Beads for Life: University of Wisconsin global health students visit Reach Out Mbuya, Acholi Quarter bead-makers

By Annika McGinnis


Strings of recycled paper beads were laid out in the glow of the late afternoon sun, shining gold, turquoise, orange, the color of a freshly cut mango.  Seven women stood tall in front of a small blue house, singing in unison, their arms stretching proudly toward the blue sky.




“We thought we were alone, but when we see you coming like this, we are strong,” they sang, swaying together. “Sing to the Lord to have mercy on us – sing to Reach Out, to fight HIV/AIDS!”






The women lived in Acholi Quarter, a slum just outside Kampala made up of migrants from the Ugandan north who had fled to the city, some decades ago, during the terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion. The neighborhood has one of the highest prevalence of HIV in Kampala, and many HIV-positive women are widows and lack a steady source of income.




Since 2003, Reach Out Mbuya Parish HIV/AIDS Initiative has supported women living in Acholi Quarter with trainings in bead-making and tailoring along with medical care. Barclays Bank funds the program as part of a series of vocational and literacy trainings for people living with HIV. Many graduates go on to make and sell crafts through ROM’s Roses of Mbuya handicrafts workshop, which provides them a critical source of income along with social support from associating with the other crafts-makers.  About 40 bead-makers live in Acholi Quarter.




On Wednesday, 3 August, eight students from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, traveled to the settlement to meet the women working with ROM. The undergraduate global health students were in Uganda for two weeks, studying and implementing mobile clinics with the Village Health Project Uganda, a Wisconsin-based NGO that leads community health projects in the Lweza neighborhood of Kampala.




In the crowded slum nestled on the top of one of Kampala’s rolling hills, widespread poverty and illness contrasted with the liveliness of the village, the pride molded into the women’s intricate handicrafts and the natural wonder of the green valley below.


Late afternoon, the smell of fried chapati wafted above lines of laundry strung between wooden and aluminum shacks. A woman washed clothes in a bucket in the alleyway, and a man made metal pots, stirring molten metal over a fire with a long pole. A woman selling groundnuts was happy to pose for one of the visitor’s cameras; a grandmother grasped the newcomers’ hands as they passed.






“Muzungu! Muzungu!” sounded a chorus of inquisitive children, who scampered along with the students as they traversed the narrow alleyways.


Reach Out Mbuya’s partnership with the University of Wisconsin global health program dates back to ROM’s founding, 15 years ago. On 3 August, the eight American students listened to the women bead-makers’ song of thanks before sifting eagerly through their colorful beads. Each year, the students carry beads back to the United States to sell at university fairs.




“When you buy the paper beads, you are supporting education, medication,” one bead-maker said. ROM also uses proceeds from bead sales to pay school fees for some of the women’s children and orphans living in the area.


Before visiting Acholi Quarter, the Wisconsin students also stopped at Reach Out Mbuya’s Port Bell outreach center, an HIV clinic that delivers medical care to vulnerable populations, mostly fisherfolk and sex workers, who work in the lake-side slum. ROM’s Community and Social Support Manager, Agnes Nakanwagi, had presented about the NGO’s outreach programs that target the “most-at-risk populations” including people who inject with drugs and truck drivers. In 2015, ROM tested 5,165 people classified as “most at risk,” most through its mobile outreach clinics, many of which occur at night.






“As a whole country, it looks like we’re doing well [with HIV], but when you break down into individual category groups and age groups, you see where the problems are – that’s where we’re tracking the progress now,” Nakanwagi told the University of Wisconsin students.




At the end of the day, the students piled onto their bus, strings of colorful beads strung around their necks. They chattered excitedly, leaving with a new perspective on the value of holistic, community-based health care that delivers hope and well-being to those society often casts aside.





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