A chance encounter in a slum on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, led to a project that helps some of Uganda's poorest women sell handmade paper-bead necklaces in North America.
In 2004, three American women were walking though the Acholi Quarter slum, home to hundreds who had fled a brutal civil war in northern Uganda. For most residents, the only paid work was breaking stones in a nearby quarry for 80 cents a day. The Americans came across one woman sitting in front of her mud hut rolling strips of old paper into beads. The woman, Millie Grace Akena, told them that she and other women in the slum made necklaces out of the beads, but had no place to sell them.
The Americans -- Torkin Wakefield, a psychologist who divides her time between Colorado and Uganda, where her husband trains AIDS doctors; Devin Hibbard, her adult daughter; and Ginny Jordan, a psychotherapist -- brought necklaces home and found that people admired them. They set up a nonprofit association, BeadforLife, and sold the jewelry online.
Three months later, the project was mentioned in O, The Oprah Magazine, published by popular TV host Oprah Winfrey. Hibbard, who heads North American operations, called the response "astounding." Orders poured in.
Prices for the jewelry range from $5 for a single-strand bracelet to $30 for a five-strand necklace. Although the jewelry can be ordered online, most is sold at "bead parties" in homes and community centers. Two thousand such parties were held in the United States and Canada in 2007, organized by people who like the beads and want to help the Ugandan women.
Three hundred Ugandan women participate in the project. They are among the poorest in a poor country; often they are their families' sole breadwinners. The beaders together support about 3,000 people.
Many are infected with HIV, which causes AIDS. In the project, they earn, on average, more than $1,200 a year, more than many schoolteachers make in Uganda.
BeadforLife takes a holistic approach to tackling participants' poverty. It provides health services (malaria pills, mosquito nets, vouchers for medical care), training in bookkeeping and other skills so participants can start small businesses, and affordable housing. The project purchased 8.1 hectares of land outside the capital and named it Friendship Village. With the help of the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity, the beaders have built 67 three-room houses there.
The houses cost about $2,000. To pay for them, the beaders save until they can make a 10 percent down payment and pay the rest over five years. The houses have neither electricity nor indoor plumbing, but are clean and solid and a big improvement over the slums where most of the beaders and their children have been living.
Beaders stay in the project for 27 months, with the first three months devoted to training in high standards of bead making. (Triangular strips of colored paper are rolled, the tips are glued and then the beads are lacquered.) The goal is for the women to use their savings and new skills to start their own small businesses by the time they leave. Dozens have done so, starting small-scale vegetable or poultry production operations, selling shoes or drinks from market stalls, or, in one case, investing in a motorbike taxi.
BeadforLife sales grew to $3.5 million in the most recent fiscal year, and the beaders barely are keeping up with demand. Organizers are reluctant to expand too fast for fear of diluting the efforts to permanently improve the lives of the Ugandan participants.
Several scholars give the project high marks but point to its limitations. They wonder how much impact even the best-designed charitable initiative can have on a continent where people have few economic opportunities.
Lee Cassanelli, director of the University of Pennsylvania's African Studies Center, said, "My intuition is, it's better to produce something for the local African market than for the maybe-ephemeral international market."
Holley E. Hanson, a professor of African history at Mount Holyoke College, said that while the project appears to have had a great impact on the lives of a small number of people, it could not improve the powerlessness of African countries over issues that greatly affect them: the undermining of African agriculture through subsidies for farmers in wealthy countries, the debt burden of African countries to banks in wealthy nations and patent protections limiting access to cheaper generic anti-AIDS drugs.
"I'd like to see the people who buy the beads also ask our government to make sure there is a place at the decision-making table" for African governments, she said.
Meanwhile, BeadforLife's founders believe the project connects Ugandan craftswomen and their customers. "It's not just about a product," said Hibbard, referring to the jewelry. "It's a circle of reciprocity," in which the lives of Ugandan beaders and North Americans who buy their handiwork become bound together.
More information about BeadforLife is available on its Web site.