Making dresses, building friendships

Local woman sews clothing for children in Uganda

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Running water, clean clothes for each day of the week, air conditioning, and the peace of mind of knowing where your next meal is coming from. These are luxuries most Americans enjoy, but for many impoverished people in Uganda, particularly children, just having one clean outfit they can call their own is a luxury not many ever know. For the past two years, Marshalltonian Arlene Selby has been making colorful, unique dresses which are then delivered to young ladies in need in the Manafwa district of Uganda.

It all began when Selby first read an article about an organization where you can make clothes and send them to those in Africa. After creating six dresses for that group, and never getting a reply, she grew discouraged, but still was determined to use her sewing skills as a public good. Through her church, First Congregational Church in Marshalltown, she linked up with the late Ron Rainey, his brother-in-law, Larry Koepnick, and their friend, Benard Wabukala, a lecturer of macroeconomics and development economics at Makerere University Business School in Kampala, Uganda. Wabukala told congregants about his efforts in helping his native village of Manafwa with its educational, food and clothing needs. That’s when Selby voiced her interest in assisting in the way she knew best. She took to her sewing headquarters, situated in the basement of her home, and got to work.

Wabukala visits Marshalltown once a year, staying with Koepnick, and also leads a study abroad program through Drake University where Ugandan students come to the United States, and American students are sent to Uganda for their studies.

“During his first visit here, I sent him back with 10 dresses,” Selby said. “I have probably made about 80-100 dresses total since I started this project. I do mail some in between his visits, although it’s very expensive. I make dresses for girls ages 1-16. I don’t make clothes for boys, because it’s actually cheaper to buy little shirts and shorts for them, and I send those along.”

Wabukala’s Marshalltown visit wraps up soon, wherein he will be taking 30 of Selby’s dresses back with him to Uganda, for distribution in his native village, located about four hours from where he resides in Kampala.

“The first six months of the year are hardest for people in my home village,” Wabukala said. “They are just growing food and the crops won’t be ready for harvest until July.”

He noted that many children go without new clothing.

“I come from a family of 13 kids, and my father had three wives, so I had three mothers, so I know there is competition for things, everyday in a family,” Wabukala explained.

Selby is known for her meticulous stitching; ensuring the dresses can be loved and worn for years to come, sustaining without the aid of washing machines and irons. She also prides herself on creating frocks of which no two are alike.

“One yard of fabric makes one dress,” she said. “Even if I use the same fabric for two dresses, they will be different styles … There are only certain stores I like to buy fabric from because of their high quality. My sister Carol Altenhein is also good about sending me fabric, because she is a quilter.”

Selby saves scrap fabric to make pockets for the clothing. She said she makes dresses of various sizes and lengths. That way, the girls in Uganda can decide for themselves what style they most desire. She also avoids using buttons or zippers, preferring to craft dresses that can just be slipped over the top of a person’s head.

Some females in this region can mature to be as tall as six feet.

“I need to start making some longer dresses,” Selby added.

“A lot of girls pass the dresses on to their sisters, or older girls in the village may wear them as tops,” Wabukala said.

Selby gets emotionally attached to the young girls she knows now wear her dresses. Wabukala emails her photos when the dresses are distributed and tried on. One six-year-old girl, named Gift, died of yellow fever shortly after receiving one of Selby’s dresses.

“They buried her in that dress,” Selby reflected.

The dressmaker was pleased to recently learn a couple in the village decided to name their newborn in her honor.

“There’s a little girl named Arlene back there now,” she said.

Why does Selby make the dresses?

“It makes me feel good knowing I’ve made a little girl, one I’ll probably never even meet, happy,” she smiled.

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com