Enough time to live: Eliane and Christine, raffia weavers

February 25, 2012. Interview translated by Gilbert Kubwimana.

It's a small, small world of human connections if we use our time to bridge the gaps. An enemy may become a friend, a friend may become a teacher, and you might find yourself with 20 Rwandan weavers stuffed into a tiny room like sardines in a tin can.

"I'm so happy to be here because it's one of the groups I love," Gilbert Kubwimana says to the group of women as rain incessantly pounds the tiny room they've rented for weaving their raffia baskets. "I'm attached to your stories, testimonies, the way you live."

Gilbert is a program manager for Rwanda Partners. He works with this weaving cooperative, Agaseke Vision, to market their raffia baskets in the United States. He jokes with the women, balancing a colorful, half-finished raffia basket on one woman's head.

The woman is 40-year-old Eliane, and she happens to be Gilbert's mother's neighbor.

Eliane lives with her husband, four children, and their one grandchild. Her husband has asthma and is unable to work. Eliane used to sell bananas, tomatoes, and other goods on the roadside, but she wasn't making enough money. Then Eliane received what she refers to as the worst information: Eliane has AIDS.

"I was scared, and then life was too difficult," Eliane said. She thought, "No one will talk to me because I have HIV. It's going to be a discrimination to me."

But the doctors tried to encourage her. "Having HIV is not the end of the world. It is not the end of life," Eliane remembers the doctors telling her. "You still have enough time to live. Don't worry."

Eliane learned to weave baskets, which has given her more energy, income, and community with other weavers. When she became good enough to sell baskets, Eliane taught her husband to weave so he could help support the family even without a steady job. Through weaving, Eliane and her husband have been able to afford their children's school fees, and they also have electricity and running water at home. The even opened a bank account for their savings.

"My home was enriched through baskets. . . since working with Rwanda Partners," Eliane said.

While she was earning money weaving, Eliane began to teach her neighbors how to weave baskets. She used the opportunity to share her testimony and found that even people without HIV would love her and take care of her, regardless of her illness. Eliane's willingness to create community through weaving has helped to develop the Agaseke Vision cooperative. For example, she taught Christine to weave and now both women are in the same cooperative. 

Christine lives with her husband and their two children, 8 and 5 years old. Christine is five months pregnant and she has AIDS. Eliane befriended Christine and taught her to weave. 

"I was struggling with poverty," Christine said. "I knew Eliane was a weaver, and I knew that she had HIV/AIDS. She taught me to weave baskets without cost."

Christine had been earning about a dollar a day working in fields and doing other small jobs. Her husband was unemployed and they lived in a tiny house. Weaving provided a better paying profession for Christine, and she and her family were able to move into a different house. She can afford the rent, which her previous income wouldn't have covered, not even considering other living expenses. 

"After being a part of Rwanda Partners, we are able to sell baskets and get paid," Christine said. "Through baskets, we were improved."

The majority of the women in the Agaseke Vision cooperative learned to weave through a program that president Kagame's wife created for impoverished women. Like Eliane, these women taught their friends and neighbors to weave raffia baskets and have grown their cooperative into a support network. Despite their illnesses, they have enough time to live. And they are living fully. 

"One teaches one, they teach another," Gilbert said. "It's a chain of teachers and students." 

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