Mar 2015 24

Coming full circle: How GRG and Beads of Awareness partnered to launch a new Adult Literacy program

Posted in News

by Thomas Prince

Let me open with a big thank you to Beads of Awareness for donating to GRG’s Adult Literacy project. We look forward to partnering for years to come!

I would like to tell you a little about GRG’s exciting new Functional Adult Literacy (FAL) program, just launched in six groups in the Gulu and Amuru Districts.  I am also going to get to share my own story of how I came to northern Uganda, how I came to work with Beads of Awareness, and how I eventually joined the GRG team in Gulu.

I first visited Gulu Uganda in 2009 as a student volunteer with the Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program. Those two months were unforgettable. The seeds were planted that have now rooted me in Gulu, but I still never imagined that only a few years later, I would call Gulu home.

On that first trip I kept seeing necklaces and bracelets made with recycled paper in bright blues, yellows and reds. In an earlier period of my life I travelled in South America, learning how to weave bracelets and necklaces from waxed string that incorporated beads, seeds and other trinkets.  So it was not surprising when I carried a kilo of paper beads and a couple dozen necklaces and bracelets home to Montreal with me. Foreigners visiting Gulu often bought their jewelry, so the women’s group who made the beads asked me to help find “a market” in Canada. Back home, my friend Laura Schnurr, who was studying international business, suggested we start a social business to sell the beads ourselves. And so Beads of Awareness was born. We were both students, so it started slowly. We did bead sales to friends or on our university campus. Then Laura’s mother got involved selling beads in Ottawa and the surrounding region, and things really started moving. The profits from sales are now cycled back to Uganda and used to help the women diversify their income opportunities.

In 2011, I was back in Uganda, now as a leader of the same student volunteer program.  I used the opportunity to strengthen our project on the Ugandan end. By the time I left, Beads of Awareness hired its first staff member, Omony Philip. He worked part time in Gulu to collect and mail the product and to follow up with the three women’s groups who made our beads. Philip and another staff member have overseen the venture grow. Profits from bead sales in Canada are now reinvested in agriculture and micro finance projects.

Now let’s fast forward to 2014. Admittedly I am jumping over big details—I got married in Gulu, researched savings and loan groups in Gulu District, my daughter was born, Beads of Awareness registered as a community-based organization and formed a board of directors, and many other details.  In August, I joined GRG as Program Director, a little overwhelmed and sleep deprived (the baby had just been born). But I knew I had joined a great team and an organization with a clear vision and concrete strategy.

GRG uses many group activities as tools for reconciliation and peace building—agriculture trainings, savings and loan programs, community theatre and trauma counseling, for example. When I joined, FAL was a new idea, recommended by out-going Program Director Kitty Paulus.  She knew Sara, a teacher from Portugal who was interested in helping us get FAL started.  (A note for clarification, “Functional” Adult Literacy focuses on reading, writing and math skills targeted towards helping learners in their daily life.  Our curriculum focuses on the literacy skills that will help parents with their children’s homework, to grow their businesses by keeping records of sales and expenses, and based on the requests of our groups to learn some English in order to conduct business in other districts where Acholi isn’t spoken or to learn the necessary vocabulary to enroll for skills training in tailoring, hairdressing, construction and other trades).

GRG uses a bottom-up approach. We do not dictate programing but rather respond to requests from our groups. Sara spoke with six of our groups in Gulu and Amuru Districts about their interest in adult education. She also talked to them about their capacity because each group needs to elect tutors who have the educational background to be able to teach with minimal oversight and support from GRG.  The short answer from our groups was YES! We want FAL, we can do it, and can we start tomorrow!

And this was when things came full circle.  Beads of Awareness recently introduced a new product—bookmarks—and was exploring how to use the profits from the bookmarks in literacy and education projects in the region. When speaking to Laura about running education programs with the bead-makers, I mentioned GRG’s FAL model of training group members as tutors rather than hiring outside trainers. I joked that Beads of Awareness should partner with us. After considering and discussing the idea, Laura got back in touch and told me that Beads of Awareness would like to donate and partner with GRG on our FAL project.

These days, I am no longer actively involved with Beads of Awareness, but seeing this partnership emerge is so exciting! Over the past five years, I have been able to witness how supporting 100 women in selling their beautiful jewelry in Canada helped them to improve their lives. Now, working at GRG with over 800 men and women across three districts of northern Uganda, I am truly coming to understand the role of economic empowerment in peace building and reconciliation.

Partnerships across continents play an incredibly valuable role. The day-to-day and nitty-gritty of social transformation are on the ground here in northern Uganda, as is the spirit of forgiveness and commitment to hard work. But the money to pay for training, to buy books, blackboards, pens and chalk, is not easy to obtain. Thankfully, these items can be brought from abroad.  A donation as little as $50 can make a difference.  It can supply notebooks and pens for over 30 students to learn to write.  Or it can provide the blackboard, chalk and a textbook to guide their learning.

Myself, all of the GRG staff and the six groups who have just launched their FAL program thank Beads of Awareness for partnering with us. We are also looking for more partners to join us. Together, we can help provide the tools for peace-building and transforming lives in northern Uganda.

To learn more about GRG’s FAL programs, please visit   To learn more about Beads of Awareness, please visit


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