Charlotte Carmel saw it coming. From 2007, she had on several occasions seen her countrymen displaced due to conflict. She knew it was only a matter of time before the same befell her. She prepared herself to cope in case she found herself in a refugee situation. She did not want to be helpless. Charlotte found time and learnt knitting skills at Panzi in Bukavu, South Kivu.
When fighting erupted between armed groups and government forces in North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in August 2013, it forced thousands to flee into Uganda for safety. Charlotte was one of the thousands who fled into Nyakabande, situated about 10 miles from the DRC border in Uganda’s Kisoro District. Just like other refugees separated from their homes and livelihoods, she reached Kisoro with nothing! She had lost all assets including many relatives. But she had entered Uganda with her knitting skills. This would later to save her and many other refugees.
In September 2013, the Office of the Prime Minster registered Charlotte as an asylum seeker and later as a refugee, and moved to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in October 2014. As is the practice, she was allocated a piece of land for a house and farming. She tried her hand at farming but was getting nothing out of the toil.
I need to do whatever I can to help my family, my community and myself.
Four months after entering the refugee settlement, Charlotte joined Upendo Group, at the time an association of 16 refugee single parents – all of them women. With inspiration to help fellow refugees, she invited the women to knit with her. Their first assignment was to make papyrus mats, but she continued training the women until they started knitting fabric.
In March 2016, she heard about support from Action Africa Help Uganda (AAHU) for local community-led initiatives. She met with AAH Uganda’s Community Support Officer Kampanya Mpaso. “Because they qualify as a community-led initiative for refugees, we gave Upendo fabric, thread and tools worth two million Uganda Shillings. AAHU has been giving weekly support visits to supervise their knitting and saving/borrowing activities,” says Kampanya.
“As Upendo Chairperson, Charlotte designed a training program for group members. She has since trained 30 single parents, including 27 women and 3 men. She has helped to mobilize Upendo into a vibrant business association with a management structure, a business plan and operating address. Upendo knitting business is now known within and outside the refugee settlement for their high quality handicrafts including tablecloths, bed covers, mats, papyrus handbags, money purses, hats and sweaters for children. Their business is currently worth about 4,000,000 Uganda shillings.
“We are very happy with Charlotte. She has taught us how to knit and how to run a business despite being a refugee. She has enriched our lives,” says Mr. Waiko Scopas, Upendo Vice Chairperson and Chairperson of Kasonga Village, Kyangwali settlement.
“I want to see Upendo growing and recruiting more members so that we can benefit the larger community. Our current challenges are lack of appropriate knitting machines and low idea generation. People are bringing their bed-covers or bed sheets for embroidery, and we do it using our hands. If we had quality material and knitting machines, we would stitch it straight away and sell the finished bed sheet. I thank the government of Uganda, UNHCR and AAH Uganda for having welcomed me and helped me to settle down.