Nicole is a Raleigh-bred music lover who has a passion for conscious business and social enterprise, especially in the fashion world. She is currently on an internship adventure in Kampala, Uganda working in design and product development for Sseko Designs, a footwear and accessory company that uses fashion to educate and empower women.
Working in a developing country is never dull. In America constant electricity, clean water, and working toilets are all things we take for granted. In Uganda it’s a great day when we have all three!
Sseko Designs uses fashion to provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women pursuing dreams and overcoming poverty; the Sseko women are like a family that I get to see every work day. I have Sseko mothers, Sseko aunties, and Sseko sisters. When I am sick they call me to check on me. When I am at the market I pick up extra pineapple to share at lunch time. All of the smells, sights and sounds are different in Kampala. I’ve forgotten what silence is like. There is the radio blasting a mix of Luganda and English. The wind rushing through your hair on the back of a boda as you breathe in dust. There is the rain and the mud. There are the kids that run down the street after you yelling “Mzungu! Mzungu! // White person! White person!”. This is Africa. I never understood that saying until now.
A typical day at Sseko starts with me untangling myself from my mosquito net, pulling myself up from bed, and grabbing some fruit and yogurt before I run out the door. I have my trusty boda boda (motorcycle) driver James take me to the warehouse every day, so I jump on the back of his bike and say “togende! // we go!” as we start the 35 minute boda drive across the city. Kampala is like any other city in that it has morning traffic. Luckily, the bodas don’t follow any form of traffic laws and we are able to zip around and through most of the jam.
Once I get to the warehouse, I sit and eat breakfast with the ladies and drink Ugandan tea, which is basically just plain black tea with a few heaping teaspoons of sugar...Ugandans love sweet drinks. At 8:30 we begin work for the day; for me that means supervising accessory production, designing new items, sourcing materials, and doing whatever else comes up. Lunch is a traditional Ugandan meal: rice and beans, matooke (mashed plantains) and ground nut sauce, cassava and beans, basically any meal that is heavy on starches. We talk, we laugh, and I learn some new phrases in the different tribal languages.
Lunch is my favorite part of the day because that's when I really get to learn about the people I work with: we ask questions back and forth about Uganda and America, tell silly stories, listen to music, and sometimes they will share memories of their past with me. It is at those moments when I really feel the differences in our lives. I can not imagine growing up in a hut, surviving on the land, and finding myself hiding from rebels in the bush. Dealing with the loss of family members, spouses, and children due to AIDS, rebel killings, and malaria. These are the facts of life for some Ugandan women, but it is not what defines them. These women are strong, vibrant, and some of the happiest people I know.
After work, I get on a matatu (taxi/bus) and head to town with the ladies. The way to really meet somebody is in a matatu, sometimes there are around twenty people crowded inside this van that comfortably seats twelve. The first ride drops off in town, near the Old Taxi Park, one of the craziest places I have ever been. I pick my way through vendors, matatus, and bodas to the one that goes to my neighborhood: Nsambya Kirombe. I usually walk to the veggie stand on my way home and buy some produce for dinner.
The shoes and accessories Sseko women produce are sold across America. The purchase of Sseko products directly supports these incredible people and provides scholarships to the next class of change-makers in Uganda. The power of you, the customer, is huge in this part of the fashion world. If every person was conscious about where their clothing, shoes, and bags came from, I think most world issues would be wiped out. Companies are beginning to pop up internationally with different missions: to educate and empower women in developing countries, to use all natural materials, to provide fair wages, to provide classes and mentorships to better prepare people for the modern world. Even the Triangle is home to some: Feelgoodz produces footwear that is all natural and made with fair wages in Asia and Central America. Redress Raleigh gives people the knowledge to make eco-conscious apparel choices and connects designers, producers, and retailers to promote sustainability.
The conscious business movement is picking up momentum internationally and locally; I hope it continues that way. The women at Sseko have stolen my heart; I love each and every one of them and hope that Sseko continues to grow and help even more women in Uganda. Conscious customers are the way of the future: only positive results can come from a partnership of fashion and good.