A weaver since age 14, she had gone to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, from her home in the village of Gashora one day in 1994 to sell baskets. That afternoon violence by militants forced her to seek refuge at a church, violence that would become mass killings.
Inside, Hutu militants “killed the men first,” she told me.
“Then they started killing the women.” To duck the attackers, she stayed in a crouched position for three months, moving from room to room, which is why she walks with a cane today.
She survived, but she returned home to find that her husband and one of her three children had been killed.
When I met her in August, 13 years after those events, she was a regal 63-year-old widow sitting with me in the town of Ruhashya and recounting her story.
Twelve of her best friends had lost their husbands as well. She brought these widows together to form the weaving group Avega (Association des Veuves du Génocide d’Avril) to support the orphans each took in; Mrs. Mukamurigo adopted 13. She also invited members of the Hutu families who had committed the atrocities to join the group.
Two and a half years ago, Avega began producing baskets for macys.com, and this summer, I joined six Macy’s executives who on their own time and money flew to Africa because they wanted to meet the women who were producing such beautiful objects.
I went with the group because I was fascinated by what the women were doing. Four years ago, as the editor in chief of Marie Claire magazine, I had published one of the first stories about Avega and sold the first 1,200 “peace” baskets in the United States through orders placed with the magazine.
After that, the photographer for that article, Willa Shalit, an artist and a producer of “The Vagina Monologues,” saw a chance to help the women expand their business making the sisal baskets, which are used to carry wedding gifts.
“What struck me,” she said, “was that these women who’d suffered so horribly — who’d been raped, machete-hacked and watched their children get killed — had created this object that was so exquisite and elegant, with tiny, even stitches.”
The fact that the weaving groups included both Hutus and Tutsis, heightened the appeal. “I thought, what an incredible embodiment of reconciliation,“ Ms. Shalit said. “I can sell this.”
Ms. Shalit wanted to help create a sustainable business backed by a huge corporation. She called Terry J. Lundgren, chief executive of the Macy’s parent, Federated (now, confusingly, called Macy’s Inc.), who was also a friend of her father’s.
Mr. Lundgren was surprised when Ms. Shalit refused his charitable check and asked for a business relationship instead. “I said, ‘but do you guys have product?’” he said. When she pulled out the baskets, he recalled, his response was immediate: “There’s a customer for this.”
Macy’s ordered 30,000 baskets. Each one takes weeks to weave and sells for $35 to $120 at macys.com; sales grew to $1.5 million in 2007 from $150,000 the first year.
To produce the order, Ms. Shalit created Fair Winds Trading and sent Dean Ericson, the president, to live in Rwanda. Mr. Ericson, who studied industrial art and design and worked on restoration projects for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taught the weavers quality control and repetition of sizes and shapes.
When a customer commented at macys.com that “the basket is beautifully woven, but very very thin and almost flimsy,” Mr. Ericson sought a redesign. A weaver named Agnes Nirere showed him a firmer basket made using banana bark and papyrus, and Mr. Ericson decided to use the Macy’s gathering in Rwanda to pass the design change along to the women.
On our second day there, the Americans piled onto a bus and drove to the Kinkanga Commercial Centre, a group of mud-brick meeting houses in Butare, a province in the south. “Many of these women work alone,” he said. “It’s very hard to let them know about a change in design.”
Holding the firm basket aloft, he said: “We can sell a lot of these baskets, which are stronger. This is what I want to see.” Mrs. Mukamurigo slipped on her glasses and noted that the fine stitches on the edge “are hard to make.”
The bigger impediment, she said, would be finding strong papyrus, which she believed grew in marshland only near Burundi. They managed to get the material, and all Macy’s baskets now use the new design.
Rwanda is a country of harsh contrasts — of horrifying history and friendly people who welcome you to their homes with a treasured glass of milk. “Never again” is painted on banners hanging from buildings and stamped on rubber bracelets the weavers wear; Genocide memorials pop up in mundane spaces.
The next day, we visited a church in Byimana where 1,000 women from Gahaya Links, a weaving association, gave us a singing, dancing reception.
The weaving group’s president, Irene Dukuze Mugaybzu, said that baskets have taken women “out of the back room,” letting them buy clothes and food. Good weavers can earn $2 to $3 a day, around $14 to $40 a basket, giving them more than the average per capital annual income of $206. About a third of the retail price goes to the weavers, Ms. Shalit said.
At this point, the magnitude of corporate responsibility hit me. The criticism of charity is that when sympathy stops, checks dry up. But decorating trends evaporate, too. What happens when baskets stop selling?
Though Mr. Lundgren said there’s “growth potential in front of us for baskets,” he is looking for alternative woven products. “The key is, there has to be an amazing story,” he said.