I was standing on the back porch at the home of my longtime yoga student, Laurie DeJong, in Northwest Woods when she casually asked a question that would change my life. I had been watching her journey to Africa and back to Sag Harbor many times, stitching an invisible thread across the ocean. I had tracked the progress of her work, looking at the pictures of the unveiling of a health center in a remote part of Uganda which had been previously cut off from health services. I celebrated the birth of the first sewing school, which tied her extensive work with New York Fashion Week to the fate of the African communities where she worked. I admired the baskets lining her shelves, woven together by women from both sides of the Rwandan genocide.
“Would you want to come and share yoga in Africa?” she asked. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I knew it would be the journey of a lifetime, but I didn’t know then that it would be the beginning of a lifelong connection.
That’s how DeJong approaches everything, though. From LDJ Productions, her eponymous company that handles all event production for New York Fashion Week, to Paper Fig Foundation, the nonprofit that empowers girls and women in East Africa through fashion, connection is the key word.
“I think you’ve heard me use the term ‘Ubuntu’ a lot,” she told me as we sat overlooking the Kazinga Channel in Uganda, elephants making their way down to the lapping water as we talked. “The direct translation is ‘I am because you are.’ And I love it so much because it’s just that: it’s about human connection.”
The first time I traveled with the Paper Fig Foundation to Africa, we shared yoga. This year, my second trip in June, we shared stories. We brought a film crew over and interviewed everyone who had been touched by the nonprofit, from the teacher at the sew school to the doctor at the health center to the driver who made our daily travels possible.
Graduation day at the sewing school featured 63 graduates, dancing down the makeshift runway we had created. Walking barefoot through dust and grass, their designs were original and unique, students strutting with a sense of ownership and joy.
“The whole concept behind the fashion show is to give [the students] a chance to show off the work they have done and really, just to have some fun,” said DeJong, “because they’re kids or they’re young women and young adults and, you know, we all need to have some fun now and then.”
After they walked, marche, and danced down the runway, we had a dance party. Most of the girls didn’t speak English, and I had only learned a couple words in Luganda, but we danced like old friends, shaking our hips, laughing and holding hands.
For teacher Medrine Muhindo, the sewing school in Kasese is a dream come true.
“My career helps me to contribute towards the income of the family and the responsibilities of the family,” she told me with a smile as we sat surrounded by sewing machines in the Paper Fig Foundation Sew School.
“If it wasn’t for Paper Fig Foundation, these girls wouldn’t have another option,” said Edith Muhindo, who runs the administration of Paper Fig from the sewing school to the health care center located just up the roadway. She is not related to Medrine. “Here in Kasese, the population is generally poor and most of the people are living on less than a dollar a day. But Paper Fig Foundation has given these girls a golden opportunity because they are here at Paper Fig sew-school, learning, getting skills for free. So, it has impacted their lives.”
As the Paper Fig Foundation embarks on a mission to impact and empower students in Uganda, it has had to look at the complex needs of the community. We were in Kasese on a happy day: graduation day. But most days, the people in this community don’t have access to basic needs, including water. The project to access water is underway now. Before Paper Fig built a health center nearby, there was no access to healthcare either.
“I’ve been working in Kasese for many years now,” said DeJong, “and our job is to support their initiatives and to listen to their needs. In thinking of a community in general you have to think of the community holistically. We have hundreds of women who have come through our sewing schools, but the majority of them live in a place with no access to healthcare.If our girls attending the school are not healthy, then it’s not achieving a longer-term goal of a healthy sustainable community. So we decided to open up a level 2 health center in this region that had no access to health care at all.”
Now the health center gives out lifesaving malaria medication almost daily. Providers treat respiratory illness, cuts and wounds. And the need is great. On the front steps of the health center, I interviewed a preacher whose parishioners use its services, and the fact that there’s no maternity wing is a glaring deficiency. As I went back through the transcript of our interview, my disbelief is evidence of my own privilege. He speaks of laboring women attempting to walk the six miles necessary to deliver their babies.
“If she tries to walk but she can’t,” he explained, “we normally carry her on a stretcher.”
“With your hands?” I asked.
“Yes, four men. One here, one here,” he said, motioning forward, “and two behind. Four people along that journey.”
“Six miles?” I asked again.
“Yes, six miles. It is a long journey. For some, it is too far.”
There was a beat. I looked off down the hill, over the river, towards the village of Kidodo, where the sewing school is.
They could do more, if they were upgraded to a Level 3 Healthcare facility. Then they could deliver babies.
“I can do that, no trouble there,” said Dr. Joseph as we settled into the cool treatment room of the health center, the blazing sun high in the sky outside. “I can deliver a mother, I can do immunization when things to use are there. I can do very many things but because we don’t have enough resources and enough equipment to use, we are not able to do it.”
The need is great. But as my crew piled back into the van for the long journey home, we were armed with their stories. Now is the time to share them.
At Mandala Yoga in Amagansett, on Friday, September 14 at 5:30 p.m., Emily J. Weitz will teach a yoga class to benefit the Paper Fig Foundation’s work in Kasese. On November 27, the film shot over the course of the June trip will premiere at a benefit for the Paper Fig Foundation in New York City. For more information, visit paperfig.org.