Engaging the Unexpected
Photo Essays of Four Women in Uganda

by Sylvia K. Ilahuka
All photographs by Zahara Abdul

20 min read


Somewhere in the bustle of Gayaza Market, Kampala, is a small shop among many other small shops. It is owned and run by Lilian, a trained medical laboratory technologist and mother of two who turned to the business as a primary source of income after her previous employment ended.

Before the shop, there was tea and cassava that Lilian would hawk among the other market vendors with her firstborn on her back and her second in her belly. Customer demand diversified her offerings to include maandazi and sambusa and porridge; then passionfruit juice, then water, then small cakes and buns, then loaves of bread, then sugar, then other sundries like polythene bags. She started out renting the space, but was eventually able to buy it entirely about five years later in 2019. She initially had a hired shopkeeper but after formal employment fell through, she started running it herself.

In school, Lilian had first wanted to become an accountant because of an aunt in that profession who lived a desirable lifestyle. However, her aspirations later changed to science with the goal of becoming an innovative leader in the field. She reconciles the difference between her original hopes and current life by accepting the situation and living in the present – while dreaming of more. She would one day like to own a 4-in-1 shopping centre and live a relaxed life, secure enough that her young daughter and son are spared the common African responsibility of caring for her financially in her old age.

Her fellow market vendors do not know about her background (Lilian also has a master’s degree in public health), so at most there is perhaps only a slight sentiment of envy from those who have seen her growth from the tea vending days to an entire standalone shop. She generally keeps to herself and does not engage in the idle gossip that is a ubiquitous market pastime. In the afternoons, she walks to pick her children up from school and they join her at the shop; she cooks lunch on a charcoal stove behind the counter, and one of them might take a nap among the boxes. In the beginning, it was hard starting out in this line of work that she was unfamiliar with. But she had no other choice and needed a way to cover rent and care for her children. Most of Lilian’s family is educated, and they therefore feel she is working below her level as her income is less than would be expected of someone with her degrees; like she has wasted time and money on education. Now she feels confident because she is more experienced, andd is happy because she can see the business growing. She also feels more relaxed because she owns the shop now. Being in the same place for an extended period of time ensures return customers, a solid client base who make stock suggestions and offer encouragement.

Today, one of her best-selling items is disposable baby diapers. Diapers are considered a luxury product among many in Uganda, who tend to use cloth nappies or leave the children be. Lilian, however, would diaper her baby while making the tea rounds – which caught the attention of other mothers in the market who wanted to know how she was able to keep her baby clean and hygienic. Their interest led to her stocking and selling individual diapers out of packs.

Thus far, she is proud of her customer retention: the return clients who are happy with her goods and services encourage her. She has also developed a system of trust with her community, such that she can leave the shop unattended for several hours and the neighbouring vendors will keep an eye on it; she in turn will sell foodstuffs on their behalf if they step away from their stalls. If she’s no t in, customers will often take an item from the shop and leave money on the counter. On the slower days, Lilian finds consolation in the knowledge that every day is different: if today is bad, tomorrow will be better. “I can’t fail every day,” she says.


Vendors gather along a road in Banda Wembule every late afternoon. Among them is a young woman, Diana, dressed to the nines from her hair to her nails. A hotel management graduate, she does not fit the typical profile of a roadside market vendor. But she is there with a smile, and makes it known to her tens of thousands of Twitter followers that she is a proud of her work and herself.

After graduating from YMCA Wandegeya in 2019, Diana searched in vain for a job at the many hotels in Kampala. On 13th June 2020, she rolled up her sleeves and started her own business – making peanut butter (known locally as ‘kipoli’) and selling fresh vegetables by her home roadside.

Initially, former classmates would mock her for it; her family too was embarrassed and would make comments that made her feel bad, like that market stalls are for the uneducated. Some friends have shunned her to this day. Diana, however, holds her head up because at the end of the day this work is what feeds her. Now she feels more than okay: she has a very large Twitter following, which translates to clients and other positive attention. Her popularity stemmed from a domestic violence incident in which she was physically assaulted by a former partner of six years. She took to Twitter about the matter and the story went viral, to the extent that she was interviewed by media houses and grew an audience. She now uses this visibility to not only market her products, but to also encourage other youth to take pride in what they do.

As for Diana, she is proud of being able to pay her own bills, do her nails and hair, and of having made a name for herself. She has clientele all over Kampala. Unfortunately, because of her physical appearance and personality, she is also sexualized by would-be clients. She recounted an incident in which a prominent Ugandan man placed an order for peanut butter for delivery to his office; when Diana arrived, he offered her money for sex, claiming he wanted to help her because she would otherwise “die of poverty”. Such has happened twice; she no longer enters offices or homes when delivering orders, and instead waits outside.
Looking back at her original career hopes, Diana doesn’t regret having gone into this business. The money isn’t much but it is her own. She would eventually like to own a classy grocery store. The going does get tough, especially since fresh produce goes bad quickly, but she takes heart and prays to God that the next day will be better.


What do you get when you cross a college athlete with a degree in business and French with agricultural value addition? You get Faridah, a budding farmer and the founder of Kasana Foods.

After earning her undergraduate degree from Agnes Scott College in the United States, Faridah returned home to Uganda where she assumed the role of COO at a local healthcare startup. Having given a lot to the role, she decided to look for other formal opportunities – but none were forthcoming. With expenses and family obligations accumulating, she was getting desperate. Faridah already owned a small banana farm along Masaka Road and was also looking to help her father, a small-scale farmer, commercialise his business. About 3 years ago, he had taken her to Kasana village in Luweero District – Uganda’s pineapple capital. There she learnt that during season surplus, farmers get stuck with excess – even with all the improved market access, middlemen, and export channels. She became curious about post-harvest loss reduction, and produce value addition (the latter of which more commonly takes the form juicing). Come January 2021, still unemployed, Faridah applied to a farm training program in Seguku for her own professional development. It was there that she met someone who directed her to Sparky Social Enterprise to learn about fruit and vegetable preservation through dehydration. Once she was confident with the process, she launched her brand Kasana Foods – after that same village in Luweero, a name that also translates to “little sun” in Luganda.

She chose to dive into fruit preservation as it related to her already-existing agricultural endeavours. A distance runner in college, Faridah is also conscious of healthy eating and then need for natural snacks that aren’t overly processed with preservatives and added sugars.
In the beginning, the prospect felt daunting for lack of knowledge in the field; felt she first needed to study [farming and value addition] formally. Her family also didn’t comprehend why someone who had a university degree from abroad would go into such a low-profit venture. They didn’t – and still don’t quite – see what it could become. While her parents have grown more supportive, especially her father who now even suggests fruits for Faridah to try, they still hope that this is just a hobby and that she’ll go back abroad. However, Faridah wants to involve them more so that they get to understand its importance.

As she grew more comfortable, Faridah realised there is no need to know everything at the start – one just needs to be willing to learn along the way. Some of her newfound confidence also comes from having better financial resources: Faridah is recently a Tony Elumelu Foundation grantee. Winning the grant was a huge vote of confidence that came at the right time. Prior, the plan had been to fund the business using her own money, which was admittedly a stressful plan. Being named a winner was also validating: someone out there was saying we see you, you can do it. She is most proud of having been able to raise funds while her business was still in the idea stage, no small feat. The dream is for this business to solve some personal financial problems, and hopefully unemployment too by creating jobs for people. She wants to show that one can make a profit while also having a positive impact on the community.

When circumstances are hard, as they have been recently, Faridah gets perspective from her mother and from talking to friends. She also takes to the streets and runs, a habit she finds therapeutic. Otherwise her general mentality is to suck it up – that the tough times are temporary. Asked about how she reconciles the difference between the type of work she had originally imagined post-graduation and her current endeavours, Faridah sighs. She says she asks herself: what was the ultimate goal? Work is often merely a means to an end, especially financially, so the destination matters more than the how/what. Family is a big driver in her choices, community too; it is important for her to choose to do that which will benefit the most people. Life experiences have also revealed other skillsets she hadn’t previously been aware of, so she is happy to have the chance to utilise them as well. In her own words, “I have opened up more because I have failed more.”


Exactly a decade to the day she arrived in the United States, where she obtained her undergraduate degree and worked thereafter, Sylvia left for Uganda in 2019 to join her partner who is from here. It was a deliberate choice on her part, fuelled by a desire to be closer to her family in Tanzania, but it meant leaving behind a prestigious job and an acceptance to a medical school in Boston. Again deliberately, she did not have a concrete plan for when she arrived – her rationale being that she wanted to get a feel for Kampala first, that it would take her a while to adjust. She was also pregnant at the time, all the more reason to take it easy. The baby was born at the start of the first COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda; two years later, Sylvia is still at home with the now-toddler. Her fiancé holds a traditional job and is the primary earner.

Sylvia also happens to be a writer, a skill whose income is quite inconsistent. She misses earning a substantial salary of her own, and feels awkward not having a clear answer to the oft-asked social question, “What do you do?” On many days she feels like a waste of her Wellesley College degree. Even though Sylvia is at peace with her choice to relocate despite the cost, she struggles with the fact that she had many opportunities in hand and now has almost nothing tangible to show for it.

Her days revolve around keeping house – cooking, cleaning, and tending to her partner and child. The routine has started to feel monotonous and is also quite physically taxing, but because Sylvia does not yet hold a conventional salaried job, she feels she cannot justify paying someone else to do the work. It was at her fiancé’s insistence that she eventually hired help for a few hours weekly.

When she first arrived in Uganda, her partner’s family used to inquire what her plan was for work; they no longer do, but the sentiment remains unspoken yet palpable. Sylvia does not experience this pressure from her father, likely because of context: her late mother, too, moved to a new country with her father. A medical doctor, she did not work for at least a year thereafter during which time she had their firstborn. Even though their reasons are not identical (for her mother it was the host country’s immigration rules, for Sylvia it has been primarily adjustment blues/maternity leave/the pandemic job market) Sylvia would have liked to asked her what it was like sitting at home day in day out, not using her hard-earned MD degree. What the sentiments were from family, friends, and inside her mind; whether she also felt like she was wasting away.

Thoughts on work and its respectability have been floating around in Sylvia’s mind, but the true reflection point came the day before her partner was to have an important government meeting. While he had not asked her to, she thought it would be nice if he had various wardrobe options ready to choose from and set about preparing a few shirts. Washing machines are not common in households around Uganda, so laundry is often a manual task. Their toddler was cranky at that very moment, so she tied him onto her back while she washed. As she scrubbed, back aching, she thought: “Have I really sunk this low?” Followed by, “But why do I consider this ‘low’? Is this not useful work? Am I not supporting my partner who in turn supports me? Why is it okay if the househelp does it, but if I do it feels beneath me?”

Sylvia’s partner is mindful of the time and effort that housework takes up, insisting on compensating her for it as a monthly bank deposit humorously marked “salary”. His argument is that this is labour they would have paid someone else to do, so it is only right that Sylvia should have that money. She initially felt squeamish about accepting the cash, but came to appreciate it – and, even more, the progressive sentiments behind it. Sylvia looks forward to once again being a financially contributing partner in the relationship; in the meantime, she acknowledges the privilege it is to be home with their baby without worrying about finances. Her office clothes and high heels sit in her closet, hard to give away because it would be active acknowledgement of a significant life change, which Sylvia isn’t ready to do even as she has chosen to accept that her current role looks different. Instead she wears them around the house on occasion, relishing the feel of the outfits as they hug her in reminder of a time when she was useful outside the home.

Sylvia K. Ilahuka is a Tanzanian writer living in Uganda. Her work has been published in the literary journals Lolwe, Doek!, Isele Magazine, and the Aké Review, and she has also reviewed music for Bandcamp Daily. Sylvia curated Playing Grown Up (2012), an exhibition by Zimbabwean sculpture artist Clyde Bango at Wellesley College’s Jewett Art Gallery. She is working on her first collection of essays.

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