applications… get more motorbikes, maybe even 5 motorbikes, then that’s 5 more women able to go out and help women just like she was doing.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
I returned to the UK. And did nothing. I continued my fundraising for a couple more years and then it hit me. I lost my mojo. The buzz and energy I felt - gone. And I know what it was...it was that burning feeling that I should be doing something different for Dorothy and her ‘merry band’ of change-makers. Helping her to access the tools and resources she really needed to make their jobs and their lives a bit easier and more effective.
So I quit my job and I took a bit of time out to think, digest and work out how I could get back to Dorothy.