When Kate von Achen first visited Uganda as a student, the East African nation immediately had an impact on her. "I fell in love with Uganda within seconds," recalls von Achen, who at the time was studying fair trade practices.
In 2008, the Lawrencian combined her background in sustainable business models and affection for the people and culture of Uganda. After having moved to Uganda, she founded her own fair trade business, Awava.
"Awava is a fair trade, but more than that, a socially conscious business working with women artisans in northern Uganda," von Achen says. "So we work with them on making various crafts, but instead of focusing on kind of kitschy Africa crafts that only appeal to a niche market, we work more on using Western designs out of local materials so that they're easier to sell in the U.S. - like laptop sleeves out of wax print fabrics."
Awava - which means "the source" in Luganda, a major local language - attempts to empower women who have been forced to cope with a decades-long civil war in Uganda's north, a conflict which has internally displaced millions and bore brutalities such as child slavery. Currently on her most recent trip back to Lawrence to promote the business, von Achen is upbeat about accomplishing Awava's mission.
"It's going well, actually," she says. "In January I felt like we were finally at a point where we could think about wholesale clients. The Community Mercantile has been carrying our products since February, and it seems that the items are selling well. We just got a second wholesale client in Kansas City, Pryde's of Old Westport. There are lots of other potential people - that's why I extended my trip, because there's been a lot of stuff happening since I've been here."
But Uganda-based businesses have seen a pall creep into the economic climate thanks to recent developments in Uganda's political climate. In October of last year, a bill called The Anti-Homosexual Law of 2009 was introduced into the Parliament of Uganda that would punish homosexuals with imprisonment and, in certain cases of what the bill labels "aggravated homosexuality," even death.
While homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, the draft bill criminalizes it to an extent that has shocked the international community. The proposed law has drawn condemnation from human rights organizations and most Western governments. President Obama blasted the legislation as "odious," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has strongly urged Uganda not to pass the bill.
Global outrage directed at the so-called "kill-the-gays bill" has triggered a backlash toward Uganda that has the potential to harm Awava in the U.S. market.
"One of our wholesalers ... said that the marketing manager wasn't sure it was a good idea to promote us openly right now because of this bill," von Achen says. "They ended up doing it because I explained to them that a bill doesn't make a population. Saying that the anti-gay bill, whether it passes or not, defines an entire population is like saying any bill that the U.S. has ever passed defines every American - it's not true."
The pending legislation not only jeopardizes the gay community in Uganda, but those who associate with homosexuals. There is concern among charitable and religious organizations that the law would make it impossible to provide aid for HIV/AIDS relief, for fear that those administering the aid would be charged with "harboring" homosexuals.
"It proposes punishment for not only homosexuals, but for anyone who is aware of homosexual activity and does not report it," says Sarah Clark, another former Lawrencian who worked with Awava and also did volunteer work for five months in Uganda last year with the only all-female gay rights organization in the country, Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG).
"I personally never felt directly threatened, but I was certainly intimidated enough not to be 'out' in any area of my life in Uganda other than with the close-knit LGBTI community," says Clark, now living in Kansas City. "There was an incident where one of the members of another LGBTI organization in Uganda ... flipped sides. He had been a leading activist in the gay community for years, and he suddenly flipped and started condemning homosexuality and outing other gays to the authorities. When this story broke, all activity got put on pause. No one was to come or go from the FARUG office as a safety measure. Everyone was looking out for everyone else in the community while this was going on. ... These Ugandan activists literally have to fear for their lives. They are so brave for doing the work they're doing."
Power and punishment
Although she knows homosexuals in Uganda, and could therefore hypothetically be prosecuted under the severest application of the proposed law, von Achen will not be deterred from continuing her work with the women of Uganda. Not that she's oblivious to the potential risk.
"As for worrying about my own safety in Uganda if the bill passed, I really don't," she says, although quickly adding, "I guess. Actually, I go back and forth on this one. Part of me truly does not believe this bill will pass, at least not in the way it is presently written. That is the optimistic me. Other times I do worry that it will pass and that lots of people could be put in harm's way."
Thanks to intense international scrutiny and pressure, the bill has stalled in the Ugandan Parliament, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has suggested he may veto the bill if the more stringent elements are not removed. Regardless of the bill's fate, Awava will remain in Uganda.
"I personally do not feel that it is right to punish an entire population based on what a small fraction of society, unfortunately those with the most power, decide to do," von Achen says. "I have built long-lasting, important relationships with the women Awava works with, and I would hate to see everything we have worked towards together get diminished due to a handful of politicians."