This week, I am heading down the familiar road across the mountain from Asheville to Jonesborough, TN, for a week as the Teller-in-Residence at the International Storytelling Center. I will be performing each day from August 15th to August 19th at 2pm in the Mary B. Martin Storytelling Hall.
I am so thrilled to return to Jonesborough, a place that holds so many dear memories for me of the storytelling community through the years ever since the first National Storytelling Festival in 1973! And to be a part of the ‘Storytelling Live!’ event – 26 weeks of storytelling every spring, summer and fall with a different storyteller featured each week.
Another reason that I’m particularly excited about these performances is that they allow me to share stories of a non-profit organization that is near to my heart, Bead for Life. I first became aware of Bead for Life when a dear friend and one of the founders, Torkin Wakefield, told me about her experiences in Uganda. While I was initially very interested in learning more, I could not know then the lasting and powerful effect that working with Bead for Life would have on my own path and worldview.
Bead for Life is an organization dedicated to teaching Ugandan women business and entrepreneurial skills. By crafting and selling jewelry, these women lift themselves out of extreme poverty. The women roll small strips of paper into beautiful, colorful beads which are in turn strung into bracelets, necklaces and earrings. This paper bead jewelry is distributed and sold all around the world. All of the proceeds from the jewelry sales directly benefit the women who create them.
In 2007, I traveled to Uganda at the invitation of Bead for Life to the city of Kampala to listen to the stories of the Ugandan women who were making the jewelry. The very first day, on my way to meet the women beaders of the Acholi tribe, I walked along a dirt road with Bead for Life staff. Lining the path, whole families—from children to elders—picked up rocks and pounded them with hammers, breaking the rocks into gravel. Ping ping ping. Each person hammering the rocks against the palm of their hand. Ping ping ping. And no shelter from the hot sun. The lived reality of their daily work and extreme poverty was earth-shaking to me. My heart ached for these people along the road.
In dramatic contrast, at the top of the hill we were met by the women beaders with drums and instruments in hand. The women began singing and dancing in welcome—it was an exhilarating greeting!
I wrote in my journal, “[There is] this incomparable joy from the beaders, faces beaming with hope for the future and contentedness with the present. I have a lot to learn from them. I am weeping and dancing with all the images and experiences. Uganda has stolen my heart, broken it open, and given me new life.” This new life followed me when I returned to the U.S. My previous understanding of the words “poverty” and “wealth” were shattered and I had a whole new way of looking at the world. Even though it has been almost a decade since my trip to Uganda, the women and their stories are with me and continue to have a powerful impact on my daily life. When I pick up a piece of Bead for Life jewelry, I know that it carries the stories of the women whose hands and hearts created it.
On Friday, August 19th, Bead for Life jewelry will be available for purchase from 10am until 2pm in the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough. This is a great opportunity for anyone who is in the area to see these pieces firsthand and learn more about the story of Bead for Life. If you are searching for the perfect gift for someone or even yourself, then Bead for Life jewelry is the way for that shopping to have a big positive impact on the world.