Kiyembe’s Tailoring Women Beat All Odds to Provide Clothes and Change Their Lives
Nakayiza of Kiyembe.

Kiyembe’s Tailoring Women Beat All Odds to Provide Clothes and Change Their Lives

Women at work at Kiyembe in Kampala city center.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
more from author >>
First published: December 3, 2005

Kiyembe is famous for its scintillating fashion designs. It may not match the trendy spots favored by Kampala's affluent, but because it presents an unrivaled display of fashion variety ranging from respectable men's suits of all types to traditional women's dresses including the gomesi. This explains why many Ugandans have for ages been coming from far and near to Kiyembe to fill their fashion prescriptions. Kiyembe is located in Kampala city center, just opposite the old taxi park.

One visit to Kiyembe will convince you that it is an ample supplier of the country's dressing demands. The plenty of choices is not the only unique taker in Kiyembe's old reputation, but also its relatively low prices.

Here, men and women have combined to quench the country's fashion thirst and increasing need for affordable clothes made out of new and original materials.

From men's suits to children's attires, you can get clothed for between five thousand and seventy thousand shillings (US$ 2.5 to US$ 3.5). Because of the many people who come to Kiyembe to satisfy their dressing needs, many people, especially women, have found work and embraced the opportunity with a unified commitment to change their lives and their families.

One of the women who has approached the business of tailoring with much faith and energy is 60-year-old Betty Nakayiza. Nakayiza's sweaty face at 9 am is enough to reveal how hard this mother of five still works .

From 6 AM when she prepares for the day to 7 PM in the evening when she quits, Nakayiza says her "courage, strict work ethic and faith in her work" are the major forces in her close to three-decade-old chosen career of tailoring at Kiyembe.

Her surroundings are quiet and busy but the silence is occasionally interrupted by the rapid sound of the electric sewing machine operated by a middle-aged man seated on Nakayiza's right. On her left is a young lady with an intimidating sense of concentration on her work that even the glaring sunrays shining down could not bother her.

Opposite Nakayiza is a forty-meter long corridor neatly packed by men and women who have embraced the tailoring business in Kiyembe. You would forgive a stranger to think that it is Kananathan's boys and girls on an AGOA mission.

Jjaja Naka as Nakayiza , popularly known among her friends and the tailoring community in Kiyembe, started tailoring 26 years ago at Luwum Street. She later moved to Kiyembe about ten years ago due to what she calls planning changes by Kampala City Council.

Nakayiza is a serious person when it comes to work. Fellow women who have closely worked with her describe her as very hard working and sincere. Even during this interview, Nakayiza answered most of the questions with out raising her eyes. And it seems like she has found a lifelong career. At 60, Nakayiza does not think of retiring from her twenty six-year-old profession. "Perhaps until my four grand children finish school," says the legendary tailor of Kiyembe.

Nakayiza says she enjoys every bit of her work even when she has relegated her self to a relatively simpler role of fixing buttons on women's gomesi at Ushs 150 each. It's not the most money you would like to work for. So isn't life difficult with such kind of work?

"Mwana wange emirimo tugeza ko nga bwe tusobola-my son we are trying to work as much as we can," she says as she wipes collecting sweat off her wrinkled face. Just like other tailors, Nakayiza has been operating from the verandah during her entire career.

Nakayiza has developed impeccable precision in fixing the buttons of the gomesi, that she can do the entire work faultless without any slight glance at the button she is fixing. Forget that she is using a very sharp pointed needle. Twenty six years of practice has taught her a good lesson: "super perfection with great artistry of design," she reluctantly tells me as she twists and turns the threaded needle in and out of the button hall.

Two women consulting with Nakayiza briefly interrupt our discussion. Yes, she does consultancy also, especially on the gomesi. "On average I get fifty clients every day," she tells me when the interview resumes. Despite the little charge of 150shs per buttonhole she makes, Nakayiza has achieved a lot with her only source of income.

Today, Nakayiza is a proud owner of three electric sewing machines, which she hires out at forty five thousand shillings each per week.

"With my small work I have been able to feed my children and send them to school with supplement income from my husband who also has a small work. My last daughter you see there (she points at young lady on her left) did a certificate in designing," says Nakayiza with a mixture of obvious relish and deep thought of perhaps what she has gone through.

Nakayiza at what she knows bets, tailoring in Kiyembe.

With children out of school, Nakayiza hopes to complete their new house in Wakiso district plus helping her own mum. "We do not have huge financial demands now, the children are out of school and we are finishing our house,' she says fighting back a smile.

Nakayiza is not the only women harvesting from Kiyembe's treasure. Annet Nabacwa who does 'over-lock finishing' on both male and female garments has an average daily clientele of 60. She earns between Ushs 200 to 300 per piece of garment she works on, meaning she earns between Ushs 12,000 and 18, 000. She says that competition with men doesn't worry her like Kampala city council taxes.

"The taxes are very high plus other costs like rent and rubbish. But more worse are KCC tax collectors who behave as if they get nothing from the taxes they collect," says an irritated Nabacwa who joined the business of tailoring a year ago after graduating from a polytechnic.

Nabacwa says she pays Ushs 45,000 for operation licence annually to KCC, 15, 000 for rent per month on the veranda plus 400 per week for cleaning. Despite her courageous efforts to work and fend for self, Nabacwa says this has reduced on returns from the work.

For Tabisa Nandase, seated at Nabacwa's right, it is the lack of "rationality by City Council authority" in levying taxes that really disturbs her.

"You find that a person making suits and gomesis at 100, 000 is levied the same amount like the person doing finishing at 200," laments Nandase who has been in the same business for last five years.

She also bitterly complains about the unbecoming manners exercised by KCC tax collectors who "look for a slightest opportunity to vandalize" their sewing machines.

A goup of tailors in Kiyembe.

Despite all the disturbance, Nandase, a single mother says her work helps to meet her daily costs like feeding her children and "most importantly paying school dues of her three kids in primary."

"If work can allow you to afford your daily costs like feeding your family, taking children to school and transport then you have to keep going. That is why I have been doing this work for the last five years," says Nandase, taking a long deep breath before she remembers that her sister helps in raising her children.

Does she hope to change business in future?

"No. I hope to buy an electric sewing machine because this one, though durable, is very slow. People nowadays want fast machines," says Nandase as she retreats from the scorching heat of the sun.

Nandase's neighbour, Hajat Assiah Nakimera, works from Monday to Sunday even when she admits she has too much responsibility at home like caring for her infants. Her major work-related challenges stem from her attempt to balance family and work.

"My children are very young. I should be with them on a day like Sunday but I decided to come here to work. And since morning, I have not got any single customer," she says with her left hand supporting her chin."

Unlike the previous women we talked to, Nakimera hires her sewing machine on a weekly basis. She has to part with Ushs 45,000 shillings on top of license fee and rent. But Nakimera is happy that she can meet all costs and remain with enough of a balance to dress her two children who "thankfully have not attained school-going age".

So, does that mean she has no worries? "I am worried of coming every morning with no idea whether I will get customers or not. But it is better than sitting or walking around with nothing to do," explains the 36 year old mother of two. After all, she says, customers will be coming since many people think of Kiyembe when they want good clothes.

By Enoch Mutabaazi
more from author >>
First published: December 3, 2005
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to

Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.