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.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Paper beads of all shapes and sizes are helping women lift themselves out of the slums of Uganda.

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.

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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."

About 300 women are enrolled in the BeadForLife program. To qualify, a woman must be very poor, meaning that she either makes less than $2 a month, is living with AIDS, or is a refugee from northern Uganda. Fourteen tribes are represented in the group.

Wakefield ascribes most of their success to the bead parties and the way they engage Americans to help. "One thing Bead­ForLife has done," she says, "is make it easy for people to get involved. We say, 'Hey, come on, it's easy, have a party, wear beaded jewelry, and people relate to this and want to help.'" It's also a cultural experience, with DVDs, photos, stories, and the beads themselves being part of the party. A connection is made between purchaser and beader. "It's a revolutionary idea," Wakefield adds. "Our project has, at the very center of it, a human heart. We make real attempts to help people know each other on two continents."

The program also aims to lift women out of poverty by promoting home ownership and entrepreneurship. BeadFor­Life helps women start businesses, and after two years, they graduate from beadmaking into a small business of their own with limited support from the organization.

BeadForLife also provides training in personal finance, will preparation, and microfinance. They counsel women on ideas for small businesses, such as motorcycle repair, popcorn making, money lending, and healthcare services. The largest triumph thus far has been their partnership with Habitat for Humanity to create a new village for the beaders.

BeadForLife bought 18 acres near Mukono, a prime location on the outskirts of Kampala with access to roads and schools. So far, 37 houses have been completed and two wells dug. A garbage-recycling center and a soccer field have also been built. The goal is to erect 80 to 120 homes in the next two years. Beaders secure plots with an $800 downpayment.

One week before the opening ceremonies for the completion of the first 10 houses, Wakefield escorted a reporter through an almost-finished group of new homes. She was met on the dirt road overlooking the village by a half dozen beaders. They hugged her and smiled. Tears of gratitude welled in their eyes.

The women led Wakefield to their houses, touching the walls and dancing and singing with big smiles on their faces. "It is fantastic, just unbelievable," said Wakefield about the 37 new homes and families in the new village. "[The women] are ecstatic; their children are going to school. They have a clean water supply, the air is clean. They have been reborn."

Wakefield admits that they have not yet proven that their intended self-sustaining system works. The first group to join two years ago will graduate in January. However, she reports that 70 percent of the women have launched small businesses while still part of BeadForLife. "Next year, we will be evaluating where our success and challenges lie, and we feel really good about the progress made thus far.," she says.

And Mary? She was selected to be one of the first to create her house in the new village. She screamed with excitement when she found out she would be able to have her own home. "The village will be good and I will be the happiest there. I will have a small garden and start a tailor shop. No one will knock on my door for rent, and everyone will work together," she says ecstatically.

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