Atlantan helps empower women in Uganda

Posted January 7, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 3,748 views


By Bo Emerson | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | “Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives.” Bryce Courtenay ~ For Brittany Merrill, the seed that would grow into a life’s work was a 10-minute meeting with a woman on the Congo/Uganda border.

That encounter happened during a 2004 summer trip she made to Africa to teach at a boarding school. Until that summer, she wasn’t interested in Africa and wasn’t interested in teaching. Two of her friends talked her into going.

Returning to the U.S., the 19-year-old went on with her college plans, studying abroad in Italy, enjoying life at Southern Methodist University and following the trajectory common to a Buckhead child of privilege. Yet she kept thinking back to a woman named Sarah Kamara, not much older than she, who had a tiny house in a Ugandan village and cared for 24 orphans who slept on her dirt floor.

Locating Sarah through a Uganda contact, “I started helping her in small ways,” said Merrill.

Alice Dramundru of Buwala, Uganda partnered with the UAPO to create the Akola Project, teaching Ugandan widows to make paper necklaces to be sold in the U.S. and elsewhere. Revenue from these sales have helped more than 150 widows become self-sufficient.

Those small ways grew. Merrill, now 26, created an alliance to build an orphanage to care for 180 Ugandan children, which eventually turned into the Ugandan American Partnership Organization (UAPO). That group has channeled $2 million in donations toward five projects throughout the African country, drilling 20 water wells, building two orphanages and starting a vocational program that has trained 160 Ugandan widows to fashion and sell paper-bead necklaces, making the women financially self-sufficient.

Since each widow cares for up to 10 children, that program’s impact is highly leveraged.

“I think it’s overwhelming that someone that young could start something like that,” said David Plyler, a financial counselor who heard Merrill speak at a Grant Park church and was drawn into her orbit. He eventually offered the UAPO office space at his wealth management company’s North Creek headquarters.

Others have been touched by the charismatic young woman and the 20-somethings who staff her shoestring organization. (Most are volunteers.)

Clothing manufacturer Levi’s featured Merrill’s efforts in its Shape What’s to Come campaign, which highlights the work of 50 young women around the globe who have changed the political, cultural and spiritual shape of the future. In December, a group of these women appeared at the first ever TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C.

This month, the UAPO breaks ground on two new vocational centers, one in the northern part 0f the country, one in the south, to teach Ugandan women additional work skills. Merrill splits her time between Uganda and Atlanta, and her ongoing connection to that country has helped grow and subtly shift the emphasis of the UAPO’s programs.

She’s learned that building orphanages can help 180 children at a time, but building economic independence for the women who care for those children can multiply that effect by a factor of 10. As it says on the UAPO website, “When you uplift a woman, you lift up a nation.”

One might say Merrill comes by such a free-market approach naturally.

Brittany Marrill founded the Ugandan American Partnership Organization to help Ugandan families.

Merrill’s father is Atlantan W. Harrison Merrill, who has gained and lost several fortunes in the real estate business. His latest project is a billion-dollar resort in Douglas County called Foxhall Resort and Sporting Club. He sent his daughter to the Stony Brook School in New York and the Westminster School in Atlanta and taught her the value of hard work, but he also taught her to think outside the box.

“My dad is an incredible risk taker,” said the daughter, the oldest of five children. “His example gave me the audacity to set out to achieve such a large task at the young age of 19.”

The father said when his daughter first asked for financial support, he turned her down, “much to her surprise.” After she’d raised funds in Atlanta and Dallas, he chipped in some seed money, he said, adding that the “vast majority” came from other donors. “He left me on my own to succeed or fail,” said the daughter.

The organization’s success may be traceable to its faith-based approach. The group stresses its Christian principles and sees the relations that it develops between Ugandans and Americans as the most valuable part of the work.

“We believe that learning how to love people who are different than you and learning how to transcend barriers of race, economic status and religion is transformative for both parties,” said Brittany Merrill.

Members also strive to grow beyond the “handout” mentality, and aim to create “self-sustaining” improvements. “A lot of Western nonprofits have instituted this dependence mode, which is really unhealthy,” said Executive Director Blake Smith, 28, who was teaching skiing in Colorado when Merrill drew him into his first trip to Uganda.

Instead, the UAPO stresses commerce — starting with beads. A trip to the UAPO’s cramped space in the North Creek office park reveals a single room brimming with handmade jewelry and vibrant with the smell of varnish. Ugandan women create beads from paper, seal them with multiple coats of varnish, and fashion them into necklaces that the UAPO buys and then resells in the U.S. (In Atlanta, the necklaces are available at Urban Cottage, in Virginia-Highland, or at the UAPO website, All of the purchase price is returned to the program.

That program was co-created with Alice Dramandru, a widow in the village of Buwala, Uganda. After her husband died of AIDS and she emerged unscathed by the disease, she dedicated her life to helping orphans and widows in her village and elsewhere.

“I look at her and see what she’s been through, and her strength and determination keeps me going,” said Merrill. “She allows me not to give up for stupid reasons.”

The next step — and the purpose of the new vocational centers — will be to train Ugandan women to produce items useful in their own economy, such as school uniforms, and blankets, and to create small-scale village savings and loans to help fund such work.

“They don’t need loans from us when they can give loans to each other,” said Merrill, looking rather stylish in black boots, white tunic and long straight blond hair. (Her pale skin is vulnerable to the African sun, and village children get a kick out of poking her arms after they turn bright red.)

Plyler, whose company donates office space to the UAPO, said Merrill’s example is inspiring.

“Everybody wants to think about chasing a dream, and it’s so obvious she found hers,” he said. “She’s making it work.”


For more information about the Ugandan American Partnership Organization:

A scrapbook of images and memories from Brittany Merrill’s African journeys is online at the Levi’s Shape What’s to Come website:

About the Author

Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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