Connected by a string of beads through the BeadforLife program
Laker Fatuma's big smile threatens to turn up the wattage in the already bright Ugandan sky as she rolls bright-green beads in the shade...
Special to The Seattle Times
If you go
(or if you don't)
The group Conservation Concepts LLC (www.conservationconcepts.net) runs BeadforLife tours to Uganda. Led by former Bainbridge Islander Mark Jordahl, the tour features an orientation at the Ugandan BeadforLife office, including participation in a bead sale; visits to Namuwongo slum (where many of the beaders are from), the BeadforLife village, a school and a conservation project; and a forum with AIDS specialists at the Infectious Disease Institute in Kampala. The two-week tour also includes a safari to Murchison Falls National Park. The next tour begins Feb. 28, 2009, and is limited to 15 people. Cost: $2,650 (airfare not included).
Bead purchases, parties
Armchair travelers can experience Uganda vicariously by buying the recycled paper beads online, or holding a bead party. Find out about both at www.beadforlife.org, or phone the Boulder, Colo., office at 303-554-5901.
KAMPALA, Uganda — Laker Fatuma's big smile threatens to turn up the wattage in the already bright Ugandan sky as she rolls bright-green beads in the shade of a mango tree. Fatuma has reason to smile: These beads represent the Ugandan woman's path out of poverty.
Some 8,800 miles away in Seattle, Jennifer Wilson fingers her jade-green, paper-bead necklace. She has never been to Uganda and doesn't know Fatuma, but she feels a connection to both: "I like to wear these because I can feel the energy of those women," Wilson says.
That connection is exactly what BeadforLife, an organization based both in Uganda and the United States, hopes for. Because of people like Wilson, who bought her beads at an office event last year, the women of BeadforLife are lifting themselves out of poverty. And, because of those beaders, Americans are experiencing Africa in a personal way, whether by visiting Uganda physically or traveling vicariously with the beads as a vehicle.
In a world where travel is increasingly expensive and difficult, the beads offer both globetrotters and armchair travelers a way to get inside the African culture.
A bridge of beads
BeadforLife was founded by three U.S. women when they saw impoverished women in a slum in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, making beads from recycled paper. The paper came from print overruns from such things as calendars, posters and pamphlets. When they returned to the U.S., the three found that American women wanted to open their hearts to these Ugandans, but had no idea how. So they decided to connect the two, bridging the gap with the paper beads and creating a market in the U.S. for the Ugandan women.
Visitors to BeadforLife in Kampala dance and sing with the female beaders, watch them roll beads and even help build small brick houses in a village created by the organization.
At the same time, those at home in the U.S. connect with the beaders by holding bead parties (similar to Tupperware parties) where they learn about poverty and the women of Uganda, hear a CD of the women singing and taste Ugandan food. And they buy the beaded jewelry, proudly wearing the beads and identifying with this lovely but muddled country and its people so far away.
For some reason, the Pacific Northwest seems to have an affinity for the Ugandan beaders. Maybe it's the color of the beads that appeals to the cloud-bound Pacific Northwest mentality. Or maybe it's a University of Washington connection that is the pull.
Whatever the reason, last year, there were 77 bead parties in Washington, mostly in the Seattle area, with a total of about 3,900 people attending.
Three community organizers help stage events locally. Several University of Washington students have interned with the organization, and BeadforLife co-founder Devin Hibbard is a UW Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs alumna and until recently a Bainbridge Island resident. (She and her family moved to Kampala in October to work for BeadforLife in Uganda.) Vandra Huber, a UW Foster Business School professor, recently finished a case study of the group after visiting Uganda on a BeadforLife tour.
Dancing and bead sales
For those lucky enough to travel to Uganda, participating in a bead sale at the BeadforLife office is a major attraction. On sale days, it's not unusual to see a few "mzungus" (white people) mingling with the beaders. Before the sale, the Ugandan women dance and sing to the beat of a round calfskin drum, their hips a vibrating blur.
Once the dancing is over, the women line up to sell the beads. As they stand with strings of multicolored beads hanging on their bodies, they resemble a forest of heavily decorated Christmas trees. But this is serious business. They almost hold their breath as every necklace and bracelet is examined for quality by the buyers. Each piece a beader sells means one more child in school, one more meal in the bowl, one more bus ticket home. And at the end of the day, the sale means a growing savings account set up by BeadforLife for the beader's future.
Many of these women made as little as $1 a day when they came to BeadforLife with gaunt faces and hungry bellies. But the beaders metamorphose from gaunt to plump in a year, thanks to the $200 or so a month they make from selling beads for the American market.
"When they told me how much I would earn, I thought they were lying," says Anyango Teddy, a cheery, round-faced woman supporting eight children alone. "Now I am a woman who can manage. My children get tea, even rice, even supper."
As the buying and selling progress, the office courtyard becomes awash in color: Red, blue, green, purple necklaces and bracelets hang drying in the Ugandan sun. And the women's large-patterned African print dresses and headcloths mirror the color of the beads.
Volunteers and staff stand under a shade tent, tying jewelry in bundles for the trip to America. Every two weeks a shipment of around 33,000 items is sent to the Boulder, Colo., office, and from there to bead parties held in houses and offices around the world.
BeadforLife has brought close to 500 beaders out of poverty by giving them the opportunity to make money rather than giving them charity. "They make beautiful things, and we give them money in exchange for those things," co-founder Torkin Wakefield says. "Giving a handout does not empower anyone. At the end of the day, it is not what we did; they know that they did it."
The beaders' stories
Smiling is new to Fatuma, as to all the beaders, given their haunting pasts. She was kidnapped at 13 when the infamous Lord's Resistance Army rebel soldiers stormed her Northern Uganda primary school. Fatuma recounts the day in a whisper: "They came when we were in the classroom, at exactly 10. So when the bell rang for break, one of the teachers realized we were surrounded."
The rebels left the younger children alone, but they took the older ones, including Fatuma. "From there, you just die, you just fade, you just surrender your life," she says even more softly. "Some were killed, very many, those who resisted or tried to run, they were killed and the way they killed them was not good."
She was forced to stay with the rebels until she escaped during fighting, 15 years old and pregnant by one of the many rebels who raped her. Her family threatened to kill the child, so she fled. Later she married, but her husband died when she was pregnant, leaving her to support four children.
With her bead money, Fatuma eventually worked her way out of the slum where she lived and into "Friendship Village," a BeadforLife settlement. The organization offers the beaders a chance to buy a home in this village in the midst of quiet fields where more often than not the houses are festooned with strings of drying paper beads. With the initial help of Habitat for Humanity, the organization created the village from the ground up, with beaders digging their own home foundations and feeding construction workers from little charcoal stoves on the building site. For almost all, this is the first home they have ever owned.
Each beader has a story as startling as Fatuma's. Most are HIV-positive; many have lost husbands and children to AIDS. One has a disfigured face from the acid her boyfriend threw at her when she wanted to leave him. Another was blinded in a car accident and raising four children alone. And one recently lost her 6-year-old daughter to malaria.
"If the ordinary disasters of these women happened to me, I would just go to bed and crawl under the covers," Wakefield says. "But they keep finding joy; they keep on dancing and singing. They have incredible resilience and lack of self-pity."
Whether Americans hear the voices of the Ugandan beaders firsthand or travel only in their imaginations via the beads, they are looked up to as good friends by the beaders. Sitting in her new, neat little house, bought one bead at a time, Auma Mary talks about what it has meant to sell beads that will be worn by the women of America.
"Because of you," she says, "BeadforLife has managed to wipe my tears, has managed to comfort my heart."
Theresa Morrow is a Seattle freelance writer who frequently visits Uganda. Charles Steinberg is an AIDS doctor and photographer who works in Uganda.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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