Asha Karim
courtesy of Asha Karim
Asha at her sewing machine.

That Thing That She Does:  Tailor, fashion designer, biz whiz and single mother

Asha Karim has survived an arranged marriage at 16, the loss of her eldest daughter and two divorces in a country where women don’t normally leave their husbands.

Along the way, she’s managed to build a thriving business as a seamstress to support her children, bucking the strongly patriarchal Ugandan and Muslim cultures to live her life on her own terms.

“It’s hard for me to know whether the message will come through as to why this lady is so amazing,” writes friend Christina Jordan, an American who also lives in Kampala and runs the Life In Africa non-profit organization.

In Uganda, Chistina says, “Women are bought and sold like cattle, and children belong to the father like assets.”

Idi Amin was in power when Asha was a teenager, and his brutal soldiers were on the loose. For Asha’s Rwandan/Italian mother and Ugandan stepfather, marriage into the family of Rwandan friends was a way to keep her safe.

But, at 19, after a few years of marriage, Asha was ready to get out. “That family didn’t treat their women very well,” Asha told Christina. The family spirited away her oldest daughter, for example, to a childless relative in Norway - she hasn’t seen the girl in fifteen years. So Asha divorced her husband and left the country. Fifteen years later, her former husband and his family were slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide.

Asha returned eventually to Uganda and remarried, only to be disillusioned once again. Contrary to standard practice in Ugandan society, Asha kept her children with her, and even had two more later on with a male friend. Along with her 20-year-old daughter in Norway, she has two more daughters (19 and six) and two boys, (10 and two).

As a young girl, Asha had learned to sew from her mother. When faced with the question of how to provide her children with a good life, she resolved to put her sewing skills to use. It’s been a long, hard road to success - after five years of building up her business, for example, her shop burned down — but with every setback, she’s landed back on her feet.

With the help of a small loan guaranteed by The Life in Africa Foundation, she now employs three tailors at her shop, which specializes in popular and intricate Nigerian and Congolese fashions. She has cunningly marketed her products to wealthy Ugandans and foreigners, who are willing to pay for the exquisite fabrics and unusual designs she offers.

Asha recently traveled outside of East Africa for the first time, to Thailand via Dubai. Though it was a pleasure trip to visit a friend, she also embraced the opportunity for her business. She made contacts with suppliers, acquired two new machines, and bought ready made clothing to compliment the fashions she already sells.

Not only has Asha provided her children with a life that’s better than most Ugandan children will ever know — she’s also provided them with a role model of a strong, independent woman in a culture that doesn’t accord women the same rights as men.

Word from Asha:

What is your next big planned move with work and/or life? For now I want to focus on consolidating my business and making it stronger. On my last trip I made some contacts in Dubai that can help me do that. I hope to go back there when I can, to be able to get supplies regularly from Dubai. As for personal travel, for a long time I have been thinking about a trip to Oman. My real father, who died when I was very young, was from Oman. I would like to go and meet his people.

How She Shakes Off a Bad Day: I have never been someone to go out in the evenings to forget my troubles. Instead, I go home and play with my kids. They are always happy to see me because I am away during the daytime and I don’t have much extra time to spend with them. When I go home to be with them, everything else disappears.

Favorite Way to Travel: By plane. I am afraid of water, so I don’t like boats. Taking a bus is okay, but if the distance is too far, it wastes time. I don’t like to waste time — there is always too much to do. If I have the money, I prefer to take a plane, even for destinations within our small Uganda.

Coordinates: Uganda

Asha Karim

Ugandan Entrepreneuress


Kampala, Uganda

For more information about Asha’s fashions, email: .

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