The women who saw hope

Uganda has a long history of political instability, as well as health and poverty issues. A recent World Bank report on poverty assessment in Uganda (2016) has noted that the number of people living below poverty line has declined from 31.1% in 2006 to 19.7% in 2013. Uganda has been commended for the progress it has made in gaining political stability and focusing on poverty eradication. However, as the World Bank report states, the country is yet to make marked progress in areas of sanitation, child malnutrition, education (completion and progression) and access to electricity.

84.2% of Ugandans live in the rural areas where agriculture and allied activities dominate the economy. For most households, agriculture is for subsistence rather than for earning monetary income.

The Arts Therapy session began in January, the dry season in Uganda, where it gets extremely hot and dry. During this period, women were considered lucky if they were able to have one meal a day. Meals consisted mostly of root vegetables, like cassava, which is the staple produce of the country. Women mostly ate at night so that they could sleep well on full stomachs.

Uganda being an agrarian economy that is very labour intensive, women have multiple jobs. Women do most of the work to help the home, grow their food, and take care of the children. They are mostly responsible for digging the garden to find food and store it and to fetch water from the well (could take up to 4 hours).

The average size of the families is 7-8 members per household. The women rarely have a say in the amount of children they can have. Many men see having many children as a sign of wealth and virility. They also believe that the more children you have, the better chance you have of being taken care of in your old age. If a women wants to use birth control, but the husband does not, he will beat her. In Uganda, there is an unspoken belief that if a wife does something her husband does not approve of, she deserves to be beaten. Most of the women who participated in the Arts Therapy were victims of domestic violence.

Early marriage is common. Girls as young as 12 years old may be forced to marry an older man and denied the opportunity to go to school. If there is money available, boys are given the chance to go to school. The girl's marriage is desirable to the family if they can get dowry. Most of the women in our program have never been to school, or even stepped foot in a classroom. For many women present, this was the first time they had ever used a pencil or drawn on a piece of paper. 

The women were so excited to come to the sessions. In the beginning they may have been a bit hesitant because they were afraid of making a mistake. With the necessary encouragement and assurance, they were able to be more comfortable with their creations. 

The women were excited to come to the sessions. In the beginning, they may have been a bit hesitant because they were afraid to make a mistake. With the necessary encouragement and assurance, they were able to be more comfortable with their creations. They began talking of things they wanted to do with the new skills they had learned. They wanted to learn in order to create things and then later sell them to be able to earn an income so they wouldn't have to rely on their husbands. The women also began to come together as a community and support one another. They have been so focused on survival that they didn't make time to get to know each other. Many of the women had felt isolated and alone, but now they were becoming each other's friends. By sharing their thoughts and feelings to the group, they began to feel supported and to understand themselves and others better. They began to think about what they wanted and what they needed.

Before leaving after the second mission, the Arts Therapist left them with supplies donated from people in their community. They agreed to meet once a week to make art. They were excited to have this to look forward to.

During step 3 the women began to show signs of confidence in themselves, in their art making and in using their voice to say what they want to say. With each step, the women became more and more empowered, and this is represented in their work. After the second step, the women were meeting once a week. They were open about their dreams and goals, and what they wanted as opposed to what is expected of them.

They each had ideas of the kinds of skills they wanted to learn in order to create products to sell. These skills ranged from sewing table cloths, to making pottery, to weaving baskets, to owning music equipment to offer music for parties. The women began to realize they had rights. They began to see that they could change their lives for the better. The women became happier. They loved creating art and they loved what the groups offered them. They found a place to be seen, heard and acknowledged. They found the strength and power to be themselves and be proud of who they are.

Step 1-Art
In step one the women's art pieces demonstrate exploration of colour and form (Images 1 to 5 below). In some pieces, one can see a sort of primitive use of shapes and colours. Many women had never used a pencil before doing these art pieces, and showed courage for their willingness to use new and foreign materials every day. They made sure to take good care of every art creation.

  • Things that are important to me.
  • Individual painted images of love, then sewn onto group piece.

Step 2-Art
In step 2 art we can see the interplay between individual art and group pieces (Images 6 to 12 below) . The women became more confident and trustworthy towards their creative and artistic abilities. They also become more confident in speaking in front of one another.

The images become more and more unique as each woman begins to figure out her style and sense of image making. This can be seen in painted symbols of love, and the clay houses. The mandalas were especially exciting for the women. They were so proud of their designs. They realised that they have a skill for design, not just creating. It was common for the women to use bright colours, but as time went on, we begin to see the women's individual sense of creativity as they use different forms, shapes and styles.

Step 3-Art
In step 3, we are able to see development of the woman's unique sense of creativity (images 13 to 19 below). They enjoyed trying new materials and finding new ways to express themselves. The painted and embroidered suns were all different, but when they came together in a banner, they represented the influence of the sun and showed how the women have learned to work together. “I learned to unite with others, how to talk to others and make friends."

The clay sculptures represent the woman's confidence in using the materials in their own way and trusting their ability to create and express themselves. The visual journals were also worked on. The women were excited at the opportunity of telling their story through images and materials. Every session, the Therapist had to be very firm about ending the day, otherwise the women would never stop creating art pieces. By the end, they had run out of all materials because they loved incorporating them into their art. 

The “Future" images and stories were very moving. Even the elder women had plans to do more training so they could learn how to create products they could later sell, or even to become a nurse, teacher, or other jobs they had never dreamed of before. “I have a lot of happiness, i want to learn to be a nurse to help the women". They intended to continue with their weekly art making group. They have the therapists products of baskets, and jewely to bring home and put in the fair trade store in the cities where the Therapists resided.

  • Individual suns painted, embroidered, then a group banner made