March 2009 Issue
Fabric of Life
Halle Butvin first visited Uganda in 2006 as the country was ending a 20-year civil war that had ravaged its northern regions.
Butvin, a Strongsville native who was working in Washington, D.C., had accompanied a student group to Uganda to gather information about the brutal conflict and learn how young people could help build peace there.
However, Butvin was unprepared for the scale of devastation she saw. Decades of horrific attacks by rebel forces had traumatized the people of northern Uganda. “Everyone I met had a family member who had been killed,” she recalls. “As I walked around, I noticed the vacant look in people’s eyes that told me they had been through a horrible experience.”
During her seven-month stay, Butvin says she was particularly affected by the tens of thousands of widows and orphans who were barely surviving on handouts from relief agencies. “I saw so many single mothers who were struggling to feed their children. In some cases, the women had also taken on the challenge of caring for the orphans of their relatives and neighbors. It was clear that there was no Ugandan dream for these women —just a complete lack of opportunity. They were just trying to get through each day.”
Inspired by their plight, Butvin founded a nonprofit business, One Mango Tree, which is creating jobs for women in the northern town of Gulu. The fair-trade enterprise focuses on training the women as tailors and opening international markets for their dresses, purses and other handcrafted products. Along with helping the war survivors to rebuild their lives, Butvin is optimistic that One Mango Tree can serve as a model for economic empowerment and sustainable development in Uganda.
Butvin, 27, understands that she faces weighty personal, economic and logistical challenges. She’s logged five trips to Uganda over the past three years, a journey that requires a day’s flight to the capital city of Kampala, and then nine hours on a crowded, non-air-conditioned bus to Gulu.
While there, she copes with ever-present mosquitoes and stomach ailments triggered by the local food and water. “Sure, I miss my family in Ohio and the comforts of a hot shower, but that first trip to Uganda opened my eyes and lit a fire under my butt,” she says. “As Americans, we can live our entire lives without ever knowing what’s happening in the rest of the world. But I’ve had the opportunity to go there, and I can’t ignore what’s going on.”
In the past two years, a tenuous cease-fire has existed between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel force with a complex agenda that includes religious persecution and the overthrow of the country’s president.
The LRA’s primary target during the war — which the United Nations termed the “worst neglected humanitarian crisis in the world” — was the Acholi tribe, a peaceful, agricultural people. Tens of thousands of Acholis were killed and maimed by LRA fighters, while an estimated 30,000 children were abducted and forced to become soldiers, workers or sex slaves.
As a protective measure, the government relocated more than 2 million Acholis to squalid refugee camps. “That’s where everyone has been living for the past 20 years,” Butvin says. “The government is trying to resettle people back into their homes, but it’s a slow process. The camps are still very congested and thousands of people share a single latrine, so there’s lots of disease. The level of poverty and despair is unimaginable. When I saw the living conditions, I knew I had to help in some way.”
After befriending several local women, Butvin learned that their collective goal was to find employment. “For the Acholis, having a job is an important source of self-esteem,” she notes. “Along with enabling them to purchase basic things such as food, clothing and medical supplies, they can afford to send their children to school, which is the single greatest objective of most women in northern Uganda.”
Prior to visiting Uganda, Butvin never expected to become a businesswoman. She had earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies and a master’s degree in city and regional planning from The Ohio State University, then headed to Washington, D.C., to work for a nonprofit research agency.
The idea for One Mango Tree was conceived as Butvin strolled through Gulu’s large central market, where hundreds of vendors peddled food, clothes, and fabrics to local residents and
international aid workers. There she encountered Lucy Auma, an Acholi tailor who uses an old foot treadle sewing machine to create colorful dresses and purses from Congolese wax-printed fabric. Auma also trains apprentice tailors, with a goal of providing an income-producing skill to women who, like her, have been emotionally and economically affected by the war.
“I was struck by the beauty of the fabrics, and I had Lucy make several Western-style tote bags that I brought back to the U.S. and quickly sold,” Butvin says. “My friends in the U.S. were fighting over them. They not only liked the bags, but they understood the humanitarian multiplier effect of buying them: You own something nice, but you’re also putting food on someone’s table and helping to send kids to school. When I sent the proceeds to Lucy, she invested it in her business, purchasing a large supply of fabric.”
Butvin realized that by opening markets in the U.S. and other countries, she could easily help Auma to expand her business and create more tailor jobs. “Sewing is a generational skill in Uganda and the African fabrics and the quality of the handwork are fantastic, but the women didn’t have local customers to sustain themselves,” she says.
In 2007, she partnered with Auma to launch One Mango Tree, naming the business after the lush tree that provides shade and fruit throughout Uganda. “Lucy oversees the sewing and training new tailors, and I help with inventory, product design, quality control, building relationships with retailers and anything else I can do to expand her business,” Butvin explains.
While she considers herself more of an entrepreneur than an activist, she often visits high schools and colleges in Ohio to speak about her experiences in Uganda. “My goal is to raise the students’ awareness of what’s happening in the world and to inspire them to make a difference. When I tell them about the kids their age who fought in Uganda’s war, they become very engaged. I tell students that they don’t necessarily have to travel anywhere to influence change. They can help by being conscious of the way they shop and trying to purchase products from fair trade companies that pay a living wage to their workers.”
One Mango Tree markets its goods primarily through the Internet and several stores in Ohio. Currently, One Mango Tree’s offerings include tote bags, aprons, lunch bags, purses, yoga mats, tablemats, men’s neckties and other products.
The company also commits a portion of its revenues to the One Mango Tree Foundation, a philanthropic arm that funds scholarships for local children and purchases bicycles for its tailors. Most of the tailors live several miles outside of Gulu and walk to and from the market each day to work.
As a new business owner, Butvin is a quick study. One Mango Tree now employs 30 tailors and plans to add a line of dresses. Last year, One Mango Tree was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Project for Peace, which enabled Butvin and Auma to rent two additional tailoring stalls in the Gulu market.
Over the next several years, Butvin hopes to raise funds to build a work and training facility for the Gulu tailors. She notes that faculty from Ohio State’s Knowlton School of Architecture have indicated their interest in designing the building, which will include a day care center and incorporate “green” features.
“I’m really enjoying the entrepreneurial aspect of growing a business,” she says. “But the most gratifying part of this experience is knowing that I’m playing a role in changing people’s lives. I greatly admire these women because they don’t let their circumstances get them down. But I’ve seen that when they begin earning a little money, they stand up a little straighter and they have a sense of pride. By working, they are empowered and they are realizing their dream of putting their children through school. In Auma’s case, she has two children of her own, along with 11 orphans she is caring for. Before One Mango Tree, she couldn’t afford to send any of her children to school. Now, all 13 are in school. There’s massive satisfaction in that.”
In the near future, Butvin plans to take up long-term residence in Gulu so that she can concentrate her efforts on growing One Mango Tree. “The extreme hardship in northern Uganda has made me realize how fortunate we are in the U.S.,” she says. “But I love being in Uganda. I’ve invested every bit of my life savings in the business and I want to make it my career. I’m having so much fun learning the language, brainstorming new products and being with the amazing women. I feel rich when I’m there.”
To order products and learn more about One Mango Tree, visit www.onemangotree.com