Help in a handbag

Florence Nangobi Nakisige is one of 19 members of the Mukwano Women’s Group in Uganda, whose handmade purses have been a popular item in Sarnia-Lambton thanks to the help of a Bright’s Grove resident. Submitted Photo.

Tara Jeffrey

Pat McGill had no idea a trip to Africa would lead to a life-changing partnership with a group of women and their handbags.

“What started as a simple thing, has kind of taken on a life of its own,” said the Bright’s Grove resident, who first met the Mukwano Women’s Group in Bujagali Falls, Uganda, back in 2010.

“My friend and I were there for a week doing work for an NGO,” said McGill, noting the area, located at the source of the Nile – a popular rafting spot for tourists. “Of course, in an area like that, the locals are always trying to sell their handmade goods to the tourists and charity workers. So I try to buy as much as I can.”

Since returning to the area a number of times – through his work building and enhancing schools with a group called Soft Power Education – 68-year-old McGill developed a relationship with the women’s group, and offered to start selling their bags back home.

He bought a dozen last fall and gave them away to friends and family over Christmas.

“So I ordered more, and anticipated it would be a little flash over Christmas, and not much more. But what’s happened is, the bags are really very popular.”

To date, McGill has ordered more than 500 bags through the women’s group – about 19 members who make them using old-style treadle sewing machines.  He pays $20 per bag, and aside from about $9 in shipping, all the money goes back to the women.

And with the average labourer in Uganda making about $2 a day, the $11 profit from each bag is huge, said McGill.

“Most of these women are not well supported by a man; they have a lot of children, and are basically providing for their families. So, for them to get hard cash is really important,” he said, adding that the women are in desperate need of income, because recent dams built at Bukagali Falls have stopped the rapids and caused tourism to plummet.

Back in Bright’s Grove, McGill is able to order more bags as needed, and is thrilled at how word-of-mouth has paid off.

“My hairdresser offered to sell them in her shop, and Mary Anne Peloza from Cheeky Monkey invited me to sell them for Record Store Day and First Friday,” he said, noting the bags are also on display at DeSena’s Hardware in Bright’s Grove.

McGill was also approached by Rebecca Groendyk, a vendor at Sarnia’s upcoming Artwalk event, offering to share her booth space – knowing he doesn’t make a profit off the bags and allowing him to avoid the extra fees.

“People are coming out of the woodwork,” said McGill, adding that church and rotary groups have also asked to start selling the bags. “I have no idea when the phone rings next, who it will be.”

The retired Dow chemist said the experience has been life changing – not only for the women in Uganda – but for himself.

“It’s one of the most fun things I think I’ve ever done,” he said. “Nobody here is making a dime off these things, and yet, they all want to help.  Sure, there’s a story in Africa. But there’s an even more fascinating story, in my mind, about what’s happening here.

“The people that I’m meeting and their generosity is really giving me a warm feeling about the human condition. It’s a whole lot nicer than I thought.”

The Mukwano Women’s Group bags are currently available at DeSena’s Hardware and Creations Hair Studio (both in Bright’s Grove) and will be on hand at Cheeky Monkey for June First Friday, and at Sarnia Artwalk June 6 and 7.

For more information, contact Pat at 519-908-9508 or email KPMcGill1@gmail.com.