Edith Muhindo is the Area Supervisor of the Paper Fig Foundation—an organization that promotes fashion and fine arts as an economic empowerment tool—in Kasese, in the Western region of Uganda.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Edith has led efforts in her community to stop the spread of the virus. She spearheaded a mask-making program, which harnessed the abilities of students from the Paper Fig Skills Training Center to provide face coverings to members of local communities. An accompanying education program has shown people how to wear the masks correctly and explained the steps they can take to protect themselves from the virus. In June, when flooding displaced thousands of people in the region, Edith organized a jerry can brigade to bring hundreds of liters of water and bags of food staples to displaced people, giving people critical access to clean water for drinking and handwashing, as well as providing them with nutrient-dense food to help maintain the strength of their immune systems. Edith has also overseen efforts to ensure that the Paper Fig Medical Center has remained stocked with medical supplies throughout the pandemic.
We recently interviewed Edith about her work as part of our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” initiative, which highlights African women who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication to their communities through their COVID-19 response efforts.
Read our interview with Edith below.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your work with the Paper Fig Foundation and what the organization does?
The Paper Fig Foundation’s mission is to use fashion as an engine for economic empowerment for women and young people in Africa. Paper Fig works with young people, many of whom are women, who are unable to continue their education due to financial hardship. Many of these women are single mothers with young children. Paper Fig’s sewing school trains them in basic tailoring—we give them the skills to make and sell clothes. This empowers them to be able to start their own businesses and make enough money to support their families and take care of their children. Paper Fig also provides fabric loans so that these women can get a head start, sell their products, and change their families’ economic situation. After graduation, they can become part of our alumni association and work together to expand their businesses.
Paper Fig is also involved in promoting health. We have established a health center in the rural Kihara area of Uganda to provide access to basic treatment, where we have treated over 10,000 patients in the last four years. Our healthcare efforts also include providing clean water to people in these rural communities.
Q: You organized a mask-making campaign that engaged students, teachers, and alumni of the Paper Fig Foundation’s Skills Training Center–many of whom were out of work after the Center had to temporarily close during the pandemic. What led you to launch this campaign?
When the nation went into lockdown, we had to close down our school. We moved our machines out of the school and into our students’ homes, and, because they had the skills required, we began an organized effort to make masks. We distributed these to community members in marketplaces and to some health centers. We also gave some to COVID-19 district task forces and government offices. The masks were in such high demand that we started to make them for sale in the United States and have just commissioned a second order there.
Beyond making the masks, we also spent time on the ground, teaching people how to wear masks properly, and explaining why it was important to avoid crowded places like markets and churches. Now, even when we go to rural villages, we see people wearing masks, so we know that they understand the magnitude of the problem and know that we’ve made a real contribution towards changing people’s behaviors to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Q: In June, flooding displaced thousands of people in many parts of Uganda. You organized a jerry can brigade to bring hundreds of liters of water and bags of food staples to displaced people in your area. How did you lead and coordinate this effort?
One of Paper Fig Foundation’s programs was to install a $3,000 water system in the village where we have our health center, so that people there can access clean water. When the floods hit, we were able to use that system to give people whose homes had been destroyed and were living in camps access to clean, fresh water.
The jerry can brigade was initiated after we mobilized volunteers through social media. Volunteers worked to ferry the water in trucks from the health center, in Kihara, to the internally displaced people’s camp about 5 kilometers away. This meant that people living there could wash their hands frequently and maintain good hygiene—important aspects in the prevention of COVID-19.
We supplied around 2,000 liters of water every day until the camp was closed and people were moved into new homes. We also supplied food, as people were starving. We identified the camps’ most vulnerable residents, including pregnant and nursing women and the elderly, and provided them with food to boost their protein and vitamin intake, thereby bolstering their immunity to COVID-19. Our efforts contributed to there being no reports of community transmission of COVID-19 in the camp.
Q: How would you describe the response efforts of other women in your community during COVID-19? Have you seen COVID-19 impacting women and men differently?
Women have shown a great response to COVID-19. They have been on the front lines. At the family level, it is mostly women and mothers enforcing hygiene and handwashing for the entire family and ensuring that children stay indoors and don’t play with other children, especially in more rural areas. When the government first enforced lockdown, many women who worked in marketplaces made huge sacrifices, choosing to stay and sleep at the market during the required quarantine period, rather than coming home and risking the possible infection of their families, or the infection of other commuters during their transit home.
Men in Uganda are often the breadwinners of their families, but the shutdown of businesses during the height of the pandemic meant that they were largely unable to provide in the usual way for their families. What we saw during this period was women stepping up even more, filling in these income gaps and finding new, creative, and innovative ways of working in order to generate income to feed and look after their families.
Q: You are also planning the reopening of the Paper Fig Foundation’s Skills Training Center. What are your plans for the post-COVID-19 future of the Center?
The Skills Training Center is where hundreds of women come to learn skills that empower them to become financially independent, so that they have safe alternatives to illegal logging, early marriage, and trafficking, which are issues in this area. We plan to reopen the Center as a socially distanced and safe learning environment, where we will allow half of our cohort back at a time. Once all the students in our previous cohort have finished their education, we will then look forward to accepting the next cohort.
Learn more about the Paper Fig Foundation here.