Bemidji artist finds new life in Eastern Africa
By Bethany Wesley Contributor
Photography courtesy of Jessie Marianiello
Joy brought Jessie Marianiello to Africa – and now Jessie is spreading a different kind of joy throughout the Ugandan village she now loves.
Last August, Jessie embarked on a mission trip to Bukibokolo, a village in the Bududa District of Uganda, where she met Joy, her 12-year-old sponsor child and taught photography to a group of 14 kids who became known as her “Camera Crew.”
She bonded not only with those children but also with their mothers and grandmothers, many of whom had been widowed by disease and malnutrition. She met a group of women who banded together to pool a small amount of money so that a new widow could take out a low-interest loan to cover the costs of her husband’s burial.
“They just come together because nobody has anything,” Jessie said. “I was like, ‘I can do something with this.’ I just felt like it had been put in my hands.”
That was the inspiration for what would become The Joy Collective, the nonprofit Jessie has founded to further open opportunities to the children and women who live in the village.
“I’ve never felt more comfortable anywhere in my life,” said Jessie, who plans to permanently move to Uganda by the end of summer. “… I’ve felt like I’ve been looking for home for a long time now and now I feel like, ‘Finally, I’ve found it.’”
A Bemidji-based artist, Jessie has long been traveling the world photographing and painting stray animals. She and her fiancé, Carl Bratlien, had planned to buy two motorcycles and travel from the Arctic Circle down to the bottom of Argentina as part of her stray-animals project.
“There was one point … where I said, ‘I know this sounds really weird, but I can imagine us starting an orphanage somewhere. I don’t know where but we’ll know where it is when we find it,’ and he, without missing a beat, was like, ‘Yes,’ and we both felt it,” Jessie said.
In November 2014, Carl died in a motorcycle accident in North Dakota. inMagazine readers were first introduced to Jessie that following spring, when she shared her grief journey in hopes of helping others struggling through their own difficult circumstances.
“When he died … I totally gave my life to God. It was all gone and I wanted to be used for whatever I was supposed to be used for,” Jessie said. “ … There always was this quiet unspoken prayer. Even though I never would have verbalized it … I was searching.”
Last spring, she heard about Hands of Action International, a Bemidji nonprofit that does mission work in Bukibokolo. Hands of Action International founded and supports a growing school there and implemented a children’s feeding program through the school that provides students with what is too frequently their only meal of the day.
“It’s very rural (there), very poor … But it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, those kids will walk and come to school,” said Jenn Anderson, who founded the nonprofit in 2009. “… In the morning you can hear the kids singing from all over the mountains.”
By the end of the first year, 189 students were enrolled and now there are 550.
“It’s just so cool. The kids are so grateful,” Anderson said. “… They have developed a musical program and they are trying to preserve their culture so they have traditional dances, performances and singing. … They’re learning English now too which is really cool because English is one of the main languages in Uganda. In order to do business, you really need to know English.”
Hands of Action International – now co-led by Anderson and Jennifer Kovach, who joined in 2011 – has also implemented a women’s program there through which dozens of women are compensated for sewing and beadwork. A selection of their work can be seen at the Least of These, a gift shop located at 310 Fourth St. NW in downtown Bemidji. The shop supports Hands of Action International by selling fair trade items and hosting a make-and-take art studio.
“Our whole mission for Hands of Action International is to empower people … to use their time, power and energy to be the change they wish to see in the world,” Anderson said. “(Jessie) is one of those success stories. She just said, ‘Bring me to Africa with you and then I’m going to take off and do my own thing.’ When she said she was going to move there, I pretty much already assumed (so).”
On a Hands in Action mission trip last August, Jessie was the group’s photographer, documenting its work and experiences, but she also taught photography to local children, teaching them about light and perspective.
“We had this language barrier but it didn’t matter, they totally got it,” Jessie said. “I donated cameras … and for one night they each got to do anything they wanted with it. … I just wanted to see the world through their eyes.”
After two weeks, Hands of Action volunteers left but Jessie stayed another week as the village quieted and settled back into its daily routines.
“People knew what had happened to me and that I had lost my fiance,” she said. “It’s amazing how, in Africa, people have lost so much, death is so common, but it was amazing how present and empathetic they would be. It was really beautiful – and I don’t think I could have understood their losses without having suffered my own loss.”
She was encouraged to meet with a woman whose husband had recently died by suicide.
“She had a breakdown,” Jessie said. “They have six kids and you can’t afford to have a breakdown. You don’t have time, you don’t have food, no matter what happens, you have to keep going.”
Jessie met with the widow for about an hour.
“She doesn’t speak any English so I don’t know that we spoke anything together, but whatever we exchanged was complete and beautiful,” she said. “We shared tears together, we laughed together.”
The Joy Collective is a two-pronged initiative. The kids’ project will provide scholarships, education, and mentorship programs; the widows’ project will focus on agriculture, education, and micro-lending opportunities.
Families there survive on a single meal a day, with many women skipping food altogether a couple of days each week so their children can eat just a bit more, Jessie said. The women have not only buried their husbands but also their own children, having succumbed perhaps to malnutrition or malaria.
“(A woman) might have six to 12 kids of her own but a lot of times half the kids have died. Most of (the) widows have lost six kids, not as newborns but as 2- or 3- or 6-year-olds,” she said. Children could also be abandoned or orphaned so the women frequently care for other children in addition to their own.
This past winter Jessie returned to Uganda for five weeks. Using a translator, she met individually with a dozen widows to hear about the supports they would find most beneficial.
“Though I went there with the intention of just gathering information, I realized that these women were feeling hopeful and excited. I realized I couldn’t wait another six months to get started,” Jessie said.
Since the region is composed of farmers, The Joy Collective is starting with an agricultural program immediately. Jessie has contracted with a Ugandan woman who specializes in regional agricultural techniques and nutrition. She will visit the village and provide education and training to the women in Jessie’s pilot program.
“We’ll be gifting them with seeds for things such as tomatoes,” Jessie said. “These women are only eating posho and beans, which is corn meal and beans. … Right away we’re going to start getting them more nutrients and teaching them agricultural techniques.”
They also will learn business skills, to help them learn how to sell their crops at market.
Jessie also has hired a local villager as her field manager. He will visit the widows at least twice a month and help bridge the communication divide, as there is no electricity in the village, much less cell reception or Internet.
As the program grows, Jessie envisions welcoming new groups of women, each with its own ambassador.
“Then, if we send them for education somewhere, she would go and then bring it back to the entire group when she returns,” Jessie said.
In naming The Joy Collective, Jessie thought back to Joy, the young girl with the piercing brown eyes and radiant smile who first drew her to Africa.
But it also was important, Jessie explained, to zero in on the quest for joy rather than hope.
“When you are in despair you are reaching for hope. The only reason you’re reaching for hope is because you are in that place of darkness,” Jessie said. “It’s good but it’s not quite right. … You can reach for hope but it’s really about getting from despair to the whole opposite side of the spectrum, to joy. Yeah, you might go back and forth a few times but that’s why we’re there, to support each other.”