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US Bead Parties Boost Ugandan Women

  • Faiza Elmasry

Madison Blandford (far left) and her classmates and neighbors show off their Ugandan beads at Madison's recent jewelry party. (VOA/F. Elmasry)

Madison Blandford (far left) and her classmates and neighbors show off their Ugandan beads at Madison's recent jewelry party. (VOA/F. Elmasry)

It’s party time for Madison Blandford and three dozen of her girlfriends. The 11-year-old invited her classmates and neighbors to see - and buy - beaded jewelry made by women in Uganda.

“My grandma got me a bracelet," she says, "and that’s when I got interested.”

So she started to learn about how the jewelry pieces are created. The colorful beads on vibrant necklaces, earrings and bracelets, are made out of paper.

“It takes 30 seconds for each bead to be made, but the whole process takes two weeks,” Madison says.

When she wanted to share the story with her friends, her mother, Sharon Blandford, thought it was a great idea.

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“I really felt like this was something that she could learn and grow with and she could also lead her friends into wanting to do something that’s really important and special,” Blanford says.

They visited the Bead for Life website and signed up to host a jewelry party.

“It was very easy," Blanford says. "They e-mail you very often to tell you what to do.”

Bead for Life

Bead for Life was launched in 2004 after founder Torkin Wakefield, her daughter, Devin Hibbard, and a friend visited Uganda. There, they met a bead maker.

“We saw a woman sitting in the dust. She was rolling beads out of recycled paper," Wakefield says. "We stopped to talk to her and ask what she was doing. She told us that she loves making beads, but that she had no market for her beads. So we started thinking, 'Why does she think there is no market?' We love these beads and our friends like these beads. Surely, we could find a market.”

That led the three women to establish a non-profit group to combat poverty. Bead for Life helps Ugandan women find markets for their jewelry, hone their entrepreneurial skills and change their lives.

Thousands of women in the U.S. and around the world have joined the effort by throwing Bead for Life parties where they sell the Ugandan beads.

Fatuma, a widow with four children, earns $100 a month rolling beads for Bead for Life. (Courtesy Bead for Life)

Fatuma, a widow with four children, earns $100 a month rolling beads for Bead for Life. (Courtesy Bead for Life)

“We came up with this idea of a bead party," Hibbard says, "which is a woman taking beads to her community, to her house, to her children’s school and sharing the beads and the story of the women who make them.”

Making a difference

Last year, 3,000 bead parties worldwide raised $3 million. First, the Ugandan women are paid. The rest of the earnings are reinvested in education and community development projects in Uganda that help women break out of poverty.

“One woman started a sweater business, she put a solar panel on top of her shop to charge cell phones," says Wakefield. "She has chickens out back. She started a training business to train people how to make sweaters.”

Stories like that inspired guests at Madison’s party.

“I love things that are full of color and bright, and really I think it’s great to have a story behind what I wear,” says guest Jacqueline Romanelli.

Emily Rodrigurz agrees. “It’s good how every penny that we spend is going to Ugandan people to help fight a lot of diseases."

Madison Blandford’s jewelry party raised about $1,000 - and her guests' awareness of the plight of people in a far-away country.
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