In Africa, a papercraft path out of poverty
Poor Ugandan women turn their lives around by handcrafting for BeadForLife, a small Colorado-based nonprofit group.
Paper beads of all shapes and sizes are helping women lift themselves out of the slums of Uganda.Skip to next paragraph
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The women, most of whom live in crowded, one-room shanties on the outskirts of Kampala, have few economic opportunities. Most are displaced from the north. Fleeing civil war, they settled near the capital in hope of a brighter future. Instead, they found HIV/AIDS, hunger, and unaffordable housing.
Ngaio Mary, a mother of four, has been diagnosed with HIV. In 2002, she was living on the streets near Kampala, begging for food. In 2004 she joined BeadForLife, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating poverty.
Founded two years ago by Torkin Wakefield, Ginny Jordan, and Devin Hibbard of Colorado, the group is helping African women work their way out of poverty. The women make paper beads and jewelry, which are then sold in North American homes at BeadForLife parties– a hip version of the Tupperware party, but for beaded jewelry.
The success of BeadForLife has been rapid and continues to exceed forecasts, the founders say. When it was formed in 2004, "my sights were modest," says director Ms. Wakefield by phone. "I was hoping to set up a few stores in Kampala and Boulder to sell the beads, where I could slowly build a market. In September 2004, we decided to go ahead for nonprofit status and create a small business, and we have been chasing it ever since."
BeadForLife sprang to life when Ms. Jordan and Wakefield, then living in Uganda, walked through an impoverished dwelling and came upon a woman named Millie Grace Akena. Ms. Akena was sitting on the ground, rolling beads using old magazines. She said she loved working with her hands, but had no market for her jewelry. For money, she did manual labor in the nearby quarry, crushing rocks for less than $1 a day.
Wakefield bought a few necklaces and within days had given them to friends, who admired the bead design. She thought to herself, "What do you mean, 'There are no markets'? There are plenty of markets." Subsequently, a training class was created to improve the quality of the beadwork. Ugandan women flooded the workshops.
Wakefield, Jordan, and their friend Ms. Hibbard asked one another, "OK, what are we going to do with this? It seems like we can help some very impoverished women in Uganda." BeadforLife was born.
The jewelry that Ms. Mary along with the other beaders makes begins as recycled magazines, posters, or donated material that is then cut, rolled, and finished with a waterproof coating. The resulting jewelry ranges from one-strand necklaces of beads the size of a quarter to delicate three-strand bracelets. The average beader earns $850 a year.
And Mary? She's now one of the top beaders. She has saved more than $600 toward the price of a new home and started a bead-supply store. She and her family are eating well, and her health is improving.
Mary is not the only one benefiting: 90 percent of the women in the program are eating better, and 70 percent claim to be in better health, according to the BeadForLife website. "The women are really hard working," Wakefield notes. "No one is here just waiting for something to happen to them. They are up early beading or finding the most beautiful paper.... [They] are aware of the opportunities we are providing for them and taking full advantage of the situation."