Beads for Life is helping raise Ugandan women out of poverty, one beautiful handmade bead at a time
The journey that would change Devin Hibbard’s life began in 2004 as an ordinary visit to her stepfather in Uganda, where he was working as an AIDS doctor. Walking through the slums outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, Hibbard was heartbroken to see women and young children cracking rocks by hand in 90-degree heat, earning less than a dollar a day making gravel for roads. Elsewhere, Millie, a refugee who had fled infamous warlord Joseph Kony’s brutal regime, was sitting under the scorching sun rolling little sheets of paper into beads for necklaces. Hibbard and the family and friends who had traveled with her bought some beaded jewelry, thought for a moment about what else they could do to help her—and then went about their day.
But their day kept getting interrupted. They couldn’t walk far without locals stopping them to compliment their beaded necklaces. And the image of Millie stuck with them, too. “She wanted to feed her children and send them to school, which isn’t so different than what we back home want to provide for our families,” Hibbard says. “I think it was that universal desire that really captured our hearts. She wanted to make ends meet like the rest of us.”
Inspired by that desire along with the beautiful beads they purchased, Hibbard, her mother, Torkin Wakefield, and their family friend Ginny Jordan, co-founded BeadforLife, to help Millie and the countless other Ugandan women who share her story.
The nonprofit, which is funded by donations and sales of beaded jewelry through its website, began as a free training program that taught bead craftsmanship and entrepreneurial skills to empower Ugandan women to run their own businesses. Over the last decade, BeadforLife has evolved to incorporate agriculture, education and infrastructure initiatives, too; but every step of growth is dictated by the needs of the women supported by the nonprofit. A collection of 132 homes called Friendship Village, for example, was built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity after women told Hibbard that home ownership—and housing security for their kids—was a top life goal.
To date, BeadforLife has trained roughly 1,500 women through its bead-making program, including Mary Naiga, an HIV-positive mother of four. “When we met her, she was living in absolute rudimentary conditions, begging neighbors to let her wash their laundry for 30 cents a day and forgoing her HIV drugs because they increased her appetite,” Hibbard says. After working with BeadforLife, Naiga was able to earn enough money to build a brick house and start her own farm, growing cash crops including corn and sweet potatoes, which she sells in the local market. “She had a vision and wanted to change her life,” Hibbard says. “We just gave her the opportunity.”
Opportunity is a guiding philosophy for the nonprofit. “We really believe in sustainability because nothing is forever—even BeadforLife won’t be around forever,” Hibbard says. “Our goal is to create a passageway for women to make their own life, not to create long-term dependency. That’s critical for our success—and for the women of Uganda, too.” beadforlife.org