Kampala, 19 July 2016 – As a young girl, Agnes fled a notorious Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, but through educational opportunities she was able to pursue her passion for fashion. She now gives back to refugees as the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) fashion and design teacher in Kampala – where they work to be self-reliant.
Here, she shares about her experiences traversing life from displacement to fashion expert.
Question: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I'm Agnes, a 25-year-old Ugandan specifically from eastern Uganda. I'm an instructor in fashion and design in Kampala with JRS since 2013; it's such an exciting environment working with refugees, interacting with them, learning so many things, and accompanying them in one way or another.
Q: How did you become a fashion teacher?
I studied fashion at The International School of Beauty here in Kampala. I so much liked fashion, and after I finished I was like hot soup, even my institution needed me to remain and be a lecturer so they took me to train as an instructor after I graduated where I met the JRS country representative who asked me to apply for this job and I succeeded in the application process.
Since then, my life has never been the same. I've learned a lot from the refugees, I've learned to interact with them, I've learned about their stories. I can really put myself in their shoes because I was once a refugee from an insurgency in northeastern Uganda called the LRA and I was one of the victims. So, really, seeing the Congolese, the Rwandese, the Burundians coming to Kampala reminds me of how I was once displaced, how once I was robbed.
Now I am in the position to train them in the right way. Some of these people come with trauma and a lot of issues, but most of the time we sit down and talk I'm able to relate to them and then teach them. I see them like my brothers and sisters because I was once a refugee, too.
Q: That's really interesting. What do you remember about being a refugee?
I was still a young girl, in primary school and one day in 2003 while in class war just broke out. I had never experienced war before. We slept in the bushes, it was not easy, we walked miles and miles to find ourselves in a safer place in the camp. We stayed there for the whole of 2003 up to 2004. It was not easy to get food and life was really not easy, I actually dropped out of school because there was no way of accessing school and we were just eating the food that World Food Programme would give once in a while. I can actually remember working in one man's house as a house girl and I was such a little girl. Whenever I see these people when they come telling us their stories, it takes me back to my story and I think God, yeah I think you brought me here with a purpose. I need to serve these people.
Q: What happened when you came back to Uganda?
So in 2004 when we were able to return, life was still not easy but I was such a brilliant girl and when I finished my primary in 2005, I was the best girl in the whole district! Imagine, I got a sponsor who paid for my whole high school and college! Actually when I finished my college my sponsor asked me, "What would you like to be?" and I told her about my love for fashion, how I used to participate in fashion shows in high school during fashion week and how I always dreamed of being in that industry. She (my sponsor) took me to fashion school in 2010 where I studied fashion, art, modelling, and more. It was such a nice experience.
I am this kind of a person who likes adventure and learning interesting things. We started the programme making very small items and then step by step I was making wedding gowns and dressing brides!
Q: What did it mean to you to have the chance for an education?
Education is a key to success, if someone is not educated then they're limited, their opportunities are limited. That's why they say, educate one, and educate the whole nation.
This is why what JRS is doing for refugees is the perfect solution, it's actually credible to their lives. As much as they're refugees, they shouldn't be left just like that. They should be given the opportunity to go to school, to learn, to change their lives. When they finish they can go out and compete with the world, they can go out and do something for themselves and earn a living.
I'm an example. I was given a skill and I never buried it. Now I'm somewhere, it earns me a living, I can find clients who call me and pay for my rent on my own. Wherever these refugees will end up, this will change their lives.
Q: How do you structure your class?
The course goes for one full year. When the students have just begun, owe start by getting to know each other and practicing basic embroidery and hand stitching. They make things like cushions, curtains or beadwork. Then we move on to real fashion.
They learn how to sketch their designs first and focus on fashion illustration. Then they learn how to dress models and how to match colours and patterns, before we do the project work. They learn how to make children's wear, then ladies skirts, then gentlemen's wear, then evening dress, and eventually we focus on how to dress a bride and some even make wedding gowns.
I also give them coursework and targets in order to know what they are capable of doing.. Some people are slow learners, some are very fast, some are neat others are somewhere in the middle so I get to know and the end of every month or every quarter I give them examinations to see – written and practical – to see whether they have learned what I taught and put it into practice.
Then, whenever we have a function here at JRS – like Women's Day or World Refugee Day – we always conduct a fashion show which is something that everyone is so anxious for, because they get to show off their creative designs.
Q: Who is one refugee you are really proud of?
Many people who I've taught, I find them working in town, with their own machines and their own businesses. Some are single mothers educating their children and I feel so proud.
In particular, there is one girl called Noela. I trained her last year and she is such a perfect lady. When she came here she cried a lot, she had lost her parents and was so scared, but after learning to sew she can get clients and is changing her life.
There is also Rebecca who is one of my students from 2014. She is one of the most inspiring women I can speak about. She was a student who would always, always, always come to class…When she finished she told me, "I actually have one problem and that is how to get a (sewing) machine."
I knew she was one of the ladies motivated to do something for herself and I knew JRS could offer loans so I told her to apply and she succeeded, she got a machine and now she'll call me and tell me how she is doing. Sometimes she gets clients and sometimes she makes uniforms for schools and she is making real money for herself and her family.
I used to see her coming to JRS to ask the emergency department for food and rent money, but now she has totally changed. She's in a position to help herself and her children. I'm so proud of her.
Check out Rebecca's story here
Q: What have you learned from your students?
I learn about their culture and their way of life and their fashion style.
When we're in class I ask them always, "How do you dress?" and they'll explain to me and we'll make their traditional designs too.
I take them through pattern drafting and show them how to actually bring their ideas to life, since I'm an expert and know how to adapt each and every kind of fashion. I can easily adapt the different designs. We'll then find models, measure them and let them carry out their own designs. They're actually so creative.
Q: What do most of the students do after the class?
Many of them start their own businesses. Some do so if they can secure a small loan from JRS for a sewing machine or other start-up materials. I really think we should look at this seriously. We need to give more people some small capital, something to begin with, and to continue to monitor them. We don't want learning to just remain here but we want it to go beyond.
I would also like to one day publish a fashion magazine where other people can see all the creations we make. It is one way to sell, when they leave here actually they are in the position to get job, they'll be known, they'll be seen. The world needs to see what they are doing.
Q: Do you also have men in the class?
Out of twenty students maybe eight or ten are men. When you put it in their heart you really see the art in them. when I tell them, can you stitch this, you find men are the fastest and they encourage the ladies to even do better.
Q: Do you believe that giving refugees opportunities to take care of themselves is better for the larger society?
I believe that giving refugees an opportunity helps them improve their lives perfectly. When they come, they are hopeless, they have no hope but at the end of the day their lives change, you see a smile on their faces.
It helps Uganda, too, because it reduces dependency on government or institutions which help them with food or rent. If one can get a skill and now they can afford to pay their own rent. Maybe, I as a Ugandan will see a refugee struggling and I want to help them but I can't help forever. A donor cannot help forever. That's why giving a skill is like giving life.
Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer