Motorbikes, Mbale, and Microfinance March 23 2012


I'm sitting on the curb when the shopkeeper at the fabric store shuffles out, dragging a chair behind her. She smiles encouragingly and I dust myself off before accepting the chair. Perry is perusing bolts of fabric in this closet of a fabric shop. It's a sensory overload with bulging rectangles of color shoved into every available space. Incense permeates the air as it burns steadily before a statue of a Hindu god and the sound of scissors slicing cleanly through fabric punctuates every word. It's intoxicating, but I'm not a shopper and before Perry has had the chance to pick out even one style of fabric, I'm already bored. I retire to the plastic chair.

Dust hangs in the air, muting the colors of Mbale. Its sharp colors, loud noises, and pungent smells are faded, like laundry hanging on the line after too many washes. The sun hits the crowded streets, holding them haphazardly in its light. Smudged white buildings are adorned with rough log scaffolding as taxis, overburdened with trunks and rolled up mattresses, rock precariously over the deep ruts in the road. Children are on their way back to school and their pressed uniforms seem out of place as they walk past the street vendors selling stack of pineapples, leather sandals, used clothing, and avocados. Two women load an enormous bundle onto the head of a young man. He steadies the load with his hand and slides forward through the crowd with an ethereal grace.

Ugandans walk past me, occasionally slowing down to gaze curiously at the mzungu occupying the cracked plastic chair in front of the local fabric shop. I gaze back at them unperturbed, strangely appreciative of our mutual curiosity.

Mbale has an inexplicable appeal to it. It's not Buyobo, but the chaos of its streets is something you can slip into. There is a rhythm here, a beat of the drums that locals instinctively move in time with while foreigners rock awkwardly back and forth, feeling the pull of it all, but unable to move as effortlessly in time with its music.

I first notice this while riding on the back of a motorbike, stuttering through the stop and go traffic. Chickens, pedestrians, trucks, motorbikes, buses, taxis, goats, and cows all fight for the right of way on the pockmarked roads. Eric constantly reminds us to watch out for the motorbikes as they leap forward into the narrow pockets of space between the buses and taxis. Frequently spinning out against the flow of traffic, they cause a high number of traffic accidents, and getting on one is tempting fate. It's also exhilarating, liberating, and perhaps the most authentic way to experience the busy streets of Uganda's prominent cities.

Sitting on the back, bouncing awkwardly behind the driver, dust flies into my eyes and mouth as I clench my hands and attempt to reassure myself with the fact that the driver has left at least two inches between my leg and the massive truck he's currently speeding around.

As I wobble precariously, I watch women weave through the traffic balancing enormous bunches of matoke on their heads. It's just one more reminder that I lack the grace and adaptability to slip effortlessly into the streams of people pushing their lives forward amid a slough of improbable odds.

Perry steps back out into the street with an enormous bag of brightly colored fabric, bold prints that defy the drab reality of a life tangled in poverty's grasp. They're the prints the women in Uganda favor and it emboldens my heart to believe in the chance these women have to extricate themselves from that cycle and build a reality more in line with the brilliant and bold patterns they adorn themselves with, a reality underpinned by choice rather than circumstance.

Back in Buyobo, Olive, Jacqueline, and Allan are demonstrating to me that hundreds of women, like them, within their community, are changing the game. With WMI's help, they're sending their children to school, they're expanding their businesses, they're running for office, and they're feeding my cautious flicker of hope diminished by years of watching firsthand how useless and inappropriate many top-down development programs can be for communities ravaged by war and poverty.

Making our way up the path to the comfortable house alongside Buyobo's main road, a little girl sitting in the dirt smiles and waves. As the evening light recedes from the valley, I wonder what her life will be like in ten years. It's hard to promise anything in this world, but as I look over my shoulder at Olive--strong, beautiful, and determined, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if the women in this community have anything to say about it, this little girl will be offered every opportunity. I smile back, offer my thanks to the world that women like Robyn and Olive exist, and let myself into the house.

Microfinance: What's the Deal? January 18 2012


As Perry and I get ready to embark on our adventure to Uganda for the Women's Microfinance Initiative graduation ceremony, you might be wondering what's up with microfinance and why is Greenlight Apparel supporting it?

Both good questions.

The deal behind microfinance if you're not already familiar with it (or even if you are) is that it provides micro loans to those individuals who otherwise wouldn't be eligible for credit. When you think about the times in your life that you've had to rely on credit (whether it's through a family member, friend, or professional banking institution), it becomes pretty obvious that most of us need some assistance from time to time. Essentially proving the old adage true that it takes money to make money.

I for one would not have been able to get where I am without the assistance of loans and the fact that I am eligible for a loan already puts me ahead of millions of poverty-stricken people around the world.

I don’t like describing anyone as poor. That’s not an adjective that should define anyone. Poverty is a circumstance, not an identity. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. The cycle of poverty is cancerous in nature, spreading quickly and becoming more and more difficult to tackle the longer it's left untreated. Tackling poverty requires a various set of tools, some more effective than others. Microfinance is one such tool that, when done correctly, we believe to be exceptionally effective at curbing the cyclical nature of poverty by giving people practical tools and training they can utilize to create sustainable businesses.

It's not that we don't believe in charity or in giving to those in need. It's just that we don't see it as an effective tool to ending global poverty, and ultimately that's our goal. It's also the goal of the Women's Microfinance Initiative, a DC-based organization that works primarily with women in Uganda and Kenya. There are numerous microfinance organizations out there and a lot of good ones doing some amazing work. So, why did we decide to partner with WMI?

Good question.

Here's why.

WMI targets women in rural areas who struggle with barriers to credit that those living in more urban areas don't always face. Individuals who have a difficult time getting to urban areas to access financial services are more likely to succumb to credit abuse. We also like that they target women, who have been shown to take loans more responsibly than their male counterparts and who are more likely to use the money they make to support their families and their communities, creating jobs and sending their children to school. WMI provides the training necessary to help women manage their businesses and to ensure that those women successfully pay back their loans. They have 100% payback rate and women who graduate from WMI's loan program are able to then move toward independent banking.

We tackled the apparel industry because we believe that we can do it better. We believe that you shouldn't have to decide between good athletic apparel and supporting a company that offers something good from start to finish. We believe in more than just the end result and we feel strongly that WMI has a similar philosophy. They're concerned about more than just the end result of whether or not someone pays back their loan. They invest in the training and support of women who have all of the talent, ingenuity, and drive to make their ideas work, but need a little access to capital and a little bit of training.

That's something that we feel is sustainable, practical, and addresses the long-term needs of these communities. We're incredibly excited about teaming up with WMI and Perry and I are beside ourselves at the opportunity to head to Uganda in order to get to know these women better and celebrate their incredible accomplishments! We leave Sunday and we'll be blogging about it while there so definitely stay tuned for more.