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Nsambya women defy odds to eke living doing carpentry

Women working on beds

Women working on beds

Back in 2015, a group of carpenters along the Nsambya-Ggaba road surprised President Museveni’s convoy by displaying placards invoking the president to intervene and stop a looming eviction by KCCA.

Since then, what started as a carpenters’ fight for survival has evolved to not only become a breadwinner for many in the business but also empowered women to join the trade, writes FRANK BWAMBALE.

For years, the road from the city centre to Ggaba has been renowned for the fine roadside carpentry works in Nsambya, just a few metres away from the American embassy.

Having grown up in the neighbouring area, I have observed a few unconventional women who defied odds to make ends meet in carpentry. One of them is Elizabeth Nabikolo, 45, who has spent the better part of her career in the area. Nabikolo says she arrived in the area in 1993 straight from Bukandula village in Gomba district to work as a tea vendor.

Rocky start

I stayed with an aunt and most of our clientele were the carpenters. “I was only living to survive but I didn’t make any meaningful savings from the tea and eats I sold,” she told The Observer.

“Life was hopeless because I could not handle the physical stress that comes with carpentry. Even smoothening boards was a hustle because the materials used then were dangerous. What kept me going was because of my young children.”

She got a new lease of life in early 2000s when the boda boda business boomed and there arose a high demand for cushion cover seats. It happened that at Nsambya, carpenters used to discard cutaway cushions but those cutaways were useful in the making of boda boda seat cushions.

Big breakthrough

That’s when Nabikolo seized the opportunity to make an extra income. “I learnt on the job how to sew these boda boda seat cushions but with time, I also learnt how to do big ones for sofa set makers,” she recalls.

That meant she became directly involved in carpentry works and from then on, Nabikolo didn’t look back.

“I was the only woman in a field of men but much as they embraced my determination, some customers who came around found it weird,” she says.

Opportunity arrives

With time, Nabikolo was joined by two other women at Nsambya but it wasn’t until the 2015 incident when President Museveni’s impromptu stopover changed their lives. “He was surprised I was part of the group and even bought one of my finished items,” she says but The Observer could not verify this.

In the wake of that incident, Nabikolo says she was one of the two courageous ladies that visited State House Entebbe to discuss with the president how he would boost their carpentry business.

Nabikolo says the president assured them of stay but also offered to give them financial support if they are organised. The freshly-formed Nsambya Carpentry, Joinery and Crafts Agency (NSACARJA) started with three women in 2015 but after buying modern carpentry equipment, that number now stands at 15.

Among them is Ziadah Butabingi, who also doubles as the chairperson of NSACARJA. She says she started operating in Nsambya as a food vendor but the lure to eke out an extra living forced her to join carpentry and she has never looked back.

Mwajuma Kongora is another female carpenter who decided to leave her job as a cleaner at nearby Kankungulu Memorial School in Kibuli to join the Nsambya group.

“I was struggling to raise my children after their father abandoned us but my l got a new lease of life when I joined NSACARJA to assist carpenters with menial work,” says the 35-year-old.

“It was not an easy start. I accepted to do any available jobs in order to feed my family and this made me extremely exhausted but it is rewarding financially,” she narrates.

Butabingi says the president gave the group Shs 100m through the Presidential Jua Kali Initiative which was used to buy modern equipment on top of creating a savings and credit cooperative organization (sacco). She says the group also organises trainings for aspiring carpenters with special emphasis on women who want to join the trade.

“I was able to get a loan to buy my own materials and we also share some machines as a group,” she says. “Our sacco today has more than 100 members but we strive to empower women to join and we are very hopeful of having Nsambya as our permanent home.”

Women at the helm

Today, Butabingi and Nabikolo each proudly own a workshop at the site. They have four and six employees respectively. Notably, Nabikolo also actively takes part in heavy work and demonstrated this on a table saw that requires as much power as precision. She went on to saw off excess wood with a bow saw to prove a point to me.

In other tasks of the workshop, she revealed that she also assembles wood parts to make cupboards, office tables and chairs, among others.

“This is a dream and I love my work; that’s why I take an initiative to teach my fellow women,” she adds.

Ziadah Butabingi working with men

Nabikolo says carpentry has changed from the time she first came to Nsambya. “It is no longer about raw power, but brains. The advancement of technology means we can now do so many things and designs by using machines,” she says.

I observed that some men in the neighbourhood envy her for overshadowing them in their own male game. They at times gathered to trade envious tales about her successfully mushrooming business. “They see me doing active work, they wonder how I persist to support my business all this long,” says Nabikolo.

She further reveals that customers are occasional and new ones often express doubt as to whether she did the works herself.

“I get at least three new customers a week but most are always referred to me by my former customers who were impressed with my work,” she says.

“Some arrive when despising me and I often have to show them practical skills to believe. I always prefer the men because they don’t ask many questions like women.”

However, Nabikolo admits it has not been a smooth ride all the way. In some of her worst moments of the profession, she recalls an incident in 2017 when a debt of Shs 3m almost collapsed her carpentry business.

“I invested all my small savings to buy a plot of land but later realised I was defrauded yet it was a dry spell without customers to buy my items,” Nabikolo tearfully says.

“The business froze until a relative bailed me out and I made a recovery.”

Even today, Nabikolo admits there is no stable business period. In a good week, she says she can sell five items and earn Shs 700,000 but there are times she spends three weeks without a single customer. Nabikolo allays fears that their future of carpentry at Nsambya is in doubt.

“We continue to stay here in fear that KCCA may soon evict us and we also heard that the landowner plans to get us off his land,” she says.

As a backup plan, Nabikolo says she hopes to complete her house in Bukandula on top of setting up a carpentry workshop there to supply furniture to the local communities. She also dreams of equipping and empowering other women into adopting the skilful art of carpentry.

Passing on knowledge 

At the moment, Nabikolo has three female protégés, among them 22-year-old Olivia Namiiro, whom she has tipped to be the successor to the workshop when she retires. “Here, I don’t need an application to offer jobs, your art and strength is what I consider, not literacy levels,” she says. 

She, however, expressed discontent with men who flee off with her money without executing the tasks she assigns them.

“Some men are dishonest and lazy but that only serves to inspire me to work harder and prove them wrong,” she says.

The women admit that their biggest challenge at the moment is changing the mindset of people that they can ably do carpentry work like men. Changing that mindset may take time but one thing for sure is that they have not only transformed their lives and that of their families, they have also had an impact on the social structure of the area through emancipation of the female gender. 

Looking at how far these women of Nsambya have come to excel in a previously male-dominated field, the sky is surely the limit for them.


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