From Refugee to International Businesswoman

Uganda

War turned Santa Anzo into a refugee, but it didn’t dent her determination to succeed in life. And now, the company that she started to bring her a modest source of income has grown into a multimillion dollar international fashion brand with outlets in Europe, America and Africa. Her label, Arapapa, has also earned Santa international recognition and diplomatic roles.

Santa was born into privilege. Her early childhood was spent playing with children of the affluent Ugandan elite in the upscale slopes of Kololo Hill in Kampala. However, when Santa was aged just four, her family experienced a harrowing episode which would drastically alter her life.

In 1981, Uganda descended into a prolonged guerrilla war which cast an atmosphere of anxiety and terror over the entire country. Millions of Ugandans lost their lives and thousands of people were abducted from their homes at gunpoint, never to be seen again. One night, Santa’s father too was taken from their home by gun-wielding men the family believed to be Government soldiers. Santa’s mother hastily arranged for their escape and overnight, they left everything behind to face a new life in an Internally Displaced People’s camp in Moyo, northern Uganda.

Moyo was no safer than the home they had left behind in Kololo. A few days after their arrival, their grass thatched houses were torched by soldiers leaving them with no option but to flee again, this time into Sudan. Unfortunately for them and all the other refugees, Sudan was also engulfed in a violent war and they found themselves trapped in a barrage of bullets and bombs.

“I was surrounded by war on all sides,” Santa said. “I watched children starve and some choke to death due to thirst.” Also, for the first time in her life, Santa would find herself eating wild leaves and drinking filthy water to survive.

Rising From Ashes

With a new Government in power and relative peace restored in Uganda, Santa’s family found their way back home. And, like most families, they had to start from scratch. The war years had left the country’s infrastructure in a shambles and destroyed all their livelihoods. To make ends meet, Santa did everything from being a waitress to modelling which, at that time, was neither ‘respectable’ nor lucrative.

She got her major breakthrough at 23 when she was appointed General Manager of the very first modelling agency in Uganda. However, her success was short-lived. A disagreement with her boss left her jobless again, an experience which she confesses threw her off balance. Nonetheless, she forged ahead and, at the age of 25, she decided to start her own enterprise which she called Arapapa, a clothing line specializing in making distinctive, African-themed, fashion.

But, with her new venture came new challenges. At the time, the Ugandan population was deeply obsessed with imported clothes. Also, cheaper second-hand clothes had just made their debut on the local scene giving Santa’s initiative a minimal chance of thriving. However, she  did not give in. She worked tirelessly to ensure that each of her customers would find her work so meticulous that they would come back or even recommend others to her shop. It worked. Gradually, her customer base grew to include local celebrities and politicians who also publicly endorsed her brand.

In November 2015, she was appointed by the Uganda Tourism Board as an official Tourism Ambassador for Uganda. The same year, she also received the Lifetime Fashion Icon Achievement Award, the most prestigious award in Ugandan fashion.

Santa has also been awarded the Pioneer Ground Breaking award by Uganda Women’s Entrepreneurs Association, ICON and the International Labour Organization.

In 2016, she won the first prize in the Presidential Accreditation Awards from the President of Uganda, in appreciation for pioneering the Ugandan fashion industry and modelling careers in Uganda. Santa’s works have been featured on media channels such as CNN, BBC, French TV, and USA-Online. Her brand was also selected by the Vogue Italia Magazine to showcase at the Launch of the United Nations Fashion for development initiative.

Photographer & Videographer Credit: Abryans Fashion

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  • Thera van Osch
    Thanks Wanyana for this wonderful story! Congratulations to Santa Anzo for her perseverance, her creativity and her success! Is there a website where we can see Santa's fashion?
  • caroline nyakeri
    Such an inspiring story. Looking at your facebook page you have passion and deliver quality. Well done and keep going!
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