The Paper Bead Phenomenon: Upcycling with Sanaa Gateja

Eco-art and sustainable living

For the past two months, I’ve had the simultaneously odd and amazing experience of living at 32° East Ugandan Arts Trust. Here I’ve gotten to see the inner-workings of an organization running on little money and tons of heart. It’s also introduced me to a bunch of Kampala’s new contemporary artists like SANE and Ian Mwesiga. But 32° East has also garnered the trust of some of Kampala’s older generation gems, including the widely respected and world famous Sanaa Gateja.

These beads are made from pulped newspaper rolled by hand into balls with glue as a binder and dyed naturally.

I thought they looked more like sugary cereal…

had no clue about Sanaa’s pedigree before my friend Robinah – burgeoning arts curator at 32 East – pointed him out to me. The distinguished looking gentleman working away quietly, whom I’d seen at all the workshops and lectures… “That’s Sanaa! He’s, like, a total legend in the Ugandan art scene. He invented the paper bead!” And indeed, she was right. While Sanaa’s multi-faceted work has been exhibited worldwide, he’s by far best known for his invention of the Paper Bead phenomenon –  and building a cornerstone for sustainable design in the world of community-based art.

Upcycling with a master

The artist, Sanaa Gateja, smiles in his studio at the arts trust in Kampala.

Sanaa works with the concept of upcycling, producing new items from old waste, broadening the possibilities that exist for environmental design in Africa. After living abroad for almost two decades, he decided to return to Uganda  - and delve into a career as a community-based artist, a choice fueled by the “huge employment rate in Uganda.” He’d previously taught UK children to make paper beads and now saw he could use these paper-based handmade sculptures for grander socio-economic purposes.

Newspaper is rolled into mini tubes that will eventually become a modern art relief object, dyed and treated so the newspaper doesn’t age. Another one of Sanaa’s innovative techniques and a great takeaway idea for projects at home!

Your choice – positive action

A big aspect of the paper bead movement is the money factor: there are lots of financial benefits for women who learn the skill of paper bead making. Many women living in the Ugandan countryside earn a living from making Sanaa’s beads. They can also teach others, making it spread easily. Sanaa pays his employees well and the product is marketable. The bead revolution is not only creatively innovative but makes a real difference to the lives of families living in rural areas.

I think back to my time living in the village of Nantwala, knowing how many of the families there could benefit from this skill. Sanaa estimates the number of women earning money from paper bead making to be around 10,000! The movement is so large that “the beads have become known as a Ugandan product.”

His story represents the choice I have – that we all have – everyday, to make a positive difference in the world through creativity, through making things. If Sanaa can create a revolution with just paper, sticks, glue, and cheap varnish (literally what his social-change-making beads are comprised of!), then I certainly can find a way to make a difference using my own talents and available resources.

And so can you…

The artist shows me how he makes the bark cloth malleable enough to make the beads: the fabric is shredded into thread, soaked in glue, and then hand-rolled into beads. Quite a process!


Creativity knows no bounds

Not only can the beads be jewelry, but their manifestations seem to know no limit – Sanaa doesn’t even make jewelry anymore. Instead, he creates “functional pieces for interiors” like accessories and household items, including handbags, placemats, and screens. His upcycling extends to other decorations like the amazing wall-hangings he made at last year’s KLA Art festival. What I learn from Sanaa is that social entrepreneurship goes hand in hand with innovative, eco-friendly art – the two are one and the same, really. One of Sanaa’s protégés, his fellow Ugandan eco artist Ruganzu Bruno, also knows this concept all too well. Bruno gives talks around the world on this very topic, following in Sanaa’s large change-making footsteps.

The significance of Sanaa’s beads is huge in the global scheme of things. His core philosophy, “I never throw anything away,” is partly what makes his environmental art so innovative and equally touching. When the average person chooses to make their dreams come true with whatever they have to work with – however little that may be – it’s inspiration for all. By showing people that creating positive change can begin with almost nothing, the world suddenly becomes your oyster. No more excuses, no more feeling sorry for ourselves about what we don’t have or can’t do; instead, we celebrate in what we do have, what we can do, and use it to create something beautiful, in all sense of the word.

The paper bead story and you…

These beads are made from bark cloth that has been rolled and woven with raffia. The design was inspired by an insect that walks around with a cocoon that it creates for itself out of twigs and other found material. I feel like this insect and I have similar introverted tendencies…

The story of the paper bead is proof that a tiny item born from sustainable design can create positive ripple effects in communities – and even worldwide. There’s no need for expensive items. All you need is a simple idea, basic materials, and a desire to make something happen. The amount of change that is possible from little effort and a lot of heart is endless. Whether wearable, functional, or just plain pretty, these beads are a symbol of the power of positive action. Forward-thinking and conscious creation has never felt, or looked, so good.

I challenge you to take a page from Sanaa’s eco-friendly book and make something out of (relatively clean!) garbage products you would’ve otherwise thrown out…

Let the revolution begin!

When we look at Sanaa’s paper bead movement, it is clear that while his eco-art is certainly lovely to look at, its wide reach expands to children, women, and families in many communities. Born from a love of conscious creation, the paper bead is a teachable skill that has improved many families’ and even entire villages’ economic situations. In addition to its significant impact on Ugandan women, its influence reaches people all over the world with challenges of their own: the paper bead proves to us that within the simple lies great possibility. This concept is not only inherent to sustainable design but to positive living in general – for everyone, everywhere.

Long live the paper bead phenomenon… and may you carry its philosophy with you, in your heart.