It was a hot day in August of 2013. I stood near the ticket counter at our airport, running lists through my head, wondering if there was anything I might have forgotten to pack when one of the friends who had come to see us off called out, “Scoot together! Let’s get a going-away picture.”
I made a goofy face and posed with 12 others for the first of many pictures we would take in the coming weeks. We were going to Africa!
Part of our 15-day mission trip would be spent in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, where I would finally meet the women we fondly call the Aggie’s Arts Ladies. Later in the week, we would travel for 15 hours in a narrow, cramped bus clearly designed for people far shorter (and thinner) than I over unpaved, mountain paths to Kisoro, where we would be able to meet and interact with the very children directly impacted by profits from Aggie’s Arts sales. I couldn’t wait to see the other side of this ministry our church had been supporting.
Founded in 2007 by Christian missionaries Simon and Aggie Paech, Aggie’s Arts is a nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with impoverished Ugandan families, empowering them to rise out of poverty by providing a source of income, high-quality education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.
For as long as they can remember, the 17 women of Aggie’s Arts have struggled to provide the basics for their children. Many are refugees forced out of their homelands by rebel warfare, and some of them had previously been earning a dollar a day, breaking rocks by hand at a nearby quarry, until Aggie taught them to make beautiful beads out of recycled paper.
Simon and Aggie have developed meaningful relationships with the ladies and purchase their handmade beads and jewelry at prices higher than what they could receive from community shoppers. Then Simon and Aggie ship them to our local Aggie’s Arts office, where a team of volunteers works to sell them in the United States. Profits from those sales are used to purchase more beads from the ladies and to benefit a second ministry begun in 2011 — Kisoro Kids.
Aggie Paech is no stranger to poverty and suffering. Before she met Simon, before she taught others to make beads, before the idea of birthing a ministry was ever conceived, Aggie was living a far different life.
She and her eight siblings were born in Katwe, a Ugandan slum. Their lives were a constant struggle for survival. Education in Uganda is not free, and if parents cannot pay, the children do not go. Aggie was blessed when a visiting missionary promised to pay for her school as long as she studied and did well. Aggie did promise, and she worked hard to keep that promise.
One day, on the way home from school, a man from her slum attacked and raped her. She was only 15. When Aggie learned she was pregnant and told her family, her father threw her out. She had no choice but to go back to the man who raped her, and she stayed with him for sixteen years.
He beat her often.
Aggie bore him five children, and even they did not escape his abuse. He frequently left her for other women, but every time she thought she could finally breathe freely, he returned. That man did not provide for his family, so Aggie worked any way she could.
One day, he came to kill her, and she ran from him for the last time. Aggie and her children continued to live in the slum, barely surviving, often getting just one meal a day.
Over the next few years, Aggie served God by teaching in house churches, leading worship and translating for the Christian missionaries who visited the slums. No matter how difficult things got for Aggie and her children, she continued to rely on God and trust His provision for them.
In July 2006, a team from our church came to the slum, and with them came Simon Paech — the man who would become Aggie’s husband and father to her five children. Through Simon, God provided Aggie a way out of the slum, but in her new life she felt a growing compassion for the women she left behind — many who were HIV positive and single — who still called the slum home.
From that love came the idea for Aggie’s Arts.
In 2011, Aggie’s Arts provided for the creation of a second ministry — this one in Kisoro, a village in southwest Uganda, near the borders of Rwanda and Congo. It is a beautiful region, and I would not be surprised to learn the Garden of Eden is tucked just over the next mountain.
Kisoro Kids is an educational assistance program that provides school fees, textbooks, desks, and school supplies for 40 children who would otherwise not be able to attend school. Funds donated by Aggie’s Arts also provide building supplies and teacher training.
With excitement to see how Aggie’s Arts was working there, we traveled 15 hours in that little bus to meet Pastor George. He is a community leader in Kisoro and has lived in the region all of his life. He and his wife are hardworking people — seven days a week they toil, their greatest desire and driving reason being to serve their people as God directs. Pastor George is headmaster for seven primary schools, and it is through him that Aggie’s Arts is able to benefit the children.
The Dirt-Floor Classroom
The majority of children educated in Kisoro come barefoot to their dirt-floor classrooms, and I experienced firsthand how learning in that environment could be unhealthy.
Living in the dirt are tiny fleas the locals call jiggers. The female buries herself in the soft tissues of the foot and lays hundreds of eggs. The resulting welts are extremely painful and often lead to infection. While I never considered going barefoot, I wore sandals to school when I taught my lessons in Kisoro that day.
Two weeks after our return home, I found a telltale bump near a toe on the bottom of my foot. Fortunately, I live in this country, and it took a simple outpatient surgical procedure to remove the jigger and her eggs. In Kisoro, the process is cruder and far less hygienic.
And it involves kerosene.
Laying concrete over those dirt floors became a priority once Aggie’s Arts volunteers learned about the problem. Today, thanks to funds raised through Aggie’s Arts, bags of concrete and labor provide by the local community in Kisoro, we can joyfully say there are no dirt floors in Kisoro classrooms.
Breaking the Cycle
Aggie’s Arts believes that empowering Ugandans through education and work is the best way to help provide them with opportunities that will break the cycle of poverty. There are no handouts in this ministry. Already, over 2,000 Ugandans have been impacted.
Short of visiting Africa yourself, how can you help? It’s as easy as shopping! We like to say it’s shopping that changes lives.