When Liz Forkin Bohannon moved to Uganda to pursue journalism, she met a group of talented and ambitious young women who needed some economic opportunity to continue on to university and pursue their dreams. She knew that the story of these women would become a part of her own, though she didn’t know how.
After a bit of brainstorming, Liz was reminded of a pair of funky, strappy sandals she’d made a few years back that had received a lot of compliments. An idea was sparked. She scoured the country for the necessary materials and learned everything she could about making footwear. She then hired three young women and just weeks later, under a mango tree, a sandal company in East Africa was born!
Sseko Designs has since taken off. With so many fun straps and tying methods, Sseko shoes are fun in and of themselves, but the real pleasure comes with the knowledge that these sandals empower women across Uganda.
TCM: Every sandal has a story. Are there any stories that stand out?
LFB: “So many! We usually talk a lot about our women who are headed to university because their stories of success and perseverance are so inspiring. Beatrice is from our current class. Every single one of her five brothers was captured by Lord’s Resistance Army. Instead of allowing fear to rule her, she was motivation to continue her education and make a life for herself. The courage must run in their family, because all of her brothers eventually escaped from the rebel group.
We also have women on our staff that work with us full-time and are not continuing on to university. These are women that we hope are with our company for many years. Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting down with one of our full-time seamstresses who has worked with Sseko for about two and a half years now. She is an older woman and shared with me how much her marriage has changed since she started working with us. She told me how much more her husband respects her because she contributes financially to their family. She makes decisions and has authority in a way she did not before. He is learning to trust her and she is finding her voice. We say ‘every sandal has a story’ and we mean it.”
TCM: How does Uganda inspire you?
LFB: “Uganda is such a land of adventure! There is a rawness that exists that is hard to find in more ‘developed’ places. You hear so many horrible stories about poverty, war and corruption – and, yes, all that exists, but there is also so much beauty and life in this place. Uganda is a stunning country, from waterfalls to lakes that extend as far as you can see to lush green forests. And the people… Being in relationships with Ugandans is responsible for so much of my personal growth. I am constantly challenged and encouraged by how much Ugandans give of themselves. Their hospitality and openness challenges the selfish individualist in me. The perseverance and strength of some of the women on our team humbles me and gives me perspective and hope. For me, Uganda is kind of this magical place that is all at once filled with so many obstacles and challenges and also so much opportunity and hope. It’s a place to blaze new trails and dream big, and that is intoxicating to me.”
TCM: You describe Sseko as a “socially proactive not-just-for-profit business”. What do you mean by that exactly?
LFB: “Sseko falls somewhere between your traditional non-profit charity and your typical for-profit business. (We refer to it as Middle Earth—nerd alert!) We use the term ‘not-just-for-profit’ in hopes that it makes people think a little bit. Consumerism can be an incredible force for positive social change. Where we run into trouble is when when profits are put before people. I believed that there was a way to meet the needs of this specific group of women in a way that could 1.) Sustain itself financially instead of competing with limited donor funds and 2.) Empower women to rise above poverty and become leaders in their community, while also contributing to the local economy and creating sustainable development through industry, trade and education.”
TCM: The sandals can be tied so many different ways! Do you have a personal favorite when it comes to tying methods?
LFB: “It depends on the strap! I actually rely a lot on our amazing fans who come up with some many ties that are now staple styles. If I am being super active, I always opt for the Classic Tie because it is so comfortable and sturdy. But when I’m in the mood to spice things up I opt for a style like the Braided Thong with a metallic strap. An elegant and classic silhouette—with a twist.”
TCM: What’s happening with Sseko in 2012 that really excites you?
LFB: “We’ve got so many things cooking for this year! Mum’s the word on some of them, but we’ve got a new line of clutches that will be launching later this year that we’re pretty excited about and some new programs we’ll launching in Uganda that we can’t wait to dive into and share!”
TCM: What’s the best way for our readers to get involved?
LFB: “Wear Ssekos. Tell your friends. Seriously, the only way we’ve been able to grow at the pace we have is because of our incredible fans sharing our story. We’ve got lots of ways to get involved from hosting Sseko parties to joining our team as an intern, employee or retail partner.”