(Originally written for and published by Ember Arts.)
Esther and her family live in a small, one-story block of grey concrete rooms in a slum outside of Uganda’s capital city. Laundry hangs in uneven lines across their little compound. When I duck into her sitting room she gives me a big, wry smile and a welcome so wholehearted I hardly know what to do with it. She serves me a Coke. Ugandan Coke, made with real cane sugar, is transcendent.
Not too many years ago, Esther was beaten with the business end of a machete by a rebel soldier. She showed me her big, raised scars. The rebellion drove her and her family from their home, making them, suddenly, poor refugees in their own country. She found shelter in the Acholi Quarters slum and found work crushing stones in a local quarry. The work is grueling, done sitting in the hot sun with a makeshift hammer, and pays, at best, $1 per day. It was all just barely enough to stay alive.
But Esther is not content to just stay alive. Esther is one of those special souls whose dreams simmer near the surface, just behind the eyes, who will keep chasing her dreams no matter what she has to overcome—civil war or otherwise. She started trying little businesses, like selling bananas and charcoal, to get money to send her kids to school. Soon she bought a little piece of the rock quarry as an investment.
These days Esther makes jewelry for Ember Arts and helps lead the other women who work with her. She is building a home for her family and running a couple small but successful side businesses. Her oldest son is in college. Some day, Esther told me a couple years ago, she’s going to buy herself a car and park it in her own driveway. I can’t wait to sit shotgun.
Ember Arts exists to support women like Esther as they pursue and achieve their dreams. We partner with 28 Ugandan women, all survivors of war and poverty, who handmake every piece of our jewelry from recycled paper. And they use the money they earn to chase their dreams: to educate their children, build homes, start businesses. They are transforming the future for their families and communities.
And they are reconnecting with deep, hopeful parts of themselves. People are at their best when they pursue their best dreams. Our dreams are the little white rabbits that we follow, often tumbling, into the color and wonder of life.
Esther chases her dreams, and brings that color and wonder into the world around her. Sipping my Coke in her little sitting room, I think about real cane sugar. And I think about how dreams are like the real cane sugar in our lives. And how people like Esther are the real cane sugar in our world. They show us that there’s something more than just staying alive. They elevate the mundane. They transcend.