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Feature: Republic of Sewing Machines in Uganda


Sewing in Uganda (Photography by www.marcellison.com)

Sewing in Uganda (Photography by www.marcellison.com)



The spirit of solidarity — stitch by stitch. 


By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé


As a burnt orange sun sets over Gulu in northern Uganda, barefoot Acholi women walk the Road to Cairo, a highway that stretches across Africa, babies swaddled against their backs, balancing heavy plastic jerry cans on their heads.


These women walk the crossroads of globalization and tradition, some in the classic local work dress – long, tight skirts, bodies wrapped in a rib-crushing bodices and shoulders sewn into a curious point, their hair wrapped in colourful scarves. Young professional women share the dusty road, strutting by in skirt suits, heels dodging potholes carved by winter rain. And some straddle both worlds, donning loose t-shirts and long, traditional skirts.


The women of Gulu – in dresses or skirt suits – are survivors.


They have seen war, some raped and forced to flee, others taken by force as girls, made into ‘Bush Wives,’ forced into violent unions with rebel soldiers, and returned to their villages as former child soldiers.


And many of them are citizens of Uganda’s ‘Republic of Sewing Machines.’


For several weeks, I have been volunteering at St. Mary’s Lacor Hospital, which lies at the foot of the Road to Cairo, a hospital which has survived the ravages of war, Ebola hemoragic fever, and a twenty-year rebellion led by Joseph Kony, recently made (in)famous by the Kony 2012 campaign.


At Lacor Hospital, the rebellion is still fresh. An early-morning alarm rings out across hospital grounds, an echo of the recent past when the bell was intended to rouse the ‘Night Commuters,’ children who had fled their villages to hide from Kony’s rebels within Lacor’s protective walls. At the height of the conflict, nearly 10,000 children slept at Lacor Hospital.


And the rebellion has left its indelible mark on hospital staff. Doctors and particularly nurses, once the target of abductions, would report to work in plain clothes, eschewing the hospital uniforms which marked them. In an instant, fashion could save or condemn a life.


Though my days were spent working with Anying Josephine, Lacor Hospital’s Communications Officer, my evenings were spent wandering and exploring Gulu.


And mentally shopping Acholi women’s colourful dresses.




Upon my arrival in Gulu, I had immediately enlisted Josephine to vet my hospital wardrobe. My choices are fine: conservative, professional. But, Josephine reminds me, while my foreigner status allows me to get away with wearing pants when visiting local refugee camps, she is bound by local norms and will visit in a long, print skirt.


Long print skirts that restrict movement, that prevent a woman from moving too quickly. Because in Acholiland, a woman must move slowly, deliberately. Running is out of the question.


Although rural Uganda is seldom called a fashion capital, it has recently become a fashion player of sorts.


When Kony’s war moved South Sudan and to the Democratic Republic of Congo, non-governmental organizations and foreign aid organizations alike moved in with the idea of providing survivors and returning child soldiers with viable skills – such as sewing – to earn a living and support themselves.


Many of these schemes, led by government aid organizations from the United States, the United Kingdom and Denmark, along with non-government organizations like MercyCorps and the Diocese of Northern Uganda, were aimed at former girl child soldiers made particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of war. Social entrepreneurs followed on the heels of foreign governments and NGOs, and the local sewing market was quickly saturated.



Greasing the wheel. (Photo credit: www.TheStar.blogs.com)

Greasing the wheel. (Photo credit: www.TheStar.blogs.com)




Too many sewing machines. Not enough clients.


And thus another Republic of Sewing Machines was born.


On one of my last evenings in Gulu, Josephine takes me to the Republic of Sewing Machines to buy a dress. We make our way to Gulu Market, weaving in and out of narrow lanes, stopping to take in the stall of bootlegged music, festive beats thumping. The air is heavy, hot, and thick with red dust from Gulu’s fields, the fragrance of roast pork and potatoes wafting from the stalls.


Josephine negotiates with the seamstress in Luo, and the seamstress asks me to point out a style of dress I like from a large poster pasted to the wall. Several dozen African beauties grace the poster in various styles – busty, wide-hipped women in elaborate, tight dresses.


In Senegal, I bought a stunning baobab dyed blue gown threaded with gold; in India, it was silken saris; in Paris, luxurious wools. But from Gulu, I wanted a dress that would remind me of the women I saw walking the dusty orange Road to Cairo.


The seamstress’ studio is a small room in a low building off one of the main lanes in Gulu Market. Chickens squawk in the distance, gazing on with hostility.


I chose a dress, a long, tight skirt and tight top, in a deep blue fabric with splashes of yellow sunshine. Josephine negotiates with the seamstress – after some back and forth, the seamstress reluctantly agrees that my dress will be ready the following evening.


I stretch out my arms as the seamstress takes my measurements. I am curious about her. But after my third week in Gulu, I know better than to ask direct questions of the Acholi, deeply discreet and unwilling to discuss their experiences openly (unlike the local Italian missionaries, with whom I share the Latin tendency to overshare).


Gulu’s scars are palpable – in the missing limbs, lips, noses of young men and women, the faces of illegitimate children, the ghostly absence of old men, and in the dust kicked up by the wheels of every non-government organization all-terrain vehicle. And in the overpopulated Republic of Sewing Machines.





The seamstress is young, demure, and soft-spoken, as many of the Acholi women seem to me. Though I am curious to a fault, I cannot bring myself to ask her how she became a seamstress. And frankly, I reason, it’s none of my business.


And it dawns on me that I have committed one of the unforgivable sins of international work – I have hastily cast the seamstress in a romanticized role, ignoring the fact that she is not only perhaps a former child soldier, a victim, but also a deeply flawed human being.


And as she beings to take my measurements, the full weight of that error comes crashing down on me.


As she measures my bust and hips, the seamstress’ eyes widen with surprise. She measures my waist, and turns away to write down my measurements, mouth slightly ajar in shock. She glances at Josephine, murmuring something in Acholi, then turns away.


Mortified, I recall an incident the week before. In a roadside bar, an inebriated local man had asked me why all Canadians were fat. Was the food that good? I had borne the brunt of shame for my nation, my own vanity deeply offended. Was he including me in that group? How dare he?


Africa had been a promise that my curves would be appreciated and celebrated (they certainly had been seen with appreciation in Senegal).


Was this another misstep on my part, another romanticizing of Africa’s love for curvy womanliness?


Uncomfortable, I hastily leave the seamstress’ atelier to lick my wounds in the street.


Josephine follows me, reading the doubt and shame on my face. “She was impressed with your measurements – you have such a small waist,” Josephine reassures me.


I returned the next day, still deeply suspicious and eyeing the seamstress with reserved hostility.


My dress was wrapped in a plastic bag, ready for me to take it home. As I leave the seamstress, I try to make my peace with her. I am instead left to imagine the worst of her past, and possibly the best for her future.


Photography courtesy of Normand Blouin/International Development Research Centre

Illustrations by Fotolia.com 

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