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Boulder non-profit is changing the lives of Ugandan women one bead at a time

Jewelry made from BeadforLife beads.
Jewelry made from BeadforLife beads.
All photos by Kate Gibbons.

"I was so excited! I just got out of Spanish class and ran down the hallway to meet her. It's like meeting a rock star," says Stella Brown, an eighth-grader at Boulder's Horizon's K-8 School.

Brown was racing down the hall to meet Teddy Namuyiga -- not Taylor Swift. Namuyiga is one of two Ugandan woman who was brought to the United States last week by BeadforLife, as part of its national Opportunity Tour. The Boulder-based non-profit creates sustainable chances for impoverished women to lift themselves out of poverty by rolling beads for jewelry out of recycled paper -- and then selling them in North America and Europe.

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Namuyiga found herself in extreme poverty after the birth of her third child, who is deaf. She was accused of adultery by her husband, who wanted her to take the child to an orphanage. After she refused, he left her and their three children to fend for themselves.

For eight years, Namuyiga scrounged for work. She washed clothes, plowed land and made small handbags out of banana peels to come up with money to provide food, water and school fees for her children. In what she describes as "not a happy life," she earned less than a dollar a day.

Her life changed when a BeadforLife recruiter knocked on the door of her aunt's house, where she and her children were staying. The recruiter was going door-to-door to find individuals for the eighteen-month-long, apprentice-like program. Students are selected based on need, work ethic and entrepreneurial aptitude.

Namuyiga was one of fifty women chosen for her class, which began with a week-long training on how to roll beads, then was immediately followed by educational training.

"Our goal is not make beads forever, but to have them go on and start their own businesses," says Devin Hibbard, BeadforLife executive director and co-founder.

BeadforLife does not provide handouts but opportunities, education and skills, Hibbard points out. She stresses that not only bead-making, but counting and basic bookkeeping are the focus of the program, which has more than 1,000 graduates -- 74 percent of whom go on to start their own businesses.

Namuyiga shows the class how to roll beads.
Namuyiga shows the class how to roll beads.

Earning an average of $7 a day while in the program, beaders are paid in three ways. Mobile payments are made to their phones, deposits are made into personal savings accounts, and a payment is also made into a business fund for future entrepreneurial ventures.

Continue reading for more about BeadforLife.

"I got all the business ideas from BeadforLife, and now I am a successful business woman," said Namuyiga, who purchased a water tank so that she could sell drinkable water year round and also owns 500 chickens, 10 pigs and two cows that provide eggs, pork and milk for her to sell. She's been so successful, she now has two employees to help her manage her businesses.

BeadforLife sells most of its products through bead parties, which is how Stella Brown became involved. She attended her first party at the age of eight. "My favorite part is knowing that little bead parties help so many people," Brown says. "It is such a little effort on my part, but makes such a huge impact for people in extreme poverty."

Brown, who has dedicated her yearlong, eighth-grade project to spreading the BeadforLife cause, has hosted four bead parties, taught an elementary-school class about Uganda, and raised nearly $2,000 for the organization.

When BeadforLife announced that its tour locations included Boulder, a visit to Brown's class was one of the first things added to the itinerary.

Boulder non-profit is changing the lives of Ugandan women one bead at a time
Namuyiga and Brown.

"The fact that Stella is only fourteen and is already teaching others about the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty is remarkable," Hibbard says. "Part of BeadforLife's mission is to educate future generations on how they can make a difference in global poverty right in their own backyards."

Namuyiga has been joined on the tour by fellow BeadforLife graduate Joan Ahimbisibwe; they're making stops in six cities, including Washington, New York City and San Francisco.

Namuyiga was thrilled when she found out she was coming to the United States for the tour. "So happy," she says. "It was the first time to step my feet outside of Uganda."

And while Namuyiga has been impressed with how clean this country is, and has been enjoying stops for ice cream, she has not lost sight of what she's here to do.

"I want you to be hard-working in life, never depend on someone," she told Brown's class. "Be job creators, not job seekers."



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