It's been said that poverty in Africa has a female face but BeadforLife is trying to change that. On my last trip to Uganda, I had the opportunity to visit "Friendship Village," a community of 132 families, run mostly by single mothers who've been widowed or are living with HIV/AIDS.
Some of the women were displaced by the war between Joseph Kony and the Ugandan government, and most of them are the sole providers of their extended families. Now as residents of 'Friendship Village,' the women are in a position to buy their own homes, create businesses, and send their children to school and to be financially independent for the first time in their lives. It all started with a single bead made out of used paper.
Penninah joined BeadforLife from Soroti in Eastern Uganda. "I'm a single parent with a lot of responsibility," she says, "I was looking so so bad when I joined BeadforLife. Now I can afford to eat two meals a day. I could afford to take my children to school... Then as I speak now, I'm a landlord. I have my own house."
Since 2004, BeadforLife has been helping women in Uganda to lift themselves out of poverty by turning recycled paper into beautiful colourful jewellery. BeadforLife sells the jewellery online or through BeadParties which are organized by women around the world. The beads become income, food and shelter.
"It's amazing seeing paper that is meant to be thrown away being turned into these beautiful items, bracelets, necklaces and earrings," said Devin Hibbard one of the co-founders. "We set up our programs such as the women are able to make money and the other services which we believe are really important, we exchange. So we exchange mosquito nets...some women have built homes in a village and they're able to pay their mortgages in beads."
In 2007, BeadforLife collaborated with Habitat for Humanity in Uganda and bought a piece of land in Mukono, just outside of Kampala, the country's capital city. The women all helped one another to build their homes and have repaid or are repaying their mortgages in beads. They grow their own food in their gardens and whenever a new home is built, the owner is gifted with a mango tree to plant.
Most of the women in the village run businesses from their homes by growing mushrooms or raising chickens to sell in the local market. The villagers are encouraged to compost as much garbage as they can and two wells are centrally located in the community to provide a clean and accessible water supply. There is a multipurpose building where town hall meetings are held and classes are taught. The village is now governed by its residents independent of BeadforLife. Devin says this allows for a sustainable environment because the purpose of BeadforLife is simply to open the door for opportunities the women wouldn't otherwise have access to.
"The women we work with are the hardest working people I've ever met in my life and they don't lack anything," she says. "They don't lack the skills, they don't lack the knowledge, what they lack is the opportunity to make a difference and to lift their families out of poverty and what we truly do is we open the door."
BeadforLife is now working with women outside of Lira in Northern Uganda and trying to help them rebuild their lives after the war, by creating products out of Shea butter which is often called "Women's Gold" in East Africa. BeadforLife is also focusing on improving opportunities for women in agriculture. They've created a program where women are loaned an ox plow and two oxen with the goal that within two harvest seasons the women would repay the loan and be in a position to buy their own land to harvest more crops. Devin says that their goal isn't just to empower the women in Uganda but it's also to engage and educate women around the world.
"Because poverty seems so overwhelming we just want to hide our heads in the sand," she says, "But they are lots of ways you can get involved. And fair trade products are a really important way for people to earn money."
For more information on how BeadforLife is helping to eradicate poverty in Uganda or to find out how you can organize your own BeadParty, log onto www.beadforlife.org.