By Patricia Andersson
A number of us that had traveled together in Kenya went on to Uganda, meeting up with additional travelers in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city near Lake Victoria, to make a group of 10. We came to visit Bead For Life, a fantastic nonprofit we’ve supported twice that provides business training and income generation for women, teaching them to roll beads from recycled paper. These beads are then strung into beautiful jewelry that is sold at bead parties–similar to old-fashioned Tupperware parties—across the world.
To start off, our Bead for Life representatives took us on a walk through the largest slum in Kampala, where a majority of the women in the beading program live. As we walked down the mud paths, the children followed us like we were a pack of pied pipers, shouting “Mzungus! Mzungus!”– the Swahili term for a white person. We took their pictures, and they scrambled to see their image in the monitor, pointing and giggling.
This was the first time I had walked through such a neighborhood, and all the pictures I’d seen didn’t prepare me for the range of emotions–from heartsickness to inspiration–that I experienced during our three-hour tour. Amidst the tiny corrugated tin shacks, the mountains of garbage, and the torn and dirty clothing, were the intact and shining spirits of people who met my eye, and smiled and waved in greeting. This was their community, and I was their guest. Many women who had graduated from BeadForLife’s program and were now making a good income continued to live there, not wanting to leave their families and friends. Instead they improved their homes, sent their children to school, and fed their families more than the typical one meal per day.
We visited some BeadForLife graduates, to see the businesses they’d built for themselves. One woman had become a landlord, building extra rooms onto her house and renting them out for profit. She greeted us with squeals of excitement, throwing her arms around each of us in turn. Although she spoke no English, her pleasure in meeting us needed no interpretation. “She has been waiting for you to come,” our guide told us. “She is so happy to actually meet the women who supported her at BeadForLife.” Although we were behind schedule, she insisted on walking us down the railroad track to her newest project—a small adobe apartment that she had built as a rental. Her eyes shone with pride and we congratulated her sincerely on her success.
Interspersed with our time with BeadForLife was a trip to Murchinson Falls National Park, where we took a boat up the Nile River, and went on safari drives, sighting lions, giraffes, hippos and even a leopard. We later trekked through the Jane Goodall Institute’s ecotourism center, spotting families of chimps in the dense forest. The lushness of the land and diversity of wildlife we sighted rounded out our overall picture of the richness that Uganda holds.
The highlight, though, was a two-day visit to Friendship Village, BeadForLife’s housing project for graduates of its beading program. Here we were paired with families that we accompanied through their daily events to get an authentic taste of rural life. I was paired with Fatuma, a gentle woman of forty who lived in a tiny red brick house with her daughter, granddaughter and 5-year old niece. Every home in the village is identical, their mortgages paid back with the beads they’ve rolled. Beautiful gardens of banana trees and colorful flowers surrounded the houses, while multiple strings of beads hung sparkling in the sun, allowing a final coat of varnish to dry. We walked to the village garden, where we harvested our lunch of green beans, chard, and sweet potato. Fatuma cut some roots from her cassava bush, and we sat on grass mats on the porch to prepare the vegetables. These grass mats were later moved inside, where we sat on the floor to eat our meal. Although my host family owned no tables or chairs, couches or rugs, they seemed wealthy to me in ways that matter. Their friendships are many, their community strong, and their daily lives are spent with the people they love. We all felt very fortunate to participate in their lives, a world away from our own in so very many ways.