Women understand the power of the purse string. But the donation of purses to poverty-stricken women living in a small village in Uganda is more than symbolic. During the past two years, proceeds from a purse drive have been used to build a small school for orphans and lay the foundation for a community center. The effort was started by a Jackson State University professor following a trip to the country in 2013.
“I thought about what could be done right now for the women,” said Dr. Shonda Lawrence, associate professor and chair of JSU’s Department of Undergraduate Social Work. “It just came to me to gather old purses and send them to Uganda so that the women could sell them at the market. I figured if a few women had as many old purses that they were not using as I did, maybe we would have enough to send.”
Lawrence, along with Dr. Mario Azevedo, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and Drs. Susie Spencer, Gwendolyn Prater and Mohammad Shahbazi, initially traveled to Uganda to present a paper at the International Scientific Conference of Public Health in East Africa. Discussions on collaborative efforts between Jackson State University and the conference’s host university, Mountains of the Moon, also were on the agenda. But it was Lawrence’s visits to several markets and small villages that sparked her imagination.
“What I noticed first about the markets was that most of the items for sale were used items,” she said.
Upon her return, Lawrence organized a used purse drive to benefit the women of Kasese. The Social Work Student Association, faculty and staff participated, collecting the purses over the course of one academic year.
“We had boxes and boxes of purses to be shipped. The cost was astronomical. Luckily, a volunteer — an angel — contacted me and said she would be willing to take the purses with her when she traveled back to Uganda.” The women of Kasese kept some of the purses for themselves and took the remaining purses to market. Monies made from selling the purses were used, in turn, to purchase materials to make baskets to take to market. “It was just planting a small seed that has helped the women of Kasese become empowered,” Lawrence said.
“What we considered trash has helped a whole village.”