Travel Tips

From Tourist to Traveler on a Journey to Uganda

Ugandan village kidsTo me there is a profound difference between the tourist and the traveler.

Tourists take in the world through their senses: sight, smell, sound, and taste.

Travelers sense the world with their hearts.

Vicky Collins, a news producer, spends plenty of time on the road, covering everything from the Olympics to natural disasters for NBC and other major broadcasters.

Ugandan villageAs a journalist, her head and her judgment are essential. Like the tourist, she might care about the people in the story, but she needs to keep her heart one step removed.

At least that’s the way it always was. But after the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Vicky was asked to work on a pilot for a show about voluntourism—the growing practice of spending one’s vacation helping others.

“We went to Thailand to film,” says Vicky. “It was about nine months after the tsunami and we were documenting American volunteers as they rebuilt schools, boats and villages. It all felt very raw. You could walk down the beach and see clothes, even a laptop, embedded in the sand.”

For Vicky, it created a seismic shift in her thinking. When she returned home, she continued to work as a news producer. But now her head and her judgment had to make room for her heart.

Window woman smileAt about this time, Vicky was at a conference where she heard about a non-governmental organization working with Uganda’s urban poor. Putting together a proposal, Vicky approached the group about doing a documentary on its work. They hired her and in 2006, Vicky made her first trip to this besieged African nation.

“The poverty was mind-boggling,” she recalls. “People were living in mud-and-stick houses in slums where sewage ran through the streets. For work, the women pounded rocks in a quarry all day just to earn a dollar. Many families were starving. Some of them lived outside under trees, even in heavy rains.”

But these people have a guardian angel. Her name is Torkin Wakefield. She was in Uganda with her husband, who, as a doctor, was working on Africa’s AIDS problem. When Torkin walked through the slums of the capital she was appalled by the conditions.

But she had hope. In addition to the poverty and the starvation, she noticed something else. In their spare time, the women were creating jewelry by rolling recycled paper into colorful beads. Torkin thought maybe there was a market for their creations so, along with co-founders Ginny Jordan and Devin Hibbard, she started BeadforLife.

Ugandan beader named SarahThe idea is simple. BeadforLife pays fair market value for the women’s work. Women in North America sell the beads and return the profits back to Uganda. In turn, the women in Uganda are able to feed, clothe and educate their families.

This was the story Vicky documented on her first trip. When she showed her footage to the people at NBC Nightly News, they decided to integrate it into a story of their own. The first week it aired, BeadforLife’s Web site received 60,000 hits. Thousands of people threw BeadforLife parties—Vicky, her neighbors and friends among them.

These contributions marked a tipping point for the organization and the women of Uganda. Torkin and the others had been able to move the beaders out of poverty. Now BeadforLife decided to tackle the housing problem.

Vicky and Ugandan womanIn 2008, Vicky returned to Uganda to document the fruits of the women’s labor in a place called Friendship Village. Families there have achieved the dream of owning their own homes and gardens. Together the women work on building the houses and use the money they earn from making jewelry for the down payment and their mortgage.

Amazingly, most of the women pay off their debt in about two years. “When I returned and saw how far these women had come through their own initiative, I was completely humbled,” says Vicky.

Over time, more news outlets have become interested in telling the simple story of women selling beads for dignity and a chance at a decent life. As these pieces air, it is hoped that the BeadforLife Web site is again deluged and thousands more will throw bead parties.

Ugandan woman Harriet beadsVicky refuses to take credit for any of this. She speaks in awe about Torkin Wakefield and constantly reminds me that as a producer, not only was she paid for her work in Africa, but she had incredible production partners.

But in my eyes, Vicky did something not everyone can do. She spread the word—big time. And because she did, women in the United States and Canada are now buying happy, colorful—and inexpensive—jewelry while empowering the women of Uganda.

This mighty idea started with Torkin Wakefield and her co-founders. But it spread thanks to a woman whose job it is to stay one step removed, but who, this time, allowed herself to become a traveler and journey through the world … heart first.

For more information, visit Or you can email Vicky at vicky @

By Jamie Simons for

Read more inspiring stories from the Grateful Traveler series: