From Refugee to Fashionista: Lovetta Conto, 18, Finds Beauty in Bullets

Jun 19, 2011· 2 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
Lovetta Conto and her "akawelle" bullet jewelry. (Photo: Strongheart Fellowship Program)

Bullets can be beautiful. Just ask Liberian teenager Lovetta Conto.

The refugee-turned-fashionista designs handcrafted jewelry—seen on the necklines of Halle Berry and Angelina Jolie—from spent bullet casings fired during her country’s civil war. She then refashions them into a leaf pendant engraved with the word “life.”

Half of the profits from the sale of the charms go to funding the Strongheart House, a home in Robertsport, Liberia for talented children and teens who have been uprooted by war.

Conto, 18, lives at Strongheart House when she’s not attending school at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Separated from her mother as an infant, Conto was raised by her father in Ghana’s Buduburan refugee camp with nearly 50,000 other displaced Liberians.

“When we first got there, we didn’t have a tent,” says Conto. “We slept on plastic sheets on the ground.”

Despite the rough living conditions—basic necessities like food and clean water were a luxury—Conto persevered, distinguishing herself in the camp by advocating for special education for sight-impaired children.

This can-do attitude caught the eye of American aid worker Cori Stern in 2005. Stern was in the camp for a workshop on how to train women to administer a drug that prevents the transfer of HIV from mother to child.

“She had such a spirit and an energy about her that I just thought: ‘Who are you?’ ” says Stern of her first encounter with the then-12-year-old Conto. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, I can’t leave her here.’ ”

It took two years, but Stern eventually secured a student visa and a scholarship for Conto to attend New Roads School in Santa Monica, California, during the 2007-2008 academic year.

After an initial culture shock—“when I saw everything that was available at any minute you wanted it, it made me feel sad inside that it had all existed the whole time I was alone in the refugee camp,” says Conto—she adjusted to life in Los Angeles.

But it wasn’t until she rediscovered her love for fashion that she hit her American stride.

“One day Cori gave me a design kit and I spent hours and days creating clothing designs,” says Conto. “I had saved magazines that volunteers had left in the refugee camp, and I always tried to make beautiful outfits or jewelry out of whatever I could find.”

Bullets, it turns out, can have a second life. (Photo: Strongheart Fellowship Program)

One of the requirements of the Strongheart Fellowship Program is for fellows to create charitable projects in a field they wish to pursue.

In June 2008 Conto founded Akawelle, the jewelry line with a name rooted in Kpelle, her Liberian tribal language. “Aka” translates to “also known as” and “we’le” to “love.” To date, more than $52,000 dollars has been generated from the sale of 1,300 necklaces.

That same year, Conto was reunited with her mother.

“We just stared at each other; there was nothing we could even say,” says Conto of the moment her mother walked into her grandparents’ home in Liberia. “I had so many questions: how did she survive all those years, did she still love and care about me?”

This summer Conto will intern with Seventeen magazine. “I would never have imagined that a girl like me would make it to a place like that,” says Conto.

She hopes the Madison Avenue sojourn will bring her one step closer to realizing her dream.

“I want to create an Art Institute in Africa for young people to learn how to have careers and express themselves,” says Conto.

Until then, Conto will continue to repurpose the agents of death from her country’s civil war, which ended in 2003, into charms of hope.

That is, until there are no more bullets to pluck off the ground.

“That’s the day I’ve long waited for,” says Conto. “Let it come.”