A. Bernadette partners with 100 Ugandan artisans to design and create handcrafted accessories from recycled and natural materials. Our story begins in the slums around Jinja, Uganda. The artisans meet weekly at Emily Achiro’s house to discuss designs and plan projects. At a meeting in 2011, Lillian the Translator presented a brightly colored tote bag, which was immediately loved by everyone, and I encouraged the women to gather plastic packing straps from the tailoring section of the market where they were cut from bales of second-hand clothing and cast off into great piles to be swept up and burned in dumpsters.
One morning, I gathered dirty, twisted, sharp-edged straps, proud of my scratches and gawking stares from market patrons and vendors alike. The tangled mess did not impress the women. The straps were too stiff and difficult to work with. After great debate, we agreed to pay Lillian’s neighbor, Mary the Teacher, a highly inflated rate for softer, more colorful straps. Twenty-eight artisans contributed money toward straps and The Strap Bag Training Day.
Mary the Teacher organized us in pairs to weave the bottom and sides of the bag. When I paid her at the end of class, I thanked her and told her how excited we were to learn how to attach handles later in the week. Lillian arrived to Handle Attaching Class more than an hour late without Mary the Teacher. She said Mary refused to return because we had not offered her lunch.
In her place, Lillian was accompanied by a small, ancient, and confused woman. Lillian confessed she lured Joyce the New Teacher to class by offering her more money than we paid Mary plus a free lunch. Joyce sat on the floor, picked up one of the bags, and began attaching a handle. The women hovered over her trying to figure out how she was doing what she was doing. She said nothing and continued her work. I went out to find Joyce’s lunch and returned to find everyone smiling and chatting. Joyce knew where to get straps. The women decided that I would wear my best clothes and go to Nytil, the local clothing factory, where colorful straps bundled bales of soft cotton.
A few days later I stood with Lillian, her toddler and two security guards outside a small shack at the foot of Nytil’s dusty driveway. The taller guard held my fake letter of introduction from an invented government official. The shorter held a wood body bolt-action rifle. I reminded myself that I was an important businessperson and the gun was definitely not loaded. The guard smiled and handed me the letter saying, “Sorry Madam, you cannot enter, you are not on the list.”
Lillian was undeterred. She told the security guard I was a very important client scheduled for a meeting with the General Manager. She told him I had traveled far and would pass out if I stood in the sun for too long. I did my best to look both important and ill. Miraculously, the guards let us pass.
We didn’t notice the middle aged man walking in behind us, but when Lillian’s son ran straight for him, the General Manager of the factory stopped and picked him up. In a matter of moments we had made our pitch, it was approved and we were escorted out of the building back to the warehouses.
The warehouse manager denied our request. We followed him around as he screamed a litany of why obtaining straps was impossible over the chaos of forklifts and crashing pallets. As always, our voices were as loud as our responses were numerous. Eventually, he barked to a security guard to take us out to the heap. We exited through the back and waded through a dump of paper, wet cardboard, and industrial strength plastic wrap picking up the intermingled plastic straps. The security guard told us the other workers were angry because they had been selling the plastic straps. I implored Lillian to take care, but she smiled and said, “Now that we have come this far, how could we turn back?” While we never know what colors or how many straps we’ll find, our smiles and tattered old letter of introduction get us in every time. Now Achiro’s Strap Bag is one of our top selling products.
Our products and our people reflect the brilliant ingenuity called jua kali in Swahili. It means to make something out of nothing; to turn trash into treasure; to do the best you can with what you have. A. Bernadette pushes jua kali into new aesthetic territory by combining traditional skills, modern materials, and the collective dedication to hard work. We live by jua kali. No matter what happens, no matter how many setbacks we face or refusals we hear, we will make it work.
For more information, please visit, www.abernadette.com.