I recently learned from a wonderful Cameroonian woman how to take old calendars, posters, cardboard from fake hair packages, and other tough paper materials and make them into incredibly unique, colorful, and surprisingly beautiful beads. I originally took lessons from this woman because I thought this would be a great income generating activity for the HIV/AIDS support group at my health center (something that I still hope to do), but then one day I ran into the director of a local orphanage. We got to talking about the possibility of me doing some health projects at the orphanage when I got the idea of doing a week-long bead making workshop for the kids during their time off from school.
The vast majority of primary schools in Cameroon don’t have any sort of art classes to speak of, which makes me incredibly sad. I remember in elementary school waiting all day for art class to come where I could draw with foam on the tables, color turkeys made out of the shape of my hand, or sculpt strange looking men with play-dough. School budgets here aren’t even sufficient for books let alone things that seem to many people as unnecessary, such as crayons and drawing paper. It is such a shame that students here don’t have the opportunity to explore the creative side of their minds during school, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to do this project at the orphanage. The 50 or so kids who live there don’t get the chance to make color paper chains, snowmen out of cotton balls, or glue fall-colored leaves to giant pieces of paper. I wanted to give them the chance to discover their abilities to create something beautiful and feel the accomplishment because of it.
Another goal of the project is the potential of the children using the bead making skills they gain to help generate income today and into the future. First of all, the people in the community seem genuinely interested in buying these necklaces and I really think there is a big market for them to sell to. In addition, all of the papers they use to make the beads they can collect for free from hair salons and shops and the other supplies needed last a long time and are relatively inexpensive. Since the camp has finished I am now planning on helping the orphanage establish relationships with a few salons in town where they could consistently go to collect papers as well as a use as a place to sell the necklaces. We shall see how that works out!
The camp took place about 2 weeks ago and it went so smoothly I almost couldn’t even believe it. If you ask most volunteers here they will tell you that any sort of project you do usually comes along with a number of surprise frustrations and unanticipated challenges. The only problem that I encountered was that the orphanage didn’t collect enough papers for the camp, but luckily the generous people of Fundong helped me gather all the cardboard I needed. I was also a bit nervous before the camp started of how I would keep control of so many young kids, but that was not even the slightest problem as these kids were best behaved group of youngsters I’ve ever encountered.
On the first three days of the camp all 50 plus kids learned to make their own beads and created enough for each of them to have their very own new necklace. They all really seemed to love the activity, something I fully realized when literally 3 minutes after their lunch bell rang kids were already sitting outside my door waiting to make beads. I think they all skipped lunch so they could make beads! I tried to force them to go back to eat, but those efforts proved futile. One of my favorite parts of this creation process was when one of the groups arrived to make the beads and I noticed that every single person in the group was a boy. These boys proceeded to brake about every stereotype as they created some of the best, most beautiful, brightly colored (pink and purple at that) necklaces of the whole camp. It was really a treat to observe.
The forth day consisted of me sitting in a room varnishing all of the necklaces and subsequently becoming the stickiest mess of a person in the entire world.
Finally, on Friday all 50 kids strung their necklaces. I was shocked at some of the intricate designs the kids made without anyone even teaching them how to arrange beads. They are truly a talented group of kids.
While this camp was so much fun for me, watching the kids create the beads was a bit heartbreaking at times. It was tough to watch both those kids who excelled in the process as well as those that struggled through it. Certain children caught on how to make the beads so quickly I was honestly astonished. There was one five or six-year-old I figured I would have to guide along in the process, but as I walked around the room watching the older children cut out their paper I saw him already 3 beads in. (He is pictured above by himself wearing his necklace.) It really made me sad to think that these kids with so much natural talent and creative ability are living somewhere that doesn’t allow them to develop their skills or give them the chance to explore the art world.
On the other hand, I had 12-year-old kids who couldn’t even hold scissors correctly or draw straight lines with a ruler. One kid was having a particularly hard time drawing the lines on his paper needed to cut out the beads, so I went over to assist him. Even while I held the ruler straight for him he couldn’t keep the pencil touching its edges. Through this and other experiences during the camp I was struck by how lucky I was growing up. I have been using rulers and scissors since I was probably 5-years-old and here are a group of kids that have made it to their pre-teens without the same opportunity. The chance to use scissors and rulers growing up is a luxury I never even thought about once in my life, let alone thought of as a luxury, before now.
All in all the week was fantastic and absolutely, utterly exhausting. Luckily I had two other PCV come and help me out a couple of times during the week (thanks Claire and Sam!) or else I don’t even think I would be functioning right now. I look forward to thinking of other art projects to bring to the orphanage and would love suggestions/ideas if any of you have some!
P.S. - On a completely unrelated note, I am getting a new cat next week!