The Palace of strong women
Nabatte stands on the corner of a large, unpaved road in Kiswaza village, western Uganda. Behind her, there’s a tiny brick building that houses a mechanic’s workshop and the “Molokoni Palace”, Nabatte’s restaurant. The dining room is no more than 4x2 metres large. The basic kitchen is outside in the back yard, comprising a fireplace, some metal sheets forming a roof and walls, a multitude of different-sized saucepans, the omnipresent yellow jerry cans of water, rickety shelving made of two wooden boxes piled one on top of the other and two benches.
“The place is really small, I know, but the location is good” Nabatte points out as if clarifying that the Palace fully deserves its name. “This is an important crossroads. People are always passing through. There’s a big sugar company not far away and the men that work there come over to eat lunch or dinner. And next door on the right, there’s an auto mechanic’s workshop. The mechanics are regular clients. On average, I have about 30 customers a day. However, that can rise to as many as 40.”
Her soothing, calm voice reflects more than the normal satisfaction and sense of achievement of a small business entrepreneur describing the early success of her new activity. Her words also reveal confidence, determination and a regained sense of control.
“I got the idea of a restaurant from my mother. She used to run her own restaurant once, and I’m incredibly proud to be able to follow in her footsteps and use the skills I learnt from her.
“I try to change the menu every day. Normally there’s goat or chicken during the week and cow during weekends (Molokoni takes its name from a highly-prized cow hoof stew). Sometimes someone requests a specific dish, especially at the end of the month when it’s payday for the factory workers.
“I spend my days cooking, but I also take care of my chickens. They’re too young to lay eggs, but when they grow, I’ll be able to offer eggs and my own roast chicken on the menu! I also farm a field of maize. I’m really happy with the progress we’re making.”
Nabatte says “we” because the “Molokoni Palace” is actually a 3-person business set up when Nabatte and two other women, both called Moreen, enrolled in Village Enterprise’s microenterprise graduation programme. The programme provides a combination of cash transfers, business and financial literacy training, ongoing mentoring and support for the establishment of savings groups, aiming to create transformative opportunities for those living in extreme poverty.
“Look at me now” continues Nabatte in a perfectly natural, matter-of-fact manner. “You’d never recognise me if you’d met me before! People around me often seem surprised by my achievements, in particular by the money I’m able to save”.
When Nabatte and her business partners pooled their resources, talents, courage and hopes, they didn’t just build something economically sound and cost-effective that is leading to tangible financial gains. Coming from extremely poor backgrounds, they took the first step out of isolation and marginalisation. They sparked collaboration and broke the aspirational barriers that impeded their independence and ability to set their own priorities. These changes are gradually reshaping dominant and discriminatory expectations.
“Now people keep asking me how we did it. They look at us with so much respect”. In this unlocked sense of agency lies a powerful call to arms for women everywhere.
Photo credits: Header © Cartier Philanthropy / Andrea Borgarello