Story and photos by Katie G. Nelson
For the members of the Moro Women’s Group in Arua, Uganda, the mission of independence and self-determination is core to their identity. They also happen to be refugees.
Led by Panina Injiwa, a 43-year-old pastor and mother of seven, the all-female collective is a skill-building and income-generating group of South Sudanese refugees. Together, they design, manufacture, and sell handbags and fashion accessories to women around central Africa. And while their output might seem modest — creating and selling only about a dozen products a month – their aspirations of improving future generations by gaining financial independence is what makes the group so unique.
Arua is situated on the divide between Northern Uganda and South Sudan. As such, it’s a small border town that hosts one of the largest influxes of refugees in the world — nearly 580,000 South Sudanese have entered Uganda since fighting broke out in December 2013 and more than 1,300 new refugees come into the country every day, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Panina Injiwa is one of those refugees. Originally from the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan, Panina and her children fled to Northern Uganda in 1996 to escape violence.
Like many refugees, Panina lived in Rhino Camp, a sprawling refugee settlement near Arua that currently hosts more than 55,000 refugees from South Sudan.
Like any parent would, Panina became obsessed with the thought of sending her children to school in hopes of giving them a better life. That hope also resonated with her fellow refugees in Arua.
Undaunted by the lack of jobs for refugees, Panina — armed with basic sewing and beading knowledge and a little money and supplies — begin teaching other refugees how to make beaded handbags and candles, popular among women in Central Africa. Soon, her small group became a 20-woman strong collective, named after the Moro people who live in the Equatoia region of South Sudan.
“We sat together to teach them – to train them,” she says. “When you are taught you are able to do something, to support yourself.” Though the women had successful careers as nutritionists, teachers, and accountants back in South Sudan, they’re now working together to find a way to support their family and make their children’s future a little brighter.
The group hopes they can someday rent an assembly space or even open a store in Arua. But that’s still a distant dream for Panina, who barely has enough money to purchase the supplies needed to make the bags.
“At least our children are getting an education,” Panina says.
Still, Panina finds strength in working with the other women, who echo her goals:
“We are here because we want to come out of poverty,” said Louise Odid, another group member.
Annisa Denguru adds: “We need a future for the children, so they don’t have to face the same challenges we are facing now.”