Weaving baskets, connecting lives

February 19, 2012. Interview translated by Gilbert Kubwimana.

Rwandese women enter a concrete courtyard off a dirt road, toting large bags of dried sisal. They arrive in small groups, gradually growing the mass of weavers gathered together on this chilly February morning.

These are the leaders of the Gitarama weaving cooperatives, groups that partner with the Rwanda Basket Company to create and sustain the US market for Rwandan baskets. Additionally, RBC provides reconciliation workshops to unite the weavers as Rwanda continues to heal from the 1994 genocide.

RBC started with just three cooperatives in 2007. "The first shipment we did was maybe 25 boxes," said Gilbert Kubwimana, a Rwanda Partners program manager. "Now we ship a container: 200 boxes."

There are now 12 weaving cooperatives in Gitarama, representing 2,500 weavers. Each cooperative has a leadership committee consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. When Gilbert or In-Country Director Michel Kayirange goes to Gitarama to dye sisal or buy baskets, one or two committee members from each cooperative gather, rather than having all 2,500 weavers assemble.

Today, Gilbert gives the women basket orders and makes a list of the dye colors he will prepare over the next several hours. He can make up to 22 different colors with the various powders stored at the center. Originally, RBC employed a dye master to create their recipes. He taught Michel the trade, who in turn trained Gilbert. Now Gilbert and Michel mix the dyes and even create new colors. Seemingly simple colors can be quite complicated: black dye incorporates five different colors. Add a sixth powder, and you get chocolate brown. And the proportions are all dependent on how much sisal the weavers have brought. It gets complicated, but must be precise and consistent.

For the weavers, dye day is mostly about spending time together as a community. The women lay out their bundles of dried sisal as Gilbert, now in a blue jumpsuit, joins two men who heat giant pots of water over charcoal fires. After mixing each recipe, Gilbert stirs the dye powders into the boiling water and mixes the sisal in with a long, wooden stick. The fibers emerge as brilliant bundles of color: burnt orange, bright green, and fiery red. The royal blue and deep purple match the photo of one woman's order perfectly, and you can almost see the finished product.

As the men tend the fires, the women stand by to hang the freshly dyed sisal on a clothesline, chatting with each other in the meantime.

This is the off-season when sisal is dyed only once a week. But between May and December, the Rwanda Basket Company orders about 3,000 baskets a week. Then the dying routine will happen twice a week since 50% of US basket sales occur in December for the holidays.

"We ramp up for it all summer," said Program Director Allie Wallace. "The women are so busy, they can't even produce all that we're ordering."

Because of these huge basket orders, RBC also has three weaving cooperatives in Kigali and one in Nyamata, making 16 basket cooperatives total: 3,000 weavers. And these women depend on the foreign market.

"Not only do people need to be provided with reconciliation to heal from the genocide, but they need employment and income," Allie said. "We found our niche by providing a market to the US. This last year we were the largest exporter to the US. I think we exported about 100,000 baskets."

On top of large basket orders, the weavers also have families to care for. And many are doing it alone. Some are widows and some have husbands in prison for committing genocide crimes.

"The common thing they are all sharing is poverty," Gilbert said. "But through baskets they are improving their lives. Their children are going to school and they have good, clean clothes."

One woman's son, still too young for school, exemplifies this improvement. He runs around the courtyard, periodically stopping to drink juice and munch on a mandazi. Unlike many children in Rwanda, this boy wears clean denim shorts and a jacket, plus shoes and socks on both feet. If it takes a whole village to raise a child, this little one is set.

In addition to providing for their families, the women band together to grow their assets as weaving cooperatives. One group pooled their extra income for a house in Gitarama where they rent space to shop owners. Some other groups now meet together in houses they bought, rather than in each other's homes. (Office space, essentially.) 

These women are joining together to work themselves out of poverty against all odds. The weavers embrace the economic opportunity of partnering with RBC as they stitch up the wounds of heartbreak and loss. 

At the end of the day the women gradually disperse with their dyed sisal, ready to return to their cooperatives and weave together. The pointed cathedral baskets, called peace baskets, and fruit bowls, called love baskets, are symbolically named to represent the deeper impact of reconciliation through weaving. 

"Please tell many Americans about the baskets. Mobilize people to buy baskets," requested Kayitesi Liberthe, president of her weaving cooperative. When the women are busy weaving, they are able to put the genocide conflict behind them.

For those of you in the US, it's more than buying a basket. It's connecting lives, thread by thread. 

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