Mary working at her sewing machine

From Refugee to a Tailor in the Making

Mary (32) fled like so many others from the war in South Sudan to neighbouring Uganda. In the settlement of Palorinya in northern Uganda, most of the inhabitants share the same story. The fights and shootings in their home country broke out unpredictably for many, and so Mary was only able to gather what was necessary to flee together with her children, and her father. Her uncle was killed and she lost her husband on the way when they were separated in the chaos. The people she knew in her neighbourhood were scared and didn’t know where to hide from the soldiers, and so many families lost each other.

Mary and her family walked through the bush for three days. A piece of cassava to feed her children was the only thing she could bring along. She recalls how they had to go without food for nearly two days. When they arrived in Uganda and reached the settlement of Palorinya, they were provided with the most basic necessities. They were given a piece of land and some tools to free it from the shrubs. In the beginning, Mary found it very difficult to build a new life. She was doing well in Kajo Keji, her home region. There, she ran a tea house and also worked as a midwife in her village as the hospital was not within close quarters.

In Palorinya she had to start all over again. Some refugees opened small retail shops around the street, others grow maize, sesame seeds or pumpkin on their plots of land. Mary baked pancakes from the maize flour distributed by the UNHCR, which she tried selling at the market. In this way she gradually began to earn a small income. Aid organisations such as World Vision and CARE soon began to set up small savings groups among the refugees and train them in accounting and business skills. This allowed savings group members to regularly draw small loans from the group's savings to invest in and grow their small businesses. In her garden, Mary also began planting peas and selling them at the market. When she has the money, she buys groundnuts and processes them into groundnut paste, which she can also sell at a small profit.

Mary’s eight children all go to school in the settlement. Mary wants them to have a good education and to be able to do what they want to do in future. She tells us how she had happened to meet her husband in the streets of the settlement nearly two years after they had been separated.

In the afternoons, Mary is usually found in a small tailor's shop close to the school that her children attended. At the tailor shop, she learns how to use a sewing machine and sew clothes and school uniforms. Besides the pancakes, the groundnut paste and the peas, Mary also wants to sell self-sewn clothes in the little shop that she works at. Behind one of the sewing machines where fellow-refugees can learn to sew in the afternoon, Mary sits in a light blue dress with a tape measure around her neck. She has been attending training regularly for the past month. However, there is a lack of fabric and material to sew good dresses.

VisionFund Uganda extended its operations to the Palorinya settlement with the aim of giving the savings groups an extra loan so that its members could get more frequent and higher loans from the group. With her loan of 300,000 UGX (USD 81), Mary was able to buy the materials she needed to continue sewing. She was also able to pay a friend to cultivate her field for a while. Mary wants to spend every spare minute she has on her training to get closer to her own little tailor shop.

With the increased capacity of her savings group through VisionFund, she can now plan ahead.