By Aime Rebecca
I had a dream to become a lawyer because I hoped to provide equal opportunities for the underprivileged, but life happened. And I always saw many ladies dressed in graduation gowns and I always pictured myself in a graduation gown, as a lawyer. These dreams were all lost when I and my family came to Uganda as refugees in 2010. Once in Uganda, these dreams were awakened when my mother, who got a job as a house help, took me back to school. Considering that I came from a French-speaking country to an English one, it was a huge struggle to fit in and learn in school. Until we came to Uganda, I had never spoken or written any English words. I still tried to keep my dreams and when I was just getting into the groove, boom. I was again out of school. My mother, who was the sole family head, developed a back problem due to heavy work as a house help, something she was not used to doing which left her unable to walk or even work. Being the eldest in the family, I had to drop out of school and figure out how to fend for the family. I was back to square one.
I got a job as a hawker and was paid on commission. Two experiences remain engraved in my mind while hawking. These experiences remain a constant nightmare and reminder of my struggles to provide for my family.
One day while on my way selling my merchandise, a man called me to his home because he wanted to buy. He asked me to enter the house because the sun outside was hot. When I entered the house, he forcefully closed the door and raped me. All my screams could do nothing as there was no one nearby to rescue me. After the painful experience, I came back home with nothing sold, my dignity lost and also, my family slept hungry.
On another day, I was walking from one village to the next, with my merchandise on my head. For this, I had to cross a swamp. When I reached the swamp, a group of about 5 men appeared from nowhere, with machetes. They grabbed me and carried me into the bush, a little off the road. In a split second, my hands were pinned to the ground and one man stood over my head, ready to cut of my head, while another raped me. from what I could understand, my head stayed a little longer on my shoulders because the man raping me wanted to get his fill before they could take my head off for completing a ritual sacrifice.I prayed in every language I could think of, and somehow my prayers were answered. In a distance, a group of people came and once my attackers heard, they ran off leaving me helpless. The passing group saw my merchandise scattered all over the ground and asked why items that were still good were still on the ground. That is how they found me. I survived death, but again, my family slept hungry. I lived with these experiences and continued what I was doing because I had to make a living for my family. We had to eat and get a roof over our heads, and all these responsibilities fell on a 14-year-old girl.
A new journey to wearing a graduation gown
In 2016, on a Monday morning, while preparing to go about my usual life, a friend called me and informed me about a “school” that takes on people no matter their educational background. This was again another chance to go back to school. I didn’t know what I would learn but my interest was piqued, so I expressed interest to join. I gathered what I could and learned that the “school” is called Social Innovation Academy (SINA) and it is an informal space that empowers marginalised youth to turn their challenging experiences into opportunities through social entrepreneurship. I had grown into a young business girl, so this was not far away from what I was already doing. So, I was in.
After going through an interesting interview process, I became a part of SINA through a scholarship program. But again, my family still needed to survive, so I would only study Monday to Friday and weekends were for work. Tough but now, there were two sides to my struggles – my dreams and the survival of my family.
The birth of Patapia
At the academy, my knowledge and understanding of entrepreneurship broadened and I realised that I could still make money while improving the lives of refugee women and girls especially since they were the ones that suffered a lot. Like me and my mother.
In 2018, the idea had formed well and I had put together a small team that believed in my vision. Initially, having a small understanding of the financial sector, in 2019, I started a women's savings group. The idea was for the women to save and then borrow that money for starting SMEs. We financed about 19 women, but unfortunately, almost all the businesses collapsed because the women didn’t know how to start and run businesses. It was time to go back to the drawing board.
In 2020, we pivoted and started Patapia. Patapia empowers refugee women to start and run their own SMEs through a business startup training and mentoring program and access to micro-loans. Entrepreneurship is an exciting journey but very tough if you don't surround yourself with the right networks and opportunities. In 2020, I joined the SINA Accelerator program where I went through intense training and mentoring that groomed me into a mentor and trainer myself. I joined the accelerator but I had no idea what to expect. After 6 months of the program, I heard that we were going to graduate. Hoho... there comes my opportunity, when I had completely forgotten and lost the dream.
And now, here I am in a graduation gown.
I may not be a lawyer, but I am still supporting marginalised communities. I am not a lawyer, but I am making hundreds of refugee women and girls put food on their tables, take their children to school and get roofs over their heads.
There are always opportunities, no matter where life throws you. When you fall, grab whatever you can get a hold of to get back up. I have slept in incomplete buildings, slept on an empty stomach and have gone through harrowing experiences that I can't have the heart to share, but am here. You too can get to where you want to be.