In Kicukiro, a suburb of Kigali, women gather for another agaseke making day. This is a privilege for these previously jobless, financially insecure and poorly illiterate women. They are now the face of the Igichumbi Co-operative, home of the Agaseke.
The agaseke is a tightly woven papyrus basket; interwoven with sisal thread using tiny needles.
Under the Agaseke Promotion Project initiated by the Kigali City Council these women are able to earn they livelihood from different handcrafts. The project has 16 co-operatives that specialize in weaving.
The Project is supported by the Imbuto foundation, and the Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
The women use natural dyes from coffee, tea and curry powder for different coloured baskets. Making these baskets involves a lot of precision and patience, as it takes up to fifteen days to complete a set of five.
The women meet weekly to weave and train each other. According to Agnesta Kangeyo, a weaver, the Cooperative has helped them earn an income fro their households.
Agnesta says “We meet here to weave and train each other. We also financially support each other whenever we can. The co-operative has brought our product recognition and hence more people continue to buy them. On our own, we would not have achieved what we now celebrate. As we weave we share our happiness and difficulties and our problems seem smaller since people offer to help you”
For many of these women like Vernerada Musabamana, the Co-operative has helped them to gain skills they did not have.
Vernerada points out that “Through the co-operative I am now able to make many products. I can earn a living from weaving.”
Veneranda encourages Rwandans to appreciate the agaseke products and to buy them because currently, the main buyers are foreigners.
Dinah Musindarwezo is the project manager for the agaeske project. She explains that the project’s aim is to alleviate urban poverty.
“There are so many women who live in Kigali and do not have jobs. This is just a way of helping them earn an income. The aim of this project is to train these women on how to make different agaeske products and to help them market their products. Buying these baskets is equivalent to direct financial support to these women.” says Dinah
The project currently has over 3000 women who are already trained and have started weaving. They recently held an exhibition of their products at the Laico Hotel. She explains that the exhibition was a way of informing people about the agaseke products and encouraging them to buy and support this project.
“The money generated goes directly to the woman who made the product. Thus the women are able to earn a decent salary from their handwork. For one basket, a woman in a cooperative makes Rwf 7000” says Dinah Musindarwezo.
Dinah explains that their main challenge is the low prices of these products as they are in no way related to the time and effort that is put into it.
Dinah remarks, “These women spend 15 days or more working on one set of Agaseke that retails for only Rwf 7000. They put a lot of time and effort to it and they should be able to earn more.
At international markets people compare the agaseke price to other products from Kenya and South Africa which is not right because the expertise required is different. We need to regulate the prices to match the work put in by these women.”
As market needs change over time, and in order to meet this demand, the women make other agaseke related products like table mats, fruits baskets, earrings, necklaces, hats, bags, wall hangings, carpets, and many other forms of home décor.
These weavers represent an economic progress of women who have risen above their own lack to work towards financial prosperity.
The history of the agaseke
The agaseke is a signature basket in Rwanda and has been for many years. Dinah Musindarwezo and Immaculate Notran take us through the history of this gorgeous basket and all the culture associations that come with it.
“The agaseke is a famous, valuable and unique basket in Rwanda. The basket was traditionally used in households to put possessions like jewelry, store and serve food” says Dinah.
It was used in ceremonies like. weddings where the bride received it as a wedding gift.
“This basket was a present the bride’s family gave the groom. Since it always has a lid it signifies that the bride is untouched and she is giving herself for the first time to her husband.” explains Notran. She adds that the agaseke was also a sign to show that the bride would keep all the family secrets.
Notran points out that “The basket would be kept beside the bed as a sign that all family secrets would be kept there.”
The agaseke however has evolved over time and its use has alsochanged.
“After the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi the agaseke was used to promote peace. Since then the agaseke has acquired other names like love basket and peace. People use the basket for events and decoration” Dinah remarks.
She explains that the reason that it was used to promote peace was a way of promoting women involvement in peace and reconciliation. Prior to the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi women work was mostly weaving the agaseke weaving hence was a good way to bring people back together not only to weave but to also to talk.
Dinah points out that this way they would all look past their difference and this would promote peace.
“The agaseke has since then changed from just a social product to a market product that many people earn their livelihood from.” explains Dinah.
She says that the agaseke is now a world famous market product that has gained recognition across the world. Now she notes the agaseke has become not only a market product but also a national symbol that promotes national identity and patriotism.