Changing lives: Rwandan women take up basket weaving to global markets

Just go to the website of American high-street departmental store Macy’s, search for Rwandan baskets; you will soon discover selling that online are six different types of Rwandan woven baskets.
Murekatete Fracine in her  art and craft shop
Murekatete Fracine in her art and craft shop

Just go to the website of American high-street departmental store Macy’s, search for Rwandan baskets; you will soon discover selling that online are six different types of Rwandan woven baskets.

These range from the; ‘Rwanda day peace baskets’, ‘Rwanda bird wing basket’, ‘Rwanda treasures basket’ and the ‘Rwanda thousand hills bowl.’ The prices for the baskets range from USD 35 to USD 75.

But behind this great achievement is basid on a simple story of ordinary Rwandan women.

You may be over-whelmed by the tremendous recovery Rwanda has undergone since the time it was brutally shaken into a comma by the 1994 genocide.

Usually many judge Rwanda’s progress by the beauty of her fast growing cities and towns – or economic growth projections.

But coupled with development is a gender sensitive government that has empowered women to be self reliant, through entrepreneurship -- thus boosting their confidence and wellbeing.

Most of the country’s population is made up of women who after the 1994 made up the majority of the population in Rwanda, yet being the poorest class of people after decades of being sidelined in education and the core of economic activity and development.

A lot of associations for women exist among these is the basket weaving project which is making a difference not just to women’s lives, but the country’s economy too.

After they couldn’t go back to school for formal education and at the same time be able to raise their kids that most of them struggled with alone after the genocide claimed their husbands lives; some women embarked on weaving as their savior and bread earner.

Weaving is a unique heritage in Rwanda drawn from the history of what an African woman was culturally expected to be able to do.

But this was never seen as an economic activity as most of the communities weaved just as a pass time or to beautify their homes.

Not knowing the work of their hands could bring countless blessings: the Rwandan woven basket has found its way into the world market.

You may ask yourself why Rwandan woven baskets? But the answer lies in the beauty and unique designs of these products.

It was in 2002 when Noeleen Heyzer, the executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), visited Rwanda and was overwhelmed by the beauty of the traditional woven baskets.

According to the report released after her visit she was moved by the pride and strength of the weavers then, who had already resorted to weaving for survival.

Heyzer reached out to an American business woman Willa Shalt in the hope of developing a market for Rwandan woven baskets.

Willa took up the challenge and worked with the weavers in Rwanda who were mostly widows to establish a wider market for their products.   

This partnership established a global market for these unique works of art. In September 2005 Macy’s departmental store introduced the very first Path to Peace Baskets.

The modest collection, only available online at Macys.com and in Macy’s flagship Herald Square store, included every basket the weavers could produce over the course of the year.
 
The sale of the baskets provided real, sustainable income to rural women who had never before earned such money in their lives.

It is reported that today, the Path to Peace project is larger than ever, employing over 2,500 weavers, with a huge impact on tens of thousands of lives.

The 2006 Collection introduces several exciting new pieces to the Macy’s customer, each one inspired by a traditional Rwandan design and entirely handmade by a master weaver using a centuries-old technique.

Focused on trade, not aid, the Rwanda Path to Peace project puts the power of opportunity into the hands of the women of Rwanda, providing not only income but the chance to take an active role in the shaping of their future.

Pascasie Mukamurigo, a master weaver and respected elder in Rwanda, is perhaps the greatest weaver of Peace Baskets in the country, and she credits them with saving her life.

She had traveled to sell her baskets in the capital city of Kigali when the genocide violence started. When she returned after 3 months of hiding in a church, she found much of her family had been killed.

Bent on healing herself and her community, she gathered the weavers in her village and formed a weaving group for income generating and reconciliatory purposes. 

Irene Dukuze also a master weaver, whose mother was among the first weavers in Rwanda to use sisal to make baskets, has a proud heritage of weaving.

Today, she organizes and teaches other weavers to make the exquisite fruit bowls and intricate cathedral baskets.

Her beaming smile and strong, bright spirit help her motivate and guide the weavers as they learn the difficult and exacting craft of making a fine woven basket

However the business can’t go without competitors. The Chinese known for their competitive urge in any booming market have now copied the Rwandan basket weaving designs, creating competition for the local weavers.

Though the local weavers seem unperturbed by the Chinese woven baskets.

Francine Murekatete a member of the Handcraft Association that has a center in Rugunga, says that it’s true the Chinese visit them and try to copy some of their designs.

But she says that Rwandan woven baskets are unique and can’t easily be out competed.

“This is cultural weaving. We do not use any machines to weave baskets and weaving a basket will take much time than the Chinese style where they use machines.

Tourists and people who buy our product know its value. They buy it because one spent a lot of time on it and put meaningful designs that are depicted from our culture.

I therefore do not think that the Chinese can easily integrate it into their culture to attach more value.”

The cooperation’s secretary general Epimaque Karangwa says that people don’t buy art and craft products because they are cheap or expensive.

“They buy because there is a deeper meaning attached to the item. For Chinese it’s purely business and people may buy on cheap prices because they want to use the product. But our product may be bought for historical purposes. And that’s how our product shall differ from theirs.”

Contact: tumusteve2008@yahoo.com

 

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