Job loss during COVID-19 opens colorful, creativity door
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2020/11/job-loss-during-covid-19-opens-colorful-creativity-door/
By Maxy Magella Abenaitwe
The late physicist Stephen Hawking once said: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
When the Uganda COVID-19 lockdown, including education suspension, started in mid-March 2020, Uganda Christian University (UCU) continued paying its workers full salaries. In two months’ time and with no tuition income, however, the financial strain was elevated. Only a handful of essential workers were kept with salaries reduced by 25%. Sadly, that payment decrease for these few continued to be reduced as UCU adapted to change.
Pauline Nyangoma, a Communication Assistant at UCU who was not among the essential workers kept, was adapting, too. Bankrupt, anxious and wondering how she would eat and pay her bills, it was a surprise 150,000 UGX ($40) in her mobile account that accelerated her adaptation.
“Seeing this money in my account felt like I had been set free from an extremely dark prison,” Nyangoma said of the support from an anonymous donor with the American-based, Uganda Partners organization. “I could finally catch a breath, feel my blood freely flow and my brain finally thinking straight.”
Holding some cash helped Nyangoma realise an answer that had been there all along – making bags and neck accessories. It was a skill she discovered in Senior Six as she took seamstress classes with a local tailor. Mable Katusiime, an elderly street hawker who had products, a work ethic and a smile that belied her age, further inspired Nyangoma when they met in 2018. With craft bags over her shoulder and appearing affluent and educated, Mable told Nyangoma that she preferred this work to other options because it “kept her heart beating.”
Nyangoma bought one of Mable’s bags. She took it home to unstitch and re-stitch it to learn the secrets of quality and style. When Nyangoma wasn’t working in the UCU Communications and Marketing office, she was making bags on borrowed machines. She sold these as a second job for supplemental income until the COVID -19 lockdown forced her to make and sell more.
“I made a precise, clear budget on how I would use this money,” she said of that $40 donation. “Half of it, I used to buy craft making materials and the other for facilitation to and from Kisasi town where I could easily access a sewing machine.”
From Nyangoma’s creativity and skilful hands, varieties of colourful bags evolved and began selling but not without the obstacles typical for a “street hawker” – especially a female one. Taxi drivers shouted harsh words at her; strangers mocked her with loud laughs.
“Aaaaah… why have women of these days adopted a habit of running away from their husbands’ homes?” one man said. Another pointed at her and hooted, “Now she is carrying all her language like a street hawker.”
One barrier became a blessing. As she was forced to wait to board taxis that were more eager for passengers without a load of product as she had, she sold off some items to passers-by and truck drivers. Truck drivers became her best customers and marketing advisers who made referrals for additional sales. Nyangoma learned to throw bags through moving truck windows and pick up their tossed cash blowing in the wind.
First-time customers, appreciative of the beauty and durability of her work, referred more customers. Friends and family bought and made orders. The UCU community embraced and bought her products.
While the lockdown’s high transportation fees necessary for travel to the sewing room eat into her profits, Nyangoma sees a revenue light at the end of the tunnel. Her client growth is promising. Sales are getting her closer to owning a sewing machine. Nyangoma has created a brand name, Pauline’s Craft Workroom. With compelling photos of her products and satisfied customers, she uses her social media accounts as her showroom. She also displays her works at restaurants and shops.
Instead of business cards, she has created gratitude cards. To Nyangoma, gratitude – thanking people – is the most rewarding tool. It outgrows all marketing strategies. Her customers return the favour with praise. For example:
- Phiona Atuhaire, a satisfied user of Pauline’s craftwork and a regular referral, says that she has continuously bought Nyangoma’s products because of their unique African touch and meticulous effort she puts into the quality. Atuhaire has also observed that Nyangoma is open to customer feedback and has made tremendous changes following advice from her clients.
- Conrad Ochola, one of Nyangoma’s recent customers, admits to purchasing a craft bag because of its overall bold outlook. To Ochola, general outlook is second to quality.
- Madrine Ayebare, one of Nyangoma’s clients, praised her for being a solution giver. She says: “I no longer get stuck while finding gifts for friends and relatives. When I am going to parties or visit friends, just a simple call to Pauline’s Craft workroom gets me exactly what I need.”
Seeing her products appreciated and functional with no clear indication when she might be recalled to her university position, Nyangoma has a vision of making clothing and teaching others after getting her own her sewing machine, to turn part of where she lives into a workshop and to make African clothing. If she gets recalled to her job at UCU, she will continue the business full-time or part-time.
Someday – maybe as early as 2021 – she may start a tailoring school to pass along her skill.
The writer of this article, Maxy Magella Abenaitwe, is a 2018 graduate of Uganda Christian University with a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication. Before her country’s lockdown, she was an intern for the UCU Standard newspaper.
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