2009-12-17 / News

Island business owner brings beads of hope to Africa

By Erin Tiernan

Local business owner and entrepreneur Debbie Goyette never thought in a million years that her modest little bead shop would take her on an African safari, allow her to join a university study and help her transform the lives of women struggling to make ends meet, but it did – and it all happened in less than six months.

Goyette, owner of the Purple Door Bead Shop on Conanicus Avenue, was presented with a unique opportunity this past summer to participate in an exchange program helping coastal communities in Africa learn how to harness their local ecosystems and forge a sustainable way of life.

“I call it my little bead shop that could,” Goyette joked as she explained how she became involved in the program.

In August, the Purple Door was one of a few Rhode Island jewelers who hosted lessons over a two-week period for several groups of women from Zanzibar. The goal was to teach the women how to harness all the richness of the coastal environment in which they live. Their local oyster populations were suffering from over-fishing, as oysters are a major food source for the locals, and discarded shells were littering the beaches.

The program, called SUCCESS – for Sustainable Coastal Communities and Ecosystems – is teaching the people of Zanzibar to fish sustainably by creating no-take zones to allow young oyster spat to grow and guarantee a future crop. It also focuses on helping women make money by teaching them to cut and drill the discarded shells, by hand, into beautiful beads that mimic birds, hearts and stars.

In October, it was Goyette’s turn to go to Africa, accompanied by her friend and fellow design instructor at the Purple Door, Tricia Morris, to see firsthand the circumstances of these women’s lives.

“I was hesitant to go at first,” Goyette said, adding that in retrospect, she doesn’t regret traveling 20 hours halfway across the world because she established lifelong friendships and made a real difference in the lives of impoverished women.

With no electricity or running water, and often without even tables and chairs, Goyette – with the help of 11 others who made the journey with her – schooled upwards of 25 women in the art of jewelry making. She helped them learn to critique their works and gave them ideas to expand on and create more complex, higher-quality designs.

Goyette said the ultimate goal is to organize the women into a cooperative so they can work together to buy supplies and sell their wares.

“The money they make from the jewelry is extremely important,” she said, adding that it improves their incomes, but also their quality of life because the women no longer have to participate in physical labor to help earn money for their families.

The return from the two-week journey to Zanzibar, a tropical island about 20 miles off the coast of Tanzania, on Nov. 6 marked the end of the three-year fellowship program sponsored by URI’s Coastal Resources Center, in conjunction with several other higher-learning institutions.

But Goyette has no intention of abandoning her newfound friends. For now, she will donate beads and other supplies, as well as ‘how-to’ design manuals, and send pictures of her own jewelry designs using the Zanzibar women’s raw materials. The idea, Goyette said, is to help give the women what they need until they can sustain themselves.

She has no doubts about the women’s potential to become successful, she said.

“It’s just about getting it [their designs] out there,” Goyette said.

Goyette said she also enjoyed being a tourist, although her experience was admittedly not the average tourist experience. She did go on a safari, but also survived a near-death experience with a rampaging elephant. She got to “ooh” and “ahh” at the lions and zebras. She traipsed around the island and subjected herself to the normal tourist activities, like touring the spice farms for which Zanzibar is famous, and she went on an ocean cruise and even swam in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Her experience, however, was anything but typical of an African vacation.

“I was able to experience how the people lived and also get a taste of what is out there to do in Africa as a tourist,” Goyette said.

She worked and ate side by side with the locals and, apart from working with the women and teaching jewelry designs, she visited four different schools, providing supplies, toys, candy and clothes to children in need.

“As poor as the people are,” Goyette said, “They are extremely accommodating, hungry for knowledge, and also content and happy.”

Goyette will continue to carry the designs of the Zanzibar women into the future.

Right now, hand cut shell earrings made by the African women are available for approximately $6 to $8. Goyette is also featuring her own designs using the shells from Zanzibar; those prices range from approximately $25 to $40.

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